Book Review: Doctrine and Race

Mathews, Mary Beth Swetnam. Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2017. 157pp.

Summary

The basic thesis of Doctrine and Race is that during the interwar period (c. 1920-1940), which was dominated by the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, African-American Christians largely adhered to fundamentalist doctrine but adapted modernist views of social justice and race relations. To support this thesis, Mathews shows that the constructs of “fundamentalism” and “modernism” were “racialized term[s]” (7). The category of fundamentalism was created and defined by white Christians, and modernism was also a primarily white phenomenon. Therefore, African-American churches do not fit this binary, so the polarity of fundamentalism-modernism is an inadequate lens through which to view African-American churches during this period.

Mathews defines fundamentalism as a “militantly anti-modern evangelical movement” (3). Fundamentalists prioritized core doctrines such as “biblical inerrancy, the deity and Virgin Birth of Christ” and also “an insistence on holy living,” (3) which often meant refraining from dance, movies, and alcohol. Fundamentalists share with evangelicals a belief in core Christian doctrines. What primarily distinguishes them from evangelicals is their relationship to the broader society and culture, which is often separatist and combative – fundamentalists “battled mightily for them [evangelical beliefs] in a world they saw as turned against God and the saving power of evangelical Christianity” (3-4).

Unfortunately, Mathews does not provide a definition of modernism. Since she defines fundamentalism in terms of its relationship to modernism, this creates ambiguity in her definitions. However, Mathews seems to understand modernism primarily as involving two phenomena. The first aspect of modernism was changing societal views about gender roles, marriage, and sexuality (111). The second aspect was a loosening of society’s morals concerning “drinking, dancing, gambling, and baseball games on Sundays” (99). The fundamentalist writers that Mathews cites argue strongly against these societal changes.

Understanding how the terms fundamentalism and modernism were defined racially is key to understanding the book’s thesis. “White fundamentalists made the term fundamentalism apply only to white people, while African American Protestants defined modernism as a white-only term” (8). Whites did not include African-Americans in the definition of fundamentalists. In fact, white fundamentalists often feared that African Americans were theologically naïve and susceptible to heresy. As an example of this, Mathews cites a 1931 edition of Moody Bible Institute Monthly which warned that “the Negro, in some quarters, is drifting away from the white man and the white man’s religion” (29, quoting the magazine). This shows that whites defined fundamentalism by their standards of whiteness, which a priori excluded African-Americans from the definition.

African-Americans “favored the traditionalist position they believed that the fundamentalists were championing,” but they saw it as orthodox Christianity rather than fundamentalism (42). African Americans did not feel that they were reacting to modernism because they saw modernism as “a white phenomenon” (42) that was both invented by and opposed by white Christians. Therefore, from their perspective, the battle with modernism was contained within white evangelicals and was not relevant to their context. African American evangelicals were spectators rather than participants in the white fundamentalists’ battles with modernism.

Because African-American churches did not fit neatly into either fundamentalism or modernism, they adopted characteristics of both. With the fundamentalists, they held to historic Christian doctrines such as the inerrancy of Scripture and the virgin birth of Christ, and they also “sided with white fundamentalists” on moral questions such as “dancing, divorce, sex education, dress and hairstyles, and drinking” (111-112).

However, unlike the fundamentalists, African American Christians did not withdraw from social action. They believed that “when people had the correct understanding of Christianity, the political and social world would change” (70). Whereas fundamentalists were concerned with salvation of the soul apart from social progress (13),  African American Christians held that “being theologically traditional and socially progressive in terms of racial equality” best represented biblical Christianity (155).

Affirmation and Critique

Mathews’ book has several strengths. First, it helpfully shows that the lenses through which we study church history can oversimplify our interpretation of the past. In this case, Mathews demonstrates that the constructs of fundamentalism and modernism are not sufficient to explain the beliefs of African-Americans during the interwar period. Even though it is part of the historian’s task to interpret the past, there is a danger that broad classifications (such as fundamentalism and modernism) created by historians can inadvertently flatten the past by becoming interpretive grids which are imposed upon it.

A second strength is that the book shows us the African American church’s positive example of holding to orthodox doctrine while remaining socially engaged. In my judgment, it also shows that the freedom to withdraw from social concern is a function of privilege that was not available to African Americans. This should cause us to be suspicious of any theology which separates personal salvation from a commitment to justice and love of neighbor.

A third strength is that it shows how theological reflection is worked out within the context of peoples’ lived experiences. Mathews shows how African American and white Christians each sought to apply a biblical doctrine of perseverance to their social contexts. White Christians made belief in proper doctrine a litmus test for salvation; but African-American Christians expanded this to include social justice and love of neighbor as well (128). African Americans asked the question: “how could you define the Christian church and include segregationists, lynchers, and racists?” (127) Once again, the privilege held by white Christians blinded them to their inadequate definitions of what constitutes true Christianity – or, perhaps more accurately, white Christians willingly blinded themselves to their incomplete doctrine of assurance and perseverance.

Though Mathews’ book presents careful research and a compelling thesis, some critiques may be raised as well. First, Mathews’ exclusion of African American Pentecostals from her research provides an incomplete picture of interwar African American churches. In fairness, Mathews tells readers that she has intentionally delimited her study to Methodists and Baptists, and the inclusion of Pentecostals may have required researched beyond the scope of one book. But an acknowledgement of the way this exclusion impacts the thesis would strengthen the book’s overall argument. From anecdotal information I have heard, Pentecostals tended toward more fundamentalist attitudes than Methodists and Baptists. An inclusion of Pentecostals in the study would perhaps reveal that, overall, African-Americans were more fundamentalist than Mathews concludes.

A second critique is that the book does not include an account of African-American Christianity up until the interwar period. Of course, a thorough history is beyond the scope of the book, but a brief accounting of this history would perhaps provide a fuller picture of why African-Americans do not fit the fundamentalist-modernist binary. As it is, the book implies that modernism and fundamentalism were the only two theological resources that African-Americans had at their disposal during the interwar period. However, Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833) is an example of an African-American theologian with a commitment to both orthodox doctrine and social action. Did the African American church draw on earlier theologians such as Haynes or others? Addressing this question may show that the African American church’s theological reflection came from sources other than white fundamentalists and modernists. This would further substantiate the book’s thesis.

Despite these critiques, Mathews’ book is an important contribution to church history and our understanding of race relations. It cautions us against reading church history through the lens of white Christianity and gives us an example of how orthodox doctrine should impact the church’s witness to an unjust society.

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