September 30, 2020

Presbyterians and the Negro—A History

Presbyterians and the Negro—A History, By ANDREW E. MURRAY. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1966, xiv, 270 p. Bibliography, index. $6.00.)

Presbyterians and the Negro – A Book Review

The Presbyterian Historical Society has been doing a great service for students of American church history by providing excellent volumes on the history of Presbyterianism in American life. The work under consideration here, Volume VII of the series, adds significantly to our knowledge of one particular aspect of Presbyterian life as well as to the growing body of literature dealing with the relations between the white Christian church and the Negro. In 1965, David Reimers’ White Protestantism and the Negro surveyed the entire scene and now Murray’s work deals with the work of one predominantly white denomination, the Presbyterians.

The author’s qualifications for doing this study are impressive. He was for many years Professor of Church History and Dean of the Theological Seminary at the predominantly Negro Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and, since the Seminary’s closing in 1959, has been chairman of the University’s Department of Religion.

Murray begins by denying that Negro Christianity is different from white Christianity: “If there is any assumption in this book it is that Negro and white Christians share a common Christianity, and that it is only the existence of racial segregation that prevents each group from recognizing this basic oneness” (p. ix). He points out that, whereas some say that the Negro has certain distinctive religious needs, those needs can be explained as stemming from the peculiar conditions of the slave system rather than as racially inherent. The study proceeds, then, based on primary sources from the records of the meetings of groups of Presbyterians and the writings of Presbyterian leaders, black and white alike, through the years.

The contents of the book are arranged in chronological order by section, North and South. Instead of attempting to summarize these contents, would like to make a few comments about Murray’s approach. The author correctly notes that:

Apart from the opinions of individual laymen and ministers, the crucial question in the Presbyterian church was the action of the judicatories. In the Presbyterian system these judicatories can act either by issuing pronouncements, which have amoral authority, or through disciplinary action, which determines the member’s relation to the church. This disciplinary action is crucial, for while pronouncements may help in encouraging wavering members, only discipline allows the church to purge its ranks of those who disregard its teachings. On the question of slavery the Presbyterians found it impossible to use the power of discipline over their members,since such action would have destroyed the unity of the church. Instead the church had to rely on moral pronouncements to shape the opinions of its followers (p. 16).

With this paragraph Murray sums up the problem of the white church and the Negro. The higher levels of the church bureaucracy can make pronouncements of a progressive nature on race relations but unless there is some way to control the behavior of the individual members, the moral influence may go for naught. So it was with the Presbyterians. In 1818, the General Assembly condemned the institution of slavery but continued to welcome slave owners into the church. And this attitude has not changed with the passing of the years. After surveying the entire history of the church on this matter, Murray concludes that: “In practice, the church’s racial policy was usually set by local congregations, which might not follow the more liberal policies of their denomination” (p. 219).

One important aspect of this book is its balance between the statements and attitudes of the larger church bodies (e.g., General Assembly) and the attitudes of influential churchmen. We are grateful to Murray for giving us access to the views and activities of such prominent Negro Presbyterians as Matthew Anderson and Francis Grimke of the post-Civil War generation as well as Edler Hawkins and James Robinson of our own times.

Although Murray is white, his analysis is in no sense an apologia for white Presbyterianism. His work is, rather, one of the most straightforward treatments of this controversial material that I have seen. I was particularly pleased to note that Murray’s understanding of religion is informed by the social scientific literature. He sees Christianity in a functional sense, both restricting and liberating the Negro: “Was Christianity primarily a form of social control, designed to make him a more obedient servant? Or, was the new faith a means of liberation, giving him new status and freeing him from the bonds of caste? As will be shown, both interpretations are possible, reflecting a fundamental tension within Christianity itself” (p. 29). It is to the author’s credit that he does, in fact, keep this promise and provide us with a competent and thorough analysis of the Negro and Presbyterianism in America.

He concludes, supporting the analyses of Reimers and others, that: “In the field of race relations, the Presbyterians, like most American Protestants, took a conservative position, tending to reflect current American racial attitudes rather than to mold them”

New York Institute of Technology THOMAS R. FRAZIER

This book review was originally published online at https://journals.psu.edu/pmhb/article/view/42306/42027