Glenn Beck, Methodism, and "Black Founders"

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.


Paul Harvey said…
Chris: Once again this year, my fantasy football team's losing streak is doubtless attributable to all the Beck postings on here just as the season started -- so thanks a lot for dooming me to some more losses.

But seriously, I'm tempted to paraphrase whoever it was (was it Dorothy Parker?) who said of Lillian Hellman's autobiography, every word is a lie, including "and" and "the." In this case, not a lie, but every single thing they say about Allen, St. George's, etc. could not possibly be more wrong if they tried to get a zero on the test. Where do they come up with this crap, do you know? This is 2 + 2 = 5 stuff.
Christopher said…
I'm 3-1 and tied for second in my FF league so far. Here's to hoping posting on Beck doesn't curse my luck.

Recognizing that yours was probably a rhetorical question, I'll venture an answer anyway, since I am genuinely curious about the source of their information. It seems clear at this point that Beck is taking all of his talking points on early American history from Barton, but I don't know what Barton is drawing on. While I find Barton's interpretations of the founding fathers' religion, for instance, suspect, I can at least (kind sorta) see where he's coming up with these ideas--a TJ reference to Christianity here, a GW prayer there. But they butchered the Richard Allen story so incredibly bad that I have no clue where they're getting this all from. One would think they'd at least consult Allen's own writings, but doing so would, of course, undermine everything they say about him and Philadelphia Methodism. Perhaps the folks at American Creation can help with where Barton is coming up with all of this.

What strikes me as increasingly odd is that Beck and Barton keep driving home the point that this is all part of America's "hidden history" that professional historians have intentionally been hiding, when of course, every single freaking issue Beck and Barton discuss has been written on at length by historians, from Richard Allen and the MEC to the religion of the Founding Fathers.
Paul Harvey said…
Chris: Yes, here I'll blame Beck for my team's ineptitude, but in our league we're all subject to the Curse of Matt Sutton, the Prince of Darkness.

A rhetorical question? Yes, but no. I understand their Founding Fathers nonsense -- a distorted and bad interpretation, but at least one spun from a few stray quotations and facts here and there. But this Richard Allen story is just flat earth stuff.

Somehow I doubt they've ever read Richard Newman. Too bad for them, since more of an emphasis on the black founders would tend to augment a more Christianized view of the founding era.

As for hidden history, who has time to read the mountain of books on this subject? The only thing hidden is my TV remote control, which usually gets buried underneath said pile.
Anthea butler said…
OMG. The bones of Richard Allen are RATTLING down the street from me. Thanks for this, I didn't know Beck had started in on AFAM rel history. I've been avoiding watching him but now I have to get into the fray!
Anthea Butler
The Cannons said…
Great post, Chris.

Two parts:
Introductory - Are Beck and Barton (B&B) drawing on an oversimplification of the incident where Allen leaves the St. George congregation to form the FAS? Was Allen seeking a resolution to a less than desirable internal segregation at St. George's by creating a separate black congregational movement? Did the white AND black congregants resist this? Was their resistance based on the inherent morality of integration? (This is me using Wiki, being totally ignorant of the context and history, looking for some explanation of where B&B are getting this little anecdote.)

Conclusory - It seems B&B's position that things were moving "in the right direction" [paraphrasing] is based in part on the notion that neither the white nor black congregants at St. George's wanted to segregate because they had some moral sense of social integration. Is this a mis-characterization of the state of things in that (or other) congregation(s)? Was there or was there not a general sense of social integration at least in parts of the US at the time? I think this is the crux of what B&B are driving (or grasping) at. Their underlying question seems to be: "Given that there was a general sense of racial integration among congregants (and hence much of America), might this have become the norm across large segments of the U.S. due to efforts of abolitionists and integration-minded activists had preachers such as Allen not chosen to move towards racial congregationalism?"

Any follow up to the co-option section? Way back during his HLN days I clued in to the fact that Beck is subtly "Skousenite" or whatever, and I find it absolutely fascinating that he's now making Skousenites out of Evangelicals, creating an "anti-progressive" American history, promoting American propheticism(?), etc. It's like he's trying to grab onto parts of loosely connected, often fringe ideas and create this new cohesive world view. Crazy Mormons.

The Cannons said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Cannons said…
Apologies for the double post (it was long too), Firefox hiccuped.
Anonymous said…
I've seen some of the Beck and Barton stuff on black history. It troubles me deeply. I'm glad you can write about this in a responsible and winsome way. It's the kind of approach to history that makes my blood boil, not so much because Beck and Barton are forwarding it (that's irresponsible enough), but because of my concern that this is being consumed as valid history by his listeners and viewers. We have a lot of work ahead of us.

Curtis J Evans
Tom Van Dyke said…
Somehow I doubt they've ever read Richard Newman. Too bad for them, since more of an emphasis on the black founders would tend to augment a more Christianized view of the founding era.

Per his customary incompetence, it appears Barton once again has the right thesis but the wrong evidence. It's a shame that the culture wars take precedence, and there are far too many who more interested in condemning "them" rather than merely correcting them.

But Barton-Beck wouldn't be possible without the true common misperception, that "the Founders were all deists." The system failed somewhere.

For even if reducing religion to "ceremonial deism" is a necessary "legal fiction" in the 21st century, as Gordon Wood says, there are far too many products of our system who believe that a bland deism was actual religious landscape of the Founding.
Christopher said…
Thanks, all, for your comments. Sorry it's taken me a few days to respond.

Anthea, I do hope you'll weigh in on these issues. I'd be very interested in your thoughts.

Curtis, you're certainly right that we (historians, I presume?) have a lot of work to do in articulating to the public how history/historical scholarship works.

Nat, "oversimplification" is a nice way of characterizing what B&B are doing here. If you're interested (and the story of Allen and the AME is a fascinating one that deserves wide readership), you should really take a look at Richard Newman's biography (Freedom's Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers). For the sake of brevity, suffice it to say that the congregation at St. George's was already largely segregated and that very few Christian communities in the early Republic were integrated in the modern sense of that word. But the history of it all is much more complex than that, and contrary to Beck's assertions, professional historians have not "hid" that history at all, but rather have gone to great lengths to try and make it an integral part of the American story.

Popular Posts