Richmond's Priests and Prophets

Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era

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Douglas E. Thompson
Religion & American Culture
  • Tuscaloosa, AL: 
    University of Alabama Press
    , June
     2017.
     200 pages.
     $49.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780817319175.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In a bid to deepen our understanding of white involvement in the civil rights movement, Douglas E. Thompson’s Richmond’s Priests and Prophets offers a nuanced exploration of white church leaders’ attempts to desegregate their congregations and local communities. Focusing on the 1940s and 50s, Thompson argues that public school desegregation debates in Richmond, Virginia, reveal often understudied but no less important controversies within the white Christian community. Even as some church leaders took prophetic roles in calling for integration, others emphasized the priestly function of tending to the status quo. In an era when clergy had gained new status and respectability, their voices made a difference in citywide political debates even while fomenting discord in their own houses of worship over whether and how to pursue integration at the congregational level.

To make his case, Thompson examines religiously motivated editorials, ministerial associations’ pronouncements, the actions of clergy involved in human rights organizations, and internal denominational debates, most centrally among Methodists and Presbyterians. Yet Thompson also attends to Protestant-Catholic relations, the history of segregation within white congregations prior to Brown v. Board of Education, and the responses of and reactions to the Black church. In engaging these sources, Thompson offers a measured, thorough analysis backed up by meticulous research. He knows his material, the context of the events he discusses, and the theological nuances of the debates he describes.

The broader historiography that Richmond’s Priests and Prophets engages is likewise robust. Thompson positions his work carefully in the “growing literature about how white Christians encountered the civil rights movement” (154). He acknowledges and integrates David L. Chappell’s 2004 A Stone of Hope (University of North Carolina Press), Jonathan Bass’s 2001 Blessed are the Peacemakers (Louisiana State University Press), Carolyn Dupont’s 2013 Mississippi Praying (New York University Press), and Stephen Haynes’s 2012 The Last Segregated Hour (Oxford University Press), as well as many others. So respectful and complimentary is his engagement with these scholars, however, that this reader was left wondering why he offered no criticism at all of works that, although significant and worthy of praise, have their own flaws and weaknesses.

Thompson is at his best when exploring the contradictions, tensions, and uncertain effects of ministerial action. On the one hand, Thompson provides convincing evidence that the ministers of Richmond used moral persuasion to shift the direction of public desegregation debates toward integration (110-11). Yet those same ministers often could not marshal the political will to make more concrete changes (95). Likewise, he carefully parses the gradations of priestly and prophetic response, noting that even those on the terminal ends of that continuum still shared a common interest in justice (67). And the limits of pastoral suasion become clear as Thompson shows how appeals to conscience in voluntary associations like churches could only go so far because members sometimes responded by following their conscience to leave the church (109).

Thompson also brings in literary and historical works to make sense of local Richmond events. A passage from Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” provides a metaphor for interpreting white Christians’ mixed and uncertain responses to desegregation during the tumultuous decade of the 1950s. A sophisticated reading of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (Harper & Bros., 1944) provides a historiographical context for understanding why historians have generally ignored the contributions of white churches to desegregation debates (25). And a discussion of one minister’s use of Lloyd Douglas’s Magnificent Obsession (Willett, Clark & Colby, 1929) offers insight into the prophetic impulse to challenge a quiescent congregation (15-18). Thompson has done his homework.

At points, Thompson does stray from historical analysis to engage in theological punditry. He contends that churches are caught between the need to connect with the society around them and the desire to keep their social connections “from suffocating the promise of God’s presence” (11). In the same vein, he writes, “For every prophet, however, priestly voices ground the congregations in tradition and help fend off false prophets” (22). The normative rhetoric of his subjects seems at times to color his prose, hinting at an emic position that offers great insight even as it slips into a—perhaps—accidental evangelism.

 This is a small complaint, however, about an otherwise important book, one that adds to our understanding of the ways in which the white church engaged the civil rights struggle. Although study of such ecclesial inner workings offers few moments as dramatic as the Bloody Sunday standoff on Selma’s Edmund Pettus bridge, Thompson’s narrative does reveal the intensity of internecine religious debates while also highlighting the moral courage required to speak into the theological and social maelstrom that erupted among many white congregants frightened by the prospect of racial revolution.

In the end, Richmond’s Priests and Prophets offers an empathetic, balanced, and unflinching assessment of the white congregants who stumbled their way toward at least official declarations of openness and inclusion across racial lines. This monograph provides an excellent model for historians interested in expanding the scope and significance of local studies of the civil rights era.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tobin Miller Shearer is Associate Professor of History and African-American Studies Director at the University of Montana.

Date of Review: 
December 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Douglas E. Thompson is a professor of history and southern studies at Mercer University. He is the editor of the Journal of Southern Religion and the coeditor of Jessie Mercer’s Pulpit: Preaching in a Community of Faith and Learning.

Comments

Douglas Thompson

I am grateful to Reading Religion and Tobin Shearer for reviewing Richmond's Priests and Prophets. The review captures well the main goals of the book. I also appreciate his two critiques of the book. I think the criticism not to engage the field of study more critically is appropriate and might have highlighted where I diverged from them beyond saying studying the 1950s helps us understand the 1960s. The second criticism concerning my acceptance of the subjects' normative rhetoric is also useful. I started the project trying to understand why I found so many bold preachers making waves about desegregation in the 1940s and 1950s. In many ways they were heroes to the story, but I became convinced that those who resisted were reading their Bibles just as intently. So when I am preachy in the opening section of the book (and several places later), it is my own intellectual struggle with Myrdal and the training I had to look for the ideal church. The book helped me think about church in its many forms even as I continued to hope for that ideal. There is more work to be done and I hope others will take up this kind of study so we will have a better picture of the ways people engage their surroundings through their faith claims.

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