The Color of Incomplete History: A Review Article

S. Donald Fortson III
Professor of Church History and Practical Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte

Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019. 215 pages. $21.99, cloth.

Given the contentious nature of discussions about race in our culture, I would like to begin this review article with a brief personal note. As a church historian, professional integrity requires that I always attempt to be as objective as possible in telling the story of the Church. Historians must candidly admit that no one is ever completely unbiased in interpreting historical texts as hard as one tries to get it right. This means that interpretations of the past must be offered in humility, recognizing that it’s always possible that one has missed an important angle that a new scholar may uncover. History is an abyss, and no one will ever know it all, thus new generations of historians will always be necessary for the Church! Another observation: Church history is full of the good, the bad and the ugly, and we don’t do anyone a favor by trying to hide any of it if historical honesty counts. The story of the American church’s struggle with racism is a multi-faceted painful story and it needs to be told in its fullness as much as possible. It’s important to remember that appropriating historical materials for theological, ideological or political purposes is tricky business. Utmost caution is necessary, lest one succumb to molding historical narratives to fit one’s predisposition despite contrary evidence. If at any point, the reader thinks my review of Jemar Tisby’s book is unfair, please do your own investigation into the primary sources. With these qualifications in mind, let me proceed to give you my take on this significant book.

The Color of Compromise attempts to paint a picture of white Christian recalcitrant race-based oppression of blacks over four centuries of America history. According to Tisby’s narrative, this oppression has been perpetuated primarily because WCs (my abbreviation for white Christians, i.e. those in power) have consistently been indifferent to the plight of blacks. The book’s thesis is that racism doesn’t go away it adapts, thus despite significant progress, “racism continues to plague the church” (15). American WCs have encouraged white supremacy “which identifies white people and white culture as normal and superior” (16). But, this white supremacy “was not inevitable” and WCs in the past could have chosen not to compromise with racism. Tisby is convinced WCs have not recognized “their failures and inconsistencies,” preferring to pass over the past to a “triumphalist view of American Christianity” which accentuates victories in race relations. To correct this, the book will provide a true history that “contradicts much of what you have been taught since childhood.” The author partially reveals his hand when he admits that one hopeful outcome for the book is to show “alternatives to political conservatism as the only Christian way” (21).

Before Tisby launches into his historical survey of WC racism, he issues a disclaimer acknowledging a “high degree of selectivity” (18) in the historical episodes discussed. Indeed his historical account accentuates the actors/events that substantiate his picture of WC complicity in racism, but he concedes, “Whenever there has been racial injustice, there have been Christians who fought against it in the name of Jesus Christ. Christianity has an inspiring history of working for racial equality and the dignity of all people, a history that should never be overlooked” (19). This side of the story gets almost no coverage throughout the book, but giving a full account of the history of white/black relations in U.S. history was not his purpose in writing the book. The chief end of the survey is to demonstrate WC unrepentant complicity with racism in America. The ultimate goal of the book, says Tisby, is more empathy for black pain, urging Christians to pray for racial reconciliation as a “reality we must receive” as believers, and a call for immediate action to “work for justice” and embrace “racial and ethnic diversity” (24).

The history chapters begin with the colonial period, arguing that a “racial caste system” was constructed in America as black heathen were captured and shipped to the New World. Blacks had captured and sold one another in Africa, and free blacks in the colonies would buy slaves, but it was the European slavers who bought or kidnapped Africans, shipping them across the Atlantic under inhumane conditions. The brutality of the middle passage has been well documented in American history books, museums, films, etc., throughout the twentieth century and thus is familiar territory, but an American story that must always be told. No one would question the barbarity of the trans-Atlantic slave trade which is the fundamental evil of African enslavement. Tisby underscores how colonists compromised by accommodating their faith to chattel slavery in the New World. He criticizes Awakening preachers Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield (both slave owners), who criticized the slave trade, and cruel treatment of blacks, but compromised with racism by permitting slavery to continue. It’s a fair judgment to see them as typical of WC slave owners of this era, who tried to ameliorate slave conditions and preach the gospel to them, but were not advocates of abolition. Tisby claims that slaves were taught a paternalistic version of the faith identified with whiteness and superior European culture. Using a twenty-first century category of “white privilege” to evaluate eighteenth century. WCs is a dubious allegation against persons who would not comprehend this classification in any meaningful way.

According to Tisby’s account, some WCs resisted slave evangelism because they worried that converted slaves would next want their freedom. And those who evangelized the slaves did so in hopes of making them more obedient. This is not what one finds in the writings of those who actually preached to the slaves. Their message focused on the good news of salvation, obedience to masters was considered a byproduct, not the purpose of evangelism. Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies baptized 200 blacks during his ministry, and always considered them his equals before the Lord. He wrote, “as to the affairs of religion and eternity, all men stand upon the same footing” with immortal souls in need of salvation. Christ gave himself for the Africans: “Did he live and die to save poor Negroes? And shall not we use all the Means in our Power, to make them Partakers of this Salvation?” Masters negligent in this duty to slaves, sin and have blood on their hands: “Do not let them sink into Hell from between your hands, for want of a little pains to instruct them. I hope you would by no means exercise barbarities upon their bodies; and will you be so barbarous, as to suffer their precious never-dying souls to perish forever; when thro’ the divine blessing, you might be the means of saving them? Sure you are not capable of such inhuman cruelty.”[1]

When discussing the American Revolution, the author highlights how the U.S. Constitution tolerated slavery, and the founding fathers owned slaves, yet there is no mention of WC writers who adamantly insisted that a declaration of “all men are created equal” was an indictment of slavery. For example Dr. Benjamin Rush, who signed the Declaration of Independence, deplored the wickedness of the slave trade which had stolen the Africans from their kindred, and caused thousands to die by sickness and suicide in the voyages to America. In 1773 Rush wrote, “Slavery is a Hydra sin, and includes in it every violation of the precepts of the Law and Gospel.” Those who attempt to “vindicate the traffic of buying and selling of slaves … to sanctify their crimes by attempting to reconcile it to the sublime and perfect Religion of the Great Author of salvation,” should seek some new religion to support it. How shall this evil be remedied? Rush calls for stopping the importation of slaves, and “Let such of our countrymen as engage in the slave trade, be shunned as the greatest enemies of our country.” Clergy who know all men are immortal and equal, must take opportunities “to put a stop to slavery … declaring what punishment awaits this evil … that it cannot pass with impunity, unless God shall cease to be just or merciful.”[2] In 1774 Rush helped establish the first American abolition society, the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage and for Improving the Condition of the African Race.

Tisby recounts the important story of the first permanent black denomination in America, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and its founder Richard Allen of Philadelphia. After coming to faith, Allen began preaching on his plantation and in Methodist churches, many were converted under his ministry, including his master. Purchasing his freedom, he was licensed to preach, and began an itinerant ministry. Returning to Philadelphia he joined St. George’s Methodist Church, and was instrumental in many blacks joining the church. The white leadership insisted on segregation during Sunday services which led to an exodus of black members who eventually founded the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794. The author uses Allen’s story to affirm his assertion, “there would be no black church without racism in the white church” (52). The sad failure of WCs to treat blacks as equals was the catalyst for departure, but Tisby’s account omits a significant detail in Allen’s story. Absent is the role of American Methodist bishop Francis Asbury (a lifelong friend of Benjamin Rush) and his helping blacks establish their own denomination. Asbury despised slavery, petitioned George Washington to enact antislavery legislation, and it was Asbury who had dedicated Bethel Church in 1794 and ordained Allen as a Methodist deacon in 1799. Allen served as the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church when the denomination became independent in 1816.

The United States did outlaw the Atlantic slave trade in 1808, a tacit admission that American slavery had been evil from the beginning. Many WCs were onboard with this viewpoint. The Presbyterian General Assembly (“with entire unanimity”), issued a strong anti-slavery statement in 1818, calling for the abolition of slavery: “We consider the voluntary enslaving of one part of the human race by another, as a gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature; as utterly inconsistent with the laws of God, which requires us to love our neighbour as ourselves, and as totally irreconcilable with the spirit and principles of the gospel of Christ … it is manifestly the duty of all Christians who enjoy the light of the present day, when the inconsistency of slavery, both with the dictates of humanity and religion, has been demonstrated, and is generally acknowledged, to use their honest, earnest, and unwearied endeavours to correct the errors of former times, and as speedily as possible to efface this blot upon our holy religion, and to obtain the complete abolition of slavery throughout Christendom, and if possible throughout the world.”[3]

According to Tisby, during the antebellum era white supremacy became more defined. This section does a respectable job of covering the basic history of political compromises to protect slavery, slave rebellions and southern reactions, the raping of slave women, the disruption of black families in the domestic slave trade, and WCs general attitude towards blacks as “perpetual children” (67). Tisby claims that blacks and whites worshipping together at this time was not an expression of “egalitarian aspirations” by WCs but “a means of controlling slave beliefs and preventing slave insurrection” (66). While a WC slave owner would care for his slaves, theoretically as a member of his household, the blacks would not be considered “full and equal human beings” (66). Undoubtedly, plantation owners wanted to control the slaves, but assuming the worst motives in all WC slave owners seems a stretch. The story of Nat Turner’s 1831 murderous insurrection is told, but remarkably there is no mention of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper, The Liberator, which began publication that same year. Historians typically consider 1831 to be the turning point in increasing sectional division, due to both Turner’s rebellion and Garrison’s abolitionist papers that flooded the South, producing a hardened proslavery position.

The American Colonization Society, founded by a WC in 1816, initiated a movement to relocate free blacks to Africa. Tisby argues it was a paternalistic, racist scheme for WCs to “rid themselves of the endlessly troublesome racial issue” (67). Free black writers were opposed to the idea. Period documents however reveal that some WC abolitionist supporters of the colonization project genuinely believed that free blacks would have a better chance for flourishing in Africa, and gave of their resources to that end. Reading period texts, one discovers that some slave holders viewed the institution as an evil and curse, but didn’t know how to undo what they had inherited. How can we educate the young slaves for freedom, take care of sick and elderly slaves, provide them with resources to provide for themselves? These were real problems with few easy answers. Of course, this was no excuse for passivity towards a speedy emancipation for all slaves, but it does help explain the dilemmas of the antebellum period.

A second Awakening came to the U.S. in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The prominent evangelist of the revivals was Charles G. Finney an outspoken abolitionist. Tisby argues that Finney, though an abolitionist who forbade slave owners from church membership, was “not a proponent of black equality” because “he did not see the value of the ‘social integration’ of the races” (68). In other words, Finney was still a white supremacist. To expect Finney to hold twenty-first century perspectives on racial integration is anachronism, a fallacy in historical analysis. The historian’s task is not to evaluate the past based on modern assumptions but to drill down into a historic person’s particular context to determine the meaning of his values for the day in which he lived. Judging Finney against the nineteenth century slave society in which he lived demonstrates just how extraordinary he was in exercising church discipline against persons who owned slaves. In the early decades of that century most WCs favored gradual emancipation, and Finney was considered a radical.

When Tisby arrives at his analysis of the Civil War, he insists on “two facts” – the war was over slavery, and “countless devout Christians fought and died to preserve it as an institution” (71). Both assertions are partially true, but of course history is always more complicated than simple interpretations may imply. The War Between the States was about sectional power – politics is always about power. “States’ rights” was about losing power in Congress through ongoing conflicts over the political parity of the slave states and free states. Slavery was indeed the presenting issue in the states’ rights power struggle. In terms of fighting to defend slavery, the answer would be “yes” on the larger political question, but “no” as far as numerous WCs were concerned. Multitudes of WC southerners opposed slavery, and thought talk about secession was foolhardiness. A conspicuous example would be Confederate General Robert E. Lee who opposed both secession and slavery, yet felt compelled to defend Virginia when the die was cast. Many southern soldiers resented the wealthy plantation owners, did not believe slavery was worth fighting over, and simply saw themselves as defending their communities against Union troops invading the South. As in most wars, soldiers in the trenches (Union and Confederacy) thought all the killing was madness, and just wanted it to be over.

The book explains the “theological crisis” of WCs grappling with biblical teaching on slavery. Tisby touches on pertinent texts, and seems to appreciate the density of it all. He describes the division within three southern denominations over the slavery question – the Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians. There is no mention of the abolitionist Wesleyan Methodist Church established in 1843 as a protest to the Methodist Episcopal Church’s toleration of slavery. In the Presbyterian section he concentrates on the Old School division in 1861. There is no mention of the large abolitionist New School Presbyterian Church which relentlessly pressured its southern congregations to discipline slave owners, nor does he reference the smaller Reformed Presbyterian Church (Covenanters) or the Free Presbyterian Church, both of which banned slave owners from church membership. The discussion of southern Presbyterian theologians surveys the well-known writings of Robert L. Dabney and James H. Thornwell, both supporters of the slave system in the South. Moderns read proslavery material with incredulity, but awareness of these ideas is crucial, and Tisby offers a helpful summary of their perspectives. Of particular interest for Tisby is the “spirituality of the church” doctrine which claimed that slavery was primarily a political question, for which the Church did not have responsibility. He asserts that this doctrine has been conveniently invoked on issues like slavery and segregation, but not for other social crises where Christians engaged the political process. That assertion is arguable, because significant numbers of WCs did choose to combat slavery and segregation, on the other hand, many WCs have chosen to remain disengaged on other social issues as well.

In “Reconstructing White Supremacy in the Jim Crow South,” the author explains the ongoing struggle for black equality. He writes, “White people in the North and South sought to limit the civic and social equality of black people across the country. They devised political and economic schemes to push black people out of mainstream American life. To keep power, white Americans used terror as a tool through lynching and rape, violently solidifying the place of people of color as second-class citizens” (88). While it was only a violent minority who perpetrated these reprehensible deeds, this perverse part of the American story must not be ignored. Tisby takes disparaging shots at southerners for attempting to find some meaning in it all when the war ended. He dismisses the “manly Christianity” (95) of Robert E. Lee, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, monuments to soldiers etc. – a distasteful invective against people whose lives had been devastated by war in their own backyard. Under “Christianity and the KKK,” Tisby discusses the Klan’s use of the Bible and supposed ties to Christianity. Of course, folks claiming to be Christian may have no connection to reality; nominal Christianity has been multiform throughout American history. He contends that the KKK was not a marginal group, citing what seems like exaggerated statistics, including 40,000 members of the clergy. Whatever the accurate figures are, it is also true that many WCs found the KKK disturbing, and its use of the Bible sickening. Jim Crow policies were “new ways to reinforce racial hierarchy” (103) segregating blacks in American society and perpetuating myths about black inferiority and racial mixing. Tisby concludes, “The American church’s complicity with racism contributed to a context that continued to discriminate against black people” (110).

Next Tisby turns to the first half of the twentieth century and white supremacy among northern WCs. Blacks fled the South for other parts of the U.S., resulting in increased racial tensions and riots in multiple cities. Fundamentalists with “race-laced” conservative theology focused on converting souls, ignoring the plight of blacks in urban environments in contrast to Social Gospel advocates who addressed urban poverty. Residential segregation was facilitated by racist housing practices and “white flight” as neighborhoods became integrated. There is some discussion of the prolonged modernist/fundamentalist debates during the era which is crucial to understanding the Christian landscape of the early twentieth century Conservatives were focused on defending historic orthodoxy versus a liberal Protestantism that increasingly abandoned biblical faith. To infer fundamentalists were driven by racism is a stretch. Tisby relates the amazing story of the 1906 Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles under the black preacher William J. Seymour, a son of former slaves. Under Seymour’s humble leadership hundreds were converted and revived as Hispanics, Asians, blacks and whites worshipped together at the Azusa Street building for three years. As one eye witness declared, “the ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood” (114). It is good to see Seymour get some press as he is too often an unsung hero of twentieth century Christianity outside of Pentecostal/Charismatic circles. Eventually, as the Pentecostal movement expanded across the country, blacks and whites established their own Pentecostal denominations.

The book progresses to the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, using Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham as foils for “two vastly different perspectives.” The chapter’s focus is “Christian moderates – mostly white and evangelical but also some black churches and ministers – who played it safe, refusing to get involved in the civil rights movement” (132). Tisby shows how some WCs attempted to support segregation and opposition to interracial marriage as consistent with Christianity. Graham is characterized as a “racial moderate” on segregation, but Tisby admits he went further than many WCs in efforts to desegregate his crusades. He censures Graham’s view that an evangelist is simply “a proclaimer of the gospel” and not a social reformer. It’s certainly true that Graham believed genuine conversion was the key to changing racial attitudes. Graham invited King to share the platform with him at a 1957 crusade in New York. The author doesn’t tell the reader that King told Graham, “You stay in the stadiums, Billy, because you would have far more impact on the white establishment there than you would if you marched in the streets.” Graham was on solid biblical ground when he affirmed that the minister’s primary calling is preaching the gospel. The author rehearses King’s fearless personal story of peacefully fighting for black equality despite the opposition he faced from WCs criticizing the protests. Tisby highlights the eloquent “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and its indictment of white moderates, hailing the letter as “one of the greatest works of Christian political theology ever produced by an American” (138). WCs opposed to civil rights activists, demanded “law and order” as a response. He argues that WC complicity in opposing Civil Rights is partially responsible for some blacks turning to Black Power and the Nation of Islam. WCs were exercised about public education and started private schools (“segregation academies”). Of course, the Christian school movement was about more than racist attitudes. Parents were concerned about the secular world view taught in public schools (which has progressively worsened), and many private schools offered scholarships to minority students.

In the final chapters of the book Tisby arrives at his metanarrative on contemporary WC racism which is rooted in the “Religious Right” of the 70s and continues today. He chronicles the case of Bob Jones University and its racist policies. Current racial problems in America are attributable to conservative politics. The catalog of issues he characterizes as “racist” include: law and order politics, an aggressive criminal justice establishment, concerns about integrated schools, attacks on welfare, the war on drugs, racially segregated private schools, etc., – all of which were designed “to grant advantages to white people and put people of color at various disadvantages.” Tisby leans heavily on the analysis of Divided by Faith[4] wherein the authors describe America as a “racialized” society in which racism is covert. Black and white Christians use different cultural “tool kits,” thus have differing views of American life and government. Coming up to current times, the attention shifts to Black Lives Matter and the presidential election of 2016. Admitting that Black Lives Matter as an organization is not faith-based and has supported “advocate[es] for gay, queer, and transgender rights,” Tisby thinks there is value in the phase itself which expresses a black “longing for others to recognize their full, unqualified humanity” (180). What follows is the author’s case for the president being a racist, and then he raises the question: why did so many white evangelicals support him “despite his obvious racist tendencies” (187)? Tisby answers: his pro-life stance and commitment to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices. WC complicity in twenty-first century racism is visible in dismissing Black Lives Matter, supporting a racist president, telling blacks that bringing up racial concerns is divisive, and unwillingness to discuss systemic solutions. He opines, “Perhaps Christian complicity in racism has not changed much after all. Although the characters and specifics are new, many of the same rationalizations for racism continue”(191). A concluding chapter offers a list of practical steps that will address America’s racism, including among other things – reparations, taking down Confederate monuments, learning from the black church, participating in the modern-day civil rights movement, making Juneteenth a national holiday, and publicly denouncing racism.

Throughout the book, one gets the impression that the historical survey is politically motivated. A number of his sources (see endnotes) are ideologically driven books opposed to conservative political perspectives. This ideological bias explains why Tisby’s account is so one-sided – he’s attempting to make a political argument, and scholarship that doesn’t fit the narrative he’s creating is excluded. For example, one prominent omission is the huge corpus of material from the abolition movement in the U.S. during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Failure to quote this material is disappointing, and exposes the author’s resolve to establish a narrative that WCs are intractable racists, and to support his thesis contrary evidence will be purposefully ignored. This is incomplete history, and not helpful for candid discussion of the full record of America’s dealing with slavery. Multitudes of antislavery texts affirm the full humanity and equality of Africans as divine image bearers. Were WCs complicit in slavery? Absolutely. Were there multitudes of courageous contrary WC voices? Yes! [5] And both voices need to be heard if accurate historical accounts matter. The WC abolition story is well known to scholars, and choosing to disregard it for ideological purposes undermines credibility. A critical part of writing sound history is citing evidence of contrary perspectives from the era under review for an objective telling of the story. A complete history will acknowledge both the evil and the good. Historian Douglas Sweeney offers a balanced appraisal of evangelical history on race relations: “… despite such undeniable moral failure, God has used evangelicals to promote the gospel of grace among literally millions of African Americans. Ever since the Great Awakening, white evangelicals have engaged in Christian outreach to black people – never adequately but faithfully and consistently.”[6]

  1. Samuel Davies, The Duty of Christians to propagate their Religion among Heathens, Earnestly recommended to the Masters of Negro Slaves in Virginia. A Sermon Preached in Hanover, January 8, 1757 (London: J. Oliver, 1757), 18-27.
  2. Benjamin Rush, An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements on the Slavery of Negoes in America, Second Edition (Philadelphia: John Dunlap, 1773), 13-26.
  3. For full text of the 1818 statement see Albert Barnes, The Church and Slavery (Philadelphia: Parry & McMillan, 1857), 54-56.
  4. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  5. For example, Alice Dana Adams’ study of primary sources has demonstrated that popular sentiment in the South was opposed to slavery, and Anti-slavery Societies proliferated in several southern states. See Alice Dana Adams, The Neglected Period of Anti-Slavery in America 1808-1831(Williamstown, MA: Corner House Publishers, 1973).
  6. Douglas Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 113.