Francis Grimké on racism and renewal
He was known for his Christian convictions and his university degrees. Highly appreciated for his character and erudition. A compelling speaker who frequently addressed students and Christian organizations. But when Francis Grimké attempted to publish a critique of the Presbyterian Church‘s complicity in racism, he was told to shut up.
Why did this happen? What can we learn from it?
Accredited leader, message rejected
Francis Grimké (1850-1937) was born in South Carolina. His father was a white plantation owner and his mother a slave. After his father’s death, Grimké’s white half-brother also forced him into slavery. Francis, 9, fled but was soon captured and sold to a Confederate officer.
When the Civil War ended, abolitionists arranged for Francis to live in Massachusetts and attend Lincoln University. After graduating as valedictorian in 1870, Grimké studied law and then attended Princeton Seminary. After graduating in 1878, he served as pastor of Fifteenth Street Presbyterian in Washington, DC. Grimké quickly became a respected leader of the black community and is part of a group of prominent pastors, scholars and activists that WEB Du Bois has rightly called “the talented tenth.”
In 1912, Grimké submitted an article titled “A Call for Renewal in the Church” to The Presbyterian, the flagship magazine of his denomination. Since Grimké shared The Presbyterianof conservative theological leanings, it seemed the natural place for him to submit his appeal. What the church desperately needed, Grimké wrote, was for those who professed Christ to act “more in accordance with the spirit and teachings of Jesus Christ”.
What the Church desperately needed, Grimké wrote, was for those who professed Christ to act “more in accordance with the spirit and teachings of Jesus Christ.”
DS Kennedy, publisher of The Presbyterian, endorsed Grimké’s plea for a “revival from on high by the spirit of God”. But he still refused the article. What angered Kennedy was Grimké’s argument that a revival was needed because “the so-called Christian Church in America. . . shamefully justifies racial prejudice “under cover of the sacred name of Jesus Christ”. For Grimké, the Bible’s clear teaching on the doctrine of imago dei and the fellowship of believers meant that racism should have no place inside the church.
Context of Grimké’s ministry
What should we think of Grimké’s ideas on race relations and Kennedy’s response? After the Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction, southern states passed Jim Crow laws that segregated public places and disenfranchised most black voters. The racial theories in vogue at the time helped to sanction discriminatory practices.
Proponents of the theory of polygenesis argued that physiognomic differences, such as head size, proved that blacks were inferior to whites. This pseudoscience normalized a culture of racism in the post-Civil War American South. After the war, another “scientific” theory emerged that black people were not inferior humans but sub-human creatures. In “The Negro a Beast” (1900), for example, Charles Carroll claimed that while black people could talk and reason like Caucasians, they were a different species because they had no souls.
Popular fiction has helped spread these racist views. In leopard spots (1902), Baptist minister Thomas Dixon Jr. portrayed black men as a threat to the purity of white women and white culture. Grimké called this book, which sold more than a million copies, a “vile publication”.
These popular prejudices have fueled vigilante violence against black people. Between 1889 and 1899, 1,240 African Americans were lynched, often for alleged assaults on white women. After the Atlanta Riot of 1906, Grimké assumed that black lives didn’t matter to many white Christians. Otherwise, America’s “135,667 preachers and over 26,000,000 church members” would not tolerate this “record murder and lawlessness.”
Advocacy inspired by theology
Grimké himself was discriminated against in his own faith. When the Baltimore synod met at Hood College in Maryland, for example, Grimké and other black pastors were not allowed to stay in dormitories or eat in the cafeteria with white pastors.
In 1905, Grimké urged his fellow ministers at the Washington City Presbytery to reject a proposed merger between the Northern Presbyterian Church and the largely white Cumberland Presbyterian Church of the South because it would create separate presbyteries in the south. Although they applauded Grimké’s moving speech, the consistory still approved the merger.
At Princeton, Grimké had learned from Charles Hodge, who claimed that everyone shared the imago dei. In his Systematic theology, Hodge rejected polygenesis, insisting that humans were “not only of the same nature, but of the same origin.” They are all children of a common parent and have a common nature.
If blacks and whites were created in the image of God and thus constituted a “common brotherhood”, as Hodge taught, Grimké concluded that a racial caste system within the Church was not biblical. The church, he insisted, should courageously offer an alternative community that conforms to biblical principles, not the prevailing values of the time. This is why he wrote in his unpublished essay that evangelistic efforts should turn people “from their sins – from all their sins, even those dear to them as racial prejudice.”
The church should courageously offer an alternative community that conforms to biblical principles, not the prevailing values of the time.
For Grimké, prevailing cultural attitudes about race ran counter to the teaching of the Bible. Grimké wanted to awaken believers to the “hypocrisy” of their “pious cant” on Christian love and their complicity with racism. It was a message, however, that Kennedy did not think readers of The Presbyterian needed, or perhaps wanted, to hear. “There are many good things in your article,” Kennedy wrote to Grimké, but The Presbyterian found that Grimké’s article ” defeats its own purpose ” because it was ” calculated ” to produce ” a deviation ” from ” a spirit of harmony ” that supposedly existed between the races inside the church.
Are we going to miss similar opportunities?
In many ways, overt racism in America has diminished over the past 110 years. State-sanctioned Jim Crow laws have been dismantled. In the Presbyterian Church, separate presbyteries were integrated. Nevertheless, racism persists in various forms.
Grimke’s heart cry might have helped white believers consider the ways in which prevailing cultural attitudes about race frankly contradicted a most fundamental Christian belief. Although some critics of racism in the early 20th century dismissed Grimké’s solution to the sin of racial prejudice as naive and otherworldly, evangelical Christians needed to hear his insistence that the work of reviving of the Holy Spirit that leads to genuine repentance and new life was the best starting point to address the individual and collective problems caused by sin. Unfortunately, this opportunity was missed.
Will we make the same mistakes? When thoughtful Christians today criticize the evangelical church as a whole on issues of race, how should we respond? Instead of dismissing other believers as divisive or impertinent, we should carefully consider whether they have correctly identified the ways in which unbiblical cultural mores about race have shaped church beliefs and practices more than our convictions. theological. We should consider that they can point to realities of which we are unaware.