Barclay Key, Race and Restoration: Churches of Christ and the Black Freedom Struggle (LSU Press, 2020), reviewed by John Young.
The flowering of the field of Stone-Campbell Movement studies has not only enabled scholars to bring together disparate historiographies into a more unified narrative; it has also encouraged experts to examine the movement and its constituent fellowships from disciplinary and theoretical angles not previously considered. In this vein, Barclay Key’s Race & Restoration: Churches of Christ and the Black Freedom Struggle offers a deeply researched, nuanced take on how members of Churches of Christ, black and white, responded to the Civil Rights Movement. Drawing on a number of manuscript collections, periodicals (including religious publications and campus newspapers), and firsthand interviews with notable figures, R&R makes a compelling case that the theological distinctives of Churches of Christ put them in an unusual position vis-à-vis contemporary Christian groups, sometimes allowing them to push the boundaries of segregated society in productive ways, while at other times inhibiting more substantial efforts towards racial justice and, later, reconciliation.
Key’s most important contribution is spotlighting the paradox that the same exclusivism historically prevalent within Churches of Christ prevented the fellowship from officially dividing along racial lines (after all, if there is only one Church of Christ, then there can be only one Church of Christ!) yet made its members less likely to participate in civil rights activism across denominational lines. This exclusivist tendency, Key notes, also meant that Churches of Christ were uniquely positioned to undertake the work of reconciliation and restoration—an opportunity which was largely overlooked, however, as he laments in the epilogue: “Instead, the legacy of that decade [the 1960s] became fodder for feel-good narratives about changes that were controversial and contested.” (194)
The bulk of the primary sources undergirding R&R come from Churches of Christ and their related institutions, but the book as a whole is historiographically situated with reference to other denominationally-focused histories of race. (Comparable works on Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches are referenced in the introduction, and the book is part of LSU Press’s Making the Modern South series.) As such, there are some instances in which a greater attention to recent, relevant scholarship from within the movement might have been beneficial. Edward J. Robinson’s Hard-Fighting Soldiers: A History of African American Churches of Christ is an understandable omission given its late 2019 publication date, but the insights of Tanya Smith Brice’s 2016 edited volume Reconciliation Reconsidered: Advancing the National Conversation on Race in Churches of Christ and the Williams/Foster/Blowers editorial trio’s The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History (2013) are not addressed here, leaving any historiographical consensus and/or clash for the reader to discern on their own.
Still, a work of research like Race and Restoration ultimately stands or falls on the merits of its own original contributions to the scholarly conversation. Key’s superb analysis and powerful, personal writing allow the work to speak helpfully into the intra-SCM discussion while also bringing the unique aspects of the story of Churches of Christ to the broader historical community. In the end, R&R is an important and timely addition to the literature at the intersection of race and the history of the Stone-Campbell Movement.
John Young is an assistant professor in the Turner School of Theology at Amridge University.