by Christopher Jones
Glenn Beck initially drew my interest because of his Mormonism—I sensed in Beck’s conspiratorial approach to politics something reminiscent of an earlier generation of Mormon public figures. The pervading fear of socialist subversion, combined with the particularly Mormon interpretations and understandings of human agency, the methods and aims of satanic opposition, and the divinely-inspired nature of America’s Founding documents, were reminders both that the influence of Cleon Skousen and Ezra Taft Benson’s religio-political views still loomed large among a certain segment of the Mormon population and that in them lay a narrative that had the power to appeal to not only conservative Mormons but other embittered Americans as well, suspicious of the government and intent on rescuing the nation from secularism and immorality (and make no mistake, perceived secularism and immorality are as central to Beck’s movement as is some vague libertarian notion of fiscal responsibility). These topics have been discussed, analyzed, and reanalyzed at least a hundred times over by now (though some commentators rehash them anew and claim such discoveries for their own, all while butchering the identities of key people and ideas in Mormon history), and to be honest, I’ve grown weary of thinking about Beck, his Mormonism, and his agenda in general. In fact, I’d sworn off posting anything more on Beck here or at the Juvenile Instructor.
But one of Beck’s more recent forays into early American history has forced me to reconsider. It touched a nerve not because of Beck’s subtle invocation of Mormon themes, but rather because they addressed the subject of my current research—early American Methodism. Sandwiched in between Beck’s recent assertion that race relations in America were (with the exception of some unidentified “racists”) fairly harmonious before the years immediately preceding the Civil War and that provisions for Revolutionary War soldiers and veterans operated on a sort of colorblind basis is an intriguing discussion of what Beck oddly refers to as “the first real megachurch … a white and black megachurch.” The "megachurch" in question (which goes unidentified) is St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and the central figure is Richard Allen, eventual founder of the AME Church.
“Richard Allen,” Beck explains, “was a preacher at a white church—a megachurch. … And Richard Allen, this megapreacher, he tried to segregate.” Beck’s go-to guy for all matter historical, David Barton, chimes in, noting that “In the 1790s [Allen] proposed having a black denomination. And both whites and blacks said, ‘we don’t want that. We want the integrated stuff. We don’t want separate denominations.’ There was finally an overt act of racism in one church that kind of gave him the impetus to go ahead and start a black denomination. But for years, neither blacks nor whites wanted a separate denomination ‘cause they worshipped together in those churches, in Philadelphia and elsewhere.”
Rather than focusing on each of the several problematic points raised (the insightful scholarship of Albert Raboteau, Dee Andrews, and Richard Newman is recommended for those interested), I’d like to ruminate on the meanings and implications of two particular points.
First, I was struck by Beck and Barton omitting entirely any mention of Methodism. Richard Allen is simply “a black preacher” and St. George’s is simply a generic “megachurch.” Considering that Methodist theology and worship were so central to Allen’s identity as a Christian (and as a black man), and that his "black denomination" remained within Methodist Episcopal tradition, this seems as especially odd omission. This not only simplifies and distorts the history of St. George’s (and Methodism more generally) by ignoring the complex dynamics of early American religion, but also serves as a useful means of locating this supposed bastion of interracial harmony within the tradition so many of Beck’s listeners and viewers claim as there own today—conservative evangelical Christianity. This rhetorical maneuver, then, allows these conservatives to co-opt the legacy of interracial evangelicalism in early America (in much the same way that Beck has co-opted the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century).
Second, this conversation between Beck and Barton took place during a recurring segment of Beck’s show called “Founder’s Friday.” This particular episode was devoted to “Black Heroes in American History,” and was part of Beck’s stated effort to “spend more time learning about our black founders, and restoring this part of history” (a worthwhile effort, no doubt—at least theoretically). I was immediately reminded of Richard Newman’s biography of Richard Allen, Freedom’s Prophet, in which Newman sought to place Allen squarely within the tradition of America’s Founding Fathers. Echoing others, Newman reinforced the notion that Allen was a black founder, but moved beyond previous assessment by declaring that Allen was deserving of such a title not only because he founded black institutions but also because he “was essentially the forerunner of modern civil rights activists” and because “his belief in nonviolent but confrontational reform offered lessons for virtually every black leader who followed in his wake” (p. 4). As Alan Taylor summarized in his review of the book, “Allen was a Founder for all Americans. He emphasized a prophetic vision of America as a multi-racial democracy of equal rights and equal opportunity. His egalitarian vision was far more daring than anything considered by the more famous white Founders.”
In Beck’s vision of “black founders,” however, Richard Allen in cast as a foil to the interracial harmony he earlier enjoyed as a “mega-preacher” to “2,000 whites” by promoting “segregation.” Tellingly, then, what Beck sees as antithetical to his imagined ideal of American society, Newman see as admirable and daring. The implication of Beck’s narrative—that this “black preacher” and the black church he pioneered, are mere distractions to the real story of this Christian nation—serves as an interesting contrast to those who “seek a sense of authenticity” in black institutions and raises important questions about the place of the black church in the conservative white mind today.