Black Evangelical Students and the Formation of the Black Evangelical Renaissance

Today we welcome Tim Ballard to the blog! Tim Ballard is a historian of twentieth-century evangelicalism at the University of Montana and recently defended his dissertation “The Missionary Enterprise, Racial Conflict, and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism, 1945-1980.” In his attempt to historicize the development of multiethnic theology, Tim continually came across the critical interventions of black evangelicals. He decided to give this intervention a name: The Black Evangelical Renaissance. This post introduces the arrival of the Black Evangelical Renaissance through the lens of the collegiate ministry of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

Tim Ballard

Posted by Janine Giordano Drake.

Carl Ellis, Jr., was a veteran of direct action campaigns by the age of eighteen. When he arrived at Hampton Institute in the fall of 1965 to begin college, though, he sought out the company of evangelical Christians rather than activists. Along with his new friends, he chartered a chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF)–the only active chapter at a historically black institution. Like other chapters, Hampton Institute’s IVCF operated as a lay missionary society to the campus and hosted bible studies and lectures to commend evangelical faith to their peers and professors. Despite some initial successes, the growing racial crisis in the United States put a damper on their evangelization efforts. During the summer of 1967, residents of urban neighborhoods across the nation clashed with police and National Guard soldiers as they vented their frustration at the many manifestations of racial inequality.[1] In response, Hampton Institute began to buzz with criticism of America’s racialized society and a renunciation of Christianity for its use as a tool of racial subjugation. Hampton IVCF shared in the frustrations expressed by other students, but they were caught off guard by the formidable challenge to their faith. At a loss for an answer, Ellis looked forward to the Urbana missionary convention to be held in December of 1967, a triennial event where collegians, ministers, and missionaries gathered to promote the missionary enterprise. He anticipated that someone among the ten thousand attendees could counter the charge that Christianity was irredeemably racist. Yet, when no reference was made to the summer uprising or the resurgence of black protest, Ellis was even more demoralized. On the final day of the convention, he and other black attendees staged an impromptu disruption–inspired by an all-night prayer meeting and borrowing from the tactics of the sit-ins–to register their discontent at the convention’s silence on the urgent topic of racial inequality.[2]

Black students’ disruption at IVCF’s missionary convention signaled a change in approach black evangelicals took to address racial inequality in the evangelical movement and in the nation at large. This post explores the contrasts between the two approaches, then outlines the intervention that black students made in IVCF to reshape collegiate ministry in light of America’s endemic racial order. Taken together, their disruption and sustained intervention illustrate a dynamic black evangelical faith taking shape in the late 1960s that fused the language of black cultural identity with evangelical mission strategy to work for racial equality–a development worthy of its own name, the Black Evangelical Renaissance.

In the early 1960s, black evangelicals came to equate the emphasis on foreign mission in evangelical organizations with the neglect of African Americans.[3] In 1963, a group of black clergy created the National Negro Evangelical Association (NNEA) to shore up that neglect by taking upon themselves the task of evangelization in black neighborhoods. Annual gatherings of the NNEA focused on mobilizing for evangelization, a decision that addressed the consequences of neglect but did not directly confront white evangelicals for their hand perpetuating it.[4] At a 1966 Congress on World Evangelization in Berlin, the plenary sessions and workshops managed to say nothing about racial equality–despite the theme of the event being whose theme was “One Race, One Gospel, One Task.” When a group of African-American attendees confronted conference organizers about the omission, they were asked to write a statement expressing the conference’s commitment to racial equality and acknowledging “the failure of many of us in the recent past to speak with sufficient clarity and force upon the biblical unity of the human race.”[5] That statement was published in the official record of the conference, but with no attribution of authorship readers had no way of knowing that black evangelicals had penned the words of contrition that effectively applied only to white evangelicals.

Black evangelical students had a different response to the evasion of race issues at the Urbana convention of 1967. Eschewing isolation or back channel diplomacy, they held an all-night prayer meeting followed by an impromptu disruption that resembled the disruptions of civil rights demonstrations. Initially, they were disillusioned and genuinely entertained the idea that God was active everywhere around the world except for black communities. Overwhelmed by that prospect, the students turned from conversation to prayer, calling out their fears to God and seeking divine insight. Then, sobered by prayer, they spent the very late hours of the night deciding what to do next. By morning, they had drafted a statement expressing their disappointment and had convinced IVCF campus ministers to read it in front of the assembly during the final session.[6] In the span of a long evening, the students had moved beyond disoriented introspection about their personal faith to confront their faith community about issues of race using an unprecedented maneuver for evangelicals. They made their discontent known publicly and used the reading of their statement to interject the issue of race into the convention program. As in the sit-ins, the disruption dramatized the existence of America’s entrenched racial order at play in the evangelical movement and initiated a negotiation with IVCF for a remedy. Faced with this impromptu disruption, IVCF’s campus ministers asked for black students’ help to establish more missionary societies among African-American collegians.

In the years immediately following their disruption, black evangelical students attempted to reshape IVCF’s collegiate ministry to speak directly to the experiences of African Americans and to make racial equality a top priority for IVCF’s missionary societies on college campuses. As more students at black institutions joined IVCF, they created venues for exploring a distinctive black evangelical identity–a remarkable contrast to the colorblind orientation that erased racial identity in order to undermined segregationists’ claims of racial superiority. Black IVCF students partnered with a black evangelist named Tom Skinner to present an evangelistic message to black collegians that matched the intensity of the Black Power movement. A provocative gang-member-turned evangelist from Harlem, Skinner preached salvation as the divine means of liberating black people from oppression. Black students and black clergy also devised constructive ways for IVCF to discuss racial inequality and promoted racial harmony between evangelicals as a means to authenticate the gospel to potential converts. While in the initial stages of implementing these changes, America’s racial crisis crescendoed. In March of 1968, President’s Johnson’s Commission on Civil Disorders declared that the nation had “two societies, separate and unequal;” barely a month later, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., evoked more public demonstrations of grief and discontent among African Americans. As the association of Christianity with white hegemony continued to hinder evangelization, Skinner attempted to distance himself from white-led IVCF and laid plans for an independent evangelical collegiate ministry just for black students.[7]

Although it achieved only modest success, the intervention of black students and clergy in IVCF is an example of the Black Evangelical Renaissance that emerged in the late 1960s. Rhetorically, the Black Evangelical Renaissance articulated an evangelical faith that was disentangled from its complicity in maintaining white hegemony. Practically, the assertion of new ideas about racial identity and the push for independence challenged a regime of white authority, wherein colorblindness masked white evangelicals’ implicit claimed to be the stewards of evangelical institutions and the final arbiters of evangelical disputes. In IVCF, the initial challenge would trigger a greater conflict as it provoked the fears of the organization’s white leaders. During the 1970s, IVCF would engage in a contentious dispute among its students and ministers about the importance of racial equality vis-à-vis the priority for eliciting conversions. In the process, black participants looked for new ways to expose and disrupt the exercise of white hegemony that undergirded the dispute.

Of interest to scholars and other observers of American evangelicalism, the arrival of a Black Evangelical Renaissance that coincided with the escalation of Black Power is one component of a reappraisal of the movement’s postwar developments of my recently completed dissertation “The Missionary Enterprise, Racial Conflict, and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism, 1945-1980.” The project seeks to more fully describe how black evangelicals participated in the movement and argues that racial conflict was a critical agent in the transformation of the movement in the postwar decades. Outside the field of evangelical history, the Black Evangelical Renaissance reinforces the fact that the racial order was an essential and pervasive feature of twentieth-century American society. Likewise, Americans challenged the racial order in a multiplicity of ways across the century. Although parochial in tone and focus, the Black Evangelical Renaissance was one effort among many in the black freedom struggle that challenged and partially displaced the regime of white hegemony and established more equitable terms of participation in civil society and in religious communities.

[1] Steven M. Gillon, Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism, (New York: Basic Books, 2018), ix-xvi.
[2] Carl Ellis, Jr., spoke about his civil rights activism on “What Changed for Evangelicals When MLK Was Killed,” Quick To Listen, Podcast Audio, April 4, 2018. Accessed November 12, 2018. Information on the Hampton Institute IVCF chapter found in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Archive, Collection 300, Box 187, Folder 9
[3] Fred A. Alexander, “You Have Neglected My People,” Freedom Now, Vol. 1 No. 1, August 1965, 6-7. Alexander wrote that he had reprinted it from an article he had saved by Rev. B. M. Nottage with the same name from Eternity magazine in 1957.
[4] William Bentley, “Factors in the Origin and Focus of The National Black Evangelical Association,” Black Theology: A Documentary History, Gayraud Wilmore and James Cone, eds., (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979), 310-321.
[5] Carl F. H. Henry and W Stanley Mooneyham, One Race, One Gospel, One Task, (Minneapolis: World Wide Publications, 1967), 6; Robert Harrison, When God Was Black, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1971), 144-146.
[6] Carl Ellis, Jr., interviewed by the author, September 4, 2017.
[7] The features of black students’ intervention in InterVarsity are compiled from archival material at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Archive, Collection 300, Box 187, Folders 9 and12 and Box 193, Folder 8.


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