American revivalist preachers have been evangelical Christianity's most visible spokesmen over the centuries. What does their record on race relations show? This article by Edward Gilbreath, excerpted from CHRISTIANITY TODAY's sister publication CHRISTIAN HISTORY, paints a mixed but improving picture.
Eleven o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America," declared civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., in a well-known line. What is not so well known is that the statement was also made by someone else in a 1960 Reader's Digest article on racism—Dr. King's friend, evangelist Billy Graham.
To better appreciate the uniqueness of Graham's concern for racial reconciliation, we need to set him in the historical context of a long line of nationally known American evangelists who faced the problem of racism. Their record is mixed.
Consider George Whitefield, the father of America's Great Awakening. In the 1740s, Whitefield won countless souls to Christ—both black and white. Early in his ministry, he questioned the morality of slaveholding. Yet later he approved buying slaves to help work in the fields of his Georgia orphanage. Whitefield justified the move in part because enslaving blacks, he reasoned, exposed them to Christianity.
Like Whitefield, many Christians were opposed to the oppression of blacks but believed the church's main function was to win souls, and secondarily, to perform acts of mercy—but certainly not to change social structures like slavery.
An exception was Charles Finney, who was both an influential evangelist and an outspoken abolitionist. In 1851 he was elected president of Ohio's Oberlin College, a leading stronghold of the antislavery ...1