Journal of Southern Religion


Mark Newman. Getting Right with God: Southern Baptists and Desegregation, 1945-1995. Religion and American Culture Series. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2001. xii+292 pages. Reviewed by David T. Moon, Jr., Georgia State University, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has certainly not removed itself from controversy in the past decade, especially concerning opposition to female leadership within the SBC, homosexuality, and moderates whose viewpoints contest the majority's fundamentalist viewpoint. Mark Newman, a lecturer at the University of Derby in the United Kingdom, details the various attitudes and roles of the SBC and its leadership in the desegregation of public places, transportation, and educational institutions in the South in the fifty years after World War II. Primarily through SBC and state convention proceedings, various SBC agency records, and state Baptist periodicals, Newman builds upon the past scholarship of historians John Lee Eighmy, Rufus B. Spain, Paul Harvey, and Charles Reagan Wilson. Newman recounts how the SBC and affiliated churches began the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century supporting de jure segregation and Jim Crow. The SBC--and other white Protestant denominations--originally reinforced southern conceptions of white supremacy, African-American inferiority, and white fear of miscegenation. That Baptists, according to Newman, have always advocated that law and order functioned to reinforce the SBC's opinions on de jure segregation. Newman utilizes historiography and sociology in this study that will be of interest to a variety of fields, particularly history, religion, sociology, and anthropology.

Around 1945 and throughout the 1950s and 1960s, a majority of Southern Baptists started to reassess the race situation in the South (Newman looks at the eleven states formerly part of the Confederacy). Though some Americans began questioning treatment of African Americans particularly in light of the atrocities of Nazi Germany toward Jews, Newman attributes the SBC's about-face to American society's increasing rejection of de jure segregation, the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, pressure from the growing civil rights movement, and the incompatibility of segregation and Jim Crow with the SBC's "primary commitments" to "evangelism, law and order, and public education" (p. 1).


"Though Newman's findings are significant and the breadth of his research is impressive, the use of more local church records would increase the value of this study. "

Newman asserts that although hard-line segregationists strongly embraced de jure segregation, most Baptists were actually moderates or progressives who were unwilling to sacrifice the SBC's primary commitments. Evangelism was stressed by Christ's Great Commission from Matthew 28:19-20 to preach to all people. Support of segregation in the South broadcasted across the world undermined the SBC's missionaries in non-white countries. Baptists also noted that the Bible explicitly instructed Christians to maintain social peace and respect law and order. Support of segregation after 1954 defied federal law. Moderate segregationists were likewise reluctant to disrupt public education, believing it "essential for producing an educated citizenry that could read and understand biblical teachings . . . [and] for the maintenance of a democratic and free society, conditions under which, they believed, Christianity prospered" (p. 21). Support of segregation threatened to shut down the public school systems in many southern states. Moderates also came to conclude that the Bible did not advocate segregation as the successor of slavery as many hard-line Southern Baptist segregationists maintained. Adding the factors together, many in the SBC identified enforced segregation and defense of it through nullification, interposition, church establishment of private schools, and mob violence as unchristian.

The integration of the sociological theories of Ernst Troeltsch, Emile Durkheim, Charles Y. Glock, Rodney Stark, Peter L. Berger, Ernest Q. Campbell, and Thomas F. Pettigrew into the discussion elevates Newman's thesis. That the attitude of the South's dominant religious body toward African Americans changed over time is associated with views of the interactions between religion and society. Southern Baptists advocated the preservation of segregation until it clashed with their commitments. Religion sometimes influences society and vice versa, but Newman argues that the sociological concept of privatization of religion meant that individual members were not entitled to accept the dictates of denominational leadership or ministers in support of civil rights, making many ministers hesitant to voice that support. SBC leaders experienced a weighty struggle in shifting the attitudes of Southern Baptists away from approval of segregation. Newman describes "[o]ne of the first tasks progressives faced in trying to prepare Baptists to accept racial change was to wean a substantial group of them away from their belief that racial segregation was not just a preferable social arrangement but one that God had originated" (p. 47). Newman divided this evolutionary period into three stages. From 1945 to 1953, progressives urged white southerners to practice separate-but-equal forthrightly concerning education, employment, and voting rights as mandated by Plessy v. Ferguson and the post-Civil War Constitution. From 1954 to 1963, progressives stressed obedience to the Brown decision. Finally, from 1964 on, progressives emphasized and supported the Civil Rights Act and integration.

Though Newman's findings are significant and the breadth of his research is impressive, the use of more local church records would increase the value of this study. Newman does assert, however, that Baptist congregationalism enabled the opinions of individual members to be mirrored in sermons and publications (p. vii). Newman investigates certain lay organizations such as the Brotherhood, Woman's Missionary Union, and the Baptist Student Union in determining a broader scale of individual sentiment. Nevertheless difficulty arises in any attempt to paint a broad portrait of Southern Baptists and the SBC's opinion on desegregation, or any topic for that matter, because each local church is considered an independent, congregational body. Furthermore, Newman does not fail in relating the SBC on the whole with other white American denominations, insisting that "by the early 1970s, its positions on race appeared increasingly closer to those of mainstream national white opinion" (p. 190).

In relation, the final chapter examining the period between 1972 and 1995 seems to suggest that perhaps as Southern Baptists' attitudes on de jure segregation modified with a change of the law and standards of society, so too might its position of antagonism toward other groups. By the 1980s, Southern Baptists were constituting African-American churches and some long-established African-American churches were joining the SBC. Although many Southern Baptists were involved in "white flight" from the cities into the suburbs partly because of opposition to desegregation, Newman's fascinating study demonstrates that the SBC is an organization capable of change--albeit a slowly--as manifested by the "Declaration of Repentance" passed in 1995 apologizing for Southern Baptists' defense of slavery 150 years after the creation of the SBC.

David T. Moon, Jr., Georgia State University

 

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