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Black Evangelicalism and the Reforming Influence of William H. Bentley

The history of Black Evangelicalism is an American religious phenomenon. Black Evangelicalism’s distinctives are unique from larger White Evangelicalism. Black Evangelicals are not simply Black folks who attend White Evangelical churches. They are self-professing, theologically evangelical-oriented who organize in predominant Black fellowships. They characteristically are also largely independent from historic Black churches (e. g. Black Baptists, Black Methodists, the Church of God in Christ and other related Black Pentecostal and Holiness traditions).

Who Was William Hiram Bentley?

One of the least mentioned, yet most influential Black Evangelicals is William Hiram Bentley. Bentley was best known as the “‘Father’ of the National Black Evangelical Association (NBEA).” His widow, Ruth Lewis Bentley, fondly notes that while he was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1923, his origins were in the south.

His parents migrated from Monroe, Louisiana, when Bentley’s father, a mixed-race man, fled the threat of death from his White stepbrothers. Bentley’s grandfather was a White man who already had a family when he became involved with Bentley’s grandmother, a Black woman. He so loved her that he willed property to Bentley’s father who was born from this relationship. Consternation led to a plot to kill this son upon the death of Bentley’s White grandfather. Members from this White family were resolved to prevent Bentley’s father from collecting his legal inheritance. Fleeing imminent death, Bentley’s father escaped to Chicago with two young children and an expectant wife in tow.

Theological Training

Bentley’s father was a follower of the Marcus Garvey movement and had some involvement with Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League, also known as the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). This Black nationalist radicality was passed on to Bentley as he grew up. Bentley was intellectually gifted and excelled in school. After graduating from Roosevelt University, he sought out formal theological training while pursuing a path toward Christian ministry. This dual pursuit led him to Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, California, where he intended to study with known evangelical theologian, Carl F. H. Henry.

Nearly a decade earlier, Henry had penned a critique on the racial and social-moral failures of Christian Fundamentalism. In The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Henry wrote:

“If the Bible-believing Christian is on the wrong side of the social problems such as war, race, class, labor, liquor, imperialism, etc., it is time to get over the fence to the right side. The church needs a progressive Fundamentalism with a social message.”

Such an acknowledgement by a prominent White evangelical theologian at the time reflected the social-intellectual and theological rigor with which Fuller was attempting to engage. This is what attracted Bentley to Fuller. However, the same year he arrived on campus, Henry suddenly departed to become the first editor-in-chief of the newly formed Christianity Today Magazine. Bentley was then left to study theology and Christian apologetics with Edward J. Carnell (then president of the seminary) and newly arrived theology professor Paul King Jewett. Jewett was credited as mentoring Bentley and other early Black seminary students, which later developed into genuine friendship and fellowship.

Bentley was one of the first Black persons to graduate from Fuller Seminary in 1959. He matriculated during the time Fuller was at the beginning stages of what George Marsden calls, reforming aspects of fundamentalism. Despite Fuller’s intellectual openness regarding broad theological engagement, the racial climate on campus was less than hospitable. Bentley stood as the embodiment of another kind of reform. It was a reform that provoked inherent and explicit racial and social-ethical change. This came at a time Fuller was intent on reforming fundamentalism toward a more engaged evangelical theological witness and intellectualism that reflected within the taxonomy of larger theological engagement.

Bentley’s early presence at Fuller, beginning in 1956, implicitly challenged an evangelical ecclesiology that had limited space and a diminished status for Black Christians. Bentley’s very presence was a rebuke to the then institution’s president. As president, Carnell’s view of Black folks being an inherent social-moral problem to property value was common knowledge and an overarching sentiment. Despite matriculating under this climate, Bentley’s imprint and influence became the intervening catalyst for racial and social-ethical change among larger Evangelicalism. His embodiment evoked a kind of intersection between theological reconciliation, social reform, and racial equality. It was at this intersection that he served as a patriarch and pioneer.

A New Movement of Black Evangelicalism

Despite the racially insensitive climate at Fuller, Bentley developed an aptitude for Christian apologetics while deepening his commitment to Black nationalism. Returning to Chicago as a Christian thinker and activist committed to the plight of Black America, he became involved in the National Negro Evangelical Association (NNEA) which developed in Los Angeles in 1963. Bentley was one of the organization’s early pioneers and founding members. The conception of the NNEA (later called the National Black Evangelical Association or the NBEA) was inspired while he was a seminary student.

One notable ally was his former professor, Paul Jewett. Jewett was not only supportive of the organization’s founding, but he also served as its first White board member and provided meaningful contact and fellowship with Bentley. Bentley’s wife, Ruth, recalls the friendship they had with Jewett, who also spent time in their home in Chicago’s west side. Bentley, who served as president of the NBEA from 1970 to 1976, was one of the organization’s most prominent leaders. He also spearheaded its Commission on Social Action and inspired the development of the NBEA’s youth ministry, the National Black Christian Students Conference (NBCSC) in 1974.

As a Black Pentecostal, Bentley’s arrival at Fuller Seminary marked a new strand of Black Evangelicalism which previously was known from three other traditions only: the Plymouth Brethren tradition related to the West Indies, the Christian Missionary and Alliance strand related to Nyack College and Alliance Theological Seminary, among other institutions, and the strand related to Bible Schools. Bentley represented a new strand of Black Evangelicalism that later attracted other Pentecostals like Bishop George Dallas McKinney of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), Alex Anderson, also of the COGIC and who served as director of InterVarsity’s Black Campus Ministries, and others. Like Bentley, McKinney also served as president of the NBEA in the late 1980s. This later strand also was characterized by self-professed Black Evangelicals who were affiliated with predominantly Black historic churches.

A Clash of Black Evangelicals

Bentley also embraced a radicalism that gave rise to Black liberation. This was the same radicalism that captivated his father and inspired his Garveyite sensibilities. Bentley was a self-professed Black nationalist who maintained a fundamentalist Christian commitment. These commitments fueled his work and writings which characterized him as a pioneer of modern Black Evangelicalism. One of Bentley’s mentees, Ronald Potter, even referred to him as “the ‘godfather’ of militant Black Evangelicals,” and the one responsible for the “Black Awakening of Negro evangelicals” in the late 1960s.

While Black evangelicalism as a distinct movement began after WWII, Bentley’s impact, his intervening presence, and efforts would not only challenge his alma mater to analyze its commitment to racial and cultural sensitivity, but Bentley’s embodiment would inspire a new breed and generation of Black evangelicals of all stripes, which included Pentecostals. This unification effort became known as “The Umbrella Concept,” which the NBEA ultimately adopted.

Unity within the NBEA, and by extension larger Black Evangelicalism, did not come before an internal rift occurred. A Bentley-led school of thought (centered out of Chicago) which focused on Black nationalist’s sentiments clashed with a more traditional school of thought focused on biblical evangelism and ethnic unity. This latter camp was primarily centered in Dallas, and led by Tony Evans, pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship; Ruben S. Connor, former president of NBEA and Eddie B. Lane, director of the Dallas chapter of the NBEA.

Despite the clash, the two camps would later have cordial interactions. Bentley’s sense of agency also stirred the pot for substantive social and racial change at his alma mater. In 1971, he was invited back to Fuller as a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Black Theology where he taught “History of Black America” and “Christianity and Black Theology.” He also taught and introduced his brand of Black Evangelicalism to a younger generation of students at Wheaton College, North Park College, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. One former student influenced by Bentley was Walter Arthur McCray. McCray, who later became president of the NBEA, was involved in the organization’s National Black Christian Students Conference.

A Lasting, Yet Untapped Legacy

Bentley is remembered as a self-described Black Evangelical Nationalist. He authored numerous articles and books, including The Meaning of History for Black Americans and his contribution, “Factors in the Origin and Focus of the National Black Evangelical Association,” in the James Cone and Gayraud Wilmore, Black Theology: A Documentary History. Besides his scholarly pursuits, teaching, and Christian activism, Bentley served as the national president of his denomination, The United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God, and pastored Calvary Bible Church in Chicago.

Without the pioneering work and thought of William Hiram Bentley, there would not have been the work of Tom Skinner, William E. Pannell, Columbus Salley, Ronald Potter, Carl Ellis, Walter Arthur McCray, and countless others. In 1993, many of these figures and others within the world of evangelicalism, including Carl F. H. Henry, Kenneth Kantzer and Daniel Fuller, gathered at Geneva College in Pennsylvania in what was to be the launch of the William Hiram Bentley Institute for Black Theological Studies. Sadly, Bentley died months before the gathering. He died while preaching a sermon at Progressive Beulah Pentecostal Church in his hometown of Chicago.

The significance of Bentley and his radical Black Christian thought has faded into the corridors of American religious history. His impact has yet to be fully realized among Black Evangelicals and larger Evangelicalism today. Even as a new group of 21st century Black Evangelicals gather to hold symposiums, write books, and create social media content related to Black Christian apologetics, they owe their efforts to the life, thought, and legacy of William Hiram Bentley.

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Jamal-Dominique Hopkins, Ph.D.
Jamal-Dominique Hopkins, Ph.D.
Jamal-Dominique Hopkins (Ph.D., University of Manchester, U.K.) is Dean and Associate Professor of Biblical Languages and Literature at Dickerson-Green Theological Seminary at Allen University. He is the author of the upcoming work "Cultic Spiritualization: Religious Sacrifice in the Dead Sea Scrolls" (Gorgias Press) and is a Pedagogy Fellow with Yale University’s Center for Faith and Culture, and a 2021 Sacred Writes Media Partnership Fellow with Faithfully Magazine.