Friday, February 23, 2024

White Presbyterianism and Anti-Black Racism

Truth-telling matters.

by Ben Hein
756 views 15 minute read

In a 1968 interview in Esquire magazine, James Baldwin powerfully captured the necessity of dealing honestly with our country’s racist history:

I’m not trying to accuse you, you know. That’s not the point. But you have a lot to face … All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history … which is not your past, but your present. Nobody cares what happened in the past. One can’t afford to care what happened in the past. But your history had led you to this moment, and you can only begin to change yourself and save yourself by looking at what you are doing in the name of your history.[1]

In other words, it is impossible to have an honest account of the present without dealing with our past. It is impossible to have just, reconciled, whole relationships unless the truth is told about past sins.

My denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. As part of that celebration, we are being called to look back and give an account of our history. But will it be an honest one? Will the our racist legacy and its present consequences be told? Many in our denomination would like to be about racial reconciliation, but I fear that too few are willing to do so if it means telling the truth on ourselves. It is impossible for our churches to take up the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20) unless we are willing to tell the full truth about our history and reckon with its effects today.

The truth is this: White Presbyterians have been some of the most ardent proponents of anti-Black racism in our country’s history. The PCA was born out of the support of many church leaders who actively upheld racist ideas and structures. The present state of our denomination on matters of racial reconciliation and justice remains an open wound that is a direct result of our racist history.

Whatever hope we have for true reconciliation and justice as a denomination begins with truth telling. In this brief and inadequate post, I will survey the racist history of White Presbyterianism as it informs the racial challenges and obstacles of the PCA today.

What Kind of Christianity?

The Presbyterian historian William Yoo begins his book What Kind of Christianity? with this provocative question from Katie Geneva Cannon, a womanist theologian and the first Black American woman to be ordained in the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1974:

Where was the Church and the Christian believers when Black women and Black men, Black boys and Black girls, were being raped, sexually abused, lynched, assassinated, castrated and physically oppressed? What kind of Christianity allowed white Christians to deny basic human rights and simple dignity to Blacks, these same rights which had been given to others without question?[2]

Yoo responds with the following:

While “the wrong kind of Christianity” is the most obvious answer to Cannon’s question… a more historically precise and honest answer is “the Presbyterian kind of Christianity.”[3]

As Yoo’s research demonstrates, White Presbyterians have historically been some of the most devout defenders of slavery, segregation, and anti-Black racism in the United States.

The racist history of American Presbyterianism is evident, first, in the widespread support Presbyterians had for slavery. Using several historic data points, Yoo estimates that in the 1850’s White Presbyterians may have owned as many as 77,000 to 80,000 slaves. In addition, by 1860 there was likely 50,000 to 75,000 Presbyterian enslavers in the southern states. These numbers often placed Presbyterians first or second among slaveowners belonging to varying religious groups (Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, etc.).[4]

The prevalent Presbyterian support for Black enslavement existed among both northern and southern Presbyterians. There is a fallacy in Presbyterian history that says northern Presbyterians were largely in favor of abolition, while it was the southern Presbyterians who supported slavery. However, the largest Presbyterian denomination during slavery, the PCUSA (Old School), had three-fourths of its members in the northern states and it remained committed to including enslavers as full members of the denomination. The General Assembly (the national gathering of the denomination) still appointed those who supported slavery to preach, to participate on committees, and to serve as moderators in the denomination. In fact, some of the strongest supporters of slavery from within the Presbyterian tradition, James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer, were elected to high-ranking positions in the General Assembly in 1847 and 1853, respectively.[5]

There were glimmers of abolitionism among both Black and White Presbyterians, but they received little support in the wider church. They were not elected to positions of ecclesial authority, nor did they gain wider support among White Presbyterians. The Free Presbyterian Church, for example, was a denomination that was staunchly abolitionist. However, it struggled to attract members or gain resources. In 1853, the Free Presbyterian Church only had 1,000 members, compared to over 300,000 members across the two largest American Presbyterian denominations.[6]

White Presbyterian support for slavery in the United States is perplexing when it is compared both with other denominations at the time, as well as the Presbyterian witness in Ireland and Scotland. While northern Presbyterians continued to fellowship with southern Presbyterians who supported slavery, most White Methodists and many White Baptists in the north would not to the same. These northern Methodists and Baptists would not only refuse enslavers positions of authority in their churches, but they also prohibited slave-owning missionaries from being commissioned. Furthermore, the witness of Presbyterianism in Canada, Ireland, and Scotland overwhelmingly supported abolition.[7] Meanwhile, White Presbyterians in the United States were understood to be the “guiltiest perpetrators of Black enslavement and the fiercest opponents of Black liberation.”[8]

Yoo offers two explanations for the ardent support of slavery among White Presbyterians. The first reason was twisted theological arguments, which I will detail further below. The second reason, economic captivity, was supported by those twisted arguments. Presbyterians were financially captivated and blinded by their wealth. While Presbyterianism was not the largest denomination, it was among the wealthiest of Christian traditions. For example, in the 1850 U.S. census, there were 13,280 Methodist churches, 9,375 Baptist churches, and 4,824 Presbyterian churches. Though it ranked well below the two leading denominations in number of churches, Presbyterians ranked a close second in the value of church property. The cumulative value of Presbyterian property was $14,543,789 – only slightly less than Methodist church property ($14,822,870). Though Presbyterians only had roughly a third of the number of members as Methodists, the total value of their church properties was nearly identical with Methodists.[9] Yoo summarizes: “[W]hite Presbyterians in the United States knew that their wealth and well-being were inextricably linked to Black enslavement, which remained at the center of their economy.”[10]

The Spirituality of the Church: Diseased Theological Arguments for Anti-Black Racism

White Presbyterians used twisted theological arguments to justify slavery and segregation. The implicit connection made by Yoo is that these arguments supported economic captivity, a reasonable conclusion given the evidence and comparisons to other American denominations and the global Presbyterian witness. However, as the United States moved out of slavery and into Jim Crow segregation, racist theological arguments were used out of fear of intermarriage and a desire to protect the White race as Presbyterians conceived it.

In 1836, the Princeton theologian Charles Hodge wrote his first public position paper on slavery. He intended for his paper to be an influence on the deliberations his denomination would have at the General Assembly just one month later. In Hodge’s reading of the Bible, neither Jesus or the apostles denounced “slaveholding as necessarily and universally sinful.” Nor did they declare that “all slaveholders were men-stealers and robbers, and consequently to be excluded from the church and the kingdom of heaven.” Instead, Hodge argued that the New Testament simply gave regulations for how enslavers were to treat their slaves. Therefore, Hodge also criticized abolitionists for interpreting the Bible and forcing an agenda of liberation on Jesus and the apostles, rather than allowing them to speak clearly and plainly on the matter. [11]

Hodge’s article was widely influential among Presbyterians. He was praised for having theological clarity and scriptural precision. His arguments would become the foundation for further development by James Henley Thornwell, a professor of theology at the University of South Carolina. Thornwell argued that Presbyterians lacked explicit warrant from the Scriptures to declare slavery as being sinful. Furthermore, Thornwell argued that churches and ministers lacked authority to deal with political and civil matters. The Church could only rule in matters of religious faith and moral conduct; it could not legislate “where Christ had not legislated.”[12]

Thornwell’s argument emphasized what is known in the Presbyterian tradition as the “Spirituality of the Church,” a doctrine which has been used to enforce the separation of church and state. As historian, professor, and minister Sean Michael Lucas has explained, this doctrine has been selectively used to justify anti-Black racism. White Presbyterians conveniently set this doctrine aside when they wanted to argue for prohibition or argue against teaching evolution in schools. Their hypocrisy shows when, having previously argued that the Church could not argue against slavery, White Presbyterians made strident arguments against integration in the 1950s and 60s. [13]

In his fuller treatment of Presbyterian history, Lucas surveys the resistance of southern Presbyterians against integration. Presbyterian leaders such as Nelson Bell and Morton Smith attempted biblical arguments against integration and for segregation. Using passages such as Acts 17 and Genesis 9, White Presbyterians argued that segregation was best for the prosperity of both the White and the Black races, and that the lines of segregation should not be crossed. White Presbyterians feared the practice of interracial marriage if segregation were ended. To the desire for racial purity was added the racist idea that intermarriage would produce weaker offspring and would impede the progress of White citizens.

When the 1954 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.) adopted a report that affirmed segregation as racist discrimination, southern Presbyterians protested loudly against the decision. In 1955, several southern presbyteries (local regions of Presbyterian churches) petitioned the denomination to “reconsider and rescind” the previous year’s decision. Many southern Presbyterians believed that those who were enforcing integration were captivated by political agendas and partisanship.[14]

The Presbyterian support for slavery and segregation into the second half of the twentieth century is evidence of a “diseased social and theological imagination”[15] which actively promoted the prosperity of a White dominant group and the oppression of Black citizens in the United States. As Lucas concludes, diseased theological arguments have been used as

an excuse not to do what is right toward African Americans and we have used it as a tool of power to maintain a system of white privilege. We have demonstrated in times past and present that, when we want to do so, we will forget our commitment to the spirituality of the church and speak truth prophetically to our culture. We have been hypocrites.[16]

Sadly, this diseased imagination is not a relic of forgone history but remains an open wound and prevalent influence among my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

The PCA and Racism

The PCA began in 1973 when it split from the Presbyterian Church (US) over concerns that the former denomination was sliding into doctrinal liberalism. The PCA was largely birthed by southern Presbyterian conservatives who sought a denomination that would “affirm biblical authority, the Reformed evangelicalism of the Westminster Standards, and the evangelistic passion of the Great Commission.”[17] While their doctrinal concerns were not unfounded, the formation of the PCA cannot be separated from the distant pro-slavery past of southern Presbyterianism, nor its more immediate pro-segregation background in the previous decades. In fact, the stated clerk of the first General Assembly of the PCA (then the Continuing Presbyterian Church until a new name was chosen in 1974) was Morton Smith, who we’ve seen was an ardent segregationist of the highest degree.

In the fifty years that have followed since the PCA’s inception, the denominations response toward past and ongoing racism has often been passive at best and deliberately negligent at worst. However, in the last decade, there have been modest signs of hope for our denomination regarding racism and reconciliation. Nevertheless, the current state of the PCA on these matters are difficult for many racial minorities as the experience of ongoing racism in our society and in the denomination can still be exceptionally painful.

At the 44th General Assembly in 2016, the denomination finally repented of its racist history and origins. When the Assembly passed Overture 43, they confessed the racist, segregationist views of many of the PCA’s founding members. In addition, they further acknowledged:

the vestiges of these sins continue to affect our denomination to this day and significantly hinder efforts for reconciliation with our African-American and other minority brothers and sisters by: often refusing to lay down our cultural preferences so that these brothers and sisters might feel more welcome in our churches; not sufficiently encouraging minority culture brothers into leadership within our General Assembly Committees and Agencies, presbyteries, and churches, as evidenced by our history; failing to lovingly confront our brothers and sisters concerning racial sins and personal bigotry; and failing to “learn to do good, seek justice and correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:17).[18]

The fruit of this repentance carried forward into the denomination’s efforts to create a study committee to study issues of racial reconciliation and present concrete steps of actions for the denomination. The report of this committee was presented and accepted in 2018 at the denomination’s 46th General Assembly.[19]

While many of the steps outlined in the report are hopeful, as is the presence of the report itself, the committee also conducted a survey among the denomination’s elders which indicated some troubling results. For example, while 94% of the elders surveyed agreed the Bible teaches racism is a sin, only 52% agreed that the repentance of the denomination two years earlier was extremely or very much needed. Nearly 20% of the elders surveyed didn’t think it was needed at all. Only 59% of the ruling elders in the denomination felt that the work of racial reconciliation was extremely or very much needed. The denomination is also divided on the individual or systemic nature of racism; with 47% believing the former and 53% believing the latter. [20]

The divides present in our denomination on issues of race continue to work themselves out both for good and for ill. On the one hand, there is much our denomination can celebrate. The 44th General Assembly also created the Unity Fund, a scholarship fund for men of diverse ethnic background to assist with their seminary education (Reformed Theological Seminary, a seminary which trains many ministers for the PCA, started their own scholarship fund around the same time). Drs. Alexander Jun and Irwyn Ince were our first ethnic minority moderators at the 45th and 46thGeneral Assemblies, respectively. The PCA also has specific ministries to care for African American, Hispanic/Latino, and Korean American leaders in the denomination.

However, there continue to be several obstacles and setbacks in our denomination which maintain racism, spur division, and create pain for ethnic minorities. At the 48th General Assembly of the PCA in 2021, the denomination failed to pass a statement repudiating Anti-Asian racism (Overture 48).[21] At the 49th General Assembly of the PCA in 2022, the denomination failed to pass a statement condemning the use of political violence (Overture 26).[22] Both failures to act on behalf of minorities who felt the discrimination of a violent, politically charged cultural moment produced a great deal of pain for many minority members and leaders of the denomination.

A significant expression of pain came in 2021 when African American historian and author Jemar Tisby, who had formerly been a part of the PCA, shared his story of pain and decision to leave the denomination. There, under the slogan “Leave Loud,” Tisby shared his painful experiences in our denomination. Tisby summarized his experience with these words: “If you persist in fighting racism in predominantly White spaces long enough, you will either sell out, burn out, or get pushed out.” [23] It was clear that his story and experiences resonated for many.

Is there any hope for the PCA to grow in addressing racism and the subsequent lack of diversity in the denomination? As of the time the Racial Reconciliation Report was accepted, 88% of our denomination’s elders were White, 3% were Asian American, 2% were African American, and 1% were Hispanic/Latino.[24] Based on statistics alone, significant steps remain to be taken if our denomination is to overcome its past and ongoing legacy of racism.

However, when you consider recent actions of the denomination, it’s easy to lose hope that any significant change might happen. It is necessary to confront our collective, racist past if we are to move forward in true ethnic solidarity and right relationships today. Some may object to repairing wrongs committed decades ago that we ourselves did not commit. However, as the Presbyterian theologian John Murray wrote,

…at no point does the gravity of the abnormality and offence of individualism become more conspicuous than when it takes the form of discounting the unity and solidarity of Christ’s body…we cannot abstract ourselves from the corporate responsibility which belongs to the church as a corporate entity.” [25]

A just and righteous denomination cannot brush its collective responsibility under the rug. If we are to be a people of restoration and repair, the present consequences of our racist legacy remain high places to be torn down. Is there any hope the PCA might become such a denomination? I’m not so sure. However, as long as I’m here, I intend to try.


[1] James Baldwin, quoted in Eddie S. Glaude, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, First edition (New York: Crown, 2020), 68.

[2] Katie Geneva Cannon, quoted in William Yoo, What Kind of Christianity: A History of Slavery and Anti-Black Racism in the Presbyterian Church, First edition. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2022), 1.

[3] Yoo, What Kind of Christianity, 7.

[4] Yoo, What Kind of Christianity, 8-9.

[5] Yoo, What Kind of Christianity, 14.

[6] Yoo, What Kind of Christianity, 17.

[7] Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Steven and Janice Brose lectures in the Civil War era (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 102-103.

[8] Yoo, What Kind of Christianity, 108.

[9] Yoo, What Kind of Christianity, 107.

[10] Yoo, What Kind of Christianity, 114.

[11] Yoo, What Kind of Christianity, 104.

[12] Yoo, What Kind of Christianity, 111.

[13] Sean Michael Lucas, “Owning Our Past: The Spirituality of the Church in History, Failure, and Hope,” Reformed Faith & Practice, accessed November 22, 2023, https://journal.rts.edu/article/owning-our-past-the-spirituality-of-the-church-in-history-failure-and-hope/.

[14] Sean Michael Lucas, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2015), 112-126.

[15] Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2019), 21.

[16] Lucas, “Owning Our Past.”

[17] Lucas, A Continuing Church, 314.

[18] “Minutes of the 44th General Assembly” (Presbyterian Church in America, 2018), PCA Historical Center, accessed November 17, 2023, https://www.pcahistory.org/pca/ga/44th_pcaga_2016.pdf, 646-648.

[19] “Minutes of the 46th General Assembly” (Presbyterian Church in America, 2018), PCA Historical Center, accessed November 17, 2023, https://www.pcahistory.org/pca/ga/46th_pcaga_2018.pdf, 596-668.

[20] “Minutes of the 46th General Assembly,” 616.

[21] “Minutes of the 48th General Assembly” (Presbyterian Church in America, 2018), PCA Historical Center, https://www.pcahistory.org/pca/ga/48th_pcaga_2021.pdf, 1099-1104.

[22] “Minutes of the 49th General Assembly” (Presbyterian Church in America, 2018), PCA Historical Center, https://www.pcahistory.org/pca/ga/49th_pcaga_2022.pdf, 1337-1339.

[23] Jemar Tisby PhD, “Leave LOUD: Jemar Tisby’s Story,” Substack newsletter, Footnotes by Jemar Tisby (blog), March 8, 2021, https://jemartisby.substack.com/p/leave-loud-jemar-tisbys-story.

[24] “Minutes of the 46th General Assembly,” 615.

[25] John Murray, Collected Writings, https://benhein.us/what-do-you-mean-by-responsibility/

 

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