James L. Gorman, Jeff W. Childers, and Mark W. Hamilton, eds. Slavery’s Long Shadow: Race and Reconciliation in American Christianity. Eerdmans, 2019.
1. What kinds of questions—scholarly or otherwise—inspired you to put this book together?
After Mark Hamilton and Jeff Childers approached me about co-editing a book that would honor Doug Foster’s life and work, we quickly landed on the book’s angle of exploration. We asked authors to explore the intersection of American Christian history, race relations, and unity or division in the church. These topics are at the center of Doug’s life and work in the academy and church. So we proposed chapter topics that focused on specific eras of American history, all with one central question: how did race relations in that era affect unity or division among Christians?
2. What impact would you like your work to have on the Church generally and Stone-Campbell Churches specifically?
First, the historical perspective on race and Christianity provides an honest account of an awful story about the division of Christ’s church because of the sin of racism. The Stone-Campbell tradition’s reason for being was Christian unity. In the midst of all the sectarian conflicts of the late eighteenth century, Stone-Campbell leaders were convicted by John 17: if Christian unity was a witness to the world that Christ was the Son of God who loved them, then Christian division was in some way witness to the opposite. It is tragic that this unity movement contributed to the division of Christ’s church, but it did contribute to racial division. Division of the church because of racism was an explicit rejection of God’s intention for creation and for Christ’s church. The very essence of the Stone-Campbell Movement and of Christianity demands that we join God in God’s work of restoring shalom to all broken relationships—whether personal or social.
Second, I believe there is no positive way forward for Christian race relations broadly or Stone-Campbell race relations narrowly without a clear-eyed awareness of our past. We cannot join God’s work of restoration of broken relationship if we do not know the wicked means by which we divided the church. If we do not learn this story and teach our children this story, our own ignorance of our past will continue being a chief obstacle to a united future. Any conversation about racial justice today that hopes to bear fruit must be founded on an accurate account of our history. Right now, that is not the case. And if people continue to be ignorant of the stories this book tells, then racial justice, healing, and unity will not be forthcoming.
Third, the content of the book reveals a strong need for Christians to rethink how the Bible works. Part of the rationalization of slavery and then segregation was a reading of the Bible with no historical awareness or literary sensitivity. American Christians have a lot of work to do toward developing a sound biblical hermeneutic.
3. In what way do current trends in Christian Churches/Churches of Christ/Disciples of Christ influence or surface in your commentary? Is there anything you would have liked to have said or included, but could not due to the constraints of time or format or etiquette?
Since all the authors come from Stone-Campbell Movement (SCM) backgrounds, we all brought SCM concerns and interests to our work. Specifically, the current movement for racial justice in Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ emerge in several chapters. Newell Williams and Kamilah Hall Sharp interviewed Disciples of Christ members to determine their views about Disciples recent progress for racial justice. I wish we had captured the same for the independent Christian Churches. Much work is needed on that front, but that stream has fewer historians and American religion scholars than Churches of Christ or Disciples of Christ.
Several chapters highlight broader American Christian trends concerning race relations. Chapters from Richard Hughes and Joel Brown emphasize how white supremacy is entrenched in American society and culture. It will take bold and decisive work to turn the tide toward racial justice and against a passive perpetuation of white supremacist norms. And Kathy Pulley’s chapter puts into perspective recent history of the Religious Right and race.
4. What common myths or stereotypes about the relationship between race, religion, and society in the United States would you say have been thoroughly debunked and need to be dropped?
I would say the most harmful myth among white conservative Christians is that racism is defined only as individuals being mean to other individuals because of racial bias and not about broader policies in society. This myth is harmful because it disallows white evangelicals to see how broader policies (systems and structures like laws) disadvantage people of color. As Chanequa Walker-Barnes puts it in her recent book, I Bring the Voices of My People (Eerdmans, 2019), white supremacy and racism exist “independent of any individual person’s feelings toward people of other races” because racism is a systematic way of ordering society (43). Gaining the historical perspective helps deconstruct this myth of individualism. We built a racialized society by creating race and white supremacy, and then we created a society with laws that enforced the racial hierarchy. That hierarchy with all its laws and policies determined who was advantaged (white people) and who was disadvantaged (people of color). And white Christians typically reflected these racist attitudes, just as churches embraced segregation. It is time for white Christians to read this history, ensure this history gets into middle school and high school textbooks, and ensure we build conversations for racial justice on the foundation of this shared history. The myth of individualism and anti-structuralism is a denial of our past and its real effects in our present.
A related myth is that America is a meritocracy, a place where all have equal access to success based on one’s merit. Meritocracy undergirds “color-blind” policies which ignore the fact that generations of accruing or being denied resources makes no difference in a person’s likelihood to succeed. Meritocracy combined with hyper-individualism (and anti-structuralism) also undergird the cultural and ethnic racism that often emerges in white explanations for racial disparity in income, education, job placement, etc. A 100-yard race is not fair or simply about merit if one person starts at the 80-yard line and the other at the 0-yard line.
The last myth I’ll note is that we can have racial reconciliation in the church without the work of racial justice in society. White Christians who become aware of racial injustice often want to unite with Christians of color without doing the hard word of repentance and working for justice in society. The myth that we can somehow heal racial division in the church without attending to racial injustice in society’s policies is anemic in its vision of both genuine relationship and the kingdom of God. Those called into the story of God and God’s kingdom are called to be co-workers in the restoration of all brokenness, spiritual and social.
5. What sources have most informed the production of this book?
With an edited book, each author is going to bring unique sources that have shaped their work. Some influential authors for me include Ibram X. Kendi, Sylvia Frey, Betty Wood, Paul Harvey, Albert J. Raboteau, Judith Weisenfeld, James B. Bennett, David W. Wills, Michael O. Emerson, and Christian Smith.
6. How do you hope this work advances the conversation in your scholarly discipline? What books or essays or further research do you think these chapters elicit?
The goal of each chapter was to synthesize and present the scholarly consensus and debate on the chapter’s content in order to maximize the book’s usefulness in the classroom, which we did to honor Doug’s work as a lifelong teacher. Obviously, with an edited volume, each author summarized scholarship in different ways and to different degrees. However, even with summarization as the goal, some chapters broke new ground where more work could be done. Loretta Hunnicutt’s and Edward Robinson’s chapter both work with primary sources not explored by many other historians: Hunnicutt’s work centers women’s work in race relations and Robinson explores racial cooperation in Churches of Christ during Jim Crow. Further work in both areas would illuminate aspects of our history that we currently do not fully understand. And both areas work to bring marginalized voices, which have typically been left out of our histories, to the center of historical analysis.
My chapter on evangelical anti-slavery in the early national era narrates a gut-wrenching tragedy of the Christian church from the 1780s to the 1810s, but this tragic story is not in many history books. Evangelicals were at the forefront of a seemingly successful abolition movement in the 1780s and 1790s. Powerful leaders among Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Restorationists such as Barton Stone and James O’Kelly condemned slavery as satanic and incompatible with Christianity. But the tragic turn from abolitionism to accommodation of slavery happened in the early 1800s. We need to know more about why—why did Christians move from condemning something as satanic to accommodating it in ten years’ time?
7. What kind of research or focus is on your horizon now that this project is finished?
I am working on a second edition of Richard T. Hughes’ Reviving the Ancient Faith, to be published with Eerdmans. After that, I hope to return to focused work on race relations in American Christian history, perhaps exploring the transatlantic evangelical abolition movement in the era of Atlantic revolutions.
James Gorman is Professor of History at Johnson University in Knoxville, TN, where he resides with his wife and two daughters. His research interests include history of Christianity, Stone-Campbell Movement history, race and Christianity, and history of Bible interpretation. He authored Among the Early Evangelicals (ACU Press, 2017) and co-edited Slavery’s Long Shadow: Race and Reconciliation in American Christianity (Eerdmans, 2019). He serves as Assistant Editor of Stone-Campbell Journal and coordinates the History and Theology of the Stone-Campbell Movement study group at the Stone-Campbell Journal Conference. He received the Ph.D. in Religion (History of Christianity) from Baylor University in 2015, the M.Div. from Abilene Christian University in 2008, and the B.S. from Kentucky Christian University in 2005.