Colin Chapell on Carolyn Renée Dupont’s Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975
Faithful responses to the Christian gospel inspired the Civil Rights Movement’s most heroic stands against racial injustice — and created a cognitive dissonance for many white southerners, who were forced to choose either the mandates of their religion or their culture of segregation. Or at least that’s the popular story. Many people like to think of the ministers, priests, rabbis, and lay believers who came into the South to support the Civil Rights Movement as exemplifying the most faithful believers. But what about “them that believed” in the South? What happened to the white evangelicals who were forced to examine the culture of Jim Crow? If they lived in the so-called Bible Belt, how did they not come to the same conclusions about de jure segregation as much of the rest of the country? These are a few of the incisive questions at the heart of Carolyn Renée Dupont’s new volume Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975.
Mississippi Praying joins Stephen Haynes’s excellent Last Segregated Hour (reviewed for Marginalia here) in examining the ways in which white evangelicals used their religious beliefs to defend segregation and Jim Crow. While Haynes examined the kneel-in campaign of 1964-1965 in Memphis, Dupont gives a statewide examination of the white evangelical defenders of Jim Crow, focusing on Southern Baptists, Methodists, and Southern Presbyterians. (Art Remillard has interviews with both Haynes and Dupont on Marginalia Radio here and here respectively.) In doing so, Dupont demonstrates that defenders of Mississippi’s segregated society turned early and often to evangelical theology in order to justify their views on race. With this argument, Dupont has much to say in response to Charles Marsh, David L. Chappell, and other scholars who argue that lived theology and prophetic religion offered a stronger basis for the Civil Rights Movement than defenders of segregation could appeal to. Lest readers miss this point, Dupont makes it clear in her introduction that “changes in Mississippi’s racial structure came first, and the religious ideology to accompany it came afterward.” Indeed, her work unequivocally shows the religious commitment to segregation among white evangelicals.
The white evangelical commitment to individualistic theology also led the way for an understanding of the world in which the disadvantages facing African Americans in the South were a result of their own failings rather than any structural stumbling blocks. Insofar as Dupont demonstrates that adherence to an individualistic theology ran throughout white evangelicalism in Mississippi, Mississippi Praying presents an historical example of the arguments offered by sociologist Michael O. Emerson in his now-classic Divided by Faith that shows how differently white and black evangelicals see the world even while sharing much of the same theology.
Dupont’s prose should be the envy of historians everywhere. Crisp, incisive, and thought-provoking, it moves the reader easily through nine chronological chapters. She draws on powerful examples to make her case, covering everything from Brown v. Board of Education, to the Southern Baptist Convention’s conservative reconfiguration, and the splitting of Southern Presbyterians in the 1960s and 1970s.
The first half of the book presents a picture of evangelicalism in Mississippi in the Civil Rights era. The first chapter alone would be useful background reading for anyone wanting a broad overview of the religious landscape in the state. While Dupont mentions the ubiquity of the “big two” denominations in the state — the Southern Baptists and the Methodists — she also takes care to point out other groups. Her main focus remains tightly on churches and congregations affiliated with the Methodists, Southern Baptists, and Southern Presbyterians. Dupont does more than simply set the context, though. In showing the dominance of evangelical Christianity among whites in the state, Dupont argues that churches “erected walls between white and black life that remained as strong and impenetrable as political, economic, or educational barriers, and it thus helped bear the weight of white supremacy.” Indeed, she takes the oft-repeated saying that “11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America” and argues that such a state of affairs helped (and perhaps still helps) to support systems of racial injustice.
The years after the Second World War constitute the all too brief moment wherein there seemed to be some movement towards interracial cooperation. Leading the way in this moment of goodwill, Dupont points out, were frequently the denominations’ women’s auxiliary groups. Yet even in this potential feel-good moment, she shows how much of this cooperation filtered through a white social structure that ignored African-American religious authorities. Rather than working within groups like the National Baptist Convention, African Methodist Episcopal Church, or other black evangelical denominations, white evangelicals often set up their own, separate, conferences for African Americans that would operate under the purview of white denominations.
By demonstrating how, even amidst a time of corporate goodwill, whites still felt the need to retain some measure of control over their African-American co-religionists, Dupont carefully prepares the reader for the flurry of responses from white evangelicals across Mississippi to the Brown v. Board decision, which desegregated schools in 1954. She notes the ways in which Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians were all struck with internecine conflicts over the proper response to the Supreme Court’s decision. The majority of each white denomination sent out statements of support for the decision even though delegates, clergy, and lay members from Mississippi strenuously objected — first to the decision and then to their denomination’s support.
A demonstration of how white Mississippi evangelicals bolstered their defense of segregation through theology rounds out the first half of the volume. For students of the period, familiar names such as Dr. G.T. Gillespie appear, as do a number of lesser-known clergy and even lay members. As she investigates the ways in which white Mississippians used theology as a defense for segregation, Dupont makes a careful distinction between academic, or high, theology and folk theology. Both are taken seriously in this work, as they should be. While many people think only of how preachers affected parishioners, clearly congregants influenced clergy (and still do). Many scholars try to incorporate this tension between high and folk theology in their work, and it is a credit to Dupont’s research that readers see the opinions and ideas of the laity throughout the book.
In the second half of the work, Dupont focuses a chapter each on Methodist and Baptist attempts to shore up segregation while sprinkling in Presbyterian responses as well. The emotional climax of the book comes when she writes about the Jackson church visits (or kneel-in campaign). It is in this section that readers see how ordinary white parishioners, sometimes against the will of their pastors, barred African Americans and interracial groups from worshipping in white churches. For those used to a telling of the Civil Rights Movement as a religious movement led by the devout against the nominal, “only in name” believers, this section serves as a withering, deeply discouraging counter-narrative. (For those wanting a more in-depth account of a similar event 200 miles away, Haynes’s Last Segregated Hour is highly recommended.)
Finally, Dupont turns to the ways in which white American evangelicalism took a conservative turn in the late 1960s and 1970s. In doing so, she examines the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, the exodus of a significant number of Southern Presbyterian congregations and subsequent formation of a new denomination, and the decimation of Methodism in Mississippi. Certainly, it is true that several of the denominations Dupont studied have corporately confessed and repented of the parts they played in justifying and maintaining racial injustice (for the Southern Baptist Convention’s 1995 statement, see here; and for the 2002 confession by the Presbyterian Church in America, here), but these actions came decades after the period Dupont examines. Throughout the book, Dupont demonstrates how faith bolstered segregation.
Mississippi Praying is clearly an idea-driven book, and while there will be readers who dispute Dupont’s interpretations and conclusions, it is clear that she takes theology seriously. It is a highlight of this work that she does not claim that religious belief is merely a veneer on top of other social concerns but is a driving force in the daily lives of the faithful. She takes believers at their word: when they say they believe something, Dupont honors their perspectives. Despite the fact that theology is a significant factor in the ways in which individuals and communities see and interpret the world around them, such a perspective is not always popular in academic writing.
While there is much to like in Mississippi Praying, there are some problematic elements as well. One of the more striking issues in the work is the handling of evidence that contradicts the author’s main thesis, particularly her claim that individualistic theology ignores the structures of racism and can even aid and abet it. Dupont largely demonstrates this claim. But the three denominations studied in Mississippi Praying each had significant groups of pastors and laity outside of Mississippi that vehemently disagreed with their co-religionists within the state despite the fact that they shared the same theological commitments. Moreover, Dupont gives multiple examples of white Mississippi preachers who fought their own congregations, as well as churches involved in internecine fights over attempts to upend segregationist policies. Dupont presents this evidence but leaves unattended its implications for her claim, leaving the reader with several questions. For example, if theology was the primary factor in white evangelicals’ resistance to structural change, why did pastors (who seemingly imbibed this theology most deeply) sometimes present challenges to the hyper-segregationists among their own congregants? Surely this was deeper than a divide between high and folk theology, as clergy often disagreed with each over these very points. What was so unique about Mississippi that white evangelicals in that state harbored a deeper commitment to segregation than their co-religionists in other Deep South states? While Dupont argues that these issues were not simply examples of churches in cultural captivity (and I agree), she never fully discusses why this is the case.
At times Dupont paints with too large a brush. While she makes powerful arguments about the impact of individualistic theology on white evangelicals’ understanding of the world and its structures, there is little room for counter-examples. I am left wondering how Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, and Richard Mouw — all white evangelicals — would fit into Dupont’s argument. They share many of the same theological commitments that Dupont indicts as individualistic with a propensity to “obscure and discount collective and corporate responsibility,” yet all acknowledge and work to bring to light structural injustices Christians are called to confront. (While these particular men, and organizations with conservative evangelical theology like the Chalmers Center, all came after the period Dupont studies, she rarely bounds her discussions of theology by time. Her conclusion, in fact, discusses the current website of one of the churches studied.) It would have been appropriate, perhaps even strengthening her already incisive arguments, to include counter-examples and point out how they differ.
Mississippi Praying offers a clear, powerful, well-documented argument about the power of theology to influence the lives of ordinary people in the pews just as much as their pastors. Dupont’s work challenges readers to examine their own lives and beliefs. While not all readers will appreciate her conclusions, or the edge to her writing, Mississippi Praying confronts traditional understandings of the Civil Rights Movement, adds complexity to our understanding of the power of theological commitments, and forces readers to recognize how their faith has real implications for how they interact with the people around them.