The Methodist Unification: Christianity and the Politics of Race in the Jim Crow Era
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The relationship between religion and race in American history is a complex and varied one. Since both are analytical categories rather than stable ones, the historical and cultural contexts shape how religion and race intersect and interact. Similarly, religion and American assumptions about religion are also social constructions.
Historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith has long illustrated how religion is not sui generis but rather the result of human activity. For example, European Christians first developed ideas about religion broadly and what it was in moments of encounter and conflict with non-Christian communities. Their initial definitions of religion, then, looked strikingly similar to descriptions of Christianity. American ideas about race developed amid struggles for social domination, competition for economic power, and questions of property.
Ideas about race were inextricably linked to these issues. Throughout American as well as world history, certain races were seen as more evolved, more cultured, more developed than others—and thus better. For the most part, Europeans and Euro-Americans held such assumptions and placed themselves atop the evolutionary spectrum. In the United States, assumptions about race were constructed in tandem with settler colonialism. To achieve this would require economic success and western expansion. Slavery involved the colonies and then the young nation in an international chattel slavery trade, and while the United States would formally close the international slave trade in , an illegal international slave trade continued, exemplified by the illegal arrival of the slave ship Clotilda as late as , and the nation possessed a robust domestic slave trade through the Civil War.
One need only look at the U. Census form or apply for a job to see how the categories of race and ethnicity continue to order American lives. Not surprisingly, racial hierarchies developed alongside religious hierarchies. During the era of European and American colonialism, taxonomies of religion included Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or idolatry; natural and primitive religion or high religion; natural religion or ethical religion. These distinctions were not without judgment.
Around the turn of the 20th century, many scholars of religion subscribed to an evolutionary model of religion that ranked world religions on an evolutionary scale, and this model ran concurrent to an evolutionary model of culture. This meant that the more evolved societies allegedly had more evolved religions. Scholars like James Freeman Clarke in The Ten Great Religions explained how belief in one deity as opposed to polytheism denoted a more sophisticated and less tribal religious worldview.
Written texts allegedly expressed more developed religious components compared to those religious traditions that emphasized ritual or practice. Christian, Western, and often Protestant scholars picked the elements of an evolved religion based on their own cultural background. Native American cultures were diverse before European contact, and this diversity extended to religious beliefs, practices, and understandings of the world. Native Americans cooperated with neighbors but also warred with neighbors.
The three primary European powers that came to the new world—Spain, France, and England—offer interesting contrasts in their approaches to religion and race. For the Spanish conquistadors who came with guns to seek gold for the glory of God and Spain, Catholicism was a significant part of their cultural identity. Spaniards were known for their forceful colonial style. The Spanish enslaved large numbers of natives very early, especially in the Caribbean, and forced them to work in the mines or in the agricultural fields. The work was hard and death rates were high. When encountering an indigenous settlement, Spanish conquerors often read a document known as El Requerimiento The Requirement that offered natives two choices: convert to Catholicism and accept Spanish power or suffer the consequences of invasion, death, and enslavement.
French colonists and soldiers did not enslave Native peoples to the degree of the Spanish, but they too viewed Native Americans as savages. The Jesuit Relations , a collection of letters, journals, and travel logs from French Jesuit priests in New France, contained detailed descriptions of native culture. Evangelizing the Native American in colonial New England involved an important multistep process.
The Puritans believed that the Native Americans needed their righteous religion and their civilized culture. This English assumption is depicted clearly in the official colonial seal of Virginia , in which a Native American kneels before the English monarch. Queen Elizabeth holds her coronation orb and scepter, bejeweled with a Protestant cross, while the Native American offers tobacco.
Following this, the English abandoned many praying towns and sold a number of Wampanoag Indians into slavery in the British Caribbean. As European and Native American interactions continued, some Native Americans increasingly viewed Europeans as a different race. As they saw the French make clear distinctions between themselves and their African slaves, the Natchez claimed racial power by identifying themselves as superior to the French. Historian and ethnographer Le Page du Pratz refers in his writings to a story told to him by Louisiana Natives. In it they referred to an ancient flood that killed many on earth and the ancestors of all the Red Men were those who sought safety atop a mountain.
Native communities across the United States adopted racial discourse as part of their arguments for sovereignty as they pushed back against colonial and early republic assumptions of white superiority. The mass enslavement of native peoples by the Spanish prompted a large European debate about Native Americans: Was enslavement justifiable and did Native Americans have a capacity for faith? Some even wondered if Native Americans were fully human. He defended their enslavement because they were savages and heathens. They had a capacity for the Catholic faith but needed to be taught and nurtured.
He suggested that colonial settlements import African slaves to work the mines and fields instead. Around the same time, Pope Paul III entered the conversation with the papal bull Sublimis Deus in , which stated that the Native Americans should not be enslaved but evangelized and instructed in European ways. Though Native Americans were officially deemed human, they were still savages, and as savages they and Africans were inherently different from Europeans. Europeans and white Americans provided a number of reasons for slavery.
One was religion. Africans, they argued, had no civilization and no culture. Historians estimate that somewhere between ten million and thirty million Africans were seized during the African slave trade from the 17th to the midth centuries. Though the colonies and later United States imported a small number of slaves compared to other parts of the Americas, slavery quickly became an important part of American culture and the monetary success of the new nation.
Unlike the early, if largely unsuccessful efforts to evangelize Native Americans, slave conversions proceeded very slowly or were even nonexistent until at least the midth century. Many owners worried that Christianization would destroy the religious basis for slavery. Others argued that Christianization offered enslaved Africans the ultimate gift—salvation. Conversion offered them something better than freedom, and thus Christian slaves were better off than Africans still across the ocean.
In this argument, everyone allegedly benefited: slaves received salvation and slave owners got free labor. Pro-slavery Christians cited numerous parts of the Bible to support their stance. They pointed to numerous references to slavery in the Pauline letters of the New Testament. Rather than denouncing slavery, Paul told slaves to be good servants and for owners to be good masters Colossians Reason might suggest that pro-slavery Christians could use either the mark of Cain or the curse of Ham but not both; after all, the flood Noah and his family survived killed everyone else.
The essay notes some problems in using both the Cain and Ham rationale for slavery but only in the spirit of strengthening pro-slavery arguments. If God made Africans different, no human act could reverse the curse and the mark. In this view, the reputed curse of Ham and mark of Cain still marked African Americans as inferior. Thus, abolition and support for black equal rights were not necessarily one and the same. Not surprisingly, ideas about whiteness and its inherent superiority developed alongside Christian arguments for slavery and black inferiority.
Nineteenth-century visual images depicted Christ as white, and the mass images circulated by Bible tract societies and Protestant benevolent groups blanketed the American landscape. As Paul Harvey and Edward J. Nativism prospered amid this religiously entrenched white supremacy from the 19th century into the early 20th century.
Nativists were American-born Protestants who were opposed to all immigration, and from the s to the s, the massive immigration of Catholics from Ireland, Germany, the Italian principalities, and Poland, with some from Mexico and French Canada, constituted the largest threat to a perceived white Protestant hegemony in the United States. As their immigration proceeded, Catholics surged from only eighty churches and seventy thousand worshipers to thousands of congregations where almost sixteen million Catholic men, women, and children worshipped by Whiteness might have been supreme in the new nation, but only a certain type of whiteness was desired.
They threatened America because they bore allegiance to the papacy, a foreign power, and the common 19th-century equation of ethnicity with race only solidified white Protestant anti-Catholicism. Anti-Mormonism followed immediately. Non-Mormons targeted Mormonism for their claim that the Book of Mormon was sacred Christian scripture and especially for the polygamy that Smith introduced into Mormonism in the s.
The Methodist Unification: Christianity and the Politics of Race in the Jim Crow Era
The Book of Mormon described Native Americans as descendants of a fallen and sinful group of early Hebrew Christians, and the church denied the priesthood to black Mormon men until This idea understood the different races to be akin to different species and ranked them by intellectual capacity and moral behavior. A popular book, Types of Mankind , by Josiah C. White southerners wanted to restore antebellum white ideology no matter that slavery had ended, white northerners wanted to purify the South, and African Americans wanted to create their own autonomous personal and religious lives.
All three groups saw their view of the future as the one desired by God. Their different idealized visions informed their criticisms of the others. Southern blacks appreciated the help northerners offered but were frustrated by their paternalism; additionally they found themselves terrorized by southern white hostility. Southern whites found northerners unreasonable and blacks ignorant, while northern whites believed in the charitable benevolence of their goals though often viewed blacks as naively over-hopeful for contrition from white southerners.
Colonial-era missions to Native Americans were only mildly successful. If Spanish and French Catholic missions were the most successful in gaining converts, disease and warfare that decimated Native populations often came to the aid of evangelists and colonial agents. At the beginning of the 19th century, most Christian missions to Native Americans had flopped. Christianity was a key component of instruction.
The Bible was employed to teach English, simultaneously denigrating Native languages and religions. Boarding school agents and teachers frequently cut the hair of Native children and dressed them in Euro-American clothes. More legislation over the course of the 19th century further supported such elimination. Though the Supreme Court would overturn the Removal Act, scores of Native communities were forced west nonetheless.
The Trail of Tears proved the severe harshness and inherent violence of this policy and foreshadowed what followed. In , Congress passed the Religious Crimes Code that banned traditional Native American religious practices on reservations. The federal and social repression of Native cultures also stimulated a growing Native American prophetic tradition. While most scholars focus on the Ghost Dance movement of the late 19th century, it is important to note that during the War of , brothers Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh spread a prophetic vision of Native American past and future that inverted the Euro-American assumptions of white supremacy and Native barbarism.
In early during an eclipse of the sun, a Paiute man named Wovoka experienced a vision in which he talked with God and saw a restorationist future for Native Americans. Its message of an Indian millennium was no doubt attractive to oppressed tribal communities, and for many communities, the emphasis on dance and connecting with their ancestors maintained continuity with individual tribal practices.
Christian missionaries working on reservations and the federal government both viewed the success of the Ghost Dance as a sign of failure and danger. The Ghost Dance movement spread and ended swiftly. On December 29, , U. The troops opened fire on a community of Ghost Dance followers, killing over two hundred men, women, and children. Many abandoned the Ghost Dance afterward. We will not talk more about it. White Protestant missionaries evangelized abroad as well as out west. Northern and southern whites each claimed that God supported their cause and demonized each other before the Civil War.
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Immediately following the war, many northerners supported racial justice, black leaders, and racial uplift in religious terms, just as southern whites employed religion in supporting the Ku Klux Klan and, later, Jim Crow legislation enacting racial segregation. The popular revivals of Dwight Moody also brought white northern and southern Protestants back together under a common banner.
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The power of whiteness was found elsewhere too, even in places dedicated to cultural diversity. In his opening remarks, event organizer C. Imperialism at home meant keeping a certain type of American under control and denying authority to those who did not fit the mold. Political organizations formed to keep Catholics out of power included the American or Know-Nothing Party in the s and the American Protective Association in the late s.
Ignatius Loyola to rise up in arms and kill their Protestant neighbors as a precursor to a Vatican invasion of the country. Though fictitious, many Protestants saw it as containing some truth. Jewish immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to an increase in anti-Semitism in America. White vigilantes labeled all three as dangerous others, but the law primarily focused on one of those three: American blacks. For the most part, Jim and Jane Crow laws focused on physical segregation and voting. Segregation laws banned interracial marriages and kept Americans of different races separate in public spaces, public services, schools, and more.
Segregation laws in western states often expanded restrictions against other races. Literacy tests, which required voters to pass an exam in order to vote, were a common means of restricting black voters in the South. White Christianity was part of the muscle behind segregation. White southerners continued to call for the integrity of the white sacred order. Their slave-owning ancestors had argued that God takes care of humanity in the same way that they took care of their slaves. After the Civil War, Southern racists argued that God ordained the separation of the races and had given them different languages.
In a nation and society ripe with legal and social racial segregation, African American churches and homes offered powerful social and religious spaces where African Americans could have control over their daily lives. The effective local and national racial segregation of many Christian denominations before and after the Civil War almost ironically created black churches and denominations where African Americans had authority to advance their own spiritual growth and civic engagement.
They became social hubs where black social clubs could meet and organize events. It then comes as no surprise that black churches became key centers in the protest for civil rights. Black Catholics had been advocating for equal political and religious rights since the 19th century.
The first meeting of five Black Catholic Congresses, organized in large part by former slave and lay Catholic Daniel Rudd in , evidenced the desire of black Catholics to have more active voices in their churches. The Moorish Science Temple, also originating in the s, offered a new religious and racial identity for black Americans: Moorish and Muslim. Ali taught that a return to Islam and a recognition of their true ethnic and racial identity Moorish, which Ali associated with Morocco would help followers find real salvation.
Black churches brought together theological innovation and social critique. Prophetic religion is not a uniquely black church phenomenon, but it was particularly successful there. The old Hebrew prophets were social critics who spoke out about the corruption they saw around them. Thus, prophetic religion does the same. It critiques the current social authorities in power, identifies the corruption in the world, and includes a call for action.
The world is corrupt, but it does not have to be. People can change it if they have the courage to do so. Prophetic religion instructs listeners to not be passive bystanders. Speaking frequently from a perspective of prophetic religion was Martin Luther King Jr. King and the rest of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference advocated nonviolent protests.
He and others—including his fellow clergymen, Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, and many African American grassroots organizations—planned nonviolent protest campaigns across the South, leading to the Birmingham Campaign and the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Black Christians were not alone in their critique of white supremacy. A charismatic and captivating speaker, Malcolm X eclipsed Elijah Muhammad in popularity. Calls for black power were sometimes critical of what proponents called a blind focus on racial integration; others saw the two as working together; and some called for racial separatism.
For many, the black power movement was about uplifting the social and political identity of African Americans. Calls for red power and Native rights also arose in the s. In , a new U. Immigration Act seriously curtailed immigration by establishing immigrant quotas based on the census. Jump to navigation.
In the election, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump—a statistic that has attracted enormous attention from media, scholars, and evangelicals themselves. That piece of data also raises some obvious questions: How could a group so concerned about personal morality vote for a thrice-married casino mogul?
How could pro-family Christians vote for a man who admitted freely on tape to sexual assault? Over the past year, questions like these have consumed many of us who study American evangelicalism, and for good reason. The past 35 years have witnessed an outpouring of historical scholarship about American evangelicals, work that has greatly enhanced our understanding. But somehow this scholarship my own work included did not prepare us to understand why white evangelicals turned out so strongly for Trump and why they continue to remain his most ardent supporters.
It suggests that the heart of evangelicalism lies in its beliefs about God, salvation, and the Bible. Besides reporting that fewer than 45 percent of self-identified evangelicals strongly hold to classic evangelical beliefs, the article stated that the converse is also true: a significant number of evangelical believers reject the term evangelical.
The answer is yes. In fact, what most distinguishes white American evangelicals from other Christians, other religious groups, and nonbelievers is not theology but politics. White evangelicals in the early 21st century display attitudes about issues such as race, war, and immigration that differentiate them from other religious groups. White evangelicals have also become the most reliable bloc of Republican voters.
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Other religious groups voted for Trump as well, but none did so at the 81 percent level that white evangelicals did. Among Protestants, 58 percent voted for Trump; among white Catholics, 60 percent voted for Trump; among Mormons, 61 percent. In April , approval of Trump had dropped among white mainline Protestants to 50 percent and among white Catholics to 53 percent. But among white evangelicals his approval rating stayed high, at 78 percent. White evangelicals are also outliers on social and political issues. Before the school shootings in Parkland, Florida, only 38 percent of them favored stricter gun laws, compared to 57 percent of white mainline Protestants and 67 percent of Catholics.
Racial minorities display even greater disagreements with white evangelicals than did other white Christians. More than anything else, identifying as an evangelical in the United States denotes certain attitudes about American politics and usually indicates a white racial identity. American evangelicalism emerged in the transatlantic revival movements of the midth century, led by evangelists like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Sarah Osborn, and John Wesley.
These denominations, drawing on the revivalist tradition, prized emotional conversion experiences, which became normative for a wide swath of American Protestants. The success of evangelicalism was such that by the end of the 19th century nearly all Protestants claimed the label. Even Unitarians called themselves evangelical. In , Unitarian minister L. Walter Mason wrote that Unitarians were more evangelical than the theological conservatives, who spent far too much time poring over the Pauline epistles and the creeds.
Unitarians, he said, focused on the good news itself: the teachings of Jesus found in the Gospels. By the dawn of the 20th century, evangelical denoted a faith focused on the teachings of the Bible—and on this issue nearly all Protestant groups claimed they were more evangelical than everyone else. The Civil War revealed the fault lines of the movement. As historian Mark Noll demonstrates in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis , race and region divided evangelicals on the paramount question of the day: Does the Bible endorse slavery?
White southern evangelicals thought it did, while growing numbers of their northern counterparts thought not. The center of evangelicalism did not—could not—hold. The sectional crisis and Civil War divided American Protestants regionally and racially into three groups: northern white Protestants, southern white Protestants, and black Protestants. Black Protestants, located overwhelmingly in the South, left white churches in droves during the 15 years after the end of the war, and they founded scores of new denominations, seminaries, and colleges.
The largest white Protestant denominations had split in the lead-up to the Civil War and did not reunify until the midth century in the case of the Methodists or the late 20th century in the case of the Presbyterians. Northern and southern Baptists have never reunified. Each of these groups considered themselves evangelical well into the 20th century, but after the Civil War the regional groups took different trajectories. The near-absence of black believers in white churches was the condition for the development of a distinctly white evangelicalism.
When the African American journalist Ida B. Like many of her white evangelical compatriots, Willard could not see how her religious views centered on whiteness. Though African American believers largely shared the biblical and theological views of white Protestants, white and black Christians did not worship together or view the world or the faith in the same way. The racial segregation of American Protestantism facilitated deeper commingling of racist beliefs with evangelical religion. Allegations of sexual impropriety doomed thousands of black men to extralegal killings, committed by white vigilantes in the name of honor and Christian faith.
Racism was not confined to southern evangelicalism. Henry Crowell, chairman of the board of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, backed off from his early commitment to interracial education around the turn of the century.
As historian Timothy Gloege has shown, Crowell wanted MBI to become more professional, and the cost of that professionalization was complicity with Jim Crow segregation. He began conducting revivals and recruiting students in the South, signaling his commitment to Jim Crow by segregating his crusades and deploying crude racist imagery. MBI forced black students to live off campus beginning in , claiming that interracial dormitories were embarrassing to the institution and dangerous for the students.
Among white Protestants, the early 20th century was marked by the struggle between fundamentalists and modernists over issues such as the authority of scripture and evolution. Theological conservatives adopted the term fundamentalist to describe their commitment to what they deemed the fundamentals of the faith. The two factions battled for control of denominations and seminaries. As modernists slowly gained control over established institutions, fundamentalists left to form their own, leading to the creation of a sprawling fundamentalist subculture.
In the s, a new generation of white fundamentalists began to reclaim the term evangelical to mark a more open, less defensive stance toward mainstream culture. The National Association of Evangelicals was formed in , the same decade as other transdenominational parachurch organizations like Youth for Christ, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and World Vision were started.