Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Filling In the Gaps in Our Story: A Review of Joel Alvis' Race & Religion: Southern Presbyterians, 1946-1983

I've been a member of the Presbyterian Church in America since 1990. In 1994, I went off to the denominational seminary and received very good training for my present profession as a pastor; a profession that I've enjoyed for 17 years. One important lacuna in my studies was a thorough understanding of our denominational history. Of course, much of the blame for that rests on my own shoulders. The subject of Church History is important and yet also quite vast. After all, how much attention should one give to PCA history when there's the Early, Medieval, and Reformation Church to consider? Even compared to the topic of American Church history - with wonderful historians like Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, E. Brooks Holifield, and George Marsden; PCA history just seems so inconsequential.

Having only started in 1973 as a split from the PCUS, there were still plenty of men around in the PCA who had lived through those difficult years by the time I was ordained. I still remember my first General Assembly in 1998. There Dr. Kennedy Smart opened up the 25th General Assembly with a rousing message where he highlighted many of the struggles that theological conservatives had to overcome back then. One point, that received something of a rousing "Yea!" from the audience, was the stance that was taken against the "social gospel." Now, the common way of teaching about the "social gospel" in PCA circles was to always set it up as an either/or and not a both/and. The "social gospel" was no gospel at all; only reaching physical needs while ignoring the spiritual. Yet, hearing the audience reaction in 1998 left me with an unsettled feeling. Sitting there, I couldn't help but ask myself, How many conservative Southern Presbyterians in the '60's and early '70's would understand the phrase "against the social gospel" for "no blacks in our church?" I was framing the question rather starkly, but it kept nagging me nonetheless.

Joel L. Alvis, Jr. goes quite a ways into answering this question. Race & Religion is a thorough and fair account of Southern Presbyterianism's struggle with the issue of race. Ministry to blacks in the South following the Civil War was strongly paternalistic. This greatly limited the ecclesiastical autonomy of black Christians and encoded a pattern of segregation into the DNA of southern Presbyterians. Furthermore, the so-called doctrine of the "Spirituality of the Church" was used by white southern ministers to provide a theological justification for avoiding the social realities of segregationism.

The social upheaval of World War II, began to force many in the church to reassess the issue of race in society. It was the beginning of the Civil Rights Era. This reassessment had both advocates for change and defenders of the status quo. This generally split along liberal and conservative lines within the church. These lines had already been formed in the modernist/fundamentalist trenches of the previous 100 years. Alvis demonstrates that race was irreducibly intertwined within this liberal/conservative struggle within Southern Presbyterianism.

My denomination emerged from that struggle. It would be wrong to say that the PCA came into existence because of racism - that would be a gross over-statement. But it would also be wrong to say that racism was effectively distilled from the host of others issues dividing the church at that time. Alvis, doesn't go into how the PCA has dealt with this issue over the years - that would have taken him well beyond the scope of his book. For that subject I would recommend Kenneth Taylor's article that you can download here:

We are all story-tellers and we come to understand our history through stories. Alvis' book provides an important paragraph to the story of the Presbyterian Church in America. It is a book that should be read by anyone wishing to serve as one of its leaders.