Book Review – Black Fundamentalists: Conservative Christianity and Racial Identity in the Segregation Era

Daniel R. Bare, Black Fundamentalists: Conservative Christianity and Racial Identity* in the Segregation Era (New York University Press, 2021). 260 pp. $30.00 USD

Ever since George Marsden published his landmark work, Fundamentalism and American Culture, in 1980, a steady stream of books on the movement has flowed from the American press. However, virtually all of these books have focused on the movement’s most prominent institutions and leaders, which were white, leaving a generation of readers with the impression that fundamentalism was an exclusively white phenomenon. It was with great interest, then, that I took up Daniel Bare’s new book, Black Fundamentalists, which chronicles the African American contribution to fundamentalism during the crucial years 1920 to 1940.

Bare pours over reams of black newspapers, sermons, minutes from denominational meetings, and more to piece together the forgotten history of black fundamentalists. What he uncovers is a host of men and ministries that deserve far more attention than they have received. This includes the AME pastor William David Miller, a self-identified fundamentalist who oversaw a church of 1,500 in Oklahoma City and built a substantial radio ministry; the “Henry Brothers,” itinerate (and controversial) evangelists who drew capacity crowds coast-to-coast; Lacey Kirk Williams, president of the National Baptist Convention and a profound spokesman for the fundamentalist cause; J. G. Robinson, the long-time editor of Church Review; and George Biddle, an elder statesmen in the American Methodist Episcopal Church who repeatedly warned his denomination about the “pernicious…un-scriptural, un-sanctified, and harmful teaching” infiltrating their ranks. In their theology, rhetoric, and actions, these black leaders were every bit as much fundamentalists as William Bell Riley and Curtis Lee Laws.

Like their white counterparts in the North, the black fundamentalists also established a series of new educational institutions to counteract the influence of modernism in their established schools. The most remarkable of these was the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, TN. Begun in 1924 as a joint venture between the National Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention, this African American seminary trained a generation of black Christian leaders to defend the orthodox Christian faith. It is shocking that this seminary has received such little attention in fundamentalist literature thus far.

Bare is also careful to chronicle the social concerns of these black fundamentalists.

As with white fundamentalist ministers, there were…calls to holy living, jeremiads against the moral ills of society such as drunkenness and violence, exhortations to steadfastness in the faith, and appeals urging constant fidelity to historic biblical orthodoxy and orthopraxy. (90)

Unlike their white counterparts, however, the black fundamentalists were also eager to apply their orthodox doctrine to the pressing problems of racism and segregation. They understood racial discrimination to be antithetical to the biblical gospel and were vocal in their denunciations of systemic racism, particularly as expressed in the South’s Jim Crow laws. Isaac Reed Berry’s sermon entitled “The Brotherhood of Man” illustrates the point. He preached that “it would be impossible for the nation to instill in its children a ‘high and spiritual character’ so long as ‘means of life are denied to any individual, class, or race to develop into robust manhood and womanhood.’” He denounced laws against interracial marriage and longed for the day when interracial couples would be the norm: “when wedlock is unrestricted except by moral law, individual taste and pleasure, the heart of the races will beat as one” (107). And in a sermon on the Second Coming, he declared, “when Christ shall come in His great majesty of power to judge the quick and the dead,” there will no longer be any “class spirit,” “no prejudice,” “no racial discrimination,” “no envy, jealousy, and selfishness.” This is the way it should be today too, he said. No more “destruction of homes, and disfranchisement and discriminations in most cruel, and hideous forms” as the “Negro suffers today” (108).

Bare’s masterful treatment of African American fundamentalism left me with a mix of emotions. I was pleased to learn that my doctrinal heritage is far broader, and deeper, than I had previously known. At the same time, I was saddened to realize that I had never heard the stories of the men and institutions chronicled in Bare’s book before. I hope future students of fundamentalism will not be so impoverished. I hope future professors will require Black Fundamentalists in their courses on fundamentalism. I also found myself desiring to learn more about this branch of the fundamentalist movement. I hope a new generation of scholars will take up Bare’s mantle and fill out the story of African American fundamentalism even more. The American Baptist Theological Seminary alone deserves a full monograph.

I believe this book also has great potential as a reference tool for theological retrieval. The black fundamentalists were powerful advocates for racial and economic equality, but from a strictly biblicist perspective. In a day when discussions about race and class are so often tainted with the ideas of critical theory and intersectionality (even within the church), I believe we would be wise to consider the writings of our forgotten forefathers on these crucial issues. Their wisdom may be just what we need to navigate our current cultural moment.

* Affiliate link. A (very tiny) portion of purchases goes to SharperIron.

Brandon James Crawford is the husband of Melanie, the father of Daniel and Sarah, and the pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Marshall, Michigan. He holds an MDiv from Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, a ThM in Reformation & Post-Reformation Theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (PRTS), and is currently pursuing a PhD in historical theology at PRTS.

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There are 3 Comments

josh p's picture

Thanks for the review. I recently read, "The Decline of African American Theology" which I enjoyed. The whole time reading it though I wondered if there was a book more along these lines. Ordered it! 

Don Johnson's picture

You only add to the list of books I want to read! The pile is high and getting higher.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

W. T. O'Harver's picture

What were some of the other "Black Fundamentalists" that the volume mentions?

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