Churches and the Legacy of Racism: A Tale of Two Congregations

Interior_of_St._Pauls_Episcopal_Church_Richmond_VA_2013_8759347988-e1443705658980

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

Back in June, I wrote a post about the 150th anniversary of the founding of First Baptist Church in Dallas, the congregation led by court evangelical Robert Jeffress.  In that post I referenced Tobin Grant’s 2016 Religion News Service piece on the long history of racial segregation at First Baptist. Daniel Silliman’s piece at Religion Dispatches is also worth a look.

Here is the 150th anniversary video that the congregation has been promoting:

A few comments:

  1.  The narrative revolves around three authoritarian clergymen:  George Truett, W.A. Criswell, and Robert Jeffress.
  2. It says nothing about the fact that the Southern Baptist Church was formed because southern Baptists defended slavery and white supremacy.
  3. It says nothing about Truett’s and Criswell’s commitment to racial segregation and Jim Crow.
  4. It does include an image of Robert Jeffress with Donald Trump.  Let’s remember that Jeffress defended Trump last year after the POTUS equated white supremacists and those protesting against white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Rather than taking a hard look at its past, First Baptist-Dallas has whitewashed it.

I thought about this June 2018 post a couple of weeks ago when I had the privilege of teaching the Adult Faith Formation class at St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond, Virginia.  St. Paul’s occupies and amazing building in the heart of Richmond.  It is located across the street from the Virginia State Capitol and adjacent to the Virginia Supreme Court.  The church was founded in 1844.

During the Civil War, when Richmond served as the Confederate capital, both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis worshiped at St. Paul’s.   After the war, the church used its windows to tell the story of the Lost Cause.  It is often described as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”

But unlike First Baptist-Dallas, St. Paul’s decided to come to grips with its racist past.  In 2015, the church began its “History and Reconciliation Initiative” (HRI) with the goal of tracing and acknowledging the racial history of the congregation in order to “repair, restore, and seek reconciliation with God each other and the broader community.”  I encourage you to visit the HRI website to read more about the way St. Paul’s is trying to come to grips with the darker sides of its past.

Public historian Christopher Graham, who co-chairs the HRI when he is not curating an exhibit at The American Civil War Museum, invited me to Richmond to speak.  He is doing some amazing work at the intersection of public history and religion.

When I think about St. Paul’s, I am reminded of Jurgen Moltmann’s call to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”  It is also refreshing to see the words “repair” and “restore” used in conjunction with the word “reconciliation” instead of “Christian America.”

Southern Baptists, and American evangelicals more broadly, may immediately conclude that they have little in common theologically with St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond and can thus dismiss the congregation’s history-related efforts as just another social justice project propagated by theological liberals.  But this would be a shame.  They can learn a lot from this congregation about how to take a deep and honest look into the mirror of the past.

One thought on “Churches and the Legacy of Racism: A Tale of Two Congregations

  1. During the Civil War, when Richmond served as the Confederate capital, both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis worshiped at St. Paul’s. After the war, the church used its windows to tell the story of the Lost Cause. It is often described as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”

    Yes, that is part of St Paul’s history.
    Part of American history.

    And as for the Story of the Lost Cause, given the situation at the end of the war it may have been the best that could be done at that place and time. Sometimes there is no good solution, and the best you can do is the least bad of a bunch of bad alternatives.

    Professor Fea, are you familiar with Harry Turtledove’s standalone SF novel Guns of the South? A cross between time travel, alternate history, and historical novel, it tells the story of an alternate-history Civil War where uptime South African neo-Nazis open a portal downtime to supply and influence the CSA to win the war, primarily told from the POVs of General Lee (later President Lee) and a schoolteacher-turned-sergeant from North Carolina.

    One of the themes is the contrast between the downtime Confederates (who come across as decent people with a big blind spot) and the AWB uptimers (especially with the war over when the uptimers start throwing their weight around); as George Orwell wrote about Rudyard Kipling, “The 19th Century Imperialist mentality and the 20th Century Gangster mentality are two very different things.”

    Like

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