He was known for his Christian convictions and academic credentials. Highly praised for his character and scholarship. A compelling speaker who frequently addressed college students and Christian organizations. But when Francis Grimké attempted to publish a critique of the Presbyterian church’s complicity with racism, he was told to shut up.
Why did it happen? What can we learn from it?
Credentialed Leader, Rejected Message
Francis Grimké (1850–1937) was born in South Carolina. His father was a white plantation owner and his mother a slave. After his father died, Grimké’s white half-brother forced him into slavery too. The 9-year-old Francis fled but was soon captured and sold to a Confederate officer.
When the Civil War ended, abolitionists arranged for Francis to live in Massachusetts and attend Lincoln University. After graduating as valedictorian in 1870, Grimké studied law and then went to Princeton Seminary. After graduation in 1878, he served as pastor of Fifteenth Street Presbyterian in Washington, DC. Grimké soon became a respected leader in the black community and part of a group of prominent pastors, academics, and activists W. E. B. Du Bois aptly termed “the talented tenth.”
In 1912, Grimké submitted an article titled “A Call for a Revival Within the Church” to The Presbyterian, his denomination’s flagship magazine. Since Grimké shared The Presbyterian’s conservative theological leanings, it seemed the natural place for him to submit his appeal. What the church desperately needed, Grimké wrote, was for those who professed Christ to act “more in accord with the spirit and teachings of Jesus Christ.”
What the church desperately needed, Grimké wrote, was for those who professed Christ to act ‘more in accord with the spirit and teachings of Jesus Christ.’
D. S. Kennedy, the editor of The Presbyterian, endorsed Grimké’s plea for a “revival coming down from above through the spirit of God.” But he still declined the article. What irked Kennedy was Grimké’s argument that revival was needed because “the so-called Christian Church in America . . . justifies race prejudice” shamefully “under the cover of the sacred name of Jesus Christ.” For Grimké, the Bible’s clear teaching about the doctrine of the imago Dei and the brotherhood of believers meant racism should have no place inside the church.
Grimké’s Ministry Context
What are we to make of Grimké’s insights into race relations and Kennedy’s response? After the Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction, Southern states passed Jim Crow laws that segregated public places and disenfranchised most black voters. Theories about race popular at the time helped sanction discriminatory practices.
Proponents of the theory of polygenesis argued that physiognomic differences, such as head sizes, proved black people were inferior to white people. This pseudoscience normalized a culture of racism in the post–Civil War American South. After the war, another “scientific” theory emerged that asserted black people weren’t inferior humans but subhuman creatures. In “The Negro a Beast” (1900), for example, Charles Carroll claimed that while black people could speak and reason like Caucasians, they constituted a different species because they lacked souls.
Popular fiction helped disseminate these racist views. In The Leopard’s Spots (1902), Baptist pastor Thomas Dixon Jr. depicted black men as a threat to the purity of white women and white culture. Grimké called this book, which sold over a million copies, a “vile publication.”
These popular prejudices fueled vigilante violence against black people. Between 1889 and 1899, 1,240 African Americans were lynched, often for alleged assaults against white women. After the 1906 Atlanta Riot, Grimké surmised that black lives didn’t matter to many white Christians. Otherwise, America’s “135,667 preachers and more than 26,000,000 church members” would not tolerate this “record of murder and lawlessness.”
Theologically Driven Advocacy
Grimké himself experienced discrimination in his own denomination. When the Synod of Baltimore met at Hood College in Maryland, for example, Grimké and other black pastors weren’t allowed to stay in the dormitories or eat in the cafeteria with white pastors.
In 1905, Grimké urged his fellow ministers in the Washington City Presbytery to reject a proposed merger between the northern Presbyterian church and the largely southern white Cumberland Presbyterian Church because it would create segregated presbyteries in the South. Though they applauded Grimké’s stirring address, the presbytery still approved the merger.
At Princeton, Grimké had learned from Charles Hodge, who affirmed all people shared the imago Dei. In his Systematic Theology, Hodge rejected polygenesis, insisting that humans were “not only the same in kind but the same in origin. They are all children of a common parent, and have a common nature.”
If black and white people were made in God’s image and thus constituted a “common brotherhood,” as Hodge taught, Grimké concluded that a racial caste system inside the church was unbiblical. The church, he insisted, should courageously offer an alternative community that conforms to biblical principles, not to the prevailing values of the day. This was why he wrote in his unpublished essay that evangelistic efforts should turn people “away from their sins—from all their sins, from even those that are dear to them as race prejudice.”
The church should courageously offer an alternative community that conforms to biblical principles, not to the prevailing values of the day.
To Grimké, the prevailing cultural attitudes about race flew in the face of the Bible’s teaching. Grimké wanted to awaken believers to the “hypocrisy” of their “pious cant” about Christian love and their complicity with racism. It was a message, however, that Kennedy didn’t think readers of The Presbyterian needed, or perhaps wanted, to hear. “There are many good things in your article,” Kennedy wrote Grimké, but The Presbyterian found that Grimké’s article “defeats its own purpose” because it was “calculated” to produce “a variance” from “a spirit of harmony” that supposedly existed between the races inside the church.
Will We Miss Similar Opportunities?
By many measures, overt racism in America has declined over the past 110 years. State-sanctioned Jim Crow laws have been dismantled. In the Presbyterian church, segregated presbyteries have been integrated. Nonetheless, racism persists in various forms.
Grimké’s cri de coeur could have helped white believers consider the ways prevailing cultural attitudes about race frankly contradicted a most basic Christian conviction. Though some critics of racism in the early 20th century dismissed Grimké’s solution to the sin of racial prejudice as naive and otherworldly, evangelical Christians needed to hear his insistence that the reviving work of the Holy Spirit that leads to genuine repentance and new life was the best starting point to address the individual and corporate problems caused by sin. Sadly, that opportunity was missed.
Will we make the same mistakes? When thoughtful Christians today criticize the evangelical church at large on issues of race, how should we respond? Instead of dismissing fellow believers as divisive or impertinent, we should carefully consider whether they’ve correctly identified ways unbiblical cultural mores about race have shaped the church’s beliefs and practices more than our theological convictions have. We should consider that they may be pointing to realities to which we’re oblivious.
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