The election of Donald Trump beckoned American Christianity to examine its beliefs, flaws, and priorities, while highlighting a division that runs deeper than one—or two—presidential elections. In his timely book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About The American Church’s Complicity in Racism, author Jemar Tisby presents a detailed historical account of the church’s many failings and limited successes combating racism within and beyond its walls. Starting with colonial America era and working his way to present times, Tisby discusses how the American church espoused the same racial ideologies as its secular counterparts, and often used the Bible to justify its horrific acts. The Color of Compromise is a disturbing yet necessary read if Christians are to accurately assess where we are and how our future can outshine our troubled past.
Here are eight unpopular truths about U.S. Christianity, according to The Color of Compromise:
1. Plantation Owners Originally Opposed the Enslaved Becoming Christians
Plantation owners initially kept enslaved Africans from hearing the gospel and becoming baptized because they didn’t want to lose their free laborers. Tisby writes: “It had been a longstanding custom in England that Christians, being spiritual brothers and sisters, could not enslave one another.” In other words, Christianity as practiced in England didn’t condone slavery within the Christian body; U.S. plantation owners naturally didn’t want Christianity introduced to the enslaved.
2. A Thirst For Slavery Led to a Change of Biblical Interpretation
When missionaries pressed plantation owners to convert their enslaved workers, White Christians simply changed their interpretation of Scripture, admonishing African Christians in America to “be content with their spiritual liberation and to obey their earthly masters.” The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), founded in 1701, was one of many organizations that preached that Christianity could “save one’s soul but not break one’s chains.”
In fact, when some African slaves became Christians, an SPG missionary named Francis Le Jau made them recite the following pledge at baptism:
“You declare in the presence of God and before this congregation that you do not ask for holy baptism out of any design to free yourself from the Duty and Obedience you owe to your master while you live, but merely for the good of your soul and to partake of the Grace and Blessings promised to the Members of the Church of Jesus Christ.”
3. Christians Often Practiced Slavery to ‘Do Good’
Inspired by a trip to a Lutheran orphanage in Germany, minister George Whitefield created an orphanage in Savannah, Georgia, in 1740. When the orphanage experienced financial difficulties, Whitefield asked the followers he had gained during his preaching revivals to purchase a 640-acre plantation to support the orphanage. He wrote to them, saying, “One negro has been given to me.” The rest, “I plan to purchase this week,” he wrote. The orphanage, known as Bethesda, meaning “House of Mercy,” still exists in Savannah; today it’s known as the Bethesda Academy.
4. Racial Separation in the American Church Exists Because of White Christians’ Racism
Richard Allen, one of the founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.), started the denomination after a racist incident at a local church. During one Sunday service in 1792, Allen and a fellow minister accidentally sat down in seats reserved for White parishioners at St. George’s Church in Philadelphia, a church where he preached. While the two men prayed, the church’s White leaders asked them to move. They responded that they would once the prayer concluded. Unhappy with the response, the White men forcibly removed them from their seats. Allen and his companion never returned to the church. Tisby shares this story to illustrate a damning truth: “There would be no (B)lack church without racism in the (W)hite church.”
5. KKK Members Were Sunday Morning Ministers
We often think of Klan members as extreme racists, yet Tisby quotes writer Linda Gordon, who estimates that the second wave of KKK membership in the North (from 1915-1944) boasted an estimated membership of between three and five million. Additionally, Gordon wrote: “It’s estimated that 40,000 ministers were members of the Klan, and these people were sermonizing regularly, explicitly urging people to join the Klan.”
6. Clergy Opposed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Work
White ministers, including the late evangelist Billy Graham and a few Black ministers, advised civil rights leader and preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. to slow his demands for racial justice, arguing they would incite unnecessary violence. King’s refusal to heed their misguided advice led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal commission that combats discrimination in employment.
7. ‘Segregation Academies’ Emerged to Challenge School Integration
After the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision rendered racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, and Blacks subsequently began to integrate White schools, some Christian parents created “segregation academies” to educate their children. Since these academies were private schools, they weren’t bound by the court’s ruling. In some cases, the academies boasted Christian names.
8. The Majority of the ‘American Church’ Doesn’t Believe Black Lives Matter
A Barna Research Group study revealed that 45% of millennials support the Black Lives Matter message, while only 27% of adults overall and 13% of evangelicals support it. The backlash Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae received in 2014 when he tweeted “praying for #Ferguson”—along with the pushback InterVarsity Christian Fellowship experienced after it voiced its support for the message “Black lives matter” at its 2015 Urbana Student Missions Conference—highlight that while segments of the evangelical church support the message, the overwhelming majority opposes it. These incidents remind us that 400 years after the U.S. established its colonies, 150 years after slavery ended, and 50 years after MLK had a dream, we are still divided by faith.
In The Color of Compromise, Tisby vividly paints the dark parts of our past, yet is rapt to offer solutions for how to move forward if we wisely interpret our present in light of that past. (You’ll have to read the book to unpack his specific recommendations.) A beacon of hope throughout the book, however, is the truth that from colonial America till now, our God is marching on, even if the entire church isn’t.
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