African-American Baptists followed divergent paths toward goal of racial uplift - Word&Way

African-American Baptists followed divergent paths toward goal of racial uplift

BELTON—The story of Black Baptists in the 20th century reflects the larger story of African-Americans’ quest for equality, historian Adam Bond said.

African-American Baptists shared a common goal of “racial uplift,” but their approaches varied from social-gospel reform to a single-minded focus on saving souls to Black nationalism, he told a conference at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.

Adam Bond

“One could find within the biblical and theological traditions of the black Baptist experience grounds for each position. One could also find ways in which these differing positions supported each other in the work of uplift,” said Bond, associate professor of historical studies in the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University.

Bond participated in a panel discussion on Baptists and race as part of a conference on “Baptists and the Shaping of American Culture,” sponsored by the UMHB College of Christian Studies.

African-American Baptist involvement in social and political issues neither began nor ended with Martin Luther King Jr., he noted.

“The cast of socially engaged black Baptist characters is much larger than many people suspect,” Bond said, pointing to the influence of William Henry Jernagin, pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., in the 1920s.

“A ‘race man’ at his core, Jernagin led racial uplift initiatives within and outside of the denomination,” he said.

Bond also noted the significant role of Conseulla B. York, a woman preacher from Chicago with a noteworthy prison ministry in the 1950s.

Among African-American Baptists who emphasized the importance of soul-winning, Bond pointed to J.W. Bailey, who headed the National Baptist Convention USA evangelism department in the 1920s and 1930s, coordinating religious revival meetings around the country.

“Bailey saw this as his primary mission. The easy solution to the race crisis in America was salvation. He believed that the world would be a better place when everyone truly knew Jesus as Lord,” Bond said.

J.M. Gates and Jasper Williams of Atlanta, W. Leo Daniels of Houston and C.L. Franklin—father of soul singer Aretha Franklin—all made a significant impact nationally through their recorded evangelistic sermons, he added.

However, other African-Americans responded with embarrassment to the “chanted sermons” of those “whooping preachers,” preferring instead to emphasize education as the key to racial uplift, Bond noted.

Even so, African-Americans who advocated for education and “distanced themselves from the masses of black folk” followed two widely divergent paths—integration and cultural assimilation on one hand and black nationalists on the other. For example, he noted the father of Malcolm X was a Baptist preacher and supporter of Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association.

“Did pan-African thought exist among some of the black Baptists in charge of mission work? Were their ideas about cultivating Africa a way to build a nation? Or was ‘nation-building’ within a nation more on the minds of more Baptists than public records disclose? This category of African-American Baptist political thought will be an important one to examine,” Bond said.