“Fraternal” to Whom? White Evangelicalism’s Centuries-long Problem with Race

For hundreds of years white American evangelicalism has been a compromised group, like oil and water, or “iron mixed with clay” that struggles to “adhere together” (Daniel 2:43). Issues of race and slavery have been at the core of what has plagued the movement from the very beginning, and they are still plaguing us today, as black and brown Christians who bit on the promise of “multi-ethnic” churches and ministries began yet another “silent exodus” in recent years and are now “leaving loud” and shaking the dust off of their feet.

One of the factors that has caused this exodus has been the fact that time and time again “white Christians in the U.S. constantly and continually choosing whiteness over brothers and sisters in Christ” (Michael Emerson, The Grand Betrayal). Under the banner of “unity” with fellow Christians, otherwise well-intentioned Christians have remained silent in the face of divisive racialized rhetoric from their fellows. Though they maybe wouldn’t “say it that way” or “differ in some particulars” nevertheless, for the sake of “gospel unity” it is determined important to retain “fraternal relations” with their brothers in Christ.

But a crucial question remains unasked: “fraternal” to whom? Because when one “brother” begins attacking another, one is faced with a choice — will you refrain from rebuking a divisive and contentious brother in order to maintain “unity,” while permitting another brother to be attacked and not coming to their defense? In so doing, you have chosen “fraternal relations” with one brother at the expense of another, and we have seen this play out time and time again. Jemar Tisby’s testimony is just one more example of this (see: “Leave Loud: Jemar Tisby’s Story”).

None of this is new. This consistent choice to compromise in the name of “unity” has plagued white evangelicalism for centuries. One particular controversy from the 1850s seems instructive for navigating our times now, the controversy surrounding one of the largest white evangelical ministries of the day, the American Tract Society. In their effort to maintain ties to “both sides” they failed to take any clear moral stand, and the end result was a split. The lukewarm position of the “white moderate” has always proved dissatisfactory on any issue demanding moral clarity, but it has never satisfied the white-supremacist side either. Eventually iron and clay must separate and the idol topple over. (For an account of William Lloyd Garrison’s engagement with the ATS, see “We have much theology, but what does it amount to?”: William Lloyd Garrison’s critique of the American Tract Society”).

Here is a paper further exploring this controversy and the various compromises displayed in it:

Here are a few quotes from the paper:

The Weymouth and Braintree Female Anti-Slavery Society held the conviction that separation from fellowship with slave-holders was “an essential requisite of Christian character. ‘If any man love not his brother whom he hath seen, he cannot love God whom he hath not seen. No man can love his brother and enslave him, or connive at his being enslaved, or apologize for or commune with the enslavers… By this rule do we judge and reject the majority of the American churches, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and the American Tract Society and other kindred societies. By this rule, too, do we judge the so-called evangelical churches of this town.”

The ATS adopted five resolutions, including, that, “the political aspects of slavery lie entirely without the proper sphere of this Society, and cannot be discussed in its publications; but that those moral duties which grow out of the existence of slavery, as well as those moral evils and vices which it is known to promote, and which are condemned in Scripture, and so much deplored by evangelical Christians undoubtedly do fall within the province of this Society, and can and ought to be discussed in a fraternal and Christian spirit.”

“William Lloyd Garrison introduced a series of resolutions condemning the ATS yet again, for pretending to move on the issue, while not moving at all. He mocked the resolution passed by the special committee of the ATS. They were now willing to discuss “those moral duties which grow out of the existence of slavery.” Imagine a tract on  “‘The moral duties growing out of the existence’ of piracy, high­way robbery, and burglary ! Why, these are sins to be exterminated at once, and the moral duty is to slay them at once.”

“Does any moral duty throw out of drunkenness, to the drunkard, except that of immediately turning from it? Does any moral duty grow out of adultery, to the adulterer, except that of immediately turning from it? Does any moral duty grow out of either of these sins, to those in the community who have not committed them, except utter opposition to them, at all times and in all places? It is utterly absurd to speak of any moral duty but this growing out of a sin!”

“The society wished to discuss slavery, and all other issues, “in a fraternal spirit.” But Charles K. Whipple posed the crucial question: “Fraternal to whom? To the slave, sympathizing with his bondage ‘as bound with him’ [Hebrews 13:3]? Is there the slightest probability that Rev. Baron Stow, with those members of his ‘respectable white’ church who have a vote in the Tract Society, had this in their minds when they voted?”

On the contrary, “fraternity” and “Christian spirit” had always been extended toward slave-holders, not to the slaves nor to anyone too ardently anti-slavery. Whipple’s judgment was that the Boston society was gaining “the reputation” of opposing slavery without having taken any real steps to actually do so, and that the majority of people were being deluded into believing that they had done their duty by supporting Boston and not New York. Whipple concluded that this belief was “pernicious,” was “an acceptance of something false as true,” and as “a direct, and gross, misleading of the minds of men in regard to the actual truth.”

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