The Color of Incomplete History: A Review Article

The story of the American church’s struggle with racism is a multi-faceted painful story and it needs to be told in its fullness as much as possible.

A critical part of writing sound history is citing evidence of contrary perspectives from the era under review for an objective telling of the story. A complete history will acknowledge both the evil and the good. Historian Douglas Sweeney offers a balanced appraisal of evangelical history on race relations: “… despite such undeniable moral failure, God has used evangelicals to promote the gospel of grace among literally millions of African Americans. Ever since the Great Awakening, white evangelicals have engaged in Christian outreach to black people – never adequately but faithfully and consistently.”

 

Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019. 215 pages. $21.99, cloth.

Given the contentious nature of discussions about race in our culture, I would like to begin this review article with a brief personal note. As a church historian, professional integrity requires that I always attempt to be as objective as possible in telling the story of the Church. Historians must candidly admit that no one is ever completely unbiased in interpreting historical texts as hard as one tries to get it right. This means that interpretations of the past must be offered in humility, recognizing that it’s always possible that one has missed an important angle that a new scholar may uncover. History is an abyss, and no one will ever know it all, thus new generations of historians will always be necessary for the Church! Another observation: Church history is full of the good, the bad and the ugly, and we don’t do anyone a favor by trying to hide any of it if historical honesty counts. The story of the American church’s struggle with racism is a multi-faceted painful story and it needs to be told in its fullness as much as possible. It’s important to remember that appropriating historical materials for theological, ideological or political purposes is tricky business. Utmost caution is necessary, lest one succumb to molding historical narratives to fit one’s predisposition despite contrary evidence. If at any point, the reader thinks my review of Jemar Tisby’s book is unfair, please do your own investigation into the primary sources. With these qualifications in mind, let me proceed to give you my take on this significant book.

The Color of Compromise attempts to paint a picture of white Christian recalcitrant race-based oppression of blacks over four centuries of America history. According to Tisby’s narrative, this oppression has been perpetuated primarily because WCs (my abbreviation for white Christians, i.e. those in power) have consistently been indifferent to the plight of blacks. The book’s thesis is that racism doesn’t go away it adapts, thus despite significant progress, “racism continues to plague the church” (15). American WCs have encouraged white supremacy “which identifies white people and white culture as normal and superior” (16). But, this white supremacy “was not inevitable” and WCs in the past could have chosen not to compromise with racism. Tisby is convinced WCs have not recognized “their failures and inconsistencies,” preferring to pass over the past to a “triumphalist view of American Christianity” which accentuates victories in race relations. To correct this, the book will provide a true history that “contradicts much of what you have been taught since childhood.” The author partially reveals his hand when he admits that one hopeful outcome for the book is to show “alternatives to political conservatism as the only Christian way” (21).

Before Tisby launches into his historical survey of WC racism, he issues a disclaimer acknowledging a “high degree of selectivity” (18) in the historical episodes discussed. Indeed his historical account accentuates the actors/events that substantiate his picture of WC complicity in racism, but he concedes, “Whenever there has been racial injustice, there have been Christians who fought against it in the name of Jesus Christ. Christianity has an inspiring history of working for racial equality and the dignity of all people, a history that should never be overlooked” (19). This side of the story gets almost no coverage throughout the book, but giving a full account of the history of white/black relations in U.S. history was not his purpose in writing the book. The chief end of the survey is to demonstrate WC unrepentant complicity with racism in America. The ultimate goal of the book, says Tisby, is more empathy for black pain, urging Christians to pray for racial reconciliation as a “reality we must receive” as believers, and a call for immediate action to “work for justice” and embrace “racial and ethnic diversity” (24).

The history chapters begin with the colonial period, arguing that a “racial caste system” was constructed in America as black heathen were captured and shipped to the New World. Blacks had captured and sold one another in Africa, and free blacks in the colonies would buy slaves, but it was the European slavers who bought or kidnapped Africans, shipping them across the Atlantic under inhumane conditions. The brutality of the middle passage has been well documented in American history books, museums, films, etc., throughout the twentieth century and thus is familiar territory, but an American story that must always be told. No one would question the barbarity of the trans-Atlantic slave trade which is the fundamental evil of African enslavement. Tisby underscores how colonists compromised by accommodating their faith to chattel slavery in the New World. He criticizes Awakening preachers Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield (both slave owners), who criticized the slave trade, and cruel treatment of blacks, but compromised with racism by permitting slavery to continue. It’s a fair judgment to see them as typical of WC slave owners of this era, who tried to ameliorate slave conditions and preach the gospel to them, but were not advocates of abolition. Tisby claims that slaves were taught a paternalistic version of the faith identified with whiteness and superior European culture. Using a twenty-first century category of “white privilege” to evaluate eighteenth century. WCs is a dubious allegation against persons who would not comprehend this classification in any meaningful way.

According to Tisby’s account, some WCs resisted slave evangelism because they worried that converted slaves would next want their freedom. And those who evangelized the slaves did so in hopes of making them more obedient. This is not what one finds in the writings of those who actually preached to the slaves. Their message focused on the good news of salvation, obedience to masters was considered a byproduct, not the purpose of evangelism. Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies baptized 200 blacks during his ministry, and always considered them his equals before the Lord. He wrote, “as to the affairs of religion and eternity, all men stand upon the same footing” with immortal souls in need of salvation. Christ gave himself for the Africans: “Did he live and die to save poor Negroes? And shall not we use all the Means in our Power, to make them Partakers of this Salvation?” Masters negligent in this duty to slaves, sin and have blood on their hands: “Do not let them sink into Hell from between your hands, for want of a little pains to instruct them. I hope you would by no means exercise barbarities upon their bodies; and will you be so barbarous, as to suffer their precious never-dying souls to perish forever; when thro’ the divine blessing, you might be the means of saving them? Sure you are not capable of such inhuman cruelty.”[1]

When discussing the American Revolution, the author highlights how the U.S. Constitution tolerated slavery, and the founding fathers owned slaves, yet there is no mention of WC writers who adamantly insisted that a declaration of “all men are created equal” was an indictment of slavery. For example Dr. Benjamin Rush, who signed the Declaration of Independence, deplored the wickedness of the slave trade which had stolen the Africans from their kindred, and caused thousands to die by sickness and suicide in the voyages to America. In 1773 Rush wrote, “Slavery is a Hydra sin, and includes in it every violation of the precepts of the Law and Gospel.” Those who attempt to “vindicate the traffic of buying and selling of slaves … to sanctify their crimes by attempting to reconcile it to the sublime and perfect Religion of the Great Author of salvation,” should seek some new religion to support it. How shall this evil be remedied? Rush calls for stopping the importation of slaves, and “Let such of our countrymen as engage in the slave trade, be shunned as the greatest enemies of our country.” Clergy who know all men are immortal and equal, must take opportunities “to put a stop to slavery … declaring what punishment awaits this evil … that it cannot pass with impunity, unless God shall cease to be just or merciful.”[2] In 1774 Rush helped establish the first American abolition society, the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage and for Improving the Condition of the African Race.

Tisby recounts the important story of the first permanent black denomination in America, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and its founder Richard Allen of Philadelphia. After coming to faith, Allen began preaching on his plantation and in Methodist churches, many were converted under his ministry, including his master. Purchasing his freedom, he was licensed to preach, and began an itinerant ministry. Returning to Philadelphia he joined St. George’s Methodist Church, and was instrumental in many blacks joining the church. The white leadership insisted on segregation during Sunday services which led to an exodus of black members who eventually founded the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794. The author uses Allen’s story to affirm his assertion, “there would be no black church without racism in the white church” (52). The sad failure of WCs to treat blacks as equals was the catalyst for departure, but Tisby’s account omits a significant detail in Allen’s story. Absent is the role of American Methodist bishop Francis Asbury (a lifelong friend of Benjamin Rush) and his helping blacks establish their own denomination. Asbury despised slavery, petitioned George Washington to enact antislavery legislation, and it was Asbury who had dedicated Bethel Church in 1794 and ordained Allen as a Methodist deacon in 1799. Allen served as the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church when the denomination became independent in 1816.

The United States did outlaw the Atlantic slave trade in 1808, a tacit admission that American slavery had been evil from the beginning. Many WCs were onboard with this viewpoint. The Presbyterian General Assembly (“with entire unanimity”), issued a strong anti-slavery statement in 1818, calling for the abolition of slavery: “We consider the voluntary enslaving of one part of the human race by another, as a gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature; as utterly inconsistent with the laws of God, which requires us to love our neighbour as ourselves, and as totally irreconcilable with the spirit and principles of the gospel of Christ … it is manifestly the duty of all Christians who enjoy the light of the present day, when the inconsistency of slavery, both with the dictates of humanity and religion, has been demonstrated, and is generally acknowledged, to use their honest, earnest, and unwearied endeavours to correct the errors of former times, and as speedily as possible to efface this blot upon our holy religion, and to obtain the complete abolition of slavery throughout Christendom, and if possible throughout the world.”[3]

  1. Samuel Davies, The Duty of Christians to propagate their Religion among Heathens, Earnestly recommended to the Masters of Negro Slaves in Virginia. A Sermon Preached in Hanover, January 8, 1757 (London: J. Oliver, 1757), 18-27. 
  2. Benjamin Rush, An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements on the Slavery of Negoes in America, Second Edition (Philadelphia: John Dunlap, 1773), 13-26. 
  3. For full text of the 1818 statement see Albert Barnes, The Church and Slavery (Philadelphia: Parry & McMillan, 1857), 54-56. 

Read More