Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail" still jolts the church today. "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner," King wrote, "but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice. Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."
No doubt King targeted many good white Christians with his damning critique. Shared faith could not overcome social conventions like segregation. Ever since white Baptists faithfully preached the gospel among black slaves, spiritual unity has mostly eluded the races in America. Even those first efforts were often tainted. Many slave owners worried that spiritual liberation would encourage slaves to pursue economic freedom. To reassure the owners, some evangelists made an unfortunate promise: The gospel they preached would not promote social change. Yet while many 19th-century evangelicals condoned slavery, other evangelicals led the way in treating slaves as spiritual equals.
Douglas Sweeney, associate professor of church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, hopes that a better understanding of history can cause today's mostly white evangelical movement to confront the sins of its past and soothe the divide between black and white evangelicals. Race relations is only one of many topics covered in his short primer to evangelical history, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement (Baker Academic, 2005). In addition to challenging his readers, he seeks to encourage them with stories of ...1