Christians ought to care about history because we believe in a sovereign God who calls us to repent of, and not repeat, the sins from our past. God makes us aware of the past in order to work with us in the present to bring about the reality of his kingdom in the future.
When it comes to the dark stains of our history, we are often reminded that God forgets our sins (Isa. 43:25), and we ought to be grateful for that. But we also need to recognize that God also calls us at times to remember the sins of our past. Moses tells the Israelites to “remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the Lord your God in the wilderness. From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the Lord” (Deut. 9:7). There is grace to both be forgiven and to remember and learn from our past sins so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes.
With that in mind, and since February is Black History Month, I’d like to share with you a few stories from church history that we ignore at our peril. There are thousands of wonderful stories that I could share that celebrate black history—and rightly so! But given the year of tragedies that we have experienced, I feel compelled to share a few of the dark stains from our history that have grieved me and that I believe are important for us to recognize and remember. I don’t share these stories to create guilt or to shame or to condemn, but to help us remember where we have come from so we can be intentional about where we are going.
Have you ever wondered why Martin Luther King Jr. was appalled “that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday”? I have actually heard white Christians say that blacks refused to participate in white churches, which led to segregated churches. History tells us the exact opposite story.
Richard Allen was born enslaved and came of age during the American Revolution. He was given permission by his white owner to attend the Methodist church where he gave his life to Christ. He purchased his freedom and began preaching in various Methodist churches and became a regular preacher in St. George’s, an interracial Methodist church in Philadelphia. As the church grew, so did racial tensions in the church. Some of the white trustees decided to assign segregated seating in the church.
One Sunday morning in 1792, Richard Allen and another black minister unknowingly sat in a seat reserved for white parishioners. When Allen and the black members knelt to pray, the white trustees literally pulled them up off their knees and said, “You must get up—you must not kneel here!” Then Allen was ordered to leave the church. Allen later recalled, “We all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in the church.”
Allen was later discouraged by white Christians from raising funds for a church building. Using his own money, he helped start Bethel African Church in Philadelphia in 1794 and became the first bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal church in 1816. The truth is that white Christians discriminated against, harassed, and cajoled black Christians to the point that they no longer had a place in the white church. This story can be told over and over again in every historic denomination in America.
The Vineyard movement is a grandchild of the one of the greatest movements of the Holy Spirit in the world—the Azusa Street Revival, which gave birth to the Pentecostal movement. God used William Seymour, a black leader, to give birth to the revival. In 1900, Seymour became acquainted with the Holiness movement, which was a precursor to Pentecostalism through Charles Parham. Parham had started a Bible school and encouraged Seymour to attend. Because Texas law prohibited interracial schools, Seymour had to sit in the hallway and listen to the lectures, while the white students learned at desks inside the classroom.
A few years later, in 1906, a holiness church invited Seymour to Los Angeles to preach for them. He ended up staying in L.A. and started a church in an abandoned African Methodist Episcopal church on Azusa Street, where people gathered nightly to pray to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The remarkable thing about these gatherings wasn’t just the spontaneity of the meetings, nor the manifestation of spiritual gifts, but the diversity of the congregation. A notable historian wrote: “Blacks, whites, Chinese, and even Jews attended side by side to hear Seymour preach.” One participant noted, “The ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood.”
Unfortunately, integration didn’t last. The Pentecostal movement began to split along racial lines. Even Seymour’s mentor, Charles Parham, criticized the movement and, using racial slurs, scorned their integrated meetings. By the time the Pentecostal leaders gathered as a group of churches in 1948, not a single predominately black Pentecostal denomination was invited to join. Once again, white leaders had marginalized and taken the reigns of leadership away from black leaders.
The modern “Religious Right” movement is also marred by racial sin. If you ask almost anyone what gave birth to the Religious Right, the standard answer is, “The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the abortion laws across America.” But history tells a different story. When the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in 1973, some evangelical voices like Christianity Today magazine mildly criticized the ruling. The dominant response, however, was silence, even approval. One of the most well-known fundamentalists of the 20th century, W.A. Criswell, the Southern Baptist Convention’s former president, affirmed the decision: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”
A conservative religious activist, Paul Weyrich, had tried for years to cajole conservative evangelicals into a political movement. He tried to unite a movement over pornography, prayer in schools, the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, and abortion. None of them gained traction. What was the issue that finally caught attention and propelled the “Moral Majority”? Racial segregation in schools. The IRS began questioning church related “segregation academies”, including Jerry Falwell Sr.’s Lynchburg Christian School, over their racial policies. White Christian institutions across America were trying to get around the Brown v. Board mandate for racial integration by starting “Christian” schools that were private, arguing they were not required to integrate. Evangelical leaders began framing their opposition in the language of “religious liberty” rather than racial segregation to avoid the accusation of racism. Bob Jones University, was a prominent private Christian school, was highly scrutinized for not admitting African Americans. Their policy made it to the Supreme Court in 1983 and was ruled against in an 8-1 decision.
By 1978, concern was finally growing among conservative Christians about the rise in legal abortions. Weyrich and Falwell were keen enough to recognize that the movement would not be propelled by segregation. By 1980, abortion united the Right and became the rallying cry that brought together conservative Christians, replacing school segregation as the litmus test for purity from that moment forward. The answer to the question, “What gave birth to the Religious Right?” is not abortion. It is racial segregation.
If you want to know why 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is still one of the most segregated hours in America, the answer is found in our history of racism. What we see throughout American church history is a history of racism. The stain of racism on America is also a stain on the American church.
This Black History Month, it’s important that we recognize these historic sins by white Christians. Not to feel guilty. Not to shame. Not to condemn. That doesn’t bring about change or healing. Remembering our sins allows us to make a determined effort by God’s grace to not repeat our sins. God does forgive, and even forget, our sins. Yes, we will forever praise God for that fact! But let’s not you and I forget them, lest we repeat the racial sins of the past and fail to make room for God’s kingdom in the church today.
If you’d like to learn more about Black Church History in America, pick up the book “The Color of Compromise” by Jamar Tisby. I’d also encourage you to listen to the first four episodes of season two of Vineyard Columbus’ “The In Between” Podcast.