Raymond R. Sommerville. An Ex-Colored Church: Social Activism in the CME Church, 1870-1970. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2004. 246 pages. ISBN: 0865549036. Reviewed by Lewis V. Baldwin, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
One of the most significant trends in black church historiography is the recent appearance of works that treat local and regional developments or patterns. Raymond R. Sommerville's An Ex-Colored Church is an impressive addition to this rich and expanding body of literature. An assistant professor of church history at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Sommerville provides fresh angles from which to view the first one hundred years (1870-1970) of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, an institution known for most of its history as the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church.
|"Rejecting the claim that the CME Church was merely a creature of white origin [Sommerville] concludes that...it is more accurate to view it as 'a product of both southern white Methodist paternalism and African Americans quest for freedom'"|
Sommerville discusses southern Methodism's missions to the slaves as a way of establishing the historical background and the cultural milieu out of which the CME Church emerged. He traces the origin of the CME Church to its founding in 1870 in Jackson, Tennesssee, noting that it was "one of the first new denominations to emerge from the smoldering ashes of the Civil War" (p. 1). The CME denomination took shape as hundreds of ex-slaves withdrew from the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, the church of their former owners. The socio-political forces that occasioned this development are skillfully treated by Sommerville. Rejecting the claim that the CME Church was merely a creature of white origin, he concludes that while that body's "early identity was largely shaped by its relationship to the M.E. Church, South," it is more accurate to view it as "a product of both southern white Methodist paternalism and African Americans' quest for freedom" (p. 1). Both factors are perennially relevant to any serious discussion of how and why the CME Church assumed a unique expression in the lives of its constituents and in African American culture generally.
The attention devoted to CME developments and involvements in the last three decades of the nineteenth century is particularly important since so little has been written about the black church in that period. Sommerville reminds us that the CMEs' interest in ecumenism and education during those years must be understood in the broad context of the movement for radical reconstruction in the South, a movement aimed at educating and enhancing the citizenship rights of the newly freed African Americans. We also get a glimpse into the ambivalent side of the CME Church, an institution that was at times both political and apolitical, accommodatinist and progressive, especially as it constantly met challenges that were so ambiguous, even anomalous, that flexibility in responses were needed to address changing racial realities.
Sommerville's treatment of the CME Church in the first half of the twentieth century is the best on record. He explores two major developments that highlight the image of a blossoming institution with a growing sense of mission. One is the remarkable growth of the CME Church, or its expansion beyond its southern regional base, a development brought on by the migration of thousands of African Americans from southern rural areas to the urban South, the Northeast, and the Midwest. The second major development involved the responses of CMEs to Jim Crow through their public discourse, mission programs, and ecumenical relations. Sommerville highlights CME relations with other black Methodist and Baptist denominations in the interest of racial uplift, and recounts CME responses to the rigid segregation and cycles of violence visited upon blacks that covered the spectrum from accommodationism to the advocacy of emigrationism and racial separatism by minority voices such as Bishop Lucius Holsey.
Most of An Ex-Colored Church covers the birth, maturation, and apex of the modern phase of the civil rights movement, with special attention to CME activities during the period from 1954 to 1970. Sommerville contends that the proposal to change the denomination's name from "Colored" to "Christian" Methodist Episcopal Church, which was adopted at the 1954 General Conference in Memphis, Tennessee, was consistent with the spirit of the civil rights movement, and that this signaled an evolving commitment on the denomination's part to racial inclusivity and ecumenical endeavors. Sommerville's focus on Nashville, Birmingham, Memphis, and Atlanta as the major centers of CME presence and activity is not only essential for grasping the regional significance of the church, but also for assessing the levels of CME involvement in the mass meetings, demonstrations, boycotts, and other types of nonviolent direct action which challenged and transformed southern life and culture. Thus, Sommerville reinforces the image of the civil rights movement as a church-based crusade, and reminds his readers that the leadership of the movement included CMEs such as Lucius Pitts, Henry C. Bunton, and many other unsung heroes in addition to celebrated figures like Martin Luther King, Jr.
The choice of 1970 as the terminal date for this book raises some questions, but Sommerville is clearly interested in how a slave church emerges into an activist and progressive church in the first century of its existence. Even so, the study would have been a bit more original and appealing had Sommerville included a chapter examining CME history from 1970 up to the present, with major attention to how the church has confronted what he terms "the bittersweet legacies of the post-Civil Rights era" (p. 211). Perhaps this is a project for some future date.
The content of An Ex-Colored Church appeals to a broad readership. Scholars and students in American and African American religious history will find the book quite useful as will clergy and laypersons. There is also something here for those who are interested in the relationship between religion, politics, and social movements.
An Ex-Colored Church is a major contribution to the study of both African American religious history and southern religious historiography. Remarkable for its clear and graceful style and its balance of interpretations, this book fills a gap in our understanding of African Methodism in particular and American Methodism generally.
Lewis V. Baldwin, Vanderbilt University
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