Daniel Bare. Black Fundamentalists: Conservative Christianity and Racial Identity in the Segregation Era. New York: New York University Press, 2021. 272 pp, $30.
I was born and raised in the Pentecostal church, steeped and simmered in the rhythms of the AOG (Assemblies of God) and COGIC (Church of God in Christ) traditions, with all the pains and passions entailed therein. While words like “evangelical” or “fundamentalism” never pinged on our collective radars, I was introduced to both terms during a seminary class, prompting me to rapidly scour the pages of Wikipedia to try and get up to speed. And yet I found that many of the same chords were played, thrumming vibrantly under the surface of the ecclesial foundation I’d inherited. We were taught not to dance or chew, or hang out with folks who do. When I was applying to seminary, I was warned to watch out, lest I lose my salvation.
But cliches and stereotypes aside, there was a powerful history buried beneath the forest green carpet of our sanctuary. It was a history of perseverance, of endurance, a history of trying to faithfully navigate that long circuitous route from the dusty roads of Mississippi through the race riots and economic collapses of Detroit to a small nowhere of a town in eastern Michigan. And there I was also taught to pray and believe that God was attentive and active in his world, capable of healing the devastations of cancer and broken marriages alike. I was taught that God is personal and present; his Word can be trusted, even in the face of all opposition. I was taught that he is good and true and lovely, even when he’s hard to understand. And, perhaps more than anything else, I was taught that God is someone who is worthy of being praised all night and all day, and I mean all night.
Black Fundamentalism in the Segregation Era
To the outsider, I’m sure the above smacks of fundamentalism or at least carries the fragrance of evangelicalism’s weddedness to holiness movements and open tent revivals. But for many scholars, the terms “black church” and “fundamentalism” are incommensurate. For many, one of the defining characteristics of fundamentalism is whiteness, white supremacy, or, at the very least, the embodied practices of white people striving to preserve the vestiges of segregation in a rapidly changing world.
In Black Fundamentalists: Conservative Christianity and Racial Identity in the Segregation Era, Daniel Bare raises his hand in objection to this common misconception and attempts to reframe how we understand fundamentalism and the very sources we privilege in our historical investigations. Bare notes the irony in the fact that many histories exclude the writing and thinking of black, conservative Protestants while simultaneously bemoaning the exclusive character of fundamentalism (187). Accordingly, Bare’s work seeks to rectify this error.
Bare identifies four key conditions that are indicative of fundamentalist identity: 1) the embrace of a supernatural and biblicist understanding of the world; 2) a commitment to the doctrine and theological commitments of the movement; 3) an antagonistic disposition toward modernist theology; 4) a willingness to depend upon and resource fundamentalist language to demarcate one’s own theological position and identity (18-19). Bare then seeks to employ a historical-theological approach to studying the phenomenon of fundamentalism in a colored hue, one that accepts doctrinal distinctives and theological commitments as a meaningful category of historical analysis (14).
Throughout the book, Bare unfolds this fundamentalist vision in order to illustrate how many Afro-American congregations, pastors, and communities self-identified with the broader fundamentalist movement and its theological conservatism, even while they employed this doctrine in pursuit of a more progressive social program. The first chapter engages the black press where Bare finds that not only did Afro-Americans identify as fundamentalists, but a significant number of periodicals indicate that there was a large contingent of Afro-American fundamentalists within the black community (45).
From there, in the second chapter, he moves to focus on how the doctrinal convictions of fundamentalism (biblical inspiration, the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, the literal resurrection of Christ, and the second advent) were present and argued for within the Afro-American Protestant tradition. In chapter 3, Bare examines the anti-modernist polemics that were present within pro-fundamentalist churches, irrespective of race. There he finds that in many sermons from Afro-American pastors, modernism was viewed as a threat not only to Christianity or the broader American polis, but to blacks in particular (90).
In chapter 4, Bare then turns his attention to a specific interracial seminary: the American Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS). In so doing, Bare argues that the seminary illustrated both the promise and peril of interracial communities, viewing black pastors as co-laborers even as it remained rooted in paternalistic sensibilities (136, 140). In the fifth and final chapter, Bare illustrates the divisions that emerged within the black community regarding fundamentalism’s coherence with progressive social values. While some pastors viewed a commitment to fundamentalist convictions as necessary for laying claim to the ideals and virtues of American citizenship, others viewed the intolerance of fundamentalism as prohibitive to the goal of racial advancement. In the end, Bare finds that fundamentalism itself was treated as both a theological and political issue in the Afro-American community.
The book seems to have two key interwoven purposes. First, Bare seeks to reorient our historical reflection on the phenomenon of fundamentalism. Recognizing that many accounts of American fundamentalism have failed to take stock of the significant resonance the movement held within the Afro-American community, Bare illustrates that there were a significant number of black pastors and clergy who not only explicitly identified as fundamentalist, but many resourced the language and disposition of the movement regarding the pressures of theological modernism.
In order to do so, Bare performs the role of auditor, examining a wealth of material ranging from the pages of the Afro-American and Chicago Defender to the teachings of the American Baptist Theological Seminary in order to demonstrate that many Afro-American conservative Christians viewed themselves as included within the broader umbrella of fundamentalism. As Bare notes, “fundamentalists on both sides of the color line instructed their hearers to remain steadfast and true to both the biblical testimony and the historic orthodoxy of the church, and they castigated modernist innovators as theological compromisers, agents of Satan, and the type of dangerous false teachers against whom the New Testament warns” (120).
For what it is worth, I think Bare has a point here, underscoring the oft neglected communities within fundamentalism. Far too frequently, autopsies and analyses of American Christianity fail to take into account the sizable portions of the Christian community that have been historically relegated to the margins and sidelines of Christian institutions. Yet although they may have lacked some formal institutional agency and were prohibited from attending the more recognizable mechanisms that are associated with fundamentalism, many members of these communities still self-identified as theologically conservative and championed its legacy.
Social-Location and Performing Fundamentalism
Second, and relatedly, Bare maintains while that the “religious worldview” of white and Afro-American conservatives were similar in shape, “a common commitment to the basic tenets of fundamentalism (or even more specific doctrinal definitions) did not necessarily dictate identical types of political and social involvement (39, 45). Here, Bare seeks to highlight how different social-locations enable variegated “performance” of the ideas, logics, and concepts that undergird fundamentalist thought, especially in the era of segregation. In his estimation, “even as black fundamentalists promoted doctrinal conservatism via the pulpit or the pen, they concomitantly staked their claim to legitimacy as partakers in the American experiment” (160). In other words, according to Bare, Afro-Americans not only intentionally identified as fundamentalists during the segregation era, but they viewed their theological conservatism as fueling a kind social progressivism that highlighted the injustices of American life and brought doctrinal commitments to bear on issues of racism and segregation, a position he identifies as a kind of progressive fundamentalism (188).
Bare repeatedly highlights how pastors within the Afro-American community would espouse the commitments of theological conservatism, all the while holding to a more progressive social program due to their experience with segregation. For example, in his examination of the sermons of Isaac Reed Berry, a Methodist preacher, Bare finds that Berry repeatedly resourced the writings and teachings of The Fundamentals, defending theological conservatism and decrying the dangers of modernist interpretations of the Christian faith (100).
However, this commitment to theological conservatism did not dissuade Berry from denouncing bigotry as a sin and addressing racism “in ways that would have been unthinkable to many of his white fundamentalist counterparts” (107). In so doing, Bare finds that in Berry and other Afro-American fundamentalists, theological fundamentalism did not preclude these pastors and theologians from addressing racial injustice or offering racial applications of their theological commitments “in ways that challenged the sociopolitical status quo” (120).
Race, Fundamentalism, and the Multivalence of Social Location
It is this second thesis, however, that causes me to raise an eyebrow of skepticism for a number of reasons. The first regards the scope of Bare’s historical analysis. Bare seems to restrict his inquiry to historical figures and institutions that explicitly self-identify as fundamentalist (19). Yet this means that many COGIC and Pentecostal churches are left cropped out of the frame, churches that certainly seem to carry the torch of fundamentalism in both form and function.
Accordingly, some of these churches might not be able to find lodging in the inn that fundamentalism built as they often do not explicitly resource The Fundamentals or use the specific language of fundamentalism to demarcate their identity. But surely some of the similarities of style, worship, and preaching outweigh the differences, similarities made all the more meaningful due to the frequent migration of members across ecclesial lines. Even if these churches are not advocating for a form of fundamentalism per se, it seems they might at least be identified as fundamentalish.
And this engenders a second concern: if it is indeed the case that we are tracking the performance of the doctrinal ideas and concerns that are indicative of theological conservatism, why is race more salient than socio-economic standing (class) or geographic locations? It seems to me that Bare wants us to believe that race is itself indicative of social location, but is that really the case, even in the Jim Crow era? I wish that things were that simple, but I fear it belies a great complexity, one that dates back to the parishes of Samuel Cornish and Theodore Wright during the antebellum era as Leslie Harris has noted. I’m left wondering about the pastors of churches in low-income communities who didn’t attend seminaries, pastors who perhaps didn’t read or write the books, pamphlets, or newspapers that espoused the ideas of fundamentalism.
Failing to delineate the manner in which class, geography, or other specific modes of identification and relation, to borrow language from Philippe Descola, contribute to this conversation leads me to question his conclusion, or at least water it down considerably. It seems to me that from the evidence presented we can conclude that some larger, middle-class congregations with Afro-American congregants and seminary trained Afro-American pastors articulated a vision of fundamentalism that engaged the racial and social inequalities of their day while maintaining a commitment to the founding ideas of conservative Christianity. But is that it? I admit readers might find themselves a bit underwhelmed by such a notion, even if it has not found great purchase within the halls of academia.
So again: why is race the salient variable? And on what grounds? Bare never really tells us, other than a few gestures toward the idea of social location and lived experience. In his defense, his book is a work of history and not anthropology or phenomenology; nevertheless, appeals to lived experience and social location just are a kind of phenomenological claim.
So am I really to believe that all of those store-front churches that littered the West and South Side of Chicago, churches pastored by bi-vocational ministers who never attended college or received formal seminary training and barely made ends meet from week to week, were adamantly invested in applying Christian doctrine to racial injustice? Am I really to believe that these churches are the exception and not the rule in this regard? It seems to me that for many people, pastors included, quotidian needs drown out consideration of larger, socio-political concerns. And this could be all the more the case for those congregations without the budget space to outsource these responsibilities beyond their senior pastors. In the end, I’m concerned that Bare’s articulation of black fundamentalism paints Afro-American theologically conservative identity as far too idiosyncratic.
Lingering questions aside, Daniel Bare’s Black Fundamentalists is a vital resource for anyone interested in the history of evangelicalism, the contours of fundamentalism, or Afro-American religious traditions. Well written and thoroughly researched, he provides a compelling articulation of how accounts of American Christian religious life need to do a much better job of paying attention to the margins. If the Civil Rights movement is rooted in the black ecclesial tradition, as Charles Marsh and Cornel West have both proposed, it seems like more attention ought to be paid to the origins, development, and theological commitments of that community. After all, while one might argue that their social imprint was small in the 1920’s, forty years later they’d light quite the powder keg, one that would lead to the drastic reorientation of American life.