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The Reformation:

A Play in Two Acts


A Reflection upon the Similarities Between

The Protestant Reformation

And

The Civil Rights Movement

Concerning the Response of the Church

Submitted in Partial Completion

Of the Requirements of a Course in

Christian History II
To

Dr. Tom Umbel

By

Ralph E. Johnson

March 5, 2010

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This movement was about slaking the centuries-old thirst of a long-
suffering people

for freedom, dignity, and human rights. It was time to drink at the
well.

Rosa Parks, 2001

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P R E A M B L E

It is without question that the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth

century was a crucial turning point in history. Likewise, from a distinctly

American orientation, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, also

considered by some as a reformation, was another bend in the stream of

history that, once crossed, changed the landscape forever. Vital to a correct

theological and historical understanding of these two events is to witness

and reflect upon the ecclesial response of the church of the time to the

specific reformation(s) aforementioned. Obviously, in the matter of the

sixteenth century church, we speak primarily of the Roman Church, the Old

Church, and the church of Catholicism. In a slightly more expansive view, we

survey the church of the twentieth century and must include all Protestant

denominations as well as the Catholic Church. We will examine how the

church reacted, responded and registered these two “reformations,” seeking

to illuminate both and aided by such light, comprehend each one better,

both individually and as related to one another.

It is often wrongly perceived that the Protestant Reformation was

simply the result of the dissatisfaction of a German monk with what he

perceived as the status quo of his church. Nothing could be further from the

truth. Reform was being called for, prayed for, and anticipated by many prior

to Martin Luther and the Wittenberg incident. Following the fall of

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Constantinople, there were numerous scholars and academicians who were

calling for a return to a religion that manifested well with the Christian

scriptures and had less reliance on humanity. The infallibility of the Scripture,

in the minds of many, was far more believable than the infallibility of the

papacy. But it wasn’t only the learned that were clamoring for reform. The

commoner was seeking redress as well. “While some monastic houses and

church leaders still practiced acts of charity, most of the poor no longer had

the sense that the church was their defender.”1 A grass roots movement is

often the true instigation of any type of reform. Martin Luther, from his

studies of Erasmus and others and from his newfound understanding of the

place of grace and faith in the subject of salvation, could hear the cries of the

poor and disenfranchised as they sought relief from a church that seemed

more interested in filling its own coffers for its own greed than it did to pour

out compassion on “the least of these.” Arising from these outcries that were

personal, spiritual and communal, Luther responded by posting his 95

Theses on the door of the chapel in Wittenberg.

Given a voice and a leader, the movement for reform grew. With that

growth came the inability of the Church to ignore their demands and

ecclesial response was necessary. “Arise, O Lord, and judge your own cause.

Remember your reproaches to those who are filled with foolishness all

through the day. Listen to our prayers, for foxes have arisen seeking to

destroy the vineyard whose winepress you alone have trod. When you were
1
González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity, Volume 2, San Francisco, CA:
HarperSanFrancisco, 1985, page 9.

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about to ascend to your Father, you committed the care, rule, and

administration of the vineyard, an image of the triumphant church, to Peter,

as the head and your vicar and his successors. The wild boar from the forest

seeks to destroy it and every wild beast feeds upon it.”2 Obviously, the pope,

and by extension, the hierarchical Church, condemned Martin Luther (“the

fox”) and the people for whom they claim as the recipients of their care

(“every wild beast”). From these obvious stances of contention, reformation

began. It was not an overnight success nor was it a dwindling failure. The

time for reform had come. “[T]he much needed Reformation took place, not

because Luther decided that it would be so, but rather because the time was

ripe for it, and because the Reformer and many others with him were ready

to fulfill their historical responsibility.”3

Verbal volleys became the order of the day. Each side utilized the

forums available to them to present their case and to demonstrate the

futility and the lack of reason contained in its opponents’ arguments. Luther

wrote numerous articles, letters and pamphlets outlining the injustices in the

Catholic Church and expressing his own opinion of how these should be

corrected. He particularly emphasized certain basic tenets of the church

and, certain of the validity of his scriptural footing opposed the callous

nature with which the Church treated it congregants. “He attacked the

papacy for depriving the individual Christian of his freedom to approach God
2
Pope Leo X, Exsurge Domine, Condemning the Errors of Martin Luther, Bull of Pope Leo X
issued June 15, 1520 http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Leo10/10exdom.htm
3
González, page 15.

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directly by faith, without the mediation of priests, and he set forth his own

views of the sacraments. He retained only Baptism and the Lord’s Supper,

and he placed even these within a community of believing Christians, rather

than in the hands of an exclusive priesthood.”4 “Is it not true that there is

nothing under the vast heavens more corrupt, more pestilential, more hateful

than the Court of Rome? She incomparably surpasses the impiety of the

Turks, so that in very truth she, who was formerly the gate of heaven, is now

a sort of open mouth of hell,…”5 Such acerbic commentary could not be

tolerated by those as arrogant as the residents of the Holy City and more of

the back and forth would continue.

It was not long before this contention would have to leave the bounds

of rhetoric and would cross the border into physical revolt. Such happened in

Luther’s Germany, not just in the urban areas, but in rural communities as

well. “The most damaging manifestation of this untamed energy was the

Peasants’ War of1525.”6 Physical reprisals were not limited to those opposed

to the Church nor to the borders of Germany. Before long, other countries

within the European continent took up the argument, formed their own

alliances and garnered their own spokespeople. Out of Sweden, we witness

John Calvin coming forth to offer a responsive theology. “Another important


4
Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language, Dallas, TX, Word Publishing, 1982,1995,
page 241.
5
Luther, Martin. On the Freedom of a Christian. http://fordham.edu/halsall/mod/luther-
freedomchristian.html.
6
Hastings, Adrian, editor, A World History of Christianity, “Reformation and Counter-
Reformation” by Andrew Pettegree, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co,
1999, page 245.

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remnant of that period was the Spanish Inquisition, created as a means of

testing the sincerity of those of other religions, Moors or Jews, who had

converted to Christianity in order to stay in Spain, but equally easily turned

against the rare individuals who showed signs of sympathy for the new

heresies.”7

Certainly there is much more that could be reported as concerns the

response of the Church to the Protestant Reformation; papal encyclicals,

uprisings, councils and diets, and many various personalities, interesting and

important. However, for the scope of this research, we see the response of

the church toward reformation to beat first vitriolic, then reactionary, and

eventually more or less conciliatory. Let us now turn to Act Two of our drama.

II

History testifies that the civil rights movement, as regards the social

understanding of the African-American population, was also a reformation.

Accordingly, it carries with it some striking similarities to the previous topic.

While there were indeed numerous proponents and opponents to the plight

of the African-American, one rose to prominence above the others, a

preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr.”Martin Luther King, Jr., was the Voice

of the Century. No voice more clearly delineated the moral issues of the

second half of the twentieth century and no vision more profoundly inspired

people – from the American South to Southern Africa, from the Berlin Wall to

7
Hastings, page 256.

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the Great Wall of China. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of American moral

possibilities expressed a universal hope for mankind that derived heavily

from the Hebrew prophets, the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and the

nonviolent actions of India’s Mahatma Gandhi.”8

The ordeal of the African in America had begun three centuries before.

As the new America was being established, its bountiful resources needed to

be plundered, er, maximized. Yet it was somehow beneath the dignity of the

nobility that came to America from the European continent to work the land

themselves, so they enslaved citizens of Africa, of the great Gold Coast and

beyond, to come and ravage the land on their behalf. From the day the first

African slave was captured and imprisoned, placed in shackles and placed on

the deck of an ocean-going ship, from the day that slave walked on those

shackled feet down the plank of that slave ship and onto the “free” virgin soil

of America; from that day forward, a grass roots campaign against slavery

began. Voices other than Martin Luther King’s resonated the cry for freedom:

from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Harriet Tubman, from Frederick Douglass to

Booker T. Washington, the annals of history are filled with the voices of the

persecuted and the deprived crying out for freedom, for a reform of the

immoral civil society to which they belonged.

The religious landscape was obviously quite different in the 1960s as

opposed to the 1560s. There was no longer one church to oppose or to

sanction slavery; instead, there were numerous Protestant denominations,


8
Young, Andrew. A Call to Conscience, Waterville, ME: G.K. Hall and Co, 2001, page 7.

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the Catholic Church and the churches of the slaves themselves. On

occasion, there were platforms advanced that predicated that evangelism

could take place through the auspices of slave-holding even while reminding

the slave over and again that they were not really free. (See my previous

paper in this class reviewing the Baptist Stance Regarding Coloured People.)

Standing on the porch of history and looking out onto the cotton fields of that

past time, it is easy for us to render such a notion foolish. Yet, at its time, it

was a well-accepted condition of numerous Protestant denominations. The

incongruous nature of believing that Scripture held a place for white freedom

and black freedom that was separate and unequal is incredulous, but its

historicity is valid.

Much the same as we noticed in the Protestant Reformation, there

were those, who out of misguided religious fervor, decided that words were

never enough and that physical action was required. This was not relegated

to only one side or the other, to one race or another. The Black Panthers

were a community action organization that started out trying to fill the gaps

government and church left in the care of the poor and disenfranchised of

the African-American population. They offered food and tutoring to poor

children in the inner cities and sought to bring some measure of equality to

their charges. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale saw that their compassionate

efforts were not accomplishing much as they were being opposed by white

police officers who would often harass them for the work they did. They

seemed to feel that the only defense against such physical attacks were

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attacks of their own. Balancing such revolutionary groups as the Black

Panthers were white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan

(KKK). They, too, felt their cause was just and that their actions were

righteous. As we saw with the Peasant’s War, so we see with matters such as

the Chicago and Los Angeles riots. Further violence was played out in much

the way of the Spanish inquisition as the KKK and other Aryan supremacists

supported vigilantism in the prosecution of real or perceived offences against

whites by blacks.

An internationally known case that illustrates the situation at the time

took place in Mississippi in the 1950s. This would be the case of the lynching

of Emmett Till. Emmett Till was a fourteen year old black person visiting in

Money, Mississippi on a vacation to be with family. While there, on a dare, he

spoke to a white woman who was the owner of a market. Within days, her

husband and brother had kidnapped Emmett, beaten him mercilessly and

killed him. Emmett’s mother’s insistence that “the world see” what she saw

led to national publication of a picture of his corpse; bruised and beaten, one

eye gouged out, skull beaten in and a bullet lodged therein. A national furor

ensued with the media and even one Congressman coming to Sumner,

Mississippi for the trial. James Hicks was a reporter for the National News

Association and covered the trial. He interviewed Dr. T.R.M. Howard, a black

physician about the trying and sentencing of the obvious murderers. “A white

man in Mississippi will get no more of a sentence for killing a black person as

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he would for killing a deer out of season.”9 It was many, many years before

the innocent verdict was overturned for a more accurate “guilty” one.

Throughout much of this senseless killing on both sides, the church

tried to stay out of the fight. But that couldn’t last. Sides had to be taken. In

the fifties and sixties, the church was still maintained a place of prominence

and the church’s exegesis of the current events was necessary. Some white

churches opposed the civil rights movement by their very silence. Though I

conducted much serious research into the matter, it was nearly impossible to

locate one white church that stood out enough in this situation to have

verifiable and quotable material available. “In Chapel Hill, the stately

Presbyterian church across the street from the University of North Carolina

campus,…,formally declared in 1945 that ‘We do not close our doors or

discriminate against … any sincere worshipper who may present himself.’”10

“Of all the white denominations in the South, the Methodist Church may have

been the most interested in improving race relations.”11 “Postwar ferment in

the state convention of the all-white Southern Baptist denomination in

Georgia, and in some other Southern states as well, pointed to the possibility

of a breach in the wall of segregation there. White and black Baptists,

meeting separately but simultaneously in Savannah in 1946, first agreed to

hold a precedent-breaking joint worship service. Then, at the urging of

9
Hampton, Henry and Steve Fayer, Voices of Freedom, New York, NY: Bantam Books, page 8.
10
Egerton, John. Speak Now Against the Day, New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, page 422.
11
Ibid., page 423.

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Joseph A. Rabun, a young minister from a small town in south Georgia, the

white Baptists ‘put some teeth’ in a social service committee report,

approving a declaration that ‘no man shall be discriminated against because

of race, creed, or color. The delegates stood up and denounced the

quadruple lynching in Walton County four months earlier, and the recent

spread of hate groups in the state.”12 Clarence Mitchell of the Leadership

Conference on Civil Rights summed up the efforts of desegregating the

Church in 1962 by the following summarization: Methodists: though they had

made many pronouncements against racial discrimination their

membership’s segregation policies were firm; Baptists: the most segregated

denomination; Episcopalians: most congregations still segregated but they

were making progress; Roman Catholics: established church doctrine

required that all service be open to anyone. Black priests and nuns were in

place in various parts of the country; Presbyterians: black membership was

small, though making progress; Unitarians: segregation seemed to be non-

existent; Seventh Day Adventists: small black membership with limited

segregation; and, Jehovah’s Witnesses: black membership was on the

increase. “Mitchell summarized his impressions with a story of a black janitor

who one day told the pastor of the white church for which he worked that he

would like to become a member. Frightened by the possible uproar that

would result in his congregation if he admitted the black man, the minister

told him he would have to wait while the minister talked to the Lord. After

months passed and the janitor said nothing more about his request, the
12
Ibid., page 423.

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minister asked him why he had made no further effort to join. The janitor

said, ‘Well, Reverend, I talked with the Lord and he told me not to bother

because he had been trying to get in this church ever since it was founded,

but he had not been able to make it himself.’ Mitchell said that he felt that if ’

the Good Lord’ ever got into most churches, blacks would be able to follow

him. So far, He was still ‘standing outside the fast closed door’ in most

Protestant churches.”13

It was, however, the Black Church, that would prove to be instrumental

in achieving social change. Though there were numerous events that took

place in churches and involved Christian and Muslim churchmen, the “shot

heard ‘round the world,” occurred on September 15, 1963, at the Sixteenth

Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was there that “the church

that had hosted so many mass meetings during the Birmingham movement

was struck by a bomb. Four precious little girls, Denise McNair, Carole

Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins,…,were killed while they

listened to their Sunday School lessons.”14 From the eulogy at the funeral for

three of these children, we hear: “And so this afternoon in a real sense they

have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to

say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe

security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every

politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the
13
Watson, Denton L. Lion In the Lobby, New York, NY: William Morrow & Co, Inc., 1990, pps.
527-9.
14
Young, Andrew. An Easy Burden,New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1996, page 275.

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spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government

that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern

Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They

have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil

system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty

struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we

must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be

concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the

way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says

to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of

the American dream.”15And, obviously, we can return to the pastor of the

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.,

as another example of the leadership of the black Christian churches in the

matter of peaceful and nonviolent civil and social realignment. “Our aim

must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man. We must not become

victimized with a philosophy of black supremacy. God is not interested

merely in freeing black men and brown men and yellow men, but God is

interested in freeing the whole human race. We must work with

determination to create a society, not where black men are superior and

other men are inferior and vice versa, but a society in which all men will live

together as brothers and respect the dignity and worth of human

personality.”16 One last comment: “I say to you today, my friends, so even


15
King,Jr., Martin Luther. Eulogy quoted in A Call to Conscience, page 112.
16
King,Jr., Martin Luther, Give Us the Ballot quoted in A Call to Conscience, page 67.

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though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It

is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one

day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We

hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a

dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and

the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table

of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a

state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of

oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a

dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will

not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its

vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of

‘interposition’ and ‘nullification’, one day right there in Alabama little black

boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white

girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one

day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made

low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be

made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall

see it together.”17

P R O L O G U E

17
King, Jr., Martin Luther. I Have a Dream, quoted in A Call to Conscience,pps.101-2.

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I was both troubled and relieved as I conducted the research for this

paper. I expected to find a certain amount of ambivalence in white churches

to the segregation in the South. This is partly due, I suppose, to my own

experience being raised in a white church in the South in the 1950s and

1960s. We preached love of brother and sister, but there was a congregation

of black Nazarenes (Victory Church of the Nazarene) in Lexington, KY, and

they went there and the white folks went to one of the other three or four

churches. My own church had moved from its downtown location to one in

the suburbs because the neighborhood was “getting run down.” What was

happening was that it was slowly becoming a black neighborhood. It was

good to see that there were churches that were making a stand against the

mistreatment of blacks in America. But it seems to me that the church still

had a long way to go in order to be true to the letter and intent of God’s

Word. Jesus’ life was sacrificed, not for just white people, but for all people.

Jesus was a “man of color.” To think that his church could be on the forefront

of denying equality for any of his children dismays me. As the means of

indulgences and papal infallibility seemed to have grown out of the basest of

emotional human qualities: power and greed, so the civil rights movement

was not taken up with the fervor and passion with which the church has

fought so many other battles. I believe progress is now being made but we

still have so far to go. It is good to see the rise of the global south in

Christianity. Maybe they will get it right.

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There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,

for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to

Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise

GALATIANS III:XXVIII – XXIX

Word count: 3,894

Bibliography, or Works Cited

Clayborne, Carson and Kris Shepard, editors. A Call To Conscience: The


Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Waterville, ME: G.K. Hall and
Co., 2001.

Egerton, John. Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil
Rights Movement in the South. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity, Volume 2, The Reformation to the


Present Day. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985.

Hampton, Henry and Steve Fayer. Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the
Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. New York, NY:
Bantam Books, 1990.

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Hastings, Adrian, editor. A World History of Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI:
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.

Moore, Andrew S. Practicing What We Preach: White Catholics and the Civil
Rights Movement in Atlanta. Georgia Historical Quarterly, Fall 2005, Volume
89, Issue 3, pages 334-367.

Newman, John Scripture and Tradition Do Not Excuse Injustice. Columbus,


OH: USA Today, April 30, 2007.

Renegar, Todd. Reconciliation with Africa-American Christians: A Biblical


Model for Anglo American Christians in the Church of the Nazarene. Doctoral
Dissertation for Fuller Theological Seminary, August 2007

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Dallas, TX: Word


Publishing, 1982, 1995.

Squires, David. Religion and Politics. Newport News, VA: Daily Press, March
19, 2008.

Watson, Denton L. Lion In The Lobby: Clarence Mitchell, Jr.’s Struggle for the
Passage of the Civil Rights Laws. New York, NY: William Morrow and Co., Inc,
1990.

Young, Andrew. An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and The
Transformation of America. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1996.

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