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A theology for racism: Southern Fundamentalists and the civil rights movement.

Scarcely anyone expected it. For more than fifty years evangelicals kept studiously aloof from American politics. They sang hymns and tended to souls, but left the burden of legislation and social policy to their more worldly counterparts in the Protestant mainstream ... that their own pastors would lead a political movement seemed out of the question." (1)

So Princeton sociologists Robert Liebman and Robert Wuthnow begin their analysis of the New Christian Right and its phenomenal political impact in America during the late twentieth century. They describe the rise of such organizations as the Moral Majority, Religious Round Table, and Christian Voice, and the efforts of political activists to mobilize fundamentalist Christians, particularly independent Baptists, for their cause. (2) These fundamentalists coalesced in response to various social and political issues including abortion, homosexuality, the Equal Rights Amendment, public school prayer, and the trend toward "secular humanism" in contemporary American life. They hoped to reclaim America as a Christian commonwealth based on the teaching of Scripture and "traditional family values." Liebman, Wuthnow, and other analysts of the New Christian Right seem particularly impressed that the movement appeared on the scene "largely without warning or anticipation." (3) Indeed, they observe that "the fact that evangelicals had refrained from politics for so long meant that (their) appearance was something truly exceptional." (4)

Such observations seem generally correct. Evangelical/Fundamentalists currently demonstrate a political activism heretofore unknown among persons of their religious persuasion. Present trends did not develop "without warning," however. Fundamentalists have been speaking out on moral and political issues throughout most of this century. In fact, this study suggests that the response of southern fundamentalists to the civil rights movement of the 1960s serves as an important guide for understanding their involvement in the New Christian Right of the 1980s. Southern fundamentalists, particularly independent Baptists, provided significant leadership to the Moral Majority and other such organizations from the beginning. (5) Any understanding of the contemporary movement cannot overlook the earlier social and political attitudes expressed by southern fundamentalists in response to the civil rights movement.

This study suggests that the civil rights movement created a cultural and religious crisis that compelled southern fundamentalists to respond. At the same time, their response to particular social, political, and racial imperatives was filtered through their self-proclaimed fundamentalist ideology. While fundamentalism itself is not inherently racist, the southern fundamentalists cited here expressed their own racist sentiments largely through the medium of their fundamentalist theology.

Southern fundamentalism is difficult to define. Clearly, it is no monolithic movement. In a 1986 article on southern fundamentalism, historian Samuel Hill Jr. delineated several types of evangelicals evident within the framework of southern religion. These include the "Truth party," concerned for correct belief; the "Conversion party," primarily interested in personal evangelism; the "Spirituality party" stressing continuous experience of the Divine presence; and the "Service party," whose representatives aim at racial and communal reconciliation. (6)

In general, this study is concerned with what Hill calls the "Truth party," the primary representatives of fundamentalist dogma in the South. These individuals emphasize "correct belief," eschew cooperation with those who deviate from doctrinal conformity, tend to be "anti-culture, and live and die by precision in definition and behavior." (7) Theirs is a separatist fundamentalism characterized by a theology of overagainstness in their response to other Christian traditions. Fundamentalist historian George Dollar defined a "historic" fundamentalist as one who "not only holds to the exposition of the Bible in its every affirmation and attitude, but also sets himself to expose every affirmation and attitude not found in the Bible. His negatives like his affirmations are as many as those found in the Bible. To expose is as vital to his faith as to expound the truth of Scripture." (8) Southern fundamentalists, therefore, responded to the civil rights movement not merely as a national social crisis, but as a challenge to certain unchanging truths taught in Holy Scripture and required of all true Christians. Those who contradicted such teachings were not merely social deviants, they were also biblical apostates.

While this study examines the racial views of a variety of southern fundamentalists, the primary focus is on independent Baptists, a collection of fiercely autonomous local congregations, fundamentalist in theology, Baptist in polity, and separatist in their ecclesiastical relationships. Their national organization is limited to various ministerial "fellowships" including the Baptist World Fellowship, the Baptist Bible Fellowship and the Southwide Bible Fellowship. Their congregations are located primarily in the South, Southwest and Midwest, throughout the American Bible Belt.

During the 1960s, three independent Baptist periodicals--The Fundamentalist, The Baptist Bible Tribune, and The Sword of the Lord--devoted extensive attention to the civil rights movement.

Founded in Fort Worth, Texas, The Fundamentalist was originally edited by the infamous independent Baptist J. Frank Norris. His successor, T. H. Masters, was an outspoken critic of civil rights activities.

Noel Smith (1900-74), Tennessean and longtime editor of The Baptist Bible Tribune, Springfield, Missouri, was an unabashed advocate of Baptist fundamentalism and right wing politics. Smith continually addressed civil rights issues and published innumerable editorials and articles critical of the movement. Bob Jones Jr., once called Smith "the greatest religious editor in the century." (9)

John R. Rice founded The Sword of the Lord in 1934 and served as its editor until his death in 1980. Located in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, The Sword of the Lord remains one of the most widely circulated fundamentalist periodicals in America. Rice was a constant opponent of racial "mingling" and the political liberalism evident in the civil rights movement. Jerry Falwell suggested that "more than any other man, Dr. Rice protected and guarded the prize jewels of fundamentalism. Because of him, fundamentalism has been defined, purified, and passed on to the next generation." (10) Rice spoke at Falwell's Liberty Baptist College almost every year from its founding to Rice's death in 1980. (11) Indeed, Falwell called John R. Rice and Noel Smith the "Patriarchs" of independent fundamentalism in the United States. (12) These southern fundamentalists demanded complete separation from all churches, agencies, and individuals that did not conform to fundamentalist ideology.

Given that interpretation of militant fundamentalism, one can better understand how fundamentalist ideology and imperative provided a framework for interpreting the civil rights movement. Fundamentalists held many of the same racist attitudes as non-fundamentalists and took their cues from the prevailing cultural and social attitudes of the South, but they were compelled, perhaps more than any other southern religious groups, to interpret the civil rights upheavals in light of their own systematic and highly rationalistic theology. In a sense, southern fundamentalism provided a theology for racism in which civil rights activities were viewed as a violation of fundamentalist dogma and biblical norms.

Opposition to the Movement

The civil rights movement was unacceptable to southern fundamentalists for several reasons. First, it promoted a form of racial "mingling" which undermined the God ordained separation of the races and increased the possibility for racial intermarriage, a clear violation of biblical teaching. Second, it fostered social and political anarchy which disturbed the social order and engendered violence, riots, and civil disobedience, a violation of biblical teaching on authority and government. Third, at best it was a tool of socialists and communists in their efforts to bring down American democracy. At worst, the movement was itself a communist inspired attempt to destroy the nation, a threat to Christian civilization and freedom. Fourth, it was led by religious modernists, infidels, and apostates whose views on Scripture, the virgin birth, and other fundamental dogmas made them enemies of true religion and genuine faith, a violation of biblical doctrine. (13)

Underneath all the political, doctrinal, and biblical rhetoric, however, was a powerful racism shaped by the prevailing social, cultural and racial foundations of the white, segregationist South. Southern fundamentalists thus expressed their racial sentiments in terms of their fundamentalist doctrinal stance.

Early in the century southern fundamentalists frequently addressed racial issues, often in conjunction with their rabid anti-communism. In 1932, J. Frank Norris equated communism with racial equality in an attack on a commencement speaker at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. Norris accused the speaker, Kirby Page, of affiliation with the "communist-backed" American Civil Liberties Union and of "carrying his communism into practical application by repeatedly advocating social equality with the Negroes." Page and his "colored" associate, Elthelrod Brown, supported the "abolition of all race discriminatory laws." (14) Until his death in 1952, Norris continued to attack the Federal Council of Churches for its "pro-red support of racial intermarriage." (15)

As early as 1956, John R. Rice responded to Supreme Court rulings on integration with a pamphlet entitled Negro and White. It was, Rice said, "a plea for patience, for moderation and for less agitation and pressure while good men work out problems." (16) The pamphlet represented an attempt to "analyze" the racial situation "from the view point of the Bible." (17)

The Supreme Court's ruling against southern segregation was a reinterpretation, Rice believed, of the "same laws" that led earlier courts to rule that "separate but equal" facilities were acceptable. "Now," Rice wrote, "the Supreme Court, largely influenced by the New Deal and left-wing thought, has changed its stand.... Has the Supreme Court a right to interfere in purely state matters?" This decision divided the nation, Rice noted, as northern "hotheads" advocated governmental intervention in imposing integration while Southerners organized against "what, they think would result in intermarriage and the mongrelization of the race and the breakdown of all the Southern standards of culture." (18)

Rice insisted that all persons are members of the same human family, descendants of Adam and Eve, and Noah. Racial differences developed after the flood were "only superficial and incidental." All human beings were "blood brothers." In heaven, Rice believed, there will be "no kin, no generation of marriages and no problems connected with it" and (therefore) there will be perfect, happy mingling "of all races." (19)

In a later work, Rice agreed that "godly colored people, born again, would be in heaven." But even there, he wrote, "we may see our loved ones and we may prefer to be with those we know than with those we do not know." Yet heaven will be free of earthly social problems and could be integrated because, "there will be no preponderance of venereal disease or crime or immorality among Negroes in heaven as on earth." (20)

Again, in the pamphlet on Negro and White, Rice declared that "race hatred is wrong" when instigated by one group against another. "It is just as wrong," he insisted, "when stirred up in a church by a modernist infidel preacher in the North as it is stirred up in the South by an overzealous defender of Southern white womanhood and the status quo." (21) Even when trying to be balanced, Rice's biases were crystal clear!

Rice agreed that Jim Crow laws were "not wise" and that they should "slowly" be abolished. Yet he insisted that such laws were preferable to "unrestrained intermarriage of the races." (22) "Complete integration" was not "wise," either. He suggested that in America, both North and South, "it is an inherent rule in human nature that people seek fellowship with like people." (23) Even churches should not have as their "main principle" the integration of the races. To do so was to undermine the church's primary reason for being, evangelism. Rice observed that "no well-known church in the world which is much occupied in campaigning for uniting races is a strong soul-winning church...." (24)

Integration of public schools was unwise because it would increase racial tensions and make blacks feel even more inadequate. Rice asked, "Why make a little colored girl attend school where she would feel inferior, instead of where she feels at home?" (25) He insisted that blacks were legally guaranteed schools equal to those attended by whites and concluded that "colored people have more new schools than white people have." (26)

Also in 1956, W. A. Criswell, fundamentalist pastor of Dallas' First Baptist Church, the largest congregation in the Southern Baptist Convention, told the South Carolina legislature that "he not only strongly favored racial segregation but that it would be best for religious groups to "stick with their own kind." (27) He suggested that few blacks desired to integrate white churches, and observed of those few who did, "Let them integrate. Let them sit up there in their dirty shirts and make all their fine speeches. But they are all a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up." (28) In another address Criswell suggested that integration was a thing of "idiocy and foolishness." (29)

By 1968, Criswell had moderated his views for the sake of evangelism, and in 1970 he observed, "I came to the profound conclusion that to separate by coercion the body of Christ on the basis of skin pigmentation was unthinkable, unchristian and unacceptable to God." (30) That revelation did not put a stop to Criswell's racial stereotypes, however. In 1970 he also observed that, "The colored minority in America drives more cars than are possessed by all the hundreds of millions in Russia." (31)

Segregationist views died hard among many southern fundamentalists. The American Baptist Association, a group of fundamentalist churches located primarily in Arkansas and Texas, passed a resolution at its 1965 annual conference which affirmed support of segregation "in social activities" as the divinely ordained racial plan. (32)

For editor Noel Smith, integration was an infringement on an individual's constitutional rights. He wrote that, "No citizen has constitutional or moral right to dictate to property owners as to what deposition they shall make of their property, to whom they shall sell it or not sell it, to whom they shall rent it or not rent it. I would never give the Negro that right." (33) Smith did agree that the idea of "separate but equal" facilities, once the law of the land before "Mr. Warren" came to Washington, was "with impressive exceptions here and there" generally discriminatory to blacks. As American citizens, blacks and poor whites had "always, legally and morally, been entitled to the same consideration" that was given to everyone. (34) At the same time, Smith acknowledged his opposition to the kind of integration "Mr. Warren and the Great Society are trying to force on this country by the bayonet" to the detriment of constitutional rights. Local governments should respond to the race issue and leave the federal government out of it. All persons--white, black, Jew, Arab, Baptist, or Pentecostal, deserve everything "morally and legally" due them, no more, no less. (35)

T. H. Masters, editor of the Texas based periodical, The Fundamentalist, expressed his continuing segregationist ideology in a 1963 article entitled, "I Examined My Conscience." Masters noted that as a southerner, "I was inoculated and schooled in the idea that the colored people were more of a primitive people than the white man. Yet he had a soul and was loved of God as much as the white man. When a Negro became a Christian and acted like one, he was to be treated as my brother." (36) Masters insisted that "evidently there is a mental difference between the Negro and whites" and that "the Creator must have made the difference" in the races. (37) There was also a distinct "moral difference" among the races, and, Masters observed, "If (President) Kennedy wants to help the colored people, why doesn't he urge them to raise their moral standard if they expect to be accepted in good society?" (38)

Blackness and whiteness in persons was a purposeful act of the Creator and hatred of "any class of people" was wrong. Yet, Masters concluded, "If I lived in a country where the majority of the people were colored and in authority, I think I would try to merit their love and respect" rather than demand rights. (39)

Billy James Hargis, the Tulsa anti-communist and founder of Christian Crusade, was another fundamentalist advocate of segregation, which he characterized as "one of Nature's universal laws." Hargis observed that, "no intermingling or crossbreeding with animals of widely different characteristics takes place except under abnormal or artificial conditions. It is my conviction that God ordained segregation." (40) Bob Jones University, Greenville, South Carolina, remained a segregated institution from its beginning in 1927 until 1971 when it was threatened with the loss of tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service. Blacks were admitted only if they were married to other blacks or would promise neither to date nor marry outside their race. (41)

In spite of their segregationist attitudes, southern fundamentalists insisted that they held no prejudice toward blacks or other ethnic minorities. Noel Smith declared in 1964, "as for myself, I have the same attitude toward the Negro and that I had since childhood. I accept men on the basis of their character, not on the basis of the color of their hide." (42)

Smith hesitated, however, to use the term civil rights to describe the black stride toward freedom. He noted that when he referred to "civil rights" as defined by President Johnson and the Supreme Court he always enclosed the term in quotation marks. Civil rights were important, but not for blacks alone. He wrote:
 I deny that anybody has the civil right to substitute mob rule for due
 process of law ..., block public highways, streets, sidewalks, and the
 entrance to public and private business establishments ..., to have by law
 different races to associate themselves together against their mutual
 desire and interests. (43)

John R. Rice concluded that he was able to address the "great principles and problems" of segregation and desegregation "since ... I have an intimate knowledge of southern white people and understand their viewpoint, and since I love and respect colored people and have worked with them often." (44)

Rice, Smith and other fundamentalists did not deny that southern blacks had a difficult time. No "honest man," Smith said, could deny the fact that American communities had responded to the needs of blacks and poor whites only when they were forced to do so. (45) Yet the civil rights movement was not a proper solution for racial inequities in American society. Instead, it sowed the seeds of destruction.

Rather than complain, however, blacks should affirm the benefits of their American citizenship. Noel Smith insisted that the "facts of history" revealed "that the South was the only place on the face of this earth where the masses of Negroes have found general understanding and friendships." Indeed, he concluded that "Negroes have made more progress in the South than they have anywhere on this earth." (46)

Blacks were their own "worst enemy," Noel Smith believed. The real battle for progress pitted black against black. He observed that "the most strutting, merciless, brutal enemy the Negro ever had on this earth is the Negro." Martin Luther King and Stokley Carmichael were "lying" when they tried to blame whites for the problems of blacks. Only when the Negro, like the white man, made "progress on the basis of his character, not on the basis of the color of his hide could racial progress be made." (47) Only when they "earned" the respect of white society, would blacks receive it.

Blacks themselves were to blame for much of their plight. It was a responsibility, Smith believed, that they did not want to accept. He wrote, "on the whole, self-discipline, responsibility, energy, persistency, sound judgment, and pride in their surroundings, are foreign terms to them." (48)

Like most other southern fundamentalists, John R. Rice's primary "biblical" opposition to integration was based on his fear of racial intermarriage. Complete integration of the races was "undesirable" because it would lead ultimately to interracial dating and marriage. The fear of racial intermarriage is a frequent theme of southern fundamentalists. "It you had a daughter," Rice wrote to an inquirer, "Would you want her to marry a Negro? Even if the man were a fine Christian, ... why would you want grandchildren who were mulatto children, unacceptable to both Negroes and whites?" (49) Elsewhere he concluded that "marriage between Negro and white is always unhappy, brings a curse and unhappiness on the children." (50) Some segregation was necessary, therefore, to keep black and white youth from meeting, dating, and falling in love.

In one editorial on interracial dating, Rice discussed the age-old Southern phobia of supposed social diseases among blacks. He wrote that it was "a carefully documented fact, known for many years that among Negroes venereal disease has ten times the incidence per thousand as among white people. Thus, I would rather then go swimming in a swimming pool not patroned by many Negroes." (51) After all, he concluded, there is a "distinction of race" which "God Himself" created and it was "unrealistic" to pretend it did not exist. The Supreme Court decision on integration was therefore "ill timed, political, hurtful." It fueled the high pressure tactics of socialists, communists, the NAACP, and the "modernistic" National Council of Churches. (52)

It was intermarriage that Rice, like other separatist fundamentalists, feared the most, however. He insisted that social and racial differences mitigated against intermarriage. He wrote that "it is always wrong for whites to marry Negroes, even more than it would be wrong for a college girl to marry an illiterate boy." (53)

As the battle over integration of schools and businesses turned to public demonstrations, the fundamentalist preachers and editors responded with criticism of the methods and the participants involved in the movement. They were particularly critical of the northern liberal clergy who came south to demonstrate.

Many fundamentalists characterized the methods of the civil rights movement as unbiblical and beyond the realm of proper Christian conduct. One preacher observed: "The New Testament records no antics, no mob demonstrations, involving recalcitrant believers." (54) When New Testament Christians were mistreated they did not demand personal rights, but continued to evangelize. The preacher was particularly opposed to public prayer at civil rights demonstrations. It was a terrible witness that blasphemed the name of Christ and undermined evangelism. He wrote: "Imagine the detrimental effect on a non-Christian hotel manager, or restaurateur whose premises are being violated by sham praying!" (55) He declared, "it has never been the hallmark of Christian concern to overtly defy laws of the land ... even bad laws," and insisted that if the apostles lived with the status quo for the sake of Christ and the advance of his kingdom, contemporary Christians should do the same. (56)

A Kentucky pastor wrote that he did not participate in marches and public demonstrations because he could find no biblical "precedent" for such action, because he would not involve his church in such things, and because "I am opposed to organized pressure of any kind, whether it comes from a lobbyist in Washington, a union in Detroit, or a parade in Selma." (57)

Several fundamentalist leaders recognized, and sometimes deplored, violence against blacks. They noted, however, that when blacks broke laws and incited riots, violence would inevitably occur. Rice warned that "the continuous stirring up of anger will cause somebody to lose control and burn a Negro church or throw a brick through a window, or shoot somebody in the dark." (58)

"Intelligent people" he declared, could easily tell that "the continual flaunting of the customs and local laws of decent law-abiding citizens would continually bring violence." If federal interference was continued then "sooner or later some hotheads will break away from the restraint which has been so carefully cultivated by good Southern people through the years." (59)

Preachers should speak out on moral and political issues, Rice believed, but their primary duty was "getting people saved." He noted that "back before the Civil War, preachers did right to take a stand against slavery, though many sinned, as people do now, trying suddenly to force their way on other good men who wanted time to work things out." (60)

Many southern fundamentalists attacked those members of the clergy--primarily Northerners--who participated in southern civil rights activities. Pastor Terry Sears observed that "many of these men disguise themselves in clerical robes," having "deserted their commission to preach the gospel, and their responsibilities as Spiritual leaders of their congregations." As a result, they had undermined respect for the church in America. (61) Rice agreed and observed that "all the preachers who are working hard at racial integration are not working hard at soul winning." (62)

Eugene Carson Blake and the National Council of Churches were frequent targets of fundamentalist wrath. As early as 1961, Rice compared Blake with Nikita Kruschchev, noting that both "would enjoy seeing tanks and bloodshed over racial problems." (63) Blake, Rice believed, was an "unbelieving, modernistic" preacher, who with other "modernists," "pinks," and socialists was bent on arousing racial hatred, humiliating "the conservative South, and discrediting the fundamental Bible-believing position of most Southerners." On the whole, radical clergy and "freedom riders" were outside the "Christian way" and had no real "Christian motives in this matter." (64)

Florida Baptist pastor Hugh Pyle charged that unbelieving, modernist preachers shared the blame for race riots. He wrote that, "These are the kind of men, who usually spend their time in social reform, civil rights marches, and other unscriptural activities instead of doing what preachers are called to do." (65)

Rice concluded that the only real solution to the racial and social crises in America was for preachers and churches to return to "the old fashioned Gospel that changes lives, instead of new-fangled social gospels, the United Nations, the National Council of Churches, sit-downs, pickets, strikes and lawbreaking." (66) Rice opposed Lyndon Johnson in the election in 1964 because Johnson and Hubert Humphrey supported the National Council of Churches and its attempts to get "Negroes and carpetbagger Whites to break the laws of the South." This was proof that the Democratic party was "against fundamental Christianity and fundamental Americanism." (67)

Fundamentalist leader Archer Weniger attacked liberal church leaders for their efforts to repeal laws allowing racial intermarriage. Weniger wrote that God had a "purpose" in creating black and white. Mixing the races was "affrontry" to the divine plan of creation. Good relations with blacks did not require intermarriage. (68)

Predictably, Billy James Hargis saw the Civil Rights movement as a tool of communism. He wrote, "It I were a Negro, I wouldn't want to be an instrument in the hands of international communism to destroy America." (69) He warned blacks to reject the efforts of "narrow minded radicals and white socialist exploiters" and "defend this nation which gives us unlimited opportunity and stands between us and total communist slavery today." (70) Hargis wrote, "I appeal to our black friends that, instead of cursing the system that has been kindest to your race, why not thank God for it and utilize it for your own betterment." (71) In a 1964 editorial, Noel Smith attacked the Christian Century for its criticism of those "rightist `pushers' of spiritual heroin" who viewed any social change as a communist plot. Smith declared that so-called "right-wingers" were actually Bible-believing Christians who still affirmed the infallibility of Scripture, the virgin birth, and the deity of Christ. The Century, on the other hand, represented "loudmouthed, hysterical" liberalism. Its contributing editors included Martin Luther King Jr., and Episcopal bishop James A. Pike both of whom were left-wing political and theological revolutionaries. True Christian Americans would not be "silenced by guttersnipe slander" of periodicals like the Century. (72)

Those who gave civil rights leaders a forum were guilty of collusion with liberalism and anti-Christ. One fundamentalist pastor denounced the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church for inviting Coretta Scott King to address its 1965 session. Mrs. King, the pastor observed, was a graduate of Antioch College, "the Marxist indoctrination center of western Ohio." Her address promoted "Negro revolution." He noted, "Just what all this had to do with saving souls was not made clear. It was rather the Assembly's bold exploration of names in behalf of the church's mad mania for total integration." (73) These and other activities were also evidence of the apostasy of the denomination and its capitulation to liberalism.

Most civil rights legislation was also unacceptable. Rice declared that, "in my judgment, the (1964) Civil Rights Bill is a mistake ..." because civil laws could not compel people to love each other. Likewise no law "that takes away the rights of the majority in order to favor a minority ... is good for America." He agreed that blacks should get jobs for which they were qualified, but insisted that no employer should be forced to hire anyone because of color. (74)

Lyndon Johnson's mistaken effort to end prejudice and poverty through legislation ignored the reality of human sin, Rice concluded. Jesus, on the other hand, recognized that some people will always be lazy and dishonest and therefore "the poor will always be with you" (Matt. 26:11). "President Johnson cannot repeal either human nature or the Bible," (75) Rice contended. He insisted that most "successful" Americans began in poverty and worked their way up. Therefore "the cure for poverty must rest largely with individual work and thrift and morality." Thus Rice suggested that "good Americanism" was "proper for good Christians." He observed that the "Bible law that people should get what they earn and earn what they get and that those who do not work should not eat ought to prevail." (76)

Noel Smith denounced the "civil rights" bill as exploitation of blacks and whites by liberal politicians. It undermined property rights and contributed to a loss of constitutional rights. He wrote: "It is a bill to make the heavy, incompetent, arrogant federal government a Hitler master of this country." (77)

As the movement gained momentum and some civil rights legislation was secured, southern fundamentalists turned their attention to the person and work of Martin Luther King Jr. In a sense, King was an anomaly for them. After all, he was a Baptist preacher with considerable pulpit skills, pastor of a large, thriving, autonomous Baptist congregation. Yet King and his movement could not be "of God." The reason, they concluded, was theological apostasy. King had denied the true faith. His ethics could be ignored because his doctrine was false. Because King violated the fundamentals, he was not to be taken seriously, either politically or theologically. Indeed, he was a dangerous apostate.

John R. Rice suggested that "although religious infidels boost him as a Christian, Dr. Martin Luther King has openly declared that he does not believe the Bible. He is not a Christian in the historic sense of holding to the great essentials of the Christian faith, he is a `minister' who doesn't preach the gospel, doesn't save souls." King might call himself a Christian but he "does not believe in the Christian faith nor trust in the virgin-born Savior." (78)

Noel Smith wrote that King was "guilty of a palpable falsehood when he implies that the New Testament and the practices of the early Christians authenticate his objectives and methods." (79) The first Christians violated only those laws that forbade them to preach Christ. Otherwise they were model citizens, recognizing the divinely ordered authority. He observed that "The preaching of the physical resurrection of Christ--which Dr. King must logically deny--was the Christian's power against the Roman Empire--not negative sit-ins, sit-downs, lie-downs and marches." Thus Smith concluded that "Dr. King's Christ has nothing in common with the Christ of the Bible. Dr. King's objective and methods have nothing in common with the early Christians." (80)

Writing in the Sword of the Lord, Archer Weniger, California Independent Baptist pastor, stated that King was a "pro-communist" and a "modernist" because he denied that hell was "a place of literal burning fire." (81) Weniger declared that "by this definition, Dr. Martin Luther King is an apostate." (82)

Martin Luther King's assassination provided an occasion for fundamentalist evaluation of the civil rights leader's life and work. Noel Smith denounced the crime, urging swift capture and execution of the assassin. The event, he declared, was "a crime against God," and society. Yet he warned that the Martin Luther King mourned by the nation's elite was a figure "created by a nauseous Sentimentality," (83) Smith wrote, "Martin Luther King misled his own people. With him everything wag all white or all black. They were all in bondage to the white man." He concluded that "anybody who knows the Bible's definition of a Christian, then has little if any evidence that King was a Christian. He denied the virgin birth of Christ." (84) Likewise, Smith repudiated any idea of collective guilt in King's assassination. Rather, King's own actions created the "climate" which led to his death.

An Alabama independent Baptist pastor lamented King's murder but suggested that King "loaded the gun of his own destruction by making himself the symbol of resistance to law and order." King's movement was "anti-Christian," because "Jesus Christ was not and is not a `revolutionary.'" Thus Bible-believing Christians should mourn the making of a martyr of one who "rejected the cardinal tenets of Biblical Christianity for the heathen philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi." (85)

Dennis McDonald of the Iliff School of Theology reports that he was a student at Bob Jones University during Bible conference week in April 1968. On April 4, at the end of an address, Bob Jones Jr. announced that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. McDonald recalls Jones' statement that the university would not comply with President Johnson's request to fly the flag at half-mast. "We'll not fly the flag at half-mast for an apostate," McDonald recalls Jones saying. (86)

The riots that broke out after King's assassination prompted an immediate response from southern fundamentalists. Noel Smith wrote that the incidents were not "racial" at all but were signs of insurrection, the natural response of "decent" people to criminals. He attributed such radical, insurrectionist tendencies to the breakdown of the nation's moral fiber. Such factors included the teachings of evolution, the decline of political statesmanship, the Supreme Court decisions, the rise of humanism, and "the lack of moral conscience in most public officials." Smith insisted that the only way to reclaim order out of anarchy was to "order soldiers and policemen to shoot every looter on the spot." This would "put an end to window smashing and looting." (87)

The death of Dr. King and the election of Richard Nixon marked a decline in the attention which southern fundamentalists gave to the civil rights movement. They had clearly lost in their efforts to support the southern racial status quo. Their attention turned to new social and political issues such as the Vietnam War, the peace movement, abortion, school prayer and other concerns. Many fundamentalist congregations formed private academies aimed at snatching the souls of school children from the jaws of secular humanism, public education, and, of course, integration. They grudgingly acquiesced to the changing racial situation in the South.

Impact of the Civil Rights Movement on Fundamentalism

Yet their losses to the civil rights movement, I believe, helped to reshape the fundamentalist approach to political involvement. Southern fundamentalism went public, calling its constituents to a political mobilization that mirrored the civil rights activities they once criticized. By the 1980s, fundamentalist voting blocs challenged black voting blocs for control of southern politics. The doctrine of biblical separatism was modified considerably. Curtis Hutson, Rice's successor as editor of the Sword of the Lord, wrote that he could join the Moral Majority because it was a political, not a theological, organization and thus did not violate his doctrinal separatism. (88) Jerry Falwell repudiated his earlier hesitancy to become involved in political issues. (89) Indeed, his biblical separatism was modified considerably as he joined Roman Catholics, Mormons, charismatics, and other civil rights movement "apostates" in promoting Americanism and "traditional family values." Noel Smith, John R. Rice, and others were revered as "giants" of fundamentalist faith, but their racist views were quietly ignored. For a movement come of age, claiming to represent and protect the ultimate in biblical doctrine and traditional American values, it is time to remember the past and, where necessary, repent.


Conclusions include the following. First, the civil rights movement created a serious hermeneutical problem for many Southern fundamentalists. Like their slaveholding forbearers in the South, many of these Christians linked biblical inerrancy to social and cultural practice. Just as slave-holders used the Bible to defend the holding of slaves, twentieth-century fundamentalists used it to defend segregation. If they were wrong on their interpretation of the Bible regarding race, then on what other doctrinal or social issues might they be mistaken?

Second, the biblical and theological responses the fundamentalists made to the race question were shaped by their continued belief that African-Americans as a race were morally deficient. Thus desegregation would bring that deficiency squarely into mainstream (white) culture, an environment that fundamentalists believed to be polluted by significant moral depravity.

Third, most of these fundamentalists seem convinced that Martin Luther King Jr. and his white ecclesiastical supporters were wrong on race because they were wrong on doctrine. Integration as articulated by theological liberals would lead inevitably to doctrinal compromise. To integrate the schools on liberal terms today could mean rejection of Christ's virgin birth tomorrow.

Finally, it is clear that Independent Baptists and other Southern fundamentalists have become, at century's end, a powerful force in American political life. Through such New Right organizations as the Christian Coalition, the Religious Round Table, and other religiously oriented political action agencies, they are attempting to bring their social and ethical agendas to bear on the public square, particularly through the Republican Party. Clearly, they will continue to work toward that end well into the new millennium, that is, if Jesus tarries.


(1.) Robert Liebman and Robert Wuthnow, The New Christian Right (New York: Aldine Publishing Co., 1983), 1.

(2.) Ibid, 60-67.

(3.) Ibid, 4.

(4.) Ibid.

(5.) Samuel Hill Jr. and Dennis Owen, The New Religious Political Right in America (Nashville: Abingdon, 1982), 151; and David Bromley and Anson Shupe, eds., New Christian Politics (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1984), 49-50.

(6.) Samuel Hill Jr., "Fundamentalism and the South," in David M. Scholer, ed., Perspectives in Churchmanship (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1986), 49-50.

(7.) Ibid., 49.

(8.) George Dollar, A History of Fundamentalism in America (Greenville, S.C.: Bob Jones University Press, 1973), 265.

(9.) Billy V. Bartlett, "Noel Smith: Editor and Statesman," Fundamentalist Journal (January, 1984), 47.

(10.) Robert L. Sumner, "John R. Rice: A Man Sent from God," Fundamentalist Journal (January, 1984), 25.

(11.) Elmer Towns, "John R. Rice Came to Liberty Mountain," Sword of the Lord (September 10, 1980).

(12.) Jerry Falwell, "Who is the Voice of Fundamentalism Today?" Fundamentalist Journal (September, 1984), 8.

(13.) John R. Rice, "Moral Principles and National Politics," Sword of the Lord (July 24, 1964), 7.

(14.) The Fundamentalist (May 27, 1932), 1, 6.

(15.) The Fundamentalist (February 17, 1950), 3.

(16.) John R. Rice, Negro and White (Wheaton, Ill.: Sword of the Lord Publishers, 1956), 3.

(17.) Ibid., 4.

(18.) Ibid.

(19.) Ibid., 6.

(20.) John R. Rice, Dr. Rice, Here is my Question (Wheaton: Ill.: Sword of the Lord Publishers, 1962), 241.

(21.) John R. Rice, Negro and White, 7.

(22.) Ibid.

(23.) Ibid., 14.

(24.) Ibid., 15.

(25.) Ibid., 19.

(26.) Ibid., 10.

(27.) "W. A. Criswell, Like John Brown's Soul, He Goes Marching On," Baptist Bible Tribune (July 5, 1968); and "Seminary Spokesman Takes Issue with Dr. W. A. Criswell, Dallas, Texas," Western Recorder (March 8, 1956), 16.

(28.) Ibid.

(29.) Ibid.

(30.) C. Allyn Russell, "W. A. Criswell: A Case Study in Fundamentalism," Review and Expositor (Winter, 1984), 122.

(31.) Ibid.

(32.) "American Baptist Association at Memphis," Baptist Bible Tribune (July 23, 1963), 3.

(33.) Noel Smith, "Martin Luther King," Baptist Bible Tribune (August 25, 1967), 5.

(34.) Noel Smith, "Black and Green Power," Baptist Bible Tribune (August 25, 1967), 5.

(35.) Ibid.

(36.) T. H. Masters, "I Examined My Conscience," The Fundamentalist (July, 1963), 1.

(37.) Ibid., 7.

(38.) Ibid.

(39.) Ibid.

(40.) Billy James Hargis, "The Truth About Segregation," 1-2, cited in Erling Jorstad, The Politics of Doomsday (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970), 93.

(41.) Lincoln Caplan, "Annals of Law" (The Solicitor General--Part 1) The New Yorker (August 10, 1987), 41-51; and John F. Wilson and Donald L. Drakeford, Church and State in American History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), 273.

(42.) Noel Smith, "White and Black Crime," Baptist Bible Tribune (August 7, 1964), 4.

(43.) Noel Smith, "Constitutionally It Was Obscene," Baptist Bible Tribune (April 2, 1965).

(44.) John R. Rice, Negro and White, 5.

(45.) Noel Smith, "Black and Green Power," Baptist Bible Tribune (August 25, 1967).

(46.) Noel Smith, "White and Black Crime," 4.

(47.) Noel Smith, "That's the Trouble," Baptist Bible Tribune (April 28, 1967), 5.

(48.) Noel Smith, "Martin Luther King," Baptist Bible Tribune (November 17, 1967).

(49.) John R. Rice, "Christian Fellowship with Negro and White, Not Intermarriage," Sword of the Lord (July 1, 1965).

(50.) John R. Rice, "Mississippi Tragedy," Sword of the Lord (November 16, 1962).

(51.) John R. Rice, "Christian Fellowship With Negro and White, Not Intermarriage," Sword of the Lord (July 2, 1965).

(52.) Ibid., 18.

(53.) John R. Rice, Dr. Rice, Here is My Question, 239.

(54.) Clay Cooper, "Church Found `Meddlin' in Rights Crisis,'" The Fundamentalist (November, 1963), 5.

(55.) Ibid.

(56.) Ibid., 7-8.

(57.) John David Ladia, "Why I Didn't Join Selma March," Sword of the Lord (August 13, 1965).

(58.) Sword of the Lord (August 19, 1956), 5.

(59.) Ibid.

(60.) John R. Rice, "Moral Principles in National Politics," Sword of the Lord (July 24, 1964), 7.

(61.) Terry Sears, "The Radical Clergy," Baptist Bible Tribune (March 3, 1967), 8.

(62.) John R. Rice, "Christian Fellowship With Negro and White, Not Intermarriage."

(63.) John R. Rice, "Desegregation Needs Christian Restraint, Love, Law Abiding," Sword of the Lord (September 1, 1961), 3.

(64.) John R. Rice, "Freedom Riders and Violence in Alabama," Sword of the Lord (June 30, 1961), 3.

(65.) Hugh F. Pyle, "Bloody Detroit, Black Power and the Bible," Sword of the Lord (September 15, 1967), 8.

(66.) John R. Rice, "Sow to the Wind; Reap a Whirlwind," Sword of the Lord (September 24, 1965), 7.

(67.) John R. Rice, "Why We Will Vote for Goldwater," Sword of the Lord (October 16, 1964), 8.

(68.) G. Archer Weniger, "Religious Liberals Want Negro-White Intermarriage," Sword of the Lord (September 18, 1964), 4.

(69.) Billy James Hargis, Billy James Hargis Speaks Out on the Issues (Tulsa: Christian Crusade Publications, 1971), 17.

(70.) Ibid., 18.

(71.) Billy James Hargis, The Total Revolution (Tulsa: Christian Crusade Publications, 1972), 59.

(72.) Noel Smith, "The Christian Century Chooses Guttersnipe Slander to Argument," Baptist Bible Tribune (November 13, 1964), 4; and "Ideological Heroin," The Christian Century 81 (November 4, 1964), 1355-56.

(73.) William Ashbrook, "Apostasy Unashamed," Sword of the Lord (September 10, 1965).

(74.) John R. Rice, "Moral Principles and National Politics," Sword Of The Lord (July 24, 1964), 7.

(75.) Ibid.

(76.) Ibid.

(77.) "The Civil Rights Bill," Baptist Bible Tribune (March 13, 1964).

(78.) Sword Of The Lord (August 19, 1964), 3.

(79.) Noel Smith, "Martin Luther King Wants a Revolution," Baptist Bible Tribune (April 23, 1965).

(80.) Ibid.

(81.) G. Archer Weniger, "Martin Luther King, Negro Pro-Communist, Modernist," Sword of the Lord (November 9, 1962).

(82.) Ibid.

(83.) Noel Smith, "Soldiers and Policemen," Baptist Bible Tribune (April 19, 1968), 5.

(84.) Ibid., 5.

(85.) Bob Spencer, "Dr. Martin Luther King Died by the Lawlessness He Encouraged," Sword of the Lord (June 14, 1968).

(86.) Dennis McDonald, "From Faith to Faith: My Journey from Credibility to Awe," unpublished paper.

(87.) Noel Smith, "Soldiers and Policemen," Baptist Bible Tribune (April 19, 1968).

(88.) Sword of the Lord (October 17, 1980), 2.

(89.) David Bromley and Anson Shupe, The New Christian Politics (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1984), 47-48, 74.

Bill J. Leonard is dean, The Divinity School, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. This article ordinarily appeared in Southern Landscapes, edited by Tony Badger, Walter Edgar, and Jan Nordy Gretlund. In cooperation with Lothar Honnighausen and Christoph Irmscher. Tubingen: Stauffenburg 1996, 165-81. It is reprinted by permission.
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Author:Leonard, Bill J.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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