By Wes Crawford
Paul Overstreet, country music songwriter and singer who had a handful of hits in the mid-1990s, released a song in 1990 entitled “Seein’ My Father in Me.” The chorus of that song includes the lyrics:
I’m seein’ my father in me
I guess that’s how it’s meant to be
And I find I’m more and more like him each day
I notice I walk the way he walks
I notice I talk the way he talks
I’m startin’ to see
My father in me
My father passed away in 2003 from cancer, so I haven’t seen him in nearly two decades; nevertheless, I remember enough about my father to recognize the truth of these lyrics. Whether I care to admit it or not, I have inherited many wonderful, and a few less than admirable, traits from my father. I bear a striking physical resemblance to him. I have inherited many of his mannerisms. As I have grown older, I recognize that I make decisions and process information a lot like he did. In short, I’m “seein’ my father in me.” I bet most of us could trace our habits back to a previous generation.
As religious people, we also inherit characteristics from our spiritual parents and ancestors. The Quaker movement, for example, continues in the path of pacifism established long ago by the founders of their movement, including William Penn. Charles Taze Russell set the Jehovah’s Witness movement in motion in the late 19th century. Subsequent members of that denomination, including Will Keith Kellogg, much like their founder, have tied healthy eating to their faith.
Among the characteristics members of Churches of Christ have inherited from our parents is our refusal to acknowledge the ways in which our spiritual parents have influenced us! As a lifelong member of Churches of Christ, I have heard on numerous occasions, “Our movement didn’t start with Alexander Campbell or Barton W. Stone. We started in A.D. 33, and we find our habits from Scripture, not any humans who came before us.” Whether we care to admit it or not, we have inherited many wonderful, and a few less than admirable, traits from previous generations. Among our most admirable traits is our love for Scripture. Like Campbell and Stone and many other members of our movement in the past, we hold the Bible in the highest regard, allowing God’s Word to provide direction and governance for our lives. Not unlike our spiritual forebearers, we also believe the church plays a central role in the ongoing redemptive drama of God in this world. Our high view of scripture and high ecclesiology find their roots in the habits and inclinations of 19th American Christian reformers, Campbell and Stone among them.
Even as we have inherited many praiseworthy habits from our spiritual parents, we also have learned some bad and even dangerous habits. The recent racial turmoil in America brings to the surface some of our less than desirable inherited traits. Whether we realize it or not, the ways in which members of Churches of Christ engage the topic of race bears striking resemblance to the ways Campbell and other of our spiritual parents addressed it.
Certainly, our habits originated not only from Campbell and Stone, but also from previous generations of southern Christians in various denominations. In most ways, Churches of Christ mirrored other southern denominations in their handling of race. I would love to report that our strong allegiance to the pattern of Scripture pushed members of our movement to emulate the love of Jesus in the debates centering on slavery. In reality, however, by the time of the American Civil War, members of the Stone-Campbell Movement (of which Churches of Christ are a part) held more slaves, per capita, than any other religious group in America. When the Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ split apart in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, roughly ninety percent of the Churches of Christ movement existed in the southern states, and white members of Churches of Christ supported Jim Crow segregation much like other southern white Methodists, Presbyterians, or Baptists.
Campbell’s views on slavery, regrettably, continue to impact Churches of Christ. Campbell did not support slavery; yet, he did not actively pursue its eradication. His chief criticism of the peculiar institution was that it was inexpedient, believing it not in harmony with the spirit of the age. Campbell held an extremely high view of humanity, and he believed the new American democratic nation was among the highest achievements of the world. He believed, in fact, that human achievement had reached such heights that their activity was preparing the way for Jesus’ second coming. In such an advanced age, Campbell believed slavery did not belong.
If Campbell disagreed with slavery, why then did he not join with abolitionists to fight for its demise? There seem to be three reasons for Campbell’s position. First, Campbell did not view slavery as a moral issue. Like many of his contemporaries (and many future generations), Campbell viewed slavery and the racism that undergirded it as social ills, not in step with such an advanced society, but certainly not against God’s law. In fact, in his lengthy series on slavery in the Millennial Harbinger, Campbell regularly pointed out that the Bible nowhere condemned slavery.
A second reason for Campbell’s reluctance to take a stronger stand against slavery concerns his position as leader of a unity movement. In taking a middle position between abolitionists and proponents of slavery, Campbell hoped to hold his movement together. The Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians had already divided over slavery, and Campbell hoped to avoid a similar fate by standing in the middle with an arm reaching out to both poles. In the process, he angered people on both sides of the debate. For example, two of Campbell’s sisters, Jane Campbell McKeever and Dorothea Bryant were abolitionists, and they were highly and publicly critical of their brother’s position.
A third reason for Campbell’s middle position is by far the most alarming. In short, Campbell was a racist. In one article, Campbell wrote, “As much as I sympathize with the black man, I love the white man more.” He may have felt sorry for American slaves, but he did not view them as equal to white-skinned people, and that position, built upon the racist ideology of black inferiority held Campbell back from strongly advocating for the end of slavery.
Campbell’s views on slavery shaped the way future generations of his movement addressed the question of race. Even in the early decades of the 21st century, many members of Churches of Christ continue to view racism and its effects as a political, not a moral, concern. I spent twenty years as a preacher within Churches of Christ. On those occasions when I directly spoke about racism, I typically had folks criticize me for “bringing politics into the pulpit,” even though those sermons never named a politician or a political platform.
As a church historian who has spent a great deal of time studying the American Civil Rights Movement, I find it interesting to see how this distinction between “social” and “moral” has impacted the question of race in America. One of the most important contributions of Martin Luther King, Jr. (and Howard Thurman and Benjamin Mays before him) was his ability to cast segregation and racism as moral issues. His contemporaries, even within the Black Church, had most often discussed Jim Crow segregation as a political and social issue, and they attacked those unjust laws in the courts. King, on the other hand, attacked segregation as sin, and his non-violent direct-action strategy brought that sin and its effects into American living rooms. When King convinced enough people that segregation was sin, the church had to deal with it. They could no longer hide behind the seemingly advantageous strategy of gradualism. If segregation is sin, it must be dealt with now.
Whether we care to admit it or not, we have inherited many wonderful, and a few less than admirable, traits from Alexander Campbell. But as a good therapist might tell her or his patient, “You do not have to follow your parents’ bad behavior.” As the national dialogue continues to center on race and racism, my hope is that members of our movement would cast off this ugly part of our heritage and name racism for what is really is. Racism is sin. I pray we would stop allowing politicians to commandeer this important discussion and that we would quit discouraging ministers and religious leaders from bringing politics into the pulpit. In fact, racism is not only a political issue; it is a moral issue that demands the attention of those who love God and God’s mission in the world.