Ellis: The White Church in Transition

Many White Christians had been faithful to the cultural mandate of Jesus Christ during Reconstruction. They brought education and other forms of help to the former slaves. When the pressure of Jim Crowism arose in the late 1870s, however, they were forced to abandon the African-American community, leaving us to face the horrors of the Southern racist backlash alone.

Another concern was drawing White Christians’ attention. Just after the turn of the twentieth century, the “battle for the Bible” was heating up. On one side were those following in the footsteps of others who a century earlier had given in to the basic assumptions of secular humanism. As a result, their Christianity had eroded into an empty Christianity-ism, with a god whose substance depended on human definition and human opinion. For them Jesus was a mere man—a prophet at best—and the Bible was merely a human book containing some passages that might be considered “inspired” in some vague way. These people became known as “liberals” or “modernists.”

The liberals had lost their theological direction and had nothing to do but play connotation word games. This all changed in 1907, when Walter Rauschenbusch published Christianity and the Social Crisis. Advocating social action and neglecting personal salvation, his “social gospel” breathed new life into the liberal movement.

On the other side of the battle were those who, reacting against the liberals, advocated personal salvation and orthodox doctrine over social action. They became known as fundamentalists or “conservatives.” Those who stood for the conceptual authority of Scripture took the fundamentalist side, while those who stood for the ethical authority of Scripture took the liberal side. To make a sharp distinction between themselves and the liberals, many fundamentalists abandoned all social involvement and concentrated on merely getting people “saved.” They wrongly identified social action with liberalism rather than Christian action. Furthermore, the fiascoes of Prohibition and the Scopes trial made fundamentalists feel the heat of cultural defeat. This effectively closed the books on fundamentalist cultural involvement and opened the door for secular humanism.

The Bible itself never sets up such a dichotomy between personal salvation and social action, between conceptual and ethical authority.

So in essence both sides lost the battle of the Bible.

Between 1877 and 1930 the White Bible-believing churches developed a double isolation from the Black community: They capitulated to White racism, and they adopted a socially impotent gospel. The rift was deep, because social ethics and the quest for freedom and dignity lay at the heart of historic Black theology. The social retreat of White Bible-believing Christianity made it resemble White Christianity-ism.

-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 55-56.

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