African American Christians And Fundamentalism

An interview with Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews about her new book Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars.

But for African American Baptists and Methodists between the wars, there was a single theological objection to dispensationalism—it was, in their opinion, a newfangled and contrived way of reading the Bible. In this respect, they were more traditional than the white fundamentalists who claimed to only read their Bibles in traditional ways. For them, a recent (within the last 50 years) method of interpreting scripture which required alternative meanings beyond the traditional literal and allegorical was a wrong-headed practice.


Today I am interviewing Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews about her new book Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the WarsDr. Mathews is Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Mary Washington.

[TK] In the early twentieth century, white Protestants engaged in a theological war known as the “Fundamentalist-Modernist conflict. “ Instead of clearly aligning with either faction, however, you say that African Americans “created their own traditionalist conservative evangelicalism.” What were the chief characteristics of that kind of black evangelical Christianity?

[MBSM] White fundamentalists framed the conflict they had with modernists in an all-or-nothing way. If you, for example, denied the Virgin Birth or read the Bible as a literary remnant of a long past group of believers, then you had departed the Christian fold. White fundamentalists tended to believe that only people who embraced fundamentalist doctrines were Christians..

African American evangelicals rejected this all-or-nothing approach, even as they issued their own ultimatum—that to be a Christian, one had to treat all people as equals. They had no quarrel with, say, conservative white evangelicals’ rejection of modernism’s embrace of historical criticism, nor did they wish to see black Christians drinking, dancing, or gambling. But they insisted that a strict reading of the Bible, especially the New Testament, would produce an ecclesiology that taught that only those individuals who preached love and equality could truly claim the mantle of Jesus.

Why did most African American Baptists and Methodists keep the fundamentalist movement at arm’s length, even as they construed theological modernism as a “white” phenomenon?

It was not so much that African American evangelicals kept the “fundamentalist movement at arm’s length” as it was that the white fundamentalists never invited them to the table. White fundamentalists constructed a theological world in which the norms for everything were white: white leadership, white biblical interpretation, white organization, and so on. White fundamentalists explicitly believed that African Americans were incapable of making a meaningful contribution to the discussion. Instead, white fundamentalists thought that African Americans as a whole were so impressionable and easily misled that it was white Protestants’ job to protect black Christians from theological harm. The marginalization of African American preachers meant that, even if they had wanted to join with the fundamentalists, they could never be a full-fledged part of the movement.

And most of the writers I studied rejected premillennial dispensationalism.

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