How to Alleviate an Uneasy Evangelical Conscience

By: Dale M. Coulter
Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

right-and-wrong-decisionsIn 1947 the famous defender of Evangelicalism Carl F. H. Henry took on his own movement. Toward the end of the 1940s Henry and others were feeling a little uneasy about what Henry called the “evaporation of fundamentalist humanitarianism.”

What he meant was a genuine reluctance on the part of Fundamentalists like John R. Rice and Bob Jones, Sr. to come to grips with the social evils of the day as the revivalist tradition had done in the nineteenth century.

Henry recounts asking one-hundred pastors, “how many of you, during the past six months, have preached a sermon devoted in large part to a condemnation of such social evils as aggressive warfare, racial hatred and intolerance, the liquor traffic, exploitation of labor or management or the like–a sermon containing not merely an incidental or illustrative reference, but directed mainly against such evils and proposing the framework in which you think the solution is possible?”

The response? None.

Here is what Carl Henry did not know at the time.

  • Henry did not know that in 1901 William G. Schell published a response to Charles Carroll’s The Negro a Beast in which Carroll advanced a racist ideology that denied full humanity to African Americans

Carroll had utilized a work by Alexander Winchell a theistic evolutionist and Methodist who had argued that African Americans were pre-Adamites who did not come from Adam. Hence they were inferior. Winchell did so on the basis of evolutionary theory. Carroll drew on Winchell as providing a “scientific” basis for his claims.

Schell was a member of the Evening Light Saints, a holiness group later known as the Church of God (Anderson, IN). Drawing on his holiness heritage that sanctification removes all forms of prejudice, Schell published a lengthy response in which he refuted Carroll.

What some historians leave out of the early opposition to scientific evolution is that in the popular mind scientific evolution and social evolution were fused together. Evolution was used by some so-called scientists to advance racist rhetoric even when these scientists like Alexander Winchell were praised as soldiers in the campaign of science against theology.

  • Henry did not know that in 1902 Charles Price Jones published An Appeal to the Sons of Africa in which he drew upon the tradition of Ethiopianism based on Psalm 68:31 

Ethiopianism had been part of African American rhetoric from the turn of the nineteenth century. African Americans recognized that in scripture Ethiopia was short-hand for the entire African continent and thus the promise of the Psalmist was a promise for them. Ethiopianism, then, became a way of affirming the dignity of all Africans, their cultural contribution and their participation in God’s plan.

This idea was bolstered by the fact that the country of Ethiopia in Africa was an ancient Christian kingdom. It took on a new sense of urgency in 1896 after the Ethiopian emperor Menelik I led an army that defeated the Italians who wanted to colonize the country.

Jones, along with other African-American intellectuals like W. E. B. Du Bois utilized Ethiopianism to affirm black identity in the era of Jim Crow. Jones, however, combined Ethiopianism with holiness to announce that racism would be washed away in the blood of Christ. Sanctification brought unity that acknowledged all cultures even as it renewed those cultures from within.

In Africa Ethiopianism impacted the prophet William Wade Harris who went on a preaching tour from the coast of Liberia to the gold coast. Today several Pentecostal bodies trace their origins to Harris’ ministry.

  • Henry did not know that William J. Seymour would be impacted by Charles Price Jones and the Evening Light Saints and thus would apply this theological perspective to Spirit baptism at the Azusa Street Revival in 1906

For Seymour the surest sign that one has been genuinely baptized by the Holy Spirit was a love that burned out racism and other prejudices. The mission that flowed from Spirit baptism was to announce reconciliation through the renewal of apostolic faith.

In addition, Spirit baptism democratized the faith because if young and old, male and female, white and black could all speak the language of the Kingdom, then they could all minister in the power of the Spirit.

  • Henry did not know that in 1925 Bishop Robert C. Lawson published The Anthropology of Christ Our Kinsman Redeemer in which he would argue that Christ had the blood of all races in him and thus his death delivered from the sins of slavery and race prejudice

Lawson founded the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ while serving as pastor of a church in Harlem during the Harlem renaissance. In the Anthropology he argued for the contribution of Africans to culture and civilization, placing him firmly within the stream of Ethiopianism.

In 1954 Lawson received an award from the Ethiopian emperor Haile Salesse I who had been re-instated as the rightful ruler of Ethiopia by the British after the defeat of Mussolini’s Italy during World War II.

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., pastor of the famous Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem would also receive an award.

Just three years later Lawson would be a speaker at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom along with Martin Luther King, Jr. The Prayer Pilgrimage was the precursor to the 1963 March on Washington.

The Italian occupation of Ethiopia was never lost on James Baldwin whose early years were forged in the fires of pentecostalism and of war. While Baldwin had a complicated relationship with his pentecostal past, he retained the religious rhetoric of the Sanctified Church, fusing it with fiery political speech in the service of Civil Rights. Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain recounts those early days of pentecostal and holiness fire.

In a documentary, he said, “I really do believe in the New Jerusalem.  I really do believe that we can all become better than we are.  I know we can.  But the price is enormous and people are not yet willing to pay it.”

Focused as he was on Baptist fundamentalism, Carl Henry did not see the tradition of activism that continued in the holiness and pentecostal streams. This activism was birthed out of a holiness theology that saw an encounter with God that filled the heart with love as necessarily removing racism and other forms of prejudice. These encounters led holiness and pentecostal thinkers to continue with the social implications of Christianity.

For holiness and pentecostal saints, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that “justice is love correcting that which revolts against love” is an experiential reality first and then it must be translated through right living into a social reality. If Henry had only looked in a different direction, he could have alleviated his uneasy conscience.

Tags: , , , ,

Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Wednesday, September 4th, 2013 at 1:00 am and is filed under Church History, Faith & Culture, Uncategorized, Worldview. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “How to Alleviate an Uneasy Evangelical Conscience”

  1. Ewen Butler says:

    The connections are fascinating, particularly the Ethiopian consciousness. Not sure how that looks when the pentecostal-holiness tradition is exported to other contexts such as the Canadian one. It seems that little if any work has been done on how Pentecostals in this country have related to the francophone and aboriginal population versus how the evangelical tradition has done so.

    The way holiness Pentecostals view Spirit baptism is refreshing, but from observation growing up as a Pentecostal, social justice was never high on the agenda. The transfer from personal experience to social engagement largely did not happen. Some of that may be due to the fact that Canada has been governed in my lifetime mainly by social democratic governments. So, the church has deferred to provincial and federal governments on issues of social justice. “Let the government deal with society while we save souls”! There is always that nagging fear too of being accused of preaching a social gospel. Thankfully, I think the tide is turning!