The Color of Compromise | Book Review


Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise is a difficult book to read. The difficulty does not result from a complex argument or dense prose, for the book’s argument is simply and straightforwardly made. Rather, the book is difficult to read because of its subject matter, namely, white Christian complicity with racism throughout American history.

“Historically speaking,” Tisby writes, “when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity. They chose comfort over constructive conflict and in so doing created and maintained a status quo of injustice.”

Tisby makes his case by means of a historical survey of people and events from the colonial era to the late-twentieth century. “Not only did white Christians fail to fight for black equality,” Tisby quotes historian Carolyn DuPont in summary, “they often labored mightily against it.” Did you know, for example, that…

  • George Whitefield—the famous evangelist — urged the colony of Georgia, which had been founded as a free territory, to allow slavery. A large part of his motivation was the financial viability of his Bethesda Orphanage, which could be run more cheaply with slave than with paid labor.
  • Prior to the Civil War, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian denominations split into Northern and Southern branches because of the issue of slavery. Leading Southern theologians, such as Robert Lewis Dabney, defended white supremacy and slavery on providential and biblical grounds: “Was it nothing, that this [black] race, morally inferior, should be brought into close relations to a nobler race?” (emphasis added).
  • According to historian Linda Gordon, “It’s estimated that 40,000 ministers were members of the Klan, and these people were sermonizing regularly, explicitly urging people to join the Klan.” She’s referring to the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, which began in the early twentieth century and spread throughout the North as well as the South.
  • A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, spoke in opposition to desegregation at the 1956 South Carolina Baptist Convention. Desegregation was “a denial of all that we believe in,” Brown v. Board of Education was “foolishness” and “idiocy,” and anyone who advocated integration was “a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.” First Baptist was the largest Southern Baptist church at the time. For many decades, its most famous member was the evangelist Billy Graham, whose personal views were more moderate than Criswell’s but who stopped short of advocating civil rights for black Americans.

These are but four examples of white Christian complicity with racism, which I have chosen because of their relevance to white evangelical Christians. There are many other examples from across the spectrum of American Protestantism. It is sometimes forgotten, for example, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was written to mainline Protestant ministers and a Jewish rabbi. If you’re looking for a searing indictment of white moderates, consider King’s words:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

Of course, there were white Christians throughout American history who opposed racism. But Tisby’s disheartening survey suggests that they were exceptions rather than the rule. As a Pentecostal, for example, I am unaware of any leading white American Pentecostals who publicly supported the Civil Rights Movement during the crucial decade between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

I don’t always agree with Tisby’s reading of the historical evidence. The closer in time he drew to the present day, the more I found myself saying, “That’s not how I would read that particular incident.” The value of Tisby’s survey is that he places those incidents in the light of larger historical forces, showing continuity between them and the past. As a white reader, I found this broader historical perspective forced me to go back and take a second look at how I had been interpreting those more recent events.

So, why bring up this history of white complicity with racism now? While great strides in civil rights have been made over the decades, racism still exists and disfigures American society. “History and Scripture teaches [sic] us that there can be no reconciliation without repentance,” writes Tisby. “There can be no repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth.” The Color of Compromise tells a hard truth, but one necessary to hear if racial equity is to be achieved in the Church or in America.

Tisby closes his book with practical suggestions. I don’t agree with all of the particulars, but his thoughts about “The ARC of Racial Justice” are an “entry point” for those on a journey to racial equity. ARC is an acronym for awareness, relationships, and commitment. Become aware of the issues. Build relationships across lines of race and ethnicity. And commit to concrete action…such as reading this thought-provoking book.

Book Reviewed
Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).

P.S. If you like my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Advertisements

Review of ‘George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father’ by Thomas S. Kidd


George-Whitefield Thomas S. Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

George Whitefield is not well known by Americans today, including American evangelical Christians, his spiritual heirs. In the eighteenth century, however, Whitefield was well known not only in America, but also in his native England—well known, well loved, and widely criticized. Thomas S. Kidd outlines the life of this influential evangelist in George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father.

Whitefield was born in a Gloucester inn on December 16, 1714, to hardworking though not particularly religious parents. He secured a work-scholarship to Oxford University, where he fell under the spiritual influence of John and Charles Wesley and entered ministry in the Church of England. Together with the Wesley brothers, Whitefield led the trans-Atlantic evangelical revival that came to be known as the Great Awakening through ceaseless itinerant evangelism, innovative use of print media, and development of personal and institutional relationships across denominations.

“[Whitefield’s] colleague and frequent rival John Wesley left a greater organizational legacy,” Kidd writes, “and his ally Jonathan Edwards made a more significant theological contribution. But Whitefield was the key figure in the first generation of evangelical Christianity.” Kidd concludes: “Whitefield was the first great preacher in a modern evangelical movement that has seen many. Perhaps he was the greatest evangelical preacher the world has ever seen.”

Reading Kidd’s biography of Whitefield—which will be the standard work for years to come—I was struck by several similarities with contemporary American evangelicalism that are worth noting, both positive and negative.

The first is Whitefield’s blend of principle and pragmatism. Whitefield was an ordained priest in the Church of England and a convinced Calvinist. This did not prevent him from working with English Dissenters and Arminians (at least of the Wesleyan variety), Scottish Presbyterians, or American Congregationalists, however. Rather, with them, he emphasized the experience of the “new birth”—that is, being born again—and the doctrine of justification by faith. These expressed the essence of the gospel.

To proclaim that gospel, Whitefield pragmatically utilized a variety of innovative techniques. These included itinerant evangelism, field preaching, personal discipleship (the hallmark of Methodism), and the use of newspapers to promote the ministry. The result was a trans-Atlantic revival united by a powerful spiritual encounter and a theology that explained it, far more than by ecclesiology or denominational distinctives.

The second is Whitefield’s emphasis on the ministry of the Holy Spirit, both as the One who brings about regeneration (the technical term for the new birth) and the One who empowers ministers to proclaim the gospel. Wesley’s journals are filled with descriptions of people experiencing the throes of spiritual conviction, not to mention the experience of breaking through to the peace of conversion. He also routinely speaks of the Spirit prompting his actions and words. Kidd even notes a handful of occasions where Whitefield, his colleagues, or his followers may have spoken in tongues. Ironically, in light of the cessationist theology that characterized evangelical Calvinism in the early twentieth century, Kidd points out that the revivalists believed in the contemporary work of the Holy Spirit—though not as Pentecostals do today—while their non-evangelical critics were the ones who were cessationists, believing that the gifts of the Holy Spirit had ceased in the Apostolic Era.

This emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit was often a help to the emerging evangelical movement, rooting God’s work in the heart and not merely the head, but it was also occasionally a hindrance. Critics routinely accused Whitefield and his followers of “enthusiasm,” a mindless religious ecstasy detached from good theology, good taste, and good sense. Sometimes, they were right. In turn, under what Whitefield assumed to be the prompting of the Spirit, he often criticized non-evangelical ministers for being “unconverted,” that is, not even Christian. This won him few friends among that group. As Whitefield and his followers matured, they learned to distinguish the fire of genuine revival from “wild-fire.”

The third is the paradoxical combination of unity and division. As noted above, the Anglican Whitefield partnered with ministers of other Protestant denominations to promote revival. This is true of evangelicalism to the present day. But just as there are sharp theological disputes today between Calvinist and Arminian evangelicals, there were sharp theological disputes between the same two groups in the eighteenth century. Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist, as was the Welsh evangelist Howell Harris. The Wesley brothers, on the other hand, were equally staunch Arminians. The theological debates between those four individuals, and their respective followers, were intense and often nasty. Nevertheless, throughout his ministry, Whitefield found his way toward cooperation with the Wesley’s in gospel ministry.

The fourth is the confusion of the gospel and patriotism. Whitefield came to prominence during Protestant England’s seemingly endless wars with Catholic powers. Like other Protestants in his age, he viewed the Reformation dispute with Rome as both theological (How are we saved?) and political (Who will rule us?) in nature. During the War of Jenkins’ Ear with Spain and the Seven Years War with France, Whitefield preached pro-English, anti-Spanish, anti-French, and anti-Catholic sermons that are embarrassing to read today. My guess is that in two hundred years, the patriotic sermons of today’s evangelicals will cause readers to blush too.

It has been said that the past is a foreign country. Reading Whitefield’s biography reminds us that his age was vastly different from our own. Like many in America in the eighteenth century, Whitefield owned slaves, a fact for which he can (and should) be criticized. (His marriage was also nothing to write home about.)

On the other hand, the past is not so foreign that it is unable to teach us lessons about our own time. This is especially true of contemporary American evangelicalism. The trans-Atlantic evangelical revival of the eighteenth century initiated patterns of spiritual experience, theological doctrine, and ministry methodology that are still recognizable among American and British evangelicals today, for better and for worse.

As evangelicals move forward in the twenty-first century, it is thus reasonable to ask: Who will be our Edwards, to teach us in this postmodern intellectual milieu? Who will be our Wesley, to organize, network, and disciple us? And who will be our Whitefield—the evangelist whose preaching of the gospel will draw men and women, boys and girls to Christ? Kidd notes that Whitefield was perhaps “the greatest evangelical preacher the world has ever seen.” I would add only five words: though hopefully not the last.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

A Commendable Hagiography that Needs to Be Supplemented with Critical Biographies


GeorgeWhitefield

Arnold D. Dallimore, George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990; reprinted, 2010).

The 18th Century produced evangelicalism’s greatest theologian (Jonathan Edwards), evangelist (George Whitefield), organizer (John Wesley), and songwriter (Charles Wesley). These four represent evangelicalism at its best: trans-Atlantic cooperation across theological lines, a burning zeal for evangelism, and a concomitant commitment to social reform (especially in John Wesley’s case). But they also evince the deepest theological fault line within evangelicalism, between Calvinists and Arminians, and demonstrate the ongoing tensions between the church and parachurch ministries.

Edwards, being dead, still speaks through reprints of his works and the veritable cottage industry of explaining and applying them to today’s concerns. John Wesley lives on through numerous denominations—Methodist, Wesleyan, Holiness—that trace their origins, in one way or another, to his labors, and through Christian small groups that, wittingly or not, perpetuate aspects of his societies, bands, and classes. And we sing Charles Wesley’s hymns, though not often enough—at least for my taste.

Whitefield, on the other hand, has been largely neglected. This is odd, for Whitefield arguably did more to promote trans-Atlantic evangelicalism than any of his peers, working with an ecumenical cast of Anglicans, Baptists, Congregationalists, Independents, and Presbyterians. Though a Calvinist—and for a period of time in deep dispute with the Wesleys over their Arminianism—he worked with Arminian evangelicals. He preached as often—if not more often—than John Wesley, and to larger crowds. He pioneered many of the techniques that Wesley perfected—e.g., open-air preaching, circuit riding, religious societies. Indeed, in his own time, he was often referred to as “the Founder of Methodism.”

Over the course of three decades, Arnold A. Dallimore sought to rectify this neglect of Whitefield. In 1970, he published the first volume of George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth Century (Banner of Truth). He published the second volume in 1980. In 1990, Crossway published the one-volume abridgement of the biography under review here. It was reprinted in 2010 with a new cover. Crossway also published The Sermons of George Whitefield in 2012.

I hope to review The Sermons soon, but for now let me say something about Dallimore’s abridged biography. It is a self-conscious hagiography of the great evangelist. I use the word hagiography literally, for after reviewing Whitefield’s life and labors, Dallimore writes: “George Whitefield was a holy man” (p. 200). A Christian reader of George Whitefield—at least an evangelical Protestant reader—will likely come to the same conclusion. Whitefield’s zeal for evangelism, concern for the poor, personal philanthropy, and courage in the face of mobs mark him out as a deeply Christian man. By outlining the course of his life and ministry, Dallimore has performed a signal service for evangelical readers.

By nature, hagiographies are not critical biographies, however. They describe a life in order to inspire emulation. But this description has an apologetic cast to it. Throughout this book, for example, Dallimore compares and contrasts Whitefield and John Wesley, often to the latter’s detriment. (Charles Wesley comes out better because he was personally closer to Whitefield than his brother John.) His treatment of Whitefield is defensive, as if he mourns the spotlight historians have shown on John rather than George. He sees faults in Whitefield: emotionalism in his early ministry, not to mention a critique of Christian ministers whom he felt were not personally born again or whose ministries were insufficiently evangelical. “His chief fault,” Dallimore avers, “was his condoning the practice of slavery, the one dark blot on his otherwise spotless record.” A critical biography would examine these topics in more detail. If Dallimore does examine them more closely in his two-volume biography, he has chosen not to include the results of that examination here.

And there are topics that might interest modern readers. In The Divine Dramatist, Harry S. Stout explores Whitefield’s self-promotion and theatricality. In The Accidental Revolutionary, Jerome Dean Mahaffey explores the political effects of Whitefield’s ministry in the American colonies. How Whitefield innovated the practice of evangelism and what effect those innovations have on contemporary evangelicals is interesting to me, as a church leader. And as an American, I’m interested in the ways religion influenced the cause of revolution. But these topics go unremarked upon (at least in the abridgement).

I make these critical remarks of George Whitefield not because I didn’t enjoy the book or wouldn’t recommend it. I did, and I would. Rather, I make them because readers should know what to expect from Dallimore’s work. It will give them a good outline of the chronology and major events in Whitefield’s life. And it should inspire readers—at least if they are evangelical—to greater personal holiness, zeal for the lost, and desire to do as much good in this life as God enables one to do. If you profit from this book, by all means read the two-volume version, which explores issues in greater depth. Nonetheless, Dallimore’s biography is not the whole picture. If your interest is more broadly historical, you’ll need to supplement your reading with critical biographies such as the ones I’ve mentioned above.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. Historian John Fea recommends Frank Lambert’s “Pedlar in Divinity”: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737–1770, and Thomas Kidd’s forthcoming biography of Whitefield, to be published by Yale University Press.