Peter C. Murray. Methodists and the Crucible of Race, 1930-1975. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004. xix+266 pages. ISBN: 0-82621-514-9. Reviewed by Lisa Roy Vox, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
Peter C. Murray, a historian at Methodist College in Fayetteville, North Carolina, contributes an impressive institutional study to the growing body of scholarship on mainline churches' role played in the Civil Rights Movement with his book, Methodists and the Crucible of Race, 1930-1975. Scholars have published several general studies on Protestant churches during this period, notably historian James F. Findlay's Church People in the Struggle: The National Council of Churches and the Black Freedom Movement, 1950-1970 (1993). Murray uses the recent literature to his advantage and also helps fill the gap in denominational studies during the Civil Rights period.
|". . . Murray convincingly makes the case that the Methodist Church is a particularly interesting denomination in which to track changes resulting from the Civil Rights Movement."|
While Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr. has documented the Episcopalian reaction to the Civil Rights Movement in Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights (2000) and Joel L. Alvis has performed the same job for Southern Presbyterians in Religion and Race: Southern Presbyterians, 1946-1983 (1994), Murray convincingly makes the case that the Methodist Church is a particularly interesting denomination in which to track changes resulting from the Civil Rights Movement. The Methodists were the first of the American churches divided by the Civil War to reunite, and notably did so very early in 1939. The reunion of the northern and southern churches, according to Murray's account, however, required years of negotiation and compromise on the part of African Americans to satisfy the segregationist demands of white Southerners.
Murray outlines the new church structure very carefully and clearly. The agreement that the northern and southern halves reached on church governmental structure for the new Methodist Church was to form five regional jurisdictions and one jurisdiction based on race—known as the Central Jurisdiction—for the African-American churches to satisfy white Southerners' desire to maintain segregated churches. These six jurisdictions would participate in the general conference and African-American bishops would vote at the general conference, but African-American bishops could only preside at the annual conferences—conferences held every year of churches in a particular localized area—in the Central Jurisdiction. The result, Murray concludes, was that “African American Methodists had more power and autonomy than other African American members of predominantly white churches but they were also the most rigidly separated and segregated” (p. 51).
The bulk of the book contends with the process of establishing integration in the Methodist Church after the 1956 General Conference. At that meeting, the church passed Amendment IX, which began the long process of abolishing the Central Jurisidiction, transferring the annual conferences within it to the regional jurisdictions, and ultimately merging African American and white annual conferences by 1975. The Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) Supreme Court decision as well as the 1955-1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, Murray argues, compelled Methodists to recognize the inherent paradox of segregation within a church that celebrated Christian brotherhood. Relying upon sources like position papers issued from individuals and commissions, the Journal of the General Conference which reported on its proceedings, and private correspondence, Murray builds a detailed, inner history of the Methodist Church during the process.
Murray also does a fine job of discussing intellectual issues. Throughout the book, he discusses the nationwide acceptance that Anglo Americans largely treated African Americans fairly, and what problems existed were slowly being eradicated (and were largely based in the South). He also discusses the southern concepts that segregation was in fact based on Christian principles, was natural for both whites and African Americans, and that any change in race relations should proceed very slowly and cautiously. The first concept Murray refers to as “the Great Myth,” while he calls the second “the Southern Myth.” While discussion of these ideas is not new, Murray deftly interweaves them into a story of how white Methodists accepted these myths and their reaction when events like sit-ins in the South revealed the falsehood of “the Southern Myth” and riots in the North showed how wrong “the Great Myth” was.
Murray's key contribution in the area of intellectual history, however, is his focus on “voluntarism” as the means by which Methodists wanted to desegregate the church. Beginning with the passage of Amendment IX and throughout the process of desegregation, Methodists emphasized consensus building instead of forced integration. Murray connects the idea of “voluntarism” with the notion of liberty, so important in Cold War America. He does not withhold criticism, though, noting that “African Americans had never ‘volunteered” for segregation” (p. 5).
Methodists and the Crucible of Race, 1930-1975 has several notable strengths. One is Murray's consistent discussion of Methodist women's contributions, which he draws from previous scholarship, especially in the early chapters. Another strong point to Murray's book is that he does not simply begin, as historians often do, with the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision. He discusses the calls early in the 1950s, even before Brown, on the part of African American Methodists to integrate the Methodist Church. Murray, however, emphasizes that the white power structure did not seriously commit to integrating the Methodist Church until the Civil Rights Movement made such an impact on society as to make it clear that the days of segregation were over.
Thus throughout his work, Murray makes parallels between what is going on in society and within the Methodist Church. He is careful to continually ask the important question of whether the Methodist Church was at any point in time outpacing society, merely keeping up with society, or even behind society in the changes the denomination was making regarding race relations. Ultimately he concludes that the Methodist Church mirrored societal change, and argues this by comparing episodes in the Civil Rights Movement and the way Americans were reacting to Methodist actions during the same period. Sometimes this argument is quite strong. For instance, Murray made a strong analogy between white southern fears about federal intervention, especially after incidents like the Little Rock, Arkansas crisis in 1957. He also addresses the fears that white southern Methodists had about Northern Methodists imposing integration on them.
But at other critical points in the book, Murray's arguments needed to be more nuanced. For example, his discussion of the Central Jurisdiction's resistance to quick transfers into the various jurisdictions needed more analysis. He argues that because African Americans feared losing power and their voice if an overall strategy was not developed to also merge the annual conferences and to work on changing racial attitudes. Murray compares a memo written by James P. Brawley, chair of the Central Jurisdiction's self-study committee explaining the slowness of the Central Jurisdiction to act on transferring into the other jurisdictions to King's “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” addressing the impatience of African Americans to wait any longer for change. Murray might have made a more refined argument by comparing those in the Central Jurisdiction who found integration without plans for true racial inclusiveness unsatisfying to those African Americans who worried that the Brown decision might have detrimental effects. Educator Pansye Atkinson in Brown Vs. Topeka: An African American's View: De Segregation and Miseducation (1993) discusses such reactions as from an elderly W.E.B. Du Bois who envisaged the loss of black teachers and the failure to teach African American history and culture in integrated schools upon hearing of the Brown decision. Brawley and others who did not want to integrate without insuring that other facets of racism were addressed within the church had a lot in common with others in society who worried integration might just result in a net loss for African Americans.
Although Murray is a historian, he assumes too much knowledge on the part of his readers about different religious groups in the United States. For instance, he compares the Methodist Church to the Catholic, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches, but does not explain clearly why he chooses only those churches as points of comparison to the reader other than the availability of studies on them. Scholars who are familiar with these churches will recognize that he compares the Methodists to other churches with a strong national church governmental structure with congregations of African Americans, but this explanation is only implicit in the text. Since the comparisons to other churches are less important to his argument than the associations he makes to general societal changes, scholars without a strong understanding of various churches will still benefit from Murray's study.
Murray tells the reader upfront about growing up Methodist in South Carolina in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and begins his book with a comparison of Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South; the book is infused with his moral outrage that Christian ideals did not trump the worst of human nature—racism. He states as his purpose in writing this book: “American institutions, especially churches, need to examine what they did to accommodate or bless racism in American society. Churches in particular could profit from examining when and how they acknowledged the depth of racism in American society and how this consciousness changed their own institutional practices” (p. 2). Whatever scholars might feel about Murray's own mission in writing this work, Methodists and the Crucible of Race, 1930-1975, is an instructive study. The work shows the complexities surrounding the impact of the Civil Rights Movement upon a national, interracial institution with a historical and ethical imperative toward Christian brotherhood, yet ignored that imperative in favor of expediency for so long.
Lisa Roy Vox, Emory University
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