“Race and Religion on the American Continent” (1882)

When considering Baptists and race in the nineteenth century, it’s easy to give Northern Baptists a pass, or at least assume they got it mostly right. After all, Northern Baptists ardently supported the Civil War (see, for example, “Massachusetts Baptists and The Civil War“), and after the war many Northern Baptists went South to help found schools and colleges for the newly freed people through the American Baptist Home Mission Society (see ““Missionaries or Presidents”? Newton Theological Institution’s contribution to the founding of HBCUs). However, even with all of this benevolent work, Northern Baptists had deep racialized views that mingled with their good intentions. This post analyzes one striking example of this.

On November 15, 1882, Ezekiel Gilman Robinson delivered an address before the first Baptist Autumnal Conference, held in Brooklyn, NY, entitled “Race and Religion on the American Continent.” The Baptist Autumnal Conference was attended by some of the biggest Baptist names at the time, including Augustus Hopkins Strong, president of Rochester Theological Seminary, Henry Weston, president of Crozer Theological Seminary, and Ezekiel Robinson, president of Brown University, and former president of Rochester himself. (see “Historical Sketch of the Conference,” in Proceedings of the Second Annual Baptist Autumnal Conference for the Discussion of Current Questions (Boston: Baptist Missionary Rooms, 1883): 100–101). They were there to present papers on a variety of subjects which were then open for discussion. 

“It is to be remembered everywhere, and by all, that the central idea of this conference is, that individuals may submit their views, tentative or final, on divers subjects of cur­rent interest, without being understood in the least to compromise the conference itself or the denomi­nation, and without prejudice to themselves in any direction. The Executive Committee seek to secure the presentation of subjects from different stand­ points, but cannot anticipate the specific views, or be held responsible for the utterances of any speaker. Hence it is not to be presumed that offi­cers of the conference, or members of the com­mittees, any more than casual members of the congregation assembled, either approve or disap­prove the sentiments expressed by the writers or speakers who participate in the discussion of top­ics presented.”

Nevertheless, Robinson’s address on race was deemed significant enough to reprint in its entirety, first in the American Baptist Home Mission Society’s magazine the Home Mission Monthly (available here), which advertised it thus: 

“By the kindness of Prof. Norman Fox, Secre­tary, we are permitted to give our readers, in this issue of the Monthly, Pres. Robinson’s able address before the Baptist Autumnal Conference, on “Race and Religion on the American Con­tinent.” A volume containing all the addresses at the meeting is soon to be published. The wise and weighty utterances of Pres. Robinson are worthy of a wide perusal”

(Home Mission Monthly 5.3 (March 1883), 57)

The address was also published as a standalone pamphlet and available at no charge other than the postage (57).

Ezekiel Gilman Robinson (1815–1894)

Ezekiel Robinson was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts in 1815. He graduated from Brown University in 1838, and Newton Theological Institution in 1842, having studied theology under Barnas Sears. He then taught theology at the Western Baptist Theological Institution in Covington, KY (1846–50), and was professor of theology at Rochester Theological Seminary for nearly twenty years (1853–72). Robinson was an influential theologian, and as Matt Shrader notes, he was among three theology professors (along with Alvah Hovey at Newton Theological Institution, and Ebenezer Dodge at Hamilton Theological Seminary), who “collectively taught theology to all Northern Baptist theology professors through the end of the nineteenth century). In 1872 he became the president and professor of philosophy at Brown University (1872–89), where he was when he delivered the Autumnal Conference address (see Newton Theological Institution General Catalogue, 50). (A bibliography of his published works can be found in Robinson’s Autobiography: “Published Writings”).

All this is to say that the sentiments expressed here were mainstream Northern Baptist views, presented by an influential Northern Baptist figure, and reprinted and distributed widely in the Northern Baptist press.

What was in this address? Well, you can read all five pages of text for yourself here: “Race and Religion on the American Continent.” Here are a few highlights from the speech with commentary. The speech begins thus:

Mr . President : The American Continent is peopled by many races. That portion of it covered by the United States contains the representatives of con­siderably the largest number. Towards these different representatives, the United States Government has been most dilligently [sic] urged within a very recent period to assume widely differing attitudes.

The United States had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act just six months earlier, in May 1882, and Robinson alluded to this:

Towards one of these races, a narrow minded political economy and a one- eyed statesmanship have proposed a defin­itely and a decidedly hostile policy. They purpose to drive them from our shores.

Robinson disagreed with the Chinese Exclusion Act, but in doing so he starts to betray his racialized understanding of the Chinese and their “place” in the United States:

Whether it be a violation of moral obliga­tion on our part, or of personal rights on the part of Chinamen, to refuse them the privi­lege of flocking to our shores and of doing our menial services, is a question of the re­lation of Ethics to Ethnics which we need not here discuss; or whether to refuse them be not a very shallow political economy and a very foolish statesmanship are questions we may well leave to the Economists and Politi­cians. But we are sure that the Christian re­ligion, knows no reason for not giving them a hearty welcome. It sees in their coming a sure opportunity of doing them good.

Robinson then articulates what appears to be a typical color-blind view, emphasizing the universality of the Christian message (he will prove later to be anything but “color-blind”):

Christianity on the other hand knows no distinctions among races. Its attitudes and its promises and its gifts are the same to all peoples and throughout all generations. Its one great aim is to bring all men into such relations with the ‘Father of the spirits of all flesh,’ as shall secure in them the fulfillment of his will, the discharge of all obligations, the realization of the highest ideal being of which humanity is capable.

And again:

the spirit of our holy religion is as broad and comprehensive in its charity as the world is wide. Like the infinite beneficence of God, who sends his rain upon the thankful and the unthankful, and gives harvests alike to all, it will bestow its blessings on all man­kind. It believes that “ God hath made of one blood all nations for to dwell on the face of the earth,” and it accordingly recognizes in every one having the human form, a child of the universal Father and one for whom Christ has died. Such is the attitude of the Christian religion to all races now on this con­tinent or ever to be on it.

Next, Robinson begins to articulate his understanding of the “races,” the superiority of the “English” race, and the common belief that the “commingling” of different races would produce stronger ones (versus “inbreeding”). Notice the way his understanding of Christianity is woven through this account of race:

But it is a noticeable fact that Christianity has always taken the strongest hold and wrought its best and most important result, amongst the sturdiest races. On which of all the races, now on earth, has it wrought more effectually than on the English ? Where, let me ask, will you find a finer type of character and of true manhood than in the truly Christian Englishman ? Insular it may be in habit of thought, he nevertheless is cosmopolitan in spirit, and his race is doing more than any other to-day, to determine the future destiny of mankind on this globe. Of him we are accustomed to say, that there runs in his veins, in commingled currents, the best blood of Europe. But out of English veins come the best blood of America—the blood that has made the United States all that they now are. Our free institutions are only the modi­fied institutions of England. What Christian­ity has done for England is open to the eyes of all the world. What it has accomplished and is now accomplishing in America, who­ ever will can see and understand. If on the English stock Christianity has been grafted and borne such fruit as it has, who shall say what it may not do for the American of the future.

However, Robinson makes very clear the limited scope of this “commingling,” namely, white people: Yankees, Virginians, the Mynheer [Dutch], and now a whole host of other European immigrants:

It was the commingling of bloods, it is said, that gave sturdiness and richness to the Anglican stock. But who shall venture to say what shall be the product of the amalga­mation of bloods in the future American ? That it will differ from any type now among us, or from any that was known to our fathers, no one can doubt. Typical Ameri­cans of a century ago are fast disappearing, if they are not already utterly gone. Even the typical Yankee, remembered by living men, now has only a ghostly existence; the original Virginian, survives only as a shadow; the Mynheer of New York, has utterly vanished; instead of them all there is slowly rising into view, but only in dimmest and undefinable outlines, the coming American. What his exact type will be, five hundred years from now, the omniscient God alone can foresee. This only is plain to us, he is to be the amalgam of many races and of races now in the van of the worlds progress; an amal­gam compounded of a greater variety of bloods than ever flowed together in the veins of any nation yet known to history.

Here, Robinson begins to express what Derek Chang calls the “evangelical nationalism” of the Northern Baptists of the nineteenth century, a mix of “piety and patriotism” and a sense that God providentially intended for them to help spread Christianity and civilization to their country (for more on this see Derek Chang, Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race in the Nineteenth Century; and Chang, “‘Marked in Body, Mind, and Spirit’: Home Missionaries and the Remaking of Race and Nation,” in Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas):

To the complete Christianizing of these commingling races, the providence of God now calls us, with a voice which we cannot, without guilt, decline to hear… The government, too, under which we live, is wholly in our favor. Under it the word of God cannot be bound. Whosoever will may preach the gospel and live accord­ ing to its requirements. And all around us are flowing in the representatives of races, for whom the gospel is yet to do its complete work. Was there ever a nation or a period, since our Lord’s ascension, in which his fol­lowers were summoned, as they now are, as by trumpet calls from heaven, to arise and do his bidding ? or a nation or period in which it was easier to do his bidding ? or a nation or period in which failure to do his bidding could show greater recreancy and guilt ?

It is here, though, that Robinson reveals that when he spoke of the “commingling” of “races” in order to create a stronger “American,” he did not mean the “African” nor the “Mongol”:

But it is not alone to the races out of which the amalgam of the future American is to be formed, that the providence of God now plainly calls us to render service. There are races among us that will never contribute their share to make up the typical American. They yet are our brethren and we are their debtors. No man thoroughly in his senses, can expect that the African will lose his iden­tity by mingling with other races; and there is little or no better prospect, that the Mon­gol will ever be permitted to contribute to the general fusion of bloods. But they can be Christianized and civilized and fitted for that great and incomprehensible part, which the providence of God undoubtedly intends them to play in the future of our world.

Robinson appealed to “providence” in understanding slavery, wondering whether “the Christian religion and American institutions” were given to the formerly enslaved as “compensation” for their sufferings under slavery. Robinson also expresses the typical paternalistic notions of “uplift” present in the Northern Baptists at the time:

To the African, after all the great and cruel wrongs which the greed and injustice of man have heaped on him, the Christian re­ligion and American institutions have given blessings, which the infinite mercy of God may have intended as some compensation for his terrible sufferings. But whatever God may have intended, we have not paid him all that we owe him. Our debts to him should all the more be scrupulously paid, because of his past wrongs and his present weakness and danger. It is our duty to give him educa­tion ; to give him Christian civilization; to give him equality before the law and all his civil rights under the constitution; to give him industry and self-respect, and whatever else may be needed to lift him into true man­ hood. All these we should give him, what­ ever is to be his future on the American Con­tinent.

Robinson could not imagine a future for Black people in America, and believed that their only hope was to “go back to Africa”:

But for one, I cannot believe that the highest and brightest future for the African, is to be that of the career of a distinct race on this continent. Marked and separated as he is from the rest of his fellow citizens, the victim of prejudice and a thousand indignities from the mean and vulgar, can he be expected to look for no better estate elsewhere? Believe who may, that he is to crouch beneath his burdens and indignities, resting forever content with his hard lot, I cannot. If I have read history aright, two races separated, as are the black and white, can never dwell together without one becoming the superior and the other the inferior; and it requires no prophet to foretell which of the two would here succumb. And so also, if I have not read history amiss, no inferior and oppressed people with an open road to a bettered condi­tion, and with evident and abundant induce­ments to walk in it, will long delay to rise up and go. There is a universal law, a law as- unvarying as that of gravitation, and a law never more manifest than in this nineteenth century, that every people will emigrate, whenever by emigration it can improve its condition.

The concluding paragraph in Robinson’s address plays on racialized stereotypes for both the Chinaman and the African, and their respective “natures” and how that interacts with religion:

Let us understand our opportunity ; let us try the power of the gospel on the Chinaman, as divine Providence offers him to our hands. Let us continue our work with redoubled zeal on the half Christianized African of the South. The fruits of the gospel in these races will have its own distinguishing marks. The Mongol, with his Confucian ethics, will make, of the gospel, religion rather than piety, while the African, with his emotional nature, will make, of the same gospel, piety rather than religion; just as our white brothers of the south surpass us, of the north, in piety, while we exceed them in religion. May the Divine Master rule over and work in us all, that, whether northerner or southerner, African, Mongol, or Indian, He may give to us all alike both piety and religion.

Given the nature of the Autumnal Conference, after Robinson was finished “the Hon. George Williams, of Ohio” spoke next, and he “did not believe the negro would go out of the country. The negro was here and he was going to stay.” (“Questions Discussed by Baptists and Unitarians,” New York Times, November 16, 1882.). Whatever else Williams thought, or whether he pushed back on any of the other racialized notions is unknown. Nevertheless, it was Robinson’s views that were published and endorsed.

There is much to appreciate in the theology and practice of the Northern Baptists, not least their work in the south among the freed slaves. But those who would draw on their example and appreciate what is good in it must also face squarely the racism and superiority that often tinged those benevolent acts with paternalism. Ezekiel Gilman Robinson gives us a clear occasion for doing so. As Derek Chang notes “His [Robinson’s] was a compelling vision. But it ultimately succumbed to the specter of racial difference. Even as they declared the possibility of blacks and Chinese belonging to the nation, a principle premised on the equality of souls, American Baptist evangelicals underscored the cultural and historical roots of difference that made such inclusions unlikely” (Citizens of a Christian Nation, 5). Indeed, anyone looking to dig deeply into this dichotomy in Northern Baptists should start with Chang’s work, as well as digging deeply into the original sources for themselves.

Bibliography of Biographical works on Ezekiel Robinson

Anderson, Thomas D. “Ezekiel Gilman Robinson.” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 30 (1894): 572–79. (free on Google Books)

Boutwell, Walter Stacey. “The Moral Matrix of God and Man: The Shape and Shaping of Ezekiel Gilman Robinson’s Theology.” PhD Diss., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1998.

Bronson, Walter Cochrane. The History of Brown University, 1714-1914. Providence, RI: The University, 1914. (free on Google Books)

“Robinson, Ezekiel Gilman, D.D.” in William Cathcart, editor The Baptist Encyclopaedia (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1883): 994–95. (free on Google Books)

Chang, Derek. Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race in the Nineteenth Century. Philadelphia: University Of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

———. “‘Marked in Body, Mind, and Spirit’: Home Missionaries and the Remaking of Race and Nation.” Pages 133–56 in Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas. Oxford, 2004.

Metcalf, Houghton, “Ezekiel Gilman Robinson: 1872–1889,” The Brunonian, (1904): 269–73. (free on Google Books)

Robinson, Ezekiel Gilman. Ezekiel Gilman Robinson: An Autobiography with a Supplement. Silver, Burdett, 1896. (free on Google Books)

Shrader, Matthew C. “Hidden Bridges? Progressive Tendencies among Non- Progressive 19th-Century Northern Baptists” (2021). (on Academia.edu)

Wilkinson, William Cleaver. “Ezekiel Gilman Robinson,” in Modern Masters of Pulpit Discourse. Funk & Wagnalls, 1905: 433–440. (free on Google Books)

———. “Ezekiel Gilman Robinson: The Man, the Preacher, the Teacher,” The Homiletic Review, (1895): 281–85. (free on Google Books)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: