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The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy

J. Russell Hawkins
Published by Oxford University Press in 2021

In his essential study on the role of prophetic religion in the death of Jim Crow, David L. Chappell writes, “White supremacists in the South failed to get their churches to give their cause active support.”1 Chappell argued that the cultural reality of Jim Crow was “not enough to impel” all white southerners “to form strong bonds with other white southerners.”2 J. Russell Hawkins challenges Chappell’s conclusions. Hawkins’s study focuses on South Carolina which he claims is “an underexplored corner of Dixie in the study of white resistance to civil rights” (6). Over 80 percent of South Carolinians in the mid-1960s identified as Methodist or Baptist; therefore, focusing on these denominations, Hawkins writes, provides “a numerically significant sample for a study of white evangelicals’ racial perspectives and feelings” (3). In this study of the lived religion of South Carolina white evangelicals, Hawkins makes two arguments. The first is that white southern Christians who opposed the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) were motivated by a segregationist theology which held that racial segregation was the proper, divine ordering of the world (7). Second, Hawkins claims that segregationist theology did not end with the gains of the CRM, but instead continues well into the present day (8). Brief and tightly argued, The Bible Told Them So consists of five chapters that chronologically cover the years between 1955-1970. During this period, white evangelicals opposed the CRM and sought to maintain racial control over their region.

The first chapter describes the various reactions of South Carolina Baptists and Methodists to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision. Hawkins observes the “disconnect between pronouncements about racial equality sounded by religious leaders and the reception of such pronouncements by local congregations” (18). To illustrate this, Hawkins relays the story of Fred T. Laughon, pastor of Orangeburg First Baptist Church. Laughon, forty-two years old and in his third year at the Orangeburg Baptist church, wrote a letter to denominational headquarters asking for a different pastorate or for referrals to a college that would allow him to teach without a doctorate. He was prompted to this action because his congregations unanimously passed a resolution in support of racial segregation, in defiance of the denomination and Laughon’s personal convictions. A month later, Laughon resigned (15-17). The divide between denominational leadership and lay Christians is a recurring and important theme throughout The Bible Told Them So. Hawkins’s second chapter describes the tenets of segregationist theology, “the myriad arguments white southerners made against integration using either the Bible or the broader natural world” (9). Segregationist theology was based on fears of racial intermarriage and threats to Southern economic prosperity following the Civil War. Segregation was divinely ordained to protect white women and families and to bring prosperity to the region. Turning to Scripture, segregationists most frequently cited Acts 17:26, which states that God “hath determined…the bounds of their habitation.” Hawkins calls this verse “the foundational scriptural passage from which much of their hermeneutic sprang” (53).3 Ultimately however, segregationist Christianity was sustained by “popular belief, not by the standard of popular exegesis” (55).

Chapters 3-5 lay out how segregationist Christians applied their theology at different flashpoints within South Carolina’s wrestling with integration. Of particular interest to those employed at faith-based colleges/universities will be Chapter 3 on the integration of Furman (Baptist) and Wofford (Methodist) Universities. When Furman and Wofford integrated, they strained their relationships with their respective denominations, and many local congregations withheld their financial support for the institutions. As a result of these clashes between denominations and colleges, many segregationist Christians discovered that their public rhetoric in favor of segregation would have to diminish if they were to maintain any sort of social capital. Though public articulations of segregationist theology waned by the mid-1960s, “lived” segregationist theology was alive and active (94). The clashes between colleges and their supporting denomination revealed the “accommodationist trend” within conservative Christianity because “only a minority of South Carolina Baptists and Methodists publicly vocalized their opposition” to racial integration (96). Instead, local congregations were more likely to show their disapproval by revoking funding from the schools.

For example, to hide their segregationist theology in public rhetoric, South Carolina evangelicals helped contribute to the growing concept of “colorblindness,” the concept that the issue of race would be overcome by not giving attention to race. Colorblindness was a way to end “the problem of race by ending attention to race” (101). Proponents of colorblindness believed that “racial inequalities would disappear as individuals no longer gave race consideration” (101). Though modern readers may be tempted to believe that colorblindness was—is—benign, Hawkins dismisses it as a ploy used by segregationists to make race an individual issue. One prominent proponent of colorblindness, William Workman, claimed that Christians should promote an “atmosphere in which ‘natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits, and a voluntary consent of individuals’ may contribute to the ultimate elimination of emotional as well as structural barriers between the races.”4 Many of the phrases quoted by Workman were taken from Justice Henry Brown and his 1896 opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson which denied Homer Plessy equal rights to citizenship. In the fourth chapter, Hawkins examines how South Carolina white Christians opposed denominational mergers between white and Black branches of a particular denomination without publicly espousing segregationist tenets. Careful examination of floor debates reveals that race was not named explicitly as a reason for opposition to these mergers. Instead, racism had moved underground, Hawkins implies: “white racial attitudes had grown more conciliatory after the major successes of the civil rights movement” (115). According to the colorblind logic, “addressing structural inequalities before white individuals were willing to accept black men and women as equal remained a fruitless endeavor that would only lead to conflict” (116).

The fifth and final chapter examines the creation of private faith-based schools in South Carolina and the ways these schools were created to maintain racial segregation. Because integration was now supported by nearly all the branches of the federal government, “white Christian parents increasingly viewed school desegregation as a lurking danger” and many of these families “began an exodus” out of the public schools when integration seemed inevitable. The private schools that resulted from these exits were continued evidence of the hold of segregationist theology whether it was spoken or not (133). The “rate at which these private schools were established,” Hawkins notes, “was directly proportional to the amount of integration occurring in the state” (144). Segregationist theology slowly morphed from an outright defense of racial separation to a call to defend the family. “White Christians avoided contact with black people, and segregation remained in practice if not in pronouncements” (149). In Hawkins’s opinion, private schools are “the most significant artifacts from the Jim Crow Era” (158).

The Bible Told Them So is a helpful and enlightening addition to the historiography of religion and the CRM. Hawkins convincingly and logically presents the ways that Southern evangelicals actively lived a segregationist theology in opposition to the CRM. No future historian will be able to claim that Southern evangelical religion bent to the power of the CRM without dialoguing with Hawkins’s work. His discussion of the struggles to integrate colleges affiliated with the Baptist and Methodist denominations make his work especially appealing to scholars and practitioners at faith-based institutions of higher education. In general, for Southern scholars, Hawkins’s book raises haunting questions about how the private educational system that arose in opposition to racial integration may have contributed to current societal inequities.

An equally engaging and thought-provoking theme that resonates throughout Hawkins’s text is the discord and dissonance between the theology of the laity and the theology of the professionally trained clergy and scholars. While the clergy and denominational leaders began to embrace key tenets of the CRM, the laity continued to hold out in opposition. Hawkins’s book displays the tension that exists between leaders and “the masses” in the creation of culture that James Davison Hunter explored.5 While The Bible Told Them So powerfully argues that laity continued in opposition to racial equality and integration, Hunter’s conclusion that those with power form culture remains confirmed.6 This is shown in the way that laity felt forced to hide their opposition to integration and civil rights through “colorblind” theology and private educational institutions.

Despite its very real value, The Bible Told Them So is not without its faults. Not the least of them is the unfortunate lack of scripture. The title of the book suggests that scripture will be at the center of the text. Additionally, Hawkins claims that for white evangelical Southerners during the CRM, “scripture was a significant source of the problem” (13). The reader expects Hawkins’s study to proceed much as Noll’s study of the Civil War as a theological crisis.7 Instead, according to Hawkins’s definition, theology is less about a system of organized doctrine and more about a way of living. Therefore, his work does not describe thoroughly how Southern evangelicals used scripture to defend segregationist positions. Instead, it shows how Southern evangelicals lived a theology in opposition to the gains of the CRM. While Hawkins defines theology for his study, he does not defend the use of the term “evangelical” in describing the Christians that he examines. Only recently has the term “evangelical” come to be widely applied to Christian denominations, and many Southern Christians at the time did not identify as evangelical.

“Segregationist Christianity’s ability to evolve and persist,” Hawkins writes, “means the history described in” The Bible Told Them So “has ramification for American evangelicalism today” (12). James Baldwin wrote that the “real force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”8 Each chapter in The Bible Told Them So opens with a “short vignette” describing an incident or person from the nineteenth century. By doing this, Hawkins shows the truth of Baldwin’s claim. Hawkins’s book serves as a similar vignette for our present moment and gives warning to all those who will listen.

Footnotes

  1. David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 6.
  2. Ibid., 188.
  3. Ironically, in a recent study on scriptural citations during the Civil War, James F. Byrd found that Acts 17:26 was the most cited text of Union Christians: James F. Byrd, A Holy Baptism of Fire & Blood: The Bible & the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 305, Table A.2.
  4. Quoted in Hawkins, 101.
  5. See James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  6. Ibid., 99-110. Additionally, Chappell’s argument that segregationist Christianity failed to put up an adequate fight to the CRM remains confirmed. Those in power did not strongly oppose the Civil Rights Movement; therefore, while the laity opposed civil rights and racial integration, the CRM continued with little serious opposition to its ultimate success. (See Chappell, A Stone of Hope).
  7. Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
  8. Quoted in Hawkins, 12.

Caleb Wesley Southern

Southern Wesleyan University
Caleb Wesley, Director of Retention, Southern Wesleyan University