The Presbyterian Church in America voted last week to repent of “past failures to love brothers and sisters from minority cultures.” This is no small matter. The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) was more than merely complicit in racism. The PCA exists only because of its founders’ defense of slavery, segregation, and white supremacy.
At the start of the Civil War, southern Presbyterian churches split from northern presbyters and formed the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. This southern wing of Presbyterianism explained their defense of slavery in a theology that emphasized a literal reading of the Bible. This reading saw a support for slavery (where does the Bible say slavery is a sin?) and for racial differences (often in the story of Babel).
Presbyterians who opposed slavery were cast as deviating from a literal, faithful reading of the Bible. These were viewed as deviations from true Christianity; abolitionists were using theological arguments, not Biblical texts, to make their case.
In addition, they saw the church as only a spiritual institution, not one that took up political or social causes. The push for racial equality was seen as a move away from the evangelistic mission of the church. This view of the church as a spiritual institution also supported segregation. In a sort of “separate but equal” theology, blacks and whites were viewed as part of the same spiritual church even if they remained in separate congregations.
The southern Presbyterians evolved over time, and in the 1950s and 1960s, the denomination moved toward reconciling with northern Presbyterians. There was a concern among many southern Presbyterians that the denomination was drifting into a liberalism.
Racial integration became the litmus test for liberalism. Like abolitionism a century earlier, the push for racial equality was viewed as a departure from Biblical literalism and the spiritual purpose of the church.
A Presbyterian brochure at the time on “How to Detect a Liberal in the Pulpit” includes the following sign of liberalism:
The liberal delights to talk about making God relevant to our day and his idea of making the Gospel relevant is finding in it the proper social messages for the issues of the day. Thus the liberal minister will be frequently found leading racial demonstrations…In general, then, the liberal supports radical political, social, and economic progress, and he will join the chorus that conservatives are dangerous extremists.
Carolyn Renée Dupont (who provides an excellent history of Mississippi churches during this time) quotes Jackson, Mississippi pastors Rev. B.I. Anderson and Dr. John Reed Miller whose letter of opposition to the denomination summed up the theology of those who opposed civil rights: “The heart of the gospel is not the treatment of others, but…’Believe of the Lord Jesus Christ.’” Anderson’s church decided “to continue the policy of not allowing all races, creeds, and colors entrance to the worship services of this church.” A decade later, Anderson and Miller helped establish the PCA presbytery in Jackson.
In 1964, the denomination took steps to integrate its churches and lobby for civil rights. When the denomination called for open churches that did not bar blacks, many churches. This was seen as a sign that the denomination was departing from true Christianity. For segregationist Presbyterians in Mississippi and elsewhere, any moderate stance on integration was a sign that liberalism was taking over the church.
In response, segregationist Presbyterians began leaving the denomination. Some left officially. Others started movements withing the denomination. They openly defied the denomination by refusing to allow blacks to worship in their churches or by firing pastors who wanted to do so. They even formed their own seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary.
In 1973, the PCA was officially formed when churches left the southern Presbyterians (a decade later the southern and northern Presbyterians joined to form the Presbyterian Church in the USA).
The PCA was primarily made up of churches who had opposed integration and civil rights. Its leaders openly stated that they were continuing the legacy of confederate churches. As in 1861, the PCA was going to keep the faith pure and free from liberalism.
Most of the PCA was in the deep south. A majority of Mississippi’s churches joined the PCA, giving it the greatest share of PCA’s congregations.
The narrative most commonly heard in PCA churches is that it formed to protect and keep the faith and avoid the slide into liberalism. But this is akin to the belief that the south seceded because of states rights: the southern states claimed they had a right to make their own laws, but they made this claim only because they were on the verge of losing slavery Likewise, the PCA formed to avoid liberalism, but this liberalism was defined as support for integration and racial equality.
…the racial crisis precipitated conflict of the meaning of Christianity. These Presbyterian dissidents understood their break with the parent denomination as a fight to preserve their faith in it its purest form; indeed they strove to return to the unadulterated theological foundations of their southern forefathers. These arguments did not serve merely as cloaks to hide the “real” issue of white supremacy. Rather, theology formed an essential foundation for their racial ideology. PCA apologists who railed against corrupt theology of their coreligionists articulated a genuine, not an artificial, concern.
In other words, the PCA formed to keep the faith pure. It was not to keep segregation. But the desire to keep the faith in 1973, as in 1861, came as a response to fights over race.
Today, the PCA has moved on from its racist roots. Not completely, but it has moved. My favorite symbol of this move was when Thabiti Anyabwile, an African-American pastor, spoke at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) as part of a lecture series named for segregationist John Reed Miller (read Anyawile’s post on racism as the “greater evil” this election).
The decision to repent of past and current racism is unlike similar calls in other denominations. For a denomination that would not exist if it hadn’t been for segregationists, the call for repentance is a historic step forward.