Church leaders defending white supremacy and the Neo-Confederacy. Compromise and betrayal behind closed doors. These are not trappings of a Hollywood story, but elements of real-life drama that sent the Rev. Jeff Hutchinson spiraling into the darkest and lowest point of his ministry career.
“Everyone in my world—my family, my friends all were giving their thumbs up to this idea that I was being prepared to be a pastor,” Hutchinson told me over the phone. We had been discussing his shocking personal encounter with racism in his denomination over a decade ago.
Hutchinson was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and now serves as a pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in New Haven, Connecticut. A husband and father to three young adults, Hutchinson has spent the last 25 years working as a campus minister and pastor in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.
Shortly after serving in the Navy, he felt a call to the ministry and decided to take the next steps toward ordination in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
The PCA is one of the largest conservative Evangelical denominations in the United States with an estimated membership of more than 383,000 as of 2019. The denomination was founded in 1973 when it split from the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). Although the fledgling denomination was intended to be a preservation of theological conservatism, history shows a more muddled past. As Dr. Sean Michael Lucas, a professor of church history at Reformed Theological Seminary, states in his account of the PCA’s history:
“From the beginning, southern Presbyterian conservatives articulated right-wing social and political views that would shape the founding of the denomination and continue to characterize the vast majority of ministers and laypeople… these conservatives articulated a religiously inspired version of conservative political ideology: anticommunism, anti-integration, and anticentralization.”
In fact, it was not until 2016 that the PCA voted to repent of the sin of racism that had cast a long shadow over its founding to the present. And it was only in 2017 that the PCA elected its first non-White moderator of the highest court of the denomination, the General Assembly, and its first Black moderator the following year.
Preceding these efforts to make the denomination look and feel more racially inclusive was what at least one expert has described as an “unprecedented” event: a PCA pastor decided to openly challenge a church member’s alleged racist views. However, this was not just any church member. The offender in question was an elder who not only espoused white supremacist views, but also had allegedly been in a position of authority at a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) years before joining this church.
The fallout from this revealing affair lasted years.
It was this catalytic ordeal that finally opened Hutchinson’s eyes to the very real presence of racism in his denomination. A latecomer to the PCA, he had remained entirely unaware of its racially-fraught history until he was about halfway through his studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.
“My best friend in seminary just over lunch one day said that two of his uncles were Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) ministers and both of them gently attacked him for joining the PCA because the PCA was founded by racists,” Hutchinson said. “He just laughed it off. We both laughed it off. I just didn’t know the history. I just thought that must be slander. It must be the liberals wanting to justify that they were glad that the PCA left anyways.”
Hutchinson learned just how wrong he was several years later during a 2008 pastor’s meeting in North Carolina.
A Fateful Prayer Request
In the middle of that monthly gathering, the Rev. Craig Bulkeley, pastor of Friendship Presbyterian Church in Black Mountain, North Carolina, requested that the other pastors pray for him due to a recent decision he had made.
Bulkeley revealed that he had asked one of his church elders to step down due to racist statements this elder had been making publicly. This elder, Neill Payne, and his brother-in-law, Kirk Lyons, had both moved to the Black Mountain area after a long history of deep involvement with white supremacist organizations in Idaho and Texas. To this day, Payne and Lyons remain under investigation by the Southern Poverty Law Center for their connections to hate groups.
“Not to be sensationalistic, but the facts are the facts,” Hutchinson said as he recounted Payne’s background. “[Payne] had been the ‘grand poobah’ of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in a chapter in Houston, Texas, and had been one of the ones who had conducted paramilitary training for KKK members, including the techniques of how to burn boats, particularly, Vietnamese fishermen’s boats in Galveston, Texas.”
Upon hearing Bulkeley’s request for prayer, Hutchinson believed that it would be a cut-and-dried case. Yet, in response to Bulkeley’s request for Payne to step down as an elder, the man and his brother-in-law quickly put a retaliatory petition before the small, family church to instead strip Bulkeley of his role as pastor.
By the skin of his teeth—just one vote—Bulkeley was able to keep his position. In a surprising turn of events, the congregation instead voted to remove all three elders—including Payne—from their positions.
White Supremacists Find Refuge
Due to the nature of Presbyterian polity, particular church congregations are able to request assistance from higher courts composed of elders and ministers within the denomination. In response to a request from Friendship for assistance regarding the removal of Payne, the Western Carolina Presbytery (the church’s governing body) appointed a commission of six pastors and elders to assess whether there was justification for the men’s removal.
I just couldn’t believe it! I had been living with and ministering with and serving on committees with and worshipping with and exchanging pulpits with men in the presbytery that thought that this white supremacy was an area of Christian liberty.
I spoke with Bulkeley, the former pastor of Friendship, at length over the phone about his recollection of the events. At the time, Bulkeley had been unaware of the depths of the connections Friendship’s ruling elder had with white supremacist ideologies and groups. Yet, he was convinced that the presbytery would make the right decision simply based on what he thought were the clear teachings of Scripture about the image of God, the universal nature of sin, and the equalizing work of redemption in Christ.
But instead, “the presbytery made its fateful, vile, and wicked decisions to defend the white supremacists,” Hutchinson said. “That’s when my eyes got opened up. I just couldn’t believe it! I had been living with and ministering with and serving on committees with and worshipping with and exchanging pulpits with men in the presbytery that thought that this white supremacy was an area of Christian liberty. I just couldn’t believe it.”
As a church officer of the Western Carolina Presbytery, Hutchinson had equal voting authority with other church officers to make decisions brought before the body.
However, Hutchinson was more surprised by his fellow churchmen in the presbytery’s defense of white supremacists than the views of the white supremacists themselves.
“[…] The one key person in the presbytery that gave all his time and energy to defend the white supremacists and all their positions was a pastor who had been one of my best friends in the ministry.”
Instead of swift removals, as Hutchinson had expected, the presbytery’s committee came back with heartbreaking recommendations.
“The breakdown of some of the deepest friendships I had ever had in my life began to happen through all of this,” he said. “My associate pastors were two of my best friends in the whole world. And then things just disintegrated between us. The one key person in the presbytery that gave all his time and energy to defend the white supremacists and all their positions was a pastor who had been one of my best friends in the ministry.”
The committee ultimately decided that the real cause of conflict was not Payne’s white supremacist views, but that Bulkeley had made his disagreements with Payne public. As recorded in the minutes of the presbytery meeting, the committee believed that Payne had not sinned by virtue of the views he held but only by the manner with which he held these views. He was simply too argumentative and pushy, they claimed. Lastly, easily the worst of the recommendations, the committee argued that Payne was free to believe and propagate his white supremacist views because the Bible did not clearly refute the idea that Black people were created inferior to White people. As J. Daniel Hays writes, this idea of the inferiority of Black people centers around a teaching called “The Curse of Ham” that gained prominence before the Civil War.
Confronting Powers and Principalities
Hutchinson joined the embattled Bulkeley in voicing multiple complaints to the presbytery to reconsider their decision regarding Payne and his views. But Hutchinson found himself in the crosshairs for daring to challenge racist ideologies.
“I just kept thinking about that phrase in Ephesians (6:12), ‘principalities and powers.’ There’s just something strange going on here. There’s something bizarre going on here. There’s something spiritual and demonic. There’s demonic oppression,” Hutchinson said, reflecting not only on the stunning “defense of the indefensible,” but also on witnessing one man’s powerful sway over the denomination.
“Morton Smith was the first stated clerk of the PCA. He was the one that these white supremacists reached out to when Craig [Bulkeley] told Payne to resign. Later, Morton got himself really involved giving theological cover saying things like, ‘Well, there is the Curse of Ham and that’s a view that has a pedigree in Presbyterianism.'”
The “Curse of Ham” is a heretical teaching held by some southern Presbyterians who argue that God eternally cursed people of African descent to a state of inferiority. It was created in order to give biblical support to the practice of chattel slavery.
As one of the founders of the PCA, Smith was deeply embedded in the inner workings of the denomination, despite his publicly held views on racial segregation.
During the case, Smith repeatedly argued before the presbytery that “it did not damage the church and Christ’s reputation for an elder in the church to teach that God has created the races in different gradations of intelligence.” Rather, Smith insisted, what harmed the church and its reputation was daring to oppose that teaching. In fact, on occasion, Smith argued that if the PCA were to follow Hutchinson’s route of condemning racist teachings, “it will cause the liberalization of the PCA.” Smith’s suggestion that the PCA was in danger of wading into the liberal waters of its estranged PCUS brethren had powerful rhetorical sway with denominational leaders, who had a deep aversion to anything that could be perceived as theological progressivism.
Final Ruling, But Not the End
In November 2008, the presbytery met again, and despite all odds, the body of pastors and elders sustained one of Hutchinson and Bulkeley’s complaints, thereby reversing their previous ruling regarding Payne and his views.
To complicate matters even further, in June 2009, the 24-member Standing Judicial Committee (SJC) of the General Assembly, the highest court of the PCA with nearly 2,000 of the denomination’s pastors and elders in attendance, ruled that the presbytery had erred in finding Payne guilty of the sin of racism because of a lack of due process—a technicality. In response, the presbytery created a committee to meet privately with Payne to convince him that he was, in fact, guilty of the sin of racism. Instead of attending the meeting, Payne decided to leave Friendship and requested removal from the church’s membership rolls.
In a phone interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report in 2010, Lyons continued to contend that both he and Payne had been falsely accused of racism.
“White supremacism [sic], racism, has absolutely nothing to do with the issues. Anything else is a falsehood and a defamation and an excuse,” he told the organization.
In a sense, Payne’s ultimate removal and subsequent denominational statements of repentance are signs of progress in the denomination, especially given the PCA’s history. Yet, that optimism is tempered by the sobering fact that the events that transpired during Hutchinson’s tenure were only over a decade ago.
At the time, church leaders representing one of the nation’s largest and oldest conservative Evangelical denominations agreed that it was not only OK for a church elder to hold white supremacist views, but that the Bible posed no disagreement with those views.
More recently and relatedly, the son of an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), a sister denomination of the PCA, emerged as a mass shooter. John T. Earnest, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, gunned down four innocent people at Chabad of Poway, a synagogue in San Diego county in southern California. Before the April 27, 2019 shooting, Earnest had published an anti-Semitic and racist screed riddled with Christian theology on a controversial online messaging board. How could someone with such hateful views find comfort in a church?
How did Payne and his ardent defenders not see any conflict between their heretical views of racial hierarchy and what the Bible says about the image of God in all of humanity?
These are just some of the questions to ponder as more and more church leaders find themselves thrust into conversations about racism, white supremacy, and white nationalism. How many church leaders are willing, like Bulkeley, to immediately confront and rebuke even the faintest hint of racial sin when they see it? How many church leaders are ready to challenge leaders who hold authority and influence in order to make clear that the church is no place of refuge for these views?