How Sunday Morning Became the Most Racially Segregated Hour in America
I only have one memory from the only Promise Keepers event I attended back in the mid-’90s. Because Promise Keepers had made racial reconciliation one of their priorities, the ministry intentionally platformed Black speakers and singers. My memory is of a mixed-race band leading 80,000 men in singing Let the Walls Fall Down.
In His love, no walls between us
In His love a common ground
Kneeling at the cross of Jesus
All our pride comes tumbling down
Let the walls fall down
Let the walls fall down
Let the walls fall down
By His blood let the walls fall down
Like most worship music of the time, there was nothing particularly memorable about the song itself. But in context its message was unmistakable: through the cross, Jesus is reconciling people to each other. My response? Well, I’m embarrassed to say that I thought it was evidence that Promise Keepers was becoming theologically liberal. Why were they putting the spotlight on social issues like racial reconciliation instead of the gospel?
What a difference a couple of decades of Bible reading, paying attention to the world around me, and receiving a theological education makes! The message from Promise Keepers was correct: the gospel reconciles us to God and to each other. Reconciliation of people in different economic classes, generations, genders, and, yes, races is a gospel issue. You cannot love God and hate your brother.
How Did 11:00 on Sunday Morning Become Segregated by Race?
Churches didn’t become so racially segregated simply because of doctrine. There is wide agreement on core biblical teaching between Bible-believing churches whether they are predominantly white or black.
When it comes to understanding today’s racial division that exists in the American church, we must look at something that happened before the states were united.
In 1667, the Virginia Assembly passed the Slavery Statues.
“It is enacted and declared by this Grand Assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptism does not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom.”
English common law declared that no baptized Christian could be a slave. A natural consequence was that colonial slave owners didn’t want their slaves baptized so as not to lose their free labor. The Christian slave owners found themselves in the untenable position of willfully keeping the gospel from their slaves and so consigning them to a Christless eternity. How did these churchgoers resolve this tension? By following the English common law and freeing their slaves that became baptized believers? Nope. They passed a new law stating that baptism didn’t require them to free their slaves.
It didn’t have to be this way. Christian slaveholders could have followed the Scriptures and recognized the dignity of their Black brothers and sisters in Christ.
Consider the story of Richard Allen, who founded the first Black denomination: the African Methodist Episcopal Church of 1816. Allen was born a slave in Philadelphia in 1760. His owner, Stokely Sturgis, allowed him to attend the Methodist church and he was converted in 1777. A few years later, Allen purchased his freedom for the equivalent of $36,000 and became a regular preacher at St. George’s in Philadelphia. While the church’s congregation was racially mixed, the white Christians had the power. As the number of Black attendees increased, so did the racial tension.
Here’s how Jemar Tisby tells the story in The Color of Compromise. “One Sunday in 1792, Richard Allen and fellow black minister Absalom Jones entered St. George’s to worship. Unknowingly, they took seats reserved for white parishioners and thus violated the segregated seating arrangements. They knelt to pray but one of the church’s white trustees soon interrupted them. Allen recounts the episode in his autobiography:
We had not been long upon our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and low talking. I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees, H—M—, having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him up off of his knees, and saying, “You must get up—you must not kneel here.” Mr. Jones replied, “wait until prayer is over.” Mr. H—M—said “no, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and I force you away.” Mr. Jones said, “wait until prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more.”
“The white trustees insisted that Jones leave immediately. Another trustee came over to help pull up the black worshipers. The prayer ended, and Allen recalled, ‘We all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in the church.’”
It didn’t have to be this way. White Christians could have heeded Jesus’s call to steward their power to benefit others instead of themselves.
Consider Augustus Tolton, who was born a slave in Missouri in 1854 and baptized Catholic before fleeing to the free state of Illinois, where he attended Catholic school. As an adult, he felt called to pursue the priesthood, but at the time, no Catholic seminary in the United States accepted Black students. Tolton saved his money, and with the help of benefactors, attended seminary in Rome.
In 1886, he was the first person of African descent to be appointed a Catholic priest in America. The cardinal who ordained him reportedly told Augustus, “If America has never seen a Black priest, it has to see one now.” Tolton went on to pastor St. Monica’s Parish, which became a thriving congregation of Black Catholics on the south side of Chicago (The Color of Compromise).
It didn’t have to be this way. When MLK Jr. went to the liberal Crozer Theological Seminary, no conservative seminary would accept him.
It didn’t have to be this way. It could have been different. Maybe it’s time to pursue a different way—God’s way. Maybe it’s time to set aside preferences and prejudices and start to see God’s heavenly kingdom show up and show out on earth as it is in heaven. Maybe it’s time to see that in the cross, Jesus reconciles people to God and to each other (Ephesians 2:14). For Christians, reconciliation must be a gospel issue before it’s a social issue.
It didn’t have to be this way. But it happened. So where do we go from here? Hear Sean Boone, pastor of a multiethnic church in Ferguson, Missouri, share his thoughts on how we can turn segregated Sundays into integrated communities.
Posted by Keith Simon