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Context for the PCA’s repenting of racism

Historic act helps expose actions and attitudes long swept under the rug

Last week, with an overwhelming majority, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) passed an overture confessing and repenting of historic Presbyterian sins of discriminating against minority cultures, those committed during the civil rights era, and “continuing racial sins of ourselves and our fathers” at its 44th General Assembly in Mobile, Ala.

These sins included the segregation of worshippers by race, race-based exclusion of church and presbytery membership and church leadership, teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages inter-racial marriage, and “the participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations.”

There are many PCA churches that have those activities as a factual part of their histories but have swept them under the rug for decades. People need to know about them.

I joined the PCA in 1994 after spending years involved in the denomination’s college ministry, Reformed University Fellowship. I even attended the denominational seminary and spent four years teaching there. I never knew this history until the mid-2000s. On July 2, 2010, I posted some reflections on a book I discovered by Peter Slade describing, in part, the pro-segregationists involved in the formation of the PCA and the establishment of Reformed Theological Seminary, and who served on the session of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Miss. I was particularly curious about why no one told me about this history while attending two theologically reformed seminaries in the Presbyterian tradition. The post “went viral” and with that came pushback and claims that my historical knowledge was inaccurate and that this history was not a big deal.

Some in the PCA made every attempt to explain away these accusations as minor, dismiss the severity of the history, deflect the importance of the discussion by highlighting a few figures who were not pro-segregationists, and note that racism is everywhere. When nobody told me about the history, I suppose I could have dug into records and found out myself, but I didn’t even know that history existed—and to suggest it’s important only to blacks contributes to a dismissive disposition toward blacks in the PCA. Thankfully, the tendency to condescension and cover-up diminished over time, and the denomination was free to make an historic confession of past sin that could propel it forward into new growth opportunities.

Many may wonder about the evidence for the PCA’s need to openly confess and repent of the sins of their fathers. Here are five books that will put the PCA’s overture into context. In Religion and Race: Southern Presbyterians, 1946 to 1983, Joel Alvis recounts the history of race for Presbyterians in the South. In Open Friendship in a Closed Society: Mission Mississippi and a Theology of Friendship, Peter Slade recounts the racist activities of Presbyterians in Jackson, Miss., as well as the efforts toward achieving racial reconciliation. Stephen Haynes, in The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation, recounts the dark history of pro-segregationist Presbyterians in Memphis, Tenn., who wanted a “whites only” church in what was one of the PCA’s largest churches. Carolyn Dupont, in Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975, has an entire chapter recounting the story of how Presbyterians in the South, key in the formation of the PCA, fought so hard to defend Jim Crow and racial segregation in the church. Finally, the book that puts the PCA’s race history into the larger context of issues like states’ rights, Presbyterian church doctrine, and fear of communism, is Sean Lucas’ definitive PCA history, For A Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America.

Now that this history has come to light in recent years, the PCA can move forward with racial reconciliation, forging racial solidarity, and reaching new communities in the United States. And black seminarians will no longer have to do their own digging to learn history they didn’t know existed.

Anthony Bradley Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.


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Nicolas Burns

I am really grateful for the ongoing analysis (and subsequent attention) that racial reconciliation is getting in the last few months. I have been very much blind to it until Dr. Ligon Duncan’s address at T4G this year. Thank you for this helpful article and the resources that it provides for further study.


Thanks Anthony for keeping us informed of these momentous events. I agree that it is important for Christians to repent of past events that have present influences. We are the sons and daughters of our fathers and mothers who perpetrated such actions. Thanks too for your calm recounting of these events without the ranting so often found with those who have not found peace with God and fellow man. I am not from PCA, but went to a seminary in the south with many of the PCA and with a seminary of racist events in the past. I don't know if there has been a public repenting. I hope so.

May the body of Christ in America find peace and reconciliation.