By / Feb 10

At the annual convention in 2015, the SBC adopted a resolution on racial reconciliation that, in part, urged “churches to demonstrate their heart for racial reconciliation by seeking to increase racial and ethnic diversity in church staff roles, leadership positions, and church membership.”

Increasing racial diversity is not the end goal, of course, and will not automatically lead to reconciliation. Yet it can be a useful metric to determine whether reconciliation is being attempted within our churches and throughout the denomination. Ideally, individual SBC churches that are living out the gospel would be attractive to people of all races and ethnicities. If a lopsided racial imbalance is occuring, it might signal that there is a divide along other lines, such as cultural or political, that should not ​​separate the people of God. 

How is the SBC faring in its goal to be more racially diverse?

To find the answer we can look to the Great Commission Relations and Mobilization (​​GCRM) Ethnic Research Network, which tracks the state of ethnicity and race in the SBC. The network is a research initiative and a shared data collaboration of Southern Baptist Research Fellowship (SBRF) and SBC entities, such as the ERLC. Through statistical and analytical research, GCRM Ethnic Research Network “tells the story of SBC diversity as well as our collaborative and cooperative effort of sharing the Gospel in every city, town, neighborhood, and community in fulfilling the Great Commission.”

Diversity by the numbers

Currently, the SBC Annual Church Profile documents that there are 50,696 congregations and 14,089,947 people in the SBC. The network tracks the state of ethnicity and race within those congregations.

As of 2020, there are 39,408 congregations that are predominantly White Anglo, 3,895 that are African American, 3,361 that are predominantly Hispanic, 1,501 predominantly other ethnicities, and 422 that are predominantly Native American. Since 2010, there has been a 33.2% increase among congregations of other ethnicities, a 20.7% increase among Asian American congregations, 10.2% increase among African American congregations. During that time there was a 3.3% decrease among White Anglo congregations and a 3.0% decrease among Native American congregations. 

  • The states with the most African American congregations are Texas (1,168), California (455), and Georgia (239). 
  • The states with the most Asian American congregations are California (445), Texas (313), North Carolina (125), and Georgia (119). 
  • The states with the most Hispanic congregations are Texas (1,353), California (376), and Florida (317). 
  • The states with the most Native American congregations are Oklahoma (185), North Carolina (78), and Arizona (26). 
  • The states with the most other ethnic congregations are Florida (465), Texas (250), California (105), and North Carolina (98). 
  • The states with the most White Anglo congregations are Texas (4,685), North Carolina (3,739), Alabama (3,090), and Georgia (3,019). 

Within those congregations, 12,642,060 individuals are White Anglo, 880,108 are African American, 223,351 are Hispanic, 173,773 are Asian American, 136,750 are other ethnicities, and 33,590 are Native American. Since 2010, there has been a 23.8% increase among other ethnicities, a 12.1% ​​increase among Asian Americans, and an 8.6% increase among Hispanics. During that time there was a 16.1% decrease among Native Americans, a 14.1% decrease among White Anglos, and a 2.1% decrease among African Americans. 

Encouraging signs of growth

Almost 1-in-4 (22.3%) Southern Baptist congregations are non-Anglo or ethnic minority congregations. In contrast, in 1990 only 8.4% of SBC congregations were non-Anglo or ethnic minority congregations. African American congregations saw the largest growth of 289.3% from 1990- 2018, while the Anglo group saw the smallest growth of 11.4%. From 1995-2000, the African American group grew by 482 congregations, and, from 2000-2005, this group grew by an additional 833 congregations.

As for church membership, from 1990-2019 ethnic minority groups increased by over one million (1,021,658). From 2000-2010, the most growth experienced among SBC membership

was among African American, Asian American, and Hispanics, with Asian American membership growing by 270.7%.

With 22.3% of our Southern Baptist congregations being non-Anglo and many worshiping in multiple languages across America, the Southern Baptist Convention may be the most multiethnic and multilingual denomination in the United States. While the SBC still has a long way to go in its pursuit of racial reconciliation, we are moving in the right direction toward ​​the first step of having a diverse convention of believers unified around a common goal to fulfill the Great Commission.

By / Feb 9

In May of 2021, the eyes of the nation were on our city for a few days. Tulsa, Oklahoma, the city where I was born and in which I am currently a pastor, was remembering our most painful moment. The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre ranks among the deadliest incidents of racial violence in U.S. History—with estimates of up to 300 deaths in the African American community, more than 800 hospitalizations, and countless Black-owned businesses and homes burned to the ground in a matter of hours.*

It is no secret that tackling issues related to racism, both past and present, comes with the risk of conflict. As our church has engaged these issues biblically in the last several years, however, we have experienced notable spiritual growth by intentionally choosing people over politics and dialogue over division. This was particularly true during the commemoration of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, during which our church and our city took great strides toward biblical, gospel-centered racial reconciliation. 

Small steps toward racial unity

As one might imagine, the effects of that terrible night in 1921 and the aftermath are still felt in our city. To this day, the north and south parts of Tulsa have very little interaction. Our church is just about as far south as one can go and still be in Tulsa’s city limits, and we are far away from the historic Greenwood District where the events occurred in 1921. It was an honor, therefore, when the community service arm of centennial commission created a bridge to our church, invited us to join, and welcomed us into their work.

Through our church’s involvement in the commission, many saw racism and racial reconciliation in a new light. We became more convinced than ever that we, as the Church, are better equipped to take the lead in discussions related to love, forgiveness, and unity, precisely because such attributes are at the very heart of the gospel message of Jesus Christ. 

Our starting place in every single meeting and activity was never racial division. Our starting place was always that “we are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). 

When our identity as sons and daughters of the King of kings, and as brothers and sisters in Christ, supersedes any other identity, we can all take a posture of listening. After a period of over two years of listening and dialogue in our role with the commission, several of us developed new friendships that endure to this day. 

One of the most memorable moments of that season came with Ms. Mary, known as the “church mother” in one of Tulsa’s oldest and most faithful African American churches. Mary stopped one of our meetings and expressed her concern that some members in churches like ours whose families have been in Tulsa for generations might have had relatives who were involved in the events of that terrible night in 1921. Then, she said, “Just give me their names and addresses and I’ll go straight to their front door and give them a hug and make sure they know we are not interested in fighting over the past. We love you, and we care much more about the future for everyone in our community.”

Where does that level of grace and kindness come from if not through the transformational power of the gospel through the love of Christ?

Uniting to remember and pray 

In the end, about 70 churches around the city took time on the Sunday prior to the centennial anniversary to remember and to pray. I can think of no other time that Tulsa’s churches have come together with such shared commitment and plans.

Each church began the commemoration time by reading aloud Isaiah 43:18-19:

Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.

Next, we sang Amazing Grace—a hymn we all agreed is heard regularly in churches with members of all different ethnicities, races, and languages all over the world. It was particularly moving to know that so many of our brothers and sisters around the city were singing the same words at around the same time—giving thanks to God in unity for our shared salvation through his amazing grace. 

Finally, each church voiced these prayers:

  • We prayed against the attitudes of racism that still exist in our world and in our culture today.
  • We prayed against the sin of racism that still lives in some of our churches today.
  • We prayed and repent of attitudes of racism, prejudice, or bias that God finds in our hearts.
  • We prayed that we would see all people as made in the image of God and worthy of respect and a voice.
  • We prayed for the healing which only the Spirit of God can bring.
  • We prayed that despite this horrific tragedy, God would use each of us to help move us all forward along the path of racial reconciliation and harmony for the next generation to see, experience, and pass along.

As a pastor, I look back on that season with joy and a deep sense of gratitude. No, not everyone agreed on every single thing. Most, however, were willing to put aside defensiveness in favor of listening, learning, neighborliness, and community in Christ’s name. After all, as we reminded ourselves then and continue to remind ourselves today—intentional blindness to our sin, including racism, is antithetical to truth. As the Apostle John reminds: If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8). 

Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ, however, that forgiveness is possible. As the very next verse proclaims: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

*For more on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: Greenwood Rising Video.

By / Feb 23

There are many reasons Frances Ellen Watkins Harper might have gone from humble schoolteacher to renowned lecturer, but the one that tugs at me most has to do with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The tipping point 

The Fugitive Slave Act endangered not only runaway enslaved people seeking sanctuary in northern free states, but also free Black men and women who matched the descriptions of their enslaved counterparts. Maryland furthered this legislation by enacting a law that put any free Black person who entered the state in jeopardy of imprisonment or enslavement.1 A free man in Frances’s own city of Baltimore was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and eventually died before he could regain his freedom.2

One theory is that this is the knowledge that galvanized Frances and moved her private support of the Underground Railroad into the public spotlight.

Rather than recoil from the Fugitive Slave Act in fear, Frances spoke all over America—both in the North and the South—offering a rallying cry for change. She did not shrink or shirk but rose to the occasion with everything she could muster. In a letter to William Still, a fellow Black abolitionist, she wrote, “I have a right to do my share of the work. The humblest and feeblest of us can do something; and though I may be deficient in many of the conventionalisms of city life, and be considered as a person of good impulses, but unfinished, yet if there is common rough work to be done, call on me.”3

Frances’s tipping point might have looked a lot like one of mine.

My firstborn son was born the summer of 2016. My husband, Phillip, and I were in the middle of a cross-country move from Minnesota to Mississippi. The lease was up on our cute suburban duplex, and we were staying in a hotel until it was time to set off. Phillip had run out to grab us some food, and I was sitting in bed nursing Wynn and scrolling Facebook.

Philando Castile was killed that same day.

I scrolled in horror, processing the details of what had happened. He was shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in the very suburb Phillip and I had been living in for the past year. I immediately called Phillip to check on him, heart hammering in my ears, postpartum hormones rushing through my veins.

Philando Castile’s death was not the first such shooting of a Black man that I had ever heard of. It wasn’t the first one I had ever mourned. It wasn’t even the first one that had happened in a state where I resided.

But it was the first one that felt close. And I remember sitting on that bed, holding my brand-new baby boy, and thinking of how much everything had changed for me. I was now a mother of a little brown-skinned boy. My heart was not only out and about on the streets of Minneapolis in search of takeout, but in my arms.

I do not pretend to know the mind of Frances Harper (would that I did!), but I know what it feels like for something to hit closer to home than ever before. I know what it’s like for passion to spark and bleed out onto the page, and for the writing on the page to move one into the lectern. Bronze muse though I may never be, I have mused on so many of the words that Frances shared in myriad speeches, and I have felt the conviction of them deep in my own heart and life.

Frances did not work for fame and renown, but from a deep conviction that the work she was applying herself to was a worthwhile endeavor.

What Frances teaches us

Like more than one woman profiled in these pages, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was raised by a reverend and a teacher. She started working at fourteen and did not stop working until the day she died. She was married only four years before going back to supporting herself and her young daughter. And yet, if single motherhood was a challenge to the calling God placed on her life, Frances kept it to herself. She doggedly pursued her passions—lecturing, writing, and imagining.

Her poise, rhetorical skill, and passion earned her the nickname The Bronze Muse, a title that pointed to the fact that Frances was a master of the English language in speech, poetry, and prose. She realized that she was an ambassador for her entire ethnicity every time she mounted the stage, and she did her people proud, her own ability for intelligent and articulate arguments proof of her claims of equality. 

What I love about Frances is how thoroughly her poetic ability seeped into her rhetorical moments. She was every bit a poet in the lectern and every bit a principled orator in her poetry. Frances had a knack for uniting all parts of her skill in service for her cause.

I teach at a classical Christian school in Jackson, Mississippi. I’m excited to introduce Frances Ellen Watkins Harper to my students. We are very picky about the classical canon at my school, but we also realize that so many Black voices have been barred from that canon throughout history. Phillis Wheatley is the one Black poet the kids know—maybe Paul Laurence Dunbar, if they’re lucky, and later, Langston Hughes. But the canon should be full to bursting with a wide array of Black voices and a huge cross section of the Black experience.

Frances was not just a phenomenal speaker—she was a phenomenal writer. Her poetry and her storytelling abilities have stood the test of time, even when it seemed that time had forgotten them. In fact, just a few years ago, her first published book of poetry, Forest Leaves, was rediscovered. For one hundred and fifty years, we assumed that her words were lost forever. . . and yet they were found by a pesky PhD candidate who knew exactly where to look.

As much as I love playing hide-and-seek with the treasure trove of the influential Black women who have shaped us, it is my earnest hope that fifty years from now, a little Black girl who wants to grow up to be a writer doesn’t have to look far to find the work of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Perhaps she will have had to memorize Bible Defense of Slavery or The Slave Mother. Maybe her teacher will have assigned The Two Offers in a short story unit. Perhaps in a class that focuses on nineteenth-century literature, Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy—the first novel published by a Black woman—will be found in its rightful chronology after Austen and the Brontës.

I do know that my own children and my own students will know her name. And perhaps, now that you’ve read her words, you can share her brilliance as well.

However, if I have learned anything from Frances, it is that no matter how quiet the record of her brilliance has been kept, it cannot remain silent forever. I did not know about her . . . until I did. And now that I do, I know to be incredibly grateful for her example and influence. And I know that there are myriad women like her, just waiting to be discovered. They are hidden gems and diamonds in the rough now, but they were outspoken dynamos while they lived. And their lives shine as examples to us all.

Footnotes

  1. Elizabeth Ammons and Frances Ellen Watkins [Harper], “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911)” Legacy 2, no. 2 (1985): 61-66. Accessed June 24, 2021, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25678939.
  2. Melba Joyce Boyd, Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E.W. Harper, 1825–1911 (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1994), 40.
  3. Harper, A Brighter Coming Day, 47.

Excerpt from Carved in Ebony by Jasmine Holmes provided by Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Copyright 2021. Used by permission.

“Chapter 4: Inspired by the Bronze Muse | Frances Ellen Watkins Harper,” from Carved in Ebony by Jasmine Holmes. pp. 70-71, 74-76, 79-80; 1,255 words (edited)

By / Feb 21

Years ago, as my wife and I were renovating our house, we met an African American gentleman who came to help with one of our projects. We welcomed him into our home and left him to do his work. After he finished the job, we began to talk. He graciously thanked us for the hospitality and mentioned it was not always the case. Upon my inquiry, he proceeded to describe some horrendous experiences he had endured as a Black man in people’s homes in our small Southern community. Some wouldn’t allow him in their houses, others watched him like a hawk, and others spoke in passive but incredibly derogatory ways toward him as he worked. He even told us that there were certain areas in town that he asked not to be assigned because Confederate flags fly proudly in front yards, which is still far too common for those of us who call this place home.

As Christians, the ways that this man had been treated should turn our stomachs and push us toward a righteous resolve to rid our communities of these abohorent and blatantly sinful attacks on the dignity of our fellow image-bearer. And while racism isn’t as open and obvious as it once was in our nation, it is still painfully present even if in more subdued or subtle forms. Many Christians today often feel caught between the realities of racism in our society and the calls for social justice that at times are at odds with the biblical social ethic. On one hand, some tend to argue that racism is nonexistent or at least not a prominent issue facing the church — often being seen as a secondary or tertiary issue to other cultural and social issues in Christian ethics. On the other hand, much of what is promoted in terms of social justice today does not accord with true social justice, biblical defined which is rooted in the inherent dignity of all image bearers and redemption through the cross of Christ.

How is a Christian to navigate these questions today of standing against racism but not losing biblically grounded justice? Scripture makes clear that racism in any form is a grievous sin before our Holy God and is to be repudiated in the strongest of terms, wherever it is found, by the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-13; Gal. 3:28; Rev. 14:6). As Christians seek to walk through these complexities and tensions, we must keep two overlapping truths together. First, biblically grounded social justice is central to the gospel message being rooted in the imago Dei. And second, downplaying social justice or failing to address the outworkings of sin in our society is a repudiation of the Christian social ethic (Psa. 89:14).

Social justice and the gospel message

The concept of social justice has at times been hijacked by the wider culture to stand for causes or to justify actions contrary to the biblical message of human dignity and the reality of sin. Christians rightly decry how the term has been overly politicized and has been taken up to promote causes that degrade true human flourishing and the common good in our society. Some calls for social justice reduce all of human existence to power dynamics or push radical social agendas that are designed to normalize hyper individualism and complete moral autonomy. But we also must be honest that the gospel message has likewise been hijacked by some — especially in the past — to support or even promote the horrors of slavery, segregation, and the continuation of unjust policies that seek to define someone’s value and dignity based on their skin color or background. Injustice is an affront to God and his character no matter where it is found.

The Christian moral tradition clearly illustrates that the gospel message is the good news that Jesus Christ lived the life we were created to live and died the death we deserved to die in order to give us everlasting life in relationship to God for eternity. It also makes clear that this message of new life in Christ contains wide-reaching and life-altering social implications for all of society which is rooted in the God-given dignity of all people (Gen. 1:26-28). The personal aspects of the biblical ethic directly inform the social aspects because we are individuals living in community with one another. We each bear immense responsibility for pursuing truth and upholding justice in our society. As new creations in Christ, we are to model for a watching world what Jesus meant when he called his people to “love our neighbor as ourselves” (2 Cor. 5:17; Matt. 22:37-39). Overlooking our neighbors or passively allowing injustices to be perpetrated is completely contrary to this command by God to stand for the vulnerable and downtrodden in our communities as we seek to biblically defined justice wherever injustice is found.

An ethic to make the world tremble

As the world-class evangelical Protestant theologian and ethicist Carl F.H. Henry boldly stated, “Social justice is not simply an appendage to the evangelistic message; it is an intrinsic part of the whole, without which the preaching of the gospel is truncated. Theology devoid of social justice is a deforming weakness of much present-day evangelical witness.”1Henry, Carl F. H. God, Revelation and Authority. Vol. IV. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1979, 551. For Henry, social justice is a key part of the gospel message because it is the outworking of the Christian social ethic grounded in the imago Dei and modeled by the Church throughout a host of social justice issues such as racism, caring for vulnerable children in the womb, or decrying the killing of the elderly in the name of “dignified death.” Rightfully defined in this era of immense confusion over the social aspects of the biblical ethic and the nature of responsibility, the Christian social ethic is robustly pro-human dignity in every aspect of society, even those deemed not worthy of respect or honor by the culture around us.

This vigorous and unadulterated biblical social ethic must be retrieved in each generation as new challenges arise and questions of human anthropology are being asked in light of the quest for moral autonomy and even in the face of modern technological developments. Henry, speaking of the nature of the gospel and the Christian social ethic, once wrote that we must “confront the world now with an ethic to make it tremble, and with a dynamic to give it hope.”2Henry, Carl F. H. Twilight of a Great Civilization: The Drift toward Neo-Paganism. Westchester, Ill: Crossway Books, 1988, 166. This practically means that we recognize sin and the distortion of human dignity wherever it may be found, as well as the hope of reconciliation that we have in the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

In an age of rampant moral autonomy and hyper-individualism, the Church must see and proclaim that sin is not simply an isolated personal issue, but something that is pervasive throughout every single aspect of society. Thus, we must not only articulate a vision of biblical justice but also seek to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21). We must ensure that our words align with our actions as we proclaim a message of hope in a sin-torn world longing for redemption. As the prophet Micah reminds us, the Lord has spoken and commands that as his people we are to “love justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our God]” (Micah 6:8).

  • 1
    Henry, Carl F. H. God, Revelation and Authority. Vol. IV. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1979, 551.
  • 2
    Henry, Carl F. H. Twilight of a Great Civilization: The Drift toward Neo-Paganism. Westchester, Ill: Crossway Books, 1988, 166.
By / Dec 14

According to historian George Marsden, “a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.” Figures such as Bob Jones, J. Frank Norris, and Aimee Semple McPherson all fit within this mold. However, much of the study of fundamentalists has tended to exclude African Americans, for a variety of reasons. Daniel Bare, professor of history at Texas A&M University, has recently argued in Black Fundamentalists: Conservative Christianity and Racial Identity in the Segregation Era that thinking about fundamentalism as a primarily white movement ignores very real ideological links between Black and white theologically conservative Christians. 

In his study of Black fundamentalists, Bare argues that to understand them, it is necessary to explore how their theology and racial identity intersected and the ways that this informed their calls for equality in the public square. 

In the book, your approach is not just historical or theological, but one that combines the two, a “social history of theology.” What does this entail, and how does it help when considering these African American fundamentalists? 

The “social history of theology” is a term that I picked up from Mark Noll’s book America’s God to describe the interconnectedness of theological conviction and social/historical context. His point was that you have to understand theological developments within a wide range of social contexts — from the ecclesiastical to the political to the commercial — in order to fully account for why theological ideas develop differently in disparate social contexts. So, given my focus on the United States in the era of Jim Crow, it seemed only natural to extend this idea to encompass the influence of racial context on theological developments. 

After all, the reality of race as a pervasive, structuring element of American society in this period is undeniable — from segregation to voter disfranchisement to the horrors of lynching and other socially-approved forms of racial violence. Racial considerations influenced ecclesiastical developments; they influenced politics; they influenced economics. And whereas the thinking of the white majority in the United States (and in various church contexts) largely developed in accordance with the presumption of white superiority and the propriety of segregating the races, the social realities of discrimination and oppression also prompted Black thinkers and churches to find strength in their community and apply their intellectual and theological efforts to challenging the unjust ideas that relegated African Americans to second-class status.

With all that in mind, my book takes a historical-theological approach that is intended to give proper consideration to both historical and theological factors. So I do believe that theology as being theology holds a profound significance in defining one’s religious identity and worldview, and that theological convictions and formulations deserve to be treated seriously, on their own terms, without reducing them to mere expressions of more subliminal political or economic ideologies. Thus I take a deeply theological look at the religious beliefs of the people I discuss in the book. 

At the same time, I want to recognize that social and historical context plays a significant role in the ways that we think about religion, theology, and broader worldview issues. Our context influences our presuppositions about how the world works, how we interpret the Bible, which issues in the world deserve our focused attention, and so forth. And when we look at the Black fundamentalists whom I discuss in the book, we see people whose theological formulations were largely aligned with those of their white fundamentalist counterparts, and who took their theology very seriously, but who also saw the need to apply their theology in such a way as to address the racial injustices of the world in which they lived. 

As you note in the book, most of the scholarship around the term “fundamentalist” has excluded African Americans for a number of reasons. However, you argue that though different in key ways, these African Americans were part of the larger movement, doctrinally if not formally. How so?

Since my book takes a historical-theological approach to exploring the topic, the definition of fundamentalism that I use is essentially theological in nature. I look at fundamentalism as a centrally theological enterprise that requires an essentially theological definition. It was largely a reactionary enterprise responding to what theological conservatives saw as the dangerous encroachments of theological liberalism (or modernism). Fundamentalists viewed modernists as abandoning the historic Christian faith through their doctrinal compromises, as abandoning the “fundamentals” that comprised the essence of “real” Christianity. 

So as I examine fundamentalism in the book, I lay out four definitional elements to consider: 1) an avowedly supernaturalist and biblicist worldview; 2) an express commitment to the central doctrinal propositions at issue in the fundamentalist-modernist conflict, most obviously crystalized in the “five fundamentals”; 3) a readiness to openly and explicitly criticize and condemn modernist theology; and 4) a willingness to utilize fundamentalist terminology (e.g., “the fundamentals,” “fundamentalism,” etc.) in defining one’s theological positions and religious identity.

The strength of this historical-theological approach is that it allows us to identify and consider Black voices in the historical record who self-identified as fundamentalists and expressly aligned with the theological heartbeat of fundamentalism. Amid a society built on institutional segregation, these Black fundamentalists were not typically part of the formal fundamentalist institutional networks, which were established by well-connected white men like J. Frank Norris or William Bell Riley. As a result, African Americans have remained typically excluded from the story of fundamentalism. Yet if we look at the theological commitments, the apologetics and polemics, the doctrinal formulations, we can see that the fundamentalist outlook clearly spanned the color line. 

The key difference you highlight is that the conservative Black Christians in your study were more outspoken on racial issues than their white counterparts who either ignored the issue or were complicit in racial injustice. How did the Black fundamentalists see their advocacy for this issue as flowing from their theological convictions?

This is a key element of the argument I present in the book. The theological formulations and argumentation surrounding “the fundamentals” was very much the same for fundamentalists across the color line, but Black fundamentalists were apt to draw applications from their theology that their white counterparts would not, specifically with respect to issues of racial equality and racial justice. This illustrates how social and cultural context can play a large role in how people formulate the day-to-day application of their faith.

Throughout the book I offer examples of Black fundamentalists contending that their fundamentalist doctrines actually contained correctives to the evils of Jim Crow that they faced in everyday life. From the doctrine of biblical inerrancy to the doctrine of Christ’s divinity to the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, these were divinely appointed truths that necessarily entailed rebukes of racism and segregation. Among the most compelling orators in this vein whom I discuss in the book was Isaac Reed Berry, a Black Methodist minister who was ordained in 1917. Two of Berry’s favorite theological topics in his preaching were also two common fundamentalist themes — biblical inspiration and substitutionary atonement. 

With respect to biblical inspiration, Berry saw in the Bible God’s forthright rebuke of the Jim Crow racial hierarchy; such texts as Acts 17:26 (“[God] made of one blood all nations of men”) and Psalm 133:1 (“Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”) underscored the full humanity and equality of African Americans. Yet, he reasoned, such a divine rebuke only holds weight if the words of the Bible are in fact the very words of God himself; otherwise these biblical passages could be dismissed as mere manmade trifles. Thus, the doctrine of biblical inspiration was foundational for fighting bigotry in the world. Such applications of these common fundamentalist doctrines were unlikely to cross the minds or the lips of Berry’s white counterparts.

Isaac Berry’s social activism appears more similar to the program of social gospel figures like Walter Rauschenbusch. However, Berry and other Black fundamentalists were often in conflict with others in their denomination who were sympathetic to modernist theology. What does this reveal about the tension that Black fundamentalists faced?

Isaac Berry’s (and other’s) gospel message had clear and undeniable social implications without becoming a “social gospel.” Too often people tend to conflate community engagement or religiously-motivated social action with the “social gospel” perspective championed by the likes of Rauschenbusch. But I think it is important to keep in mind that the “social gospel” perspective that Rauschenbusch formalized in his A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917) was not merely about finding social applications in the Christian message, but significant theological reformulations on doctrines such as the Trinity, redemption/atonement, Christ’s divinity, and so on. So for fundamentalists, whether black or white, the social gospel perspective was a non-starter from the outset because they prized these traditional “fundamental” doctrines.

Yet the Black fundamentalist preachers that I study in the book did indeed at times offer major social applications, and pushed for large-scale social action, from their pulpits and from their expositions of fundamentalist doctrine. They believed that relying on the fundamental doctrines of “old-time” Christianity, as it was sometimes called, was the only sure way to elicit social change because the calls to justice and righteous living that resided in this gospel message bore God’s own imprimatur in the pages of the inerrant Bible. As a result, Black fundamentalist voices did indeed find themselves at odds, sometimes, with other leaders of the Black community with whom they may have shared certain pressing social/cultural goals (e.g., pushing for voting rights, securing funding for Black education, etc.) but differed as to theological belief or the methods of achieving those desired ends.

This conflict illustrates certain tensions in the experience of these Black fundamentalists. Their blackness separated them from the institutional “fundamentalist” movement that tended to be dominated by powerful white figures like J. Frank Norris (a proponent of segregation and Jim Crow), leading to their marginalization not only at the time but also in the historical study of fundamentalism. Yet their fundamentalist theological convictions also spurred conflicts within the Black community as well, as many leading Black thinkers adopted more social-gospel-friendly perspectives on racial advancement. However, the tension also highlights another important point — that there is a multifaceted diversity within African American intellectual and religious history, and we ought not fall into the trap of creating a monolithic caricature. In the words of famed historian Albert Raboteau, it is a “sometimes overlooked fact [that] African-American opinion has never been unanimous.”

One area of the book that is especially interesting given current conversations is your chapter on the fusion of fundamentalism with Americanism. These African American pastors and evangelists were explicitly connecting their civil liberties with Christ’s sacrifice and America’s identity as a Christian nation. Given that they were making these arguments in the context of a segregated society, how did they reconcile the tension between an America that was both Christian and segregated? 

The whole connection with the idea of America as a “Christian nation” came out most clearly in Isaac Berry’s preaching, as he drew connections between the civil freedoms promised by the United States’ founding ideals and the spiritual freedom secured in the redeeming work of Christ on the cross. He declared, for instance, that Americans’ “civil liberty was first purchased with the priceless blood of the Divine Son of God,” and that “America needs today to bow the knee at the foot of the cross, where freedom’s sword was forged.” In large part, Berry reconciled this tension between a picture of “Christian America” and the reality of racial injustice in the United States by calling Americans to live up to their founding political (and religious) ideals, as he perceived them. 

“Christian America” captured the idealized founding of a nation based on the principles of civic equality, political freedom, and Christian virtue; the fact that racial injustice continued to plague the nation did not invalidate the founding ideals, but rather revealed that Americans were failing to live up to the high standard of their heritage as a “Christian nation.” In this way, Berry’s concept of a “Christian America” served as a basis for him to condemn the un-Christian, sinful practices that he observed in the world around him. So in this configuration, embracing the idea of a Christian America went hand-in-hand with confronting the evils of American racism, just as the prophets of old invoked Israel’s status as God’s covenant people while inveighing against the nation’s wicked departures from God’s statutes.

How does this new way of understanding fundamentalism, and African American Christianity during this period, have ramifications for today? Is there anything that it helps to clarify about our current approaches to race and religion? 

More than pinpointing any one specific issue of the current day, I hope that this study is helpful in illuminating how the process of thinking about, applying, and expressing religion is not only a function of propositional theological claims, but also reflects the social and cultural circumstances in which we find ourselves. As I put it in the last sentence of the book, “theological unity across racial lines was no guarantee that political and social uniformity would follow.” If we look, for instance, at evangelicalism as today’s analogue (albeit imperfectly so) of the fundamentalist movement of a century ago, we can certainly still see major fissures in evangelical life that manifest along the lines of race. 

Very often white and Black evangelicals, even as they may confess the same doctrines on such topics as inspiration or Christology, may yet tend to express very different convictions when it comes to social and political applications of their common faith — from issues like the social justice movement, to conversations about police reform, to considerations of religious liberty, to immigration policy, to presidential voting patterns, and so on. I hope that in this context, the examples in the book might prove to be points of profitable reflection for believers today, and the interests of Christian fellowship and charity might prompt us to seek to humbly and honestly understand other people who offer sincere perspectives that differ from our own, rather than dismissing one another out of hand. 

By / Jul 15

Looking at some examples might help us envision what a healthy interplay between media and community can look like. While there are many people I could highlight as models of faithful belonging and redemptive publishing, it would be hard to top Frederick Douglass and Dorothy Day. For both of them, reading books and newspapers transformed their lives, introducing them to new communities of discourse and action. Their reading led them to imagine new possibilities for joining with and working among the members of their own places. This membership, in turn, led them to speak publicly on behalf of their communities, challenging others to belong redemptively to their own neighbors and to address the pressing issues of their time. 

Douglass, reading, and abolition

In his autobiography, Douglass describes the arduous process by which he learned to read, first through the good graces of a naive slave mistress, and then by giving poor White boys bread in exchange for lessons. At the age of 12, he read “The Columbian Orator,” a classroom anthology of speeches and poems that includes an imagined dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave made such good arguments for his emancipation that the master granted his manumission. Douglass was, of course, drawn to these arguments: “They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance.” As Douglass goes on to explain, he didn’t even know the meaning of the word abolition — much less that there was a whole community of abolitionists agitating for the end of slavery — until he read a newspaper account of abolitionist activities. 

After his reading brought the abolition community to his consciousness and helped him articulate a case for emancipation, Douglass devoted his energies to educating his enslaved friends. Once he had “created in them a strong desire to learn how to read,” he held a Sabbath school and taught any enslaved people who were interested. Their school was eventually discovered and broken up by White masters; these men knew the grave danger that reading posed to the institution of slavery. As Douglass testifies, this learning community provided a rare opportunity for these downtrodden people to behave like “intellectual, moral, and accountable beings.” Eventually, Douglass escaped to the north, but instead of feeling free, he felt terribly lonely and vulnerable. He was particularly grateful for the aid of other free Black persons and abolitionists who helped him find a home in New Bedford. 

This community, and the support it provided for its vulnerable members, motivated Douglass to take a more active role in sustaining it. He describes an incident where a free Black person had a dispute with a fugitive and threatened to betray him; the entire community came together to send the traitor away and protect the fugitive. It is this camaraderie and solidarity that inspired Douglass to move into the public sphere and advocate for the abolition of slavery and the empowerment of free African Americans. He tells of his joy when he was able to pay for a subscription to the Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper. This paper, Douglass attests, “became my meat and my drink. My soul was set all on fire.” And it soon gave him an “idea of the principles, measures, and spirit of the anti-slavery reform.” At the urging of others, he began to speak at churches and abolitionist meetings, and his eloquence and testimony soon made him a popular speaker. 

Community and pointing to the gospel 

Douglass eventually separated himself from Garrison’s paper and speaking circuit and founded his own newspaper, the North Star. In the opening editorial, he situates the paper as a communal endeavor, arguing that the Black community “must be our own representatives and advocates, not exclusively, but peculiarly — not distinct from, but in connection with our white friends.” Thus it will not be committed to an ideology but to a community, which he names as “our long oppressed and plundered fellow countrymen”: “We shall cordially approve every measure and effort calculated to advance your sacred cause, and strenuously oppose any which in our opinion may tend to retard its progress.” Rather than being narrowly antislavery, it will also discuss issues such as “Temperance, Peace, Capital Punishment, Education. . . . While advocating your rights, the North Star will strive to throw light on your duties. [W]hile it will not fail to make known your virtues, it will not shun to discover your faults. To be faithful to our foes it must be faithful to ourselves, in all things.” This language of rights and duties is common in republican discourse, but it emphasizes that Douglass was committed not just to an ideology or an interest group but to the formation of a healthy community. 

Though he disagreed with Garrison about the best political strategy to achieve abolition, Douglass shared Garrison’s religious convictions. One version of the Liberator’s masthead depicts Christ in his role as liberator, proclaiming, “I come to break the bonds of the oppressor.” Similarly, the motto of Douglass’s North Star declares, “Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color—God is the Father of us all, and all we are brethren.” If Douglass belonged to his fellow oppressed countrymen (and women — he was an early supporter of the suffrage movement), he belonged equally to the biblical prophetic tradition. As his biographer David Blight puts it, “Douglass not only used the Hebrew prophets; he joined them.” Douglass consistently “rooted his own story and especially the story of African Americans in the oldest and most powerful stories of the Hebrew prophets.” 

Ultimately, Douglass strove to build a community keyed to the gospel rather than to political trends. He failed at times, getting drawn into heated and sometimes petty political disputes and caring more about wielding political power than about standing as a faithful witness, but the very existence of his papers helped people imagine a community of Christians committed to living out the gospel’s valuation of each person — regardless of their race — as a child of God. Papers like the North Star can help us see those neighbors whom we might otherwise overlook; they can help us imagine ourselves as members of a community that cares about the plight of the enslaved and others who are oppressed and that takes action to participate in God’s ongoing redemptive work. 

Adapted and published with permission from Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News, Chapter eight, “Belonging Outside the Public Sphere.”

By / Apr 16

In March, we crossed the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, during a year unlike any other, resulted in a staggering 500,000 deaths in the United States alone. After reaching this milestone, we are faced with alarming statistics of not only the stark losses of life but also of those that reveal the Black community in America has been disproportionately affected during this year of crisis. 

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Black or African American persons are twice as likely as their white or Asian counterparts to be hospitalized or pass away due to COVID-related symptoms. These statistics further point to the existence of an American social predicament which allows for significant disparities in the availability of social programs and adequate health care for many in Black communities. 

This information points to the necessity of larger numbers of African Americans urgently needing COVID-19 vaccination. With the advent of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccinations, people can now be protected against contracting the virus (or have a significant reduction in the severity of symptoms). These vaccines could bring significant relief to the crisis for the Black community. But despite being the most affected by the virus, and most in need of vaccination, members of the Black community are disproportionately underrepresented in instances of vaccination. While some 20% of the U.S. population has received some form of vaccination, Black or African American persons only make up 7% of that number, according to recent data from the CDC.

So why aren’t members of the Black community running to the front of the line to get vaccinated? One contributing factor is rooted in a longstanding Black collective mistrust of healthcare institutions because of a history of dubious medical practices that resulted in inadequate medical treatment, misuse of Black bodies, and misinformation in Black spaces. The relationship between the medical science community and the Black community is one fraught with tension, implicit bias, and suspicion, often coming from both directions.

One of the most glaring instances of medical deception towards the Black community occurred in Alabama during the “ethically unjustified” 40-year-long experiment known as the Tuskegee Study. From 1932 until its public exposure by the Associated Press in 1972, the Public Health Service–which preceded the CDC–conducted a study on 600 Black men under the guise of treatment for vaguely described diagnoses. The study lacked informed consent from the participants, as they believed they were being given legitimate treatments for illnesses. In reality, those treatments were purposely withheld from these men as scientists observed the long term, natural effects of syphilis on their bodies. 

With the last surviving member of the Tuskegee Study passing recently in 2004, the legacy of Tuskegee remains burned into the Black consciousness and still influences the present-day medical choices of many. Add this to current statistics of high numbers of instances of medical malpractice experienced by Black Americans, and a perceived indifference toward the complaints of Black patients concerning healthcare, and the lack of investment into vaccination sites and resources in predominantly Black neighborhoods, many African Americans are left without sufficient options for vaccination. Worse, many end up thinking that it would be more beneficial and health conscious to not receive the COVID-19 vaccination at all.  

So, what then can be done to aid a community in crisis? This answer is rooted in the longstanding Black collective trust and veneration of the Church as a community presence and institution. It is the Church that is left with the responsibility to be the hands and feet of Jesus toward a community in need. The Church has in past times been the answer to the issues plaguing the Black community and must be that answer once again.

From serving as temporary hospitals during the Black Plague to being gathering centers for social justice meetings during the Civil Rights Era, churches have often been galvanizing hubs to help people receive information and care. The Church very often serves as the center of Black social life in America where many get not only their direction for faith, but also their teaching on initiatives in politics, education and healthcare, with politicians, activists and medical professionals often turning to the Church to utilize their platforms to distribute information directly to congregants. 

As the pandemic persists, it might once again fall on the Church to help spread truth and assuage fears in the Black community if there is hope for their getting vaccinated at higher rates. Churches can act as vaccination sites in typically low-income or Black neighborhoods. They can host information forums where medical professionals answer questions for congregants; and church leaders themselves can model the vaccine’s safety by receiving it. 

To follow the call of the Bible to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17), the Church must be an active voice in ensuring that members of marginalized groups are receiving the care and information needed to be protected in a crisis. While many members of the Black community mistrust medical institutions, they retain trust in the Church, so the Church must honor that trust and help guide people out of this unprecedented trial.

By / Feb 26

The church is central to the story of black history in the United States. In Reading While Black, Dr. Esau McCaulley unpacks the many ways Scripture has been a resource for hope, perseverance, and justice in the African American experience. In spite of the dynamic role the black church has played in American history, its theological and historical significance is often understated. That is why this month we are taking a look at Dr. McCaulley’s book to further explore how the method of interpretation and reading Scripture has been an act of hope grounded in scriptural authority and the hope of the gospel

Here are select quotes from Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope

I am referring to the struggle between Black nihilism and Black hope. I am speaking of the ways in which the Christian tradition fights for and makes room for hope in a world that tempts us toward despair. I contend that a key element in this fight for hope in our community has been the practice of Bible reading and interpretation coming out of the Black church. p. 3

I want to contend that the best instincts of the Black church tradition—its public advocacy for justice, its affirmation of the worth of Black bodies and souls, its vision of a multiethnic community of faith—can be embodied by those who stand at the center of this tradition. This is a work against the cynicism of some who doubt that the Bible has something to say; it is a work contending for hope. p. 6 

My professors had a point. One does not have to dig very far into history to see that fundamentalist Christians in the South (and the North) have indeed inflicted untold harm on Black people. They have used the Bible as justification for their sins, personal and corporate. But there is a second testimony possibly more important than the first. That is the testimony of Black Christians who saw in that same Bible the basis for their dignity and hope in a culture that often denied them both. In my professor’s attempt to take the Bible away from the fundamentalists, he also robbed the Black Christian of the rock on which they stood. p. 8. 

I learned that too often alongside the four pillars of evangelicalism outlined above there were unspoken fifth and sixth pillars. These are a general agreement on a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentlemen’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and systemic injustice. p. 11

While I was at home with much of the theology in evangelicalism, there were real disconnects. First, there was the portrayal of the Black church in these circles. I was told that the social gospel had corrupted Black Christianity. Rather than placing my hope there, I should look to the golden age of theology, either at the early years of this country or during the postwar boom of American Protestantism. But the historian in me couldn’t help but realize that these apexes of theological faithfulness coincided with the nadirs of Black freedom. p. 11

The first ray of hope came from Frederick Douglass, whose words came to be something of a Balm in Gilead. He said, 

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference. . . . I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

Frederick then posits a distinction, not so much between Black Christianity and white, but between slaveholder religion and the Christianity of Jesus and the Bible.

Black Christianity historically, I would come to understand, has claimed that white slave master readings of the Bible used to undergird white degradation of Black bodies were not merely one manifestation of Christianity to be contrasted with another. Instead they said that such a reading was wrong. p. 16-17

Therefore, I contend that the enslaved person’s biblical interpretation, which gave birth to early Black biblical interpretation, was canonical from its inception. It placed Scripture’s dominant themes in conversation with the hopes and dreams of Black folks. It was also unabashedly theological, in that particular texts were read in light of their doctrine of God, their beliefs about humanity (anthropology) and their understanding of salvation (soteriology). p. 19

My claim then is that Black biblical interpretation has been and can be 

  • unapologetically canonical and theological. 
  • socially located, in that it clearly arises out of the particular context of Black Americans. 
  • willing to listen to the ways in which the Scriptures themselves respond to and redirect Black issues and concerns. 
  • willing to exercise patience with the text trusting that a careful and sympathetic reading of the text brings a blessing. 
  • willing to listen to and enter into dialogue with Black and white critiques of the Bible in the hopes of achieving a better reading of the text. p. 21

Peacemaking, then, cannot be separated from truth telling. The church’s witness does not involve simply denouncing the excesses of both sides and making moral equivalencies. It involves calling injustice by its name. If the church is going to be on the side of peace in the United States, then there has to be an honest accounting of what this country has done and continues to do to Black and Brown people. Moderation or the middle ground is not always the loci of righteousness. p. 68

The question isn’t always which account of Christianity uses the Bible. The question is which does justice to as much of the biblical witness as possible. There are uses of Scripture that utter a false testimony about God. This is what we see in Satan’s use of Scripture in the wilderness. The problem isn’t that the Scriptures that Satan quoted were untrue, but when made to do the work that he wanted them to do, they distorted the biblical witness. This is my claim about the slave master exegesis of the antebellum South. The slave master arrangement of biblical material bore false witness about God. This remains true of quotations of the Bible in our own day that challenge our commitment to the refugee, the poor, and the disinherited. p. 91

The Black Christian is often beset from the left and the right. Those on the right too often contend that the Bible speaks to their souls and not the liberation of their bodies. Those on the left maintain that those on the right are correct. The Bible doesn’t clearly address the needs of Black and Brown folks. Therefore, it must either be supplemented or replaced. I am not claiming that the Bible outlines the policies necessary for the proper functioning of a Democratic Republic. I am saying that it outlines the basic principles and critiques of power that equip Black Christians for their life and work in these United States. p. 94-95

God’s vision for his people is not for the elimination of ethnicity to form a colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness. Instead God sees the creation of a community of different cultures united by faith in his Son as a manifestation of the expansive nature of his grace. This expansiveness is unfulfilled unless the differences are seen and celebrated, not as ends unto themselves, but as particular manifestations of the power of the Spirit to bring forth the same holiness among different peoples and cultures for the glory of God. p. 106

There are two groups that want to separate us from the Christian story. One group claims that Christianity is fundamentally a white religion. This is simply historically false. The center of early Christianity was in the Middle East and North Africa. But deeper than the historical question is the biblical one. Who owns the Christian story as it is recorded in the texts that make up the canon? I have contended that Christianity is ultimately a story about God and his purposes. That is good news. God has always intended to gather a diverse group of people to worship him. p. 117

It is difficult for the African American believer to look deeply into the history of Christianity and not be profoundly shaken. Insomuch as it arises in response to the church’s historic mistreatment of African Americans, the Black secular protest against religion is one of the most understandable developments in the history of the West. If they are wrong (and they are), it is a wrongness born out of considerable pain. I too am frustrated with the way that Scripture has been used to justify the continual assault on Black bodies and souls. If we come to different conclusions about the solutions to those problems, it is not because Black Christians deny the past. It is simply that we found different solutions within the biblical witness to Black suffering and anger. We do not find fault with the broad center of the great Christian tradition. We lament its distortion by others and the ways in which we have failed to live up to the truths we hold dear. Nonetheless, we are not ashamed of finding hope and forgiveness in and through the cross of Christ. In the end, we plead and have confidence in the blood. p. 136

I argued that the Old and New Testaments, even the letters of Paul, provide us with the theological resources to dismantle slavery. It is simply false to claim that the Old and New Testaments simply baptize the institutions as they find them. Instead, the Scriptures raise tensions between the central themes of the Bible and slavery. p. 162

Alongside the vibrancy of evangelicalism, there was, in spirit if not always in practice, an emphasis on the equality of all people due to the belief that all were sinners in need of God’s grace. The equal need for grace spoke to the equal worth of Black bodies and souls, making conversion to this form of Christianity a realistic possibility. Furthermore, the flexible polities of Baptist and later Methodist churches made it easier for African Americans to form their own independent churches and denominations when racism forced them out of white churches. Here in these newly formed Black churches and denominations we have our first extensive record of the Black encounter with the Bible. p. 169

The emphasis on the Bible in evangelical circles spurred on the Black desire for literacy. Learning to read the Bible helped expand the world and imagination of slaves, making them more difficult to control. This led to attempts to limit Bible reading among slaves out of fear it might cause rebellion. Slave masters’ fear of the Bible must bear some indirect testimony to what the slave masters thought it said. Part of them knew that their exegetical conclusions could only be maintained if the enslaved were denied firsthand experience of the text. This is evidence to my mind that Bible reading was itself an act against despair and for hope. p. 170

Most Black writers from this period saw in the texts of the Old and New Testament a message calling for liberation from actual slavery. This call for the end of slavery did not mean that they neglected personal salvation from sin. This call for individual and societal transformation within the context of the historic confessions of Christianity is what I came to think of as the mainstream or at least a significant strand of the Black ecclesial tradition. p. 171

The witness of the traditional black church in the United States testifies to the power of the Gospel and the sufficiency of Scripture. Reading While Black is an excellent resource to better understand how the black church has utilized Scripture to make sense of the many joys and challenges of the African American experience. 

By / Feb 23

This year marks the ten year anniversary of the election of the Southern Baptist Convention’s first African American first vice president. Fred Luter would also go on to become the first African American elected president of the SBC in its 166-year history. “[Luter] would likely be a candidate for sainthood one day if he were a Catholic,” said David Crosby, pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans. During the SBC presidential nomination speech in 2012, Crosby described Luter as “the fire-breathing, miracle-working pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church.”

Here are five facts you should know about this historic SBC leader.

1. Luter was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1956. The middle child of five siblings, he was raised by his divorced mother in the city’s Lower 9th Ward. Although his mother made the family attend a Baptist church every Sunday, he drifted away from the faith while attending college at the University of New Orleans. But in 1977 he had what he calls his “Damascus road experience.” A serious motorcycle accident left him hospitalized with compound fractures and serious head injuries. While in the hospital he prayed, “God, if you save my life, I’ll serve you for the rest of my life.” Luter said that was when he felt called to go into pastoral ministry.

2. After recovering from his accident, Luter and a group of friends from church would spend their Saturdays preaching on the street corner of Galvez and Caffin Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward. “We had no training,” said Luter. “We were just really excited about what God was doing in our lives, and we wanted to share it with others. We got ridiculed a lot.” When he first began street preaching, Luter was working for a brokerage firm during the week. It took nearly six years before he would preach his first sermon in a church building, at New Orleans’ Law Street Baptist Church. Three years later, while preaching at the Greater Liberty Baptist Church, he learned of the opening at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. He applied for the position and was hired in 1986 to the church he would serve for the next 25 years.

3. When Luter took his first pastorate at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, the congregation consisted of 65 members—mostly women and children. “You could count the number of men on one hand,” he says. Believing that if “you save the man, the man would save his family,” he purposely sought unique ways to draw men to the church. For example, in 1989 Luter bought a pay-per-view TV boxing match between Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns and told the women in his church to invite every man they knew. Many of the 25 men who showed up weren’t aware they were coming to a pastor’s house, and were likely surprised when Luter invited them to come to church. “The boxing match was on a Friday night and the following Sunday five of those guys were at church,” Luter said. “The next Sunday there were more men.” This was part of Luter’s outreach strategy, which he refers to as “FRANgelism” (an acronym for Friends–Relatives–Associates–Neighbors). “Everybody needs to be a Missionary,” says Luter. “It’s about making the main thing the main thing, and that’s bringing people to Christ.”

4. Three years after becoming pastor at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, the congregation had grown to 300 members. By 2005, the church had grown by 2,233%, to more than 7,000 members. Then Hurricane Katrina struck, burying the church building under eight feet of water. The church members had to leave their homes and were scattered all over the country. Luter travelled around preaching in the cities where his members landed, resulting in new church plants in cities like Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Houston, Texas. In 2012, Luter said “losing half our members and having them be spread all over the country” was one of the biggest challenges he’s had to face as a pastor.

5. In 2011 Luter became the SBC’s first African American first vice president and in 2001 was the first African American to preach the convention sermon. He also served on the committee that proposed a revision of the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000. At the annual meeting in 2012, he was the only candidate on the ballot and became the first African American elected president of the SBC. Luter served two terms as SBC president. “A descendant of slaves elected to lead a denomination forged to protect the evil interests of slaveholders is a sign of the power of a gospel that crucifies injustice and reconciles brothers and sisters,” said ERLC president Russell Moore. “The election of Fred Luter doesn’t mean the question of racial justice is settled for Southern Baptists, but it is one small step toward our confessing that Jesus Christ and Jim Crow cannot exist in the same denomination, or in the same heart. One has got to go.”

By / Feb 10

“Daddy, he looks like me!” My young black son pointed to the only black basketball player on the court that night at my overwhelmingly white seminary. Even at a young age, he immediately felt represented by the one man on the court who shared his appearance. Without knowing it, my son was experiencing “representation.”

What is representation?

Representation can describe either the way different kinds of people are portrayed or the presence of someone who represents something about us. The way different kinds of people are portrayed is important, because it shapes both the perception and self-perception of their group. Similarly, the absence or presence of people like ourselves can send a powerful message about how we might be received in a group we’ve encountered.

It was good for my son to see a man who represented him on the court that night. But if he grows up seeing black men portrayed only as athletes or entertainers or criminals, he’s being told that athleticism or entertainment are requirements for his success… and that criminality is a way society might view his manhood. In the same way, if my black daughters grow up with only classic American dolls, they’re subtly learning that light peachy skin and straight blonde hair and baby blue eyes are the standard — a mono-cultural image they can never replicate, and one that discounts their own striking features.

If you want to understand representation, look no further than the outpouring of love, honor, and grief over the recent death of actor Chadwick Boseman, who became an international hero for people of African descent through his portrayal of King T’Challa in Black Panther. Playing an African king, Boseman displayed goodness, dignity, humility, and strength — especially when the world learned that he was silently battling cancer during the later stages of his rigorous career. Many testified that T’Challa represented blackness with nobility and honor, challenging many of the less noble portrayals of blackness in our world.

Always representing

It’s helpful to remember that we’re always representing and being represented. This isn’t wrong; it’s just reality. Because human beings are God’s image-bearers, we represent his rule in the world (Gen. 1:26–28). Adam represents humanity as our first father (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:21–22, 47–49). Children also represent their parents, employees represent their companies, athletes represent their teams, and bands represent their labels. When a pastoral scandal is exposed, I can’t pretend like it doesn’t relate to me. I’m a pastor, too, so I grieve over the deep pain of the survivors and the fresh shame on the profession.

Because of how we’re wired, we consistently portray both ourselves and others in specific ways, whether we realize it or not. I was once working with an all-white team on a missions event. We were looking for videos to communicate our message, and someone played an example. Its verbal message was biblical, but its visual message was disturbing: the people doing good were virtually all white, while those who were dirty, desperate, and hurting were all black and brown. In the world of this video, which exposed the worldview of its creators, one race does the saving, while all the others need saving. Black and brown people were nothing but the mission field, and apparently, whiteness was a sign of holistic health.

Even well-meaning Christian communities are not immune to internalized attitudes of racial superiority and inferiority. The implications are far-reaching if we’re willing to search our souls.

So why did I notice, and why did I care? Because I’ve had to do a lot of soul-searching over the years — a happy and humbling journey of discovery that will continue for the rest of my life.

A seat at the table

Many years ago, Cindi and I attended a traditional black church during our senior year of college. We were some of the only non-black believers there (I’m half-Japanese; she’s white). We were loved well, and gained some lifelong friends. But we also learned what it felt like to be different at church. Over time, our perspective kept widening as we adopted four African children, traveled to different countries, talked candidly with black friends, saw racial themes surging through Scripture, embraced racial matters as lifelong issues, and recently moved to a global city where we hope to live this out in community. God’s vision of a new humanity redeemed from all nations and gathered before his throne is now very personal to us (Gen. 12:3; Ps. 148:11–13; Dan. 7:14; Acts 2:5–11; Eph. 3:6; Rev. 5:9).

But the most practical reason why that missions video stood out to me is this: four beautiful black faces have a permanent seat at our table, so their perspectives and concerns are permanently represented in our hearts. As a family, we instinctively notice the ethnic makeup of every space we enter — a church, a school, a restaurant, even a video. We also notice how black and brown people are portrayed — especially when they’re denigrated. So after the video played, I was compelled to point out its biased portrayal of the kind of people who need the hope and help of Christ. I shared my perspective with our team, challenged us toward a more biblical worldview, and urged us to create promotional materials with a variety of people both hurting and helping.

Potential pitfalls

Cultivating appropriate representation is a worthy pursuit, but it’s not simple. The path is rocky, and there are pitfalls. For starters, it’s tempting to content ourselves with visual diversity alone. But welcoming someone’s color while sidelining their culture isn’t much of a welcome. Selfish or shallow pursuits of diversity can produce tokenism, where somehow all three black students at the small Christian school end up in the admissions brochure each year, without the school ever growing in its ethnic reach. Or the way photo selections from the mission field can expose that we’re more concerned about sharing our exploits than helping those in need. Tokenism exposes that we’re more concerned about perceived diversity than true community.

Even in a mixed community, we often settle for clumpy diversity, each of us magnetized to our own groups. Or we flatten people’s unique features by viewing them only as interchangeable symbols of their “kind.” Our passion for inclusion can even lead us to ignore or condemn certain groups simply for their demographic clout, falling into a second ditch as we flee the first.

Wisdom calls us away from seeking diversity for its own sake, a twisted path that always ends in some form of favoritism. Instead, our pursuits should follow the flow of God’s own redemptive storyline: his creation design, his Abrahamic promise, his reconciling gospel, his integrated church, his unifying Spirit, and his promise of a new risen humanity, international heirs of a new creation (Gen. 12:3; Ps. 96:1–3; Isa. 19:23–25; Rom. 15:5–7; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 2:14–16; 3:14; 4:1–6; Rev. 5:9–10). On these firm foundations, a diverse Christian community can rise, bonded with a shared faith and a common love.

Intentionality will always be required, because left to ourselves, most of us gravitate toward those we deem similar and easy. But intentionality must never become partiality, because Christ calls us to love all kinds of people. Along the way, we must stay thoughtful and reasonable, patiently considering the nuanced dynamics of each situation, the makeup of our own groups and communities, and the pointed guidance of God’s Spirit.

Representation in Scripture

On the surface, it’s easy to claim that biblical impartiality should make us blind to color, culture, and class, and if we’re consistent, gender and age, too. But Scripture tells a different story, a story filled with eye-opening concern for every kind of person. It’s true that every human being bears God’s image, making us equal in dignity, value, and purpose (Gen. 1:27; 5:1–2; 9:6). Yet our distinctions are often highlighted, not downplayed, to show God’s fatherly care for the full spectrum of humanity.

Abel, the first victim in the Bible, is clearly righteous, not tarnished (Gen. 4:3–10; Heb. 11:4). Rahab’s gutsy faith brings Israelite spies into her home and a Jericho prostitute into God’s family (Josh. 6:25; Heb. 11:31; Jas. 2:25). Mephibosheth, handicapped by a childhood accident, is sought out and restored by David as a representative of Saul’s fallen family (2 Sam. 9).

A nameless little slave girl introduces her Syrian captor Naaman to the healing ministry of Elisha (2 Kgs. 5:1–14). The same Syrian general is later used to illustrate God’s border-crossing grace (Luke 4:27). A Ninevite king bows before Jonah’s God in a citywide revival that angers the prejudiced prophet (Jonah 3:5–10; Matt. 12:41). Esther’s courageous representation in the Persian court keeps her adoptive father from execution and her Jewish people from genocide (Esth. 4:13–16).

The presence of Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary in Jesus’ genealogy is a symbol of God’s equalizing grace that includes abused, foreign, or culturally scandalized women in the messianic line (Matt. 1:1–17). Jesus’ own ministry to the marginalized shouts a joyful welcome to broken people of all kinds, and his magnetic ministry to children puts the littlest among us front and center (Matt. 4:23–24; 19:13–15).

The Gospels often highlight the rejected and powerless both to dignify them and to confront the proud and presumptuous (Mark 3:1–6; Luke 16:19–31; John 9). The paragon of virtue in Jesus’ most famous parable is a “half-breed” Samaritan, while a prominent priest and a pure Levite are condemned as cold-hearted contrasts (Luke 10:30–37). The Gospels also tell how Zacchaeus the tax collector is transformed, a Roman centurion is enlightened, and two Pharisees honor the crucified body of Jesus, so that even the rich can know that God can fit them through the needle’s eye (Matt. 19:23–24; Matt. 27:54; Luke 19:1–10; John 19:38–42).

As the gospel spreads, the terrorist Saul is dramatically saved on his way to persecute Christians so that no one can doubt God’s mercy (1 Tim. 1:12–16). The Jewish Paul then takes on apprentices like Timothy and Titus as he plants racially mixed churches throughout the Gentile world (Acts 16:3; Gal. 2:3). When God’s kingdom dawns in Philippi, it liberates a high-end fashion dealer, a demonized slave girl, and a Roman jailer who is likely a military veteran (Acts 16:11–40). And when Paul writes to the Roman church, he goes to great lengths to greet his wildly diverse network, a mosaic of ethnicities and personalities showing off the gospel’s reconciling grace surging through the empire’s capital city (Rom. 16:1–16).

Whether male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek, rich or poor, civilian or soldier, powerful or powerless, prince or prodigal, every kind of person is represented in the redeemed church of Jesus Christ. Keeping in step with the Spirit’s work, Christian movements should humbly desire the same dynamic.

Inclusion and influence

For those on the fringes, being represented signals two main possibilities. The first is inclusion. When a Chinese man walks into an American church and sees people from his culture already present, belonging looks possible. When an elderly woman sees grey hair on the worship team, she can feel the possibility of participating. When the youth group sees a fellow teenager baptized, they can sense that grace and change are possible for someone their age. Representation embodies the possibility of belonging, participating, and being included.

But inclusion alone is not enough. Representation is needed at a higher level — the level of influence. All believers are a “holy priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:5). In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free (Gal. 3:28). And the body of Christ needs every part fully operational in order to mature (Eph. 4:15–16). Therefore, a healthy church or organization will always be identifying and removing barriers to biblical forms of influence.

We can start by initiating conversations and hearing people’s perspectives. If we don’t pursue that family with special needs, who will tell us how our ignorance might be keeping them from full participation? If the elderly have no voice in our churches, who will let us know when we’ve skewed so contemporary that we’re unhinged from our own heritage? If a multiethnic group is led by monoethnic leadership, who will point out cultural idols, blind spots, missteps, needs, and opportunities? Most importantly, if our churches and movements and organizations remain homogenous, how will we make up for all the virtue, knowledge, talent, experience, and vision that our varied brothers and sisters are ready to bring to the table?

A masterclass

In Acts 6, when the gospel is spreading and the church is becoming more diverse, racial tensions ignite. The Greek-culture Christians lodge a legitimate complaint because their widows aren’t being cared for like the Jewish-culture widows (Acts 6:1). The church’s response is a masterclass in humble, strategic, unified representation. The apostles admit there’s a problem, they involve the whole church, and the church appoints seven Spirit-filled leaders to expand the care ministry across racial lines (Acts 6:2–3). Strikingly, all seven appointees have Greek names (Acts 6:5).

The Jerusalem church recognized that Hellenistic believers would be most effective at serving the widows from their own culture. Racial inequity was acknowledged, a homogenous team was diversified, “and the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (Acts 6:7).

Leaders who learn

Our family once toured a Christian school that was almost exclusively white. We asked about racial diversity, but rather than recognizing its absence, the principal emphasized their handful of black students — by name. She had fallen into a common trap that sees token representation as meaningful diversity. We would’ve been more encouraged if she’d acknowledged the lack of representation and explained how her team would be thoughtful learners and leaders. Yet this same administrator would later disallow our black daughter from having a typical black hairstyle because of a monocultural policy ignorant about the intricacies of black hair. We appealed as winsomely as we could, but it didn’t matter. Only one kind of accessory was allowed: “Just put a ribbon in it like all the other girls!” she told my wife. Black women everywhere know how naïve this sounds. But there was no one else to help this leader see what she didn’t know — or to help her team reevaluate the deeper assumptions keeping their school an ethnocentric community.

In contrast, I have a black friend who took an internship at a white church. The dress code for the program would have required that he purchase a whole new wardrobe—because the “equivalent” dress in his culture was unacceptable. Thankfully, he was courageous enough to speak up, and the leaders were humble enough to hear his perspective. They adjusted their culture-bound requirements — and no doubt grew in their own perspective. Later, my friend told me he would often wear his jeans and Timberlands to church, not out of disrespect, but to show any visitors from his culture that they too could belong.

As a pastor, I want to be a leader who listens. I want to know when people are being left out. An empty-nester recently told me that one of his adult sons said he wouldn’t fit at our church because he has a big beard and tattoos. I’d like to think he’d be welcomed, but there’s a reason he feels like an outsider, so I’ve kept his comments in mind. 

I was recently talking with a Japanese family new to the States and growing in their English. They were attending a Christian church — our church — for only the second time in their lives. As I talked with them after the service, I wondered: Had I preached clearly enough for them to understand? Was I thinking about people like them in our international city? Or had I gotten caught up in the moment, maximizing my vocabulary to engage only a certain kind of person here in west Houston? There’s always a balance, but had I considered second-language souls like this new couple when calibrating my approach? In the global city where I serve, I should.

Jesus our representative

As God’s divine Son, Jesus represents God to us, and as our human high priest, he represents us before God (John 1:18; Heb. 1:3; 2:14–15). To represent us, “he had to be like his brothers and sisters in every way” (Heb. 2:17).

When we look to Jesus, from incarnation to ascension, we see a full human being. Jesus is human, like us, but lived righteously. Jesus was tempted, like us, but never sinned (Heb. 4:15). Now that we’re united with him by faith, we share in all that belongs to him: his righteousness, his sonship, his ministry, his family, and his future.

The message is clear: Our salvation and service, our redemption and participation, our inclusion and influence, are all possible not only because Christ is God, but because he came as the God-man — because, in my little boy’s words, “He looks like me!”