The Segregation of Black and White Churches of Christ in the Postbellum South

S. W. Womack (1850?-1920), father-in-law to Marshall Keeble and a leader in the African American Church in Nashville (particularly the Jackson Street Church of Christ, which he helped plant in 1896).

When A. B. Lipscomb, who was the managing editor of the Gospel Advocate at the time, asked Womack whether he would help put together a special issue of the Advocate “for the colored people,” he agreed and hoped “it would help to correct the attitude that now exists in some places toward blacks.”

Womack continued: “I think a more friendly attitude by the white people toward us would help [in the present, JMH]. I will never forget the grand privilege that the white church of Christ at Lynchburg, Tenn., gave the colored people during their first protracted meeting just after the Civil War, in 1865, held by Brethren Brents, Lee, and Trimble. We were invited to attend and seats were found for us. In this meeting I heard my first gospel sermon and a lasting impression was made on my heart. A short time after that, in the fall of 1866, I was baptized by a white preacher, old Brother T. J. Shaw–‘the man with the old Book in his head,’ the people called him. We were allowed to meet and worship with them for a number of years. In partaking of the Lord’s Supper, we were all waited on just alike; the wine and bread were not brought to us at the same time it is brought to us in some of the churches that I meet with for worship now. The attitude of the white people of that church toward the colored people was then, and is now, a great uplift to me” (GA, 1915, 1326).

At the conclusion of his article, he wrote: “Only a few of the whites have much or any confidence in the black man, and so many have none; and the blacks seem to stand that way toward the whites. I am proud to say, however, that it is not that way with the writer. When I begin with the year 1865 and think of such men as Dr. Brents, Lee, Trimble, T. J. Shaw, Darnell, Dixon, Bolding, Barrett, Fanning, the Sewells, the Lipscombs, and many others, who, in holding their meetings, would ask for room and seats for the colored people, and, after preaching would come around and shake our hands, I am made to feel very grateful. These things were a great help to me; and what has been helpful to me will be helpful to others also, if put into practice. I hope you will not only write and say many good things, but do as those good old men did—show your faith by your works” (p. 1327).

In other words, something happened between 1866 and 1915. Apparently, churches were more segregated, and there was more animosity toward African Americans.

American history helps us a bit here—the reconstruction South and the Jim Crow South dramatically shaped the story of black and white churches in the South.

In 1874, Daniel Watkins, an African American from Nashville, TN, asked David Lipscomb to publish his request for the use of “meeting-houses” so that he might teach Christianity to “the more destitute of my people as are willing to hear and receive the truth” (GA, 1874, 281). Unfortunately, to the dismay of Lipscomb, “white brethren in some places refused the use of their houses at times when unoccupied by themselves.” “We do not hesitate to say,” Lipscomb added, “that such a foolish and unchristian prejudice should be vigorously and eagerly trampled under foot, and all persons who are driven from the church because the house is used by the humblest of God’s creatures, in teaching and learning the Christian religion would bless the church by leaving it” (GA, 1874. 282). Further, “If the houses are too fine for this, they are entirely too fine for Christian purposes” (GA, 1874, 283).

Later that year, on October 9, a “consultation meeting” was held by disciples in Murfreesboro, TN, which included one African American named Daniel Watkins, who was commended as a preacher and church planter, among the thirty or so participants.

On the morning of October 12, the “ordination” committee proposed this resolution: “Resolved, that we recommend to our colored brethren who have membership with whites, whenever practicable to withdraw themselves and form congregations of their own, believing that by so doing they will advance the cause of Christ among themselves, and when it not practicable so to do, that they receive the attention of their various congregations” (GA, 1874, 1017-8, to which Michael Strickland alerted me).

There is no indication that the resolution was adopted, but the resolution itself reflects a movement among white churches to encourage segregation.

David Lipscomb, who was present at the consultation, took exception to the segregationist resolution. “The resolution in reference to colored brethren forming separate congregations we believe plainly contrary to the teachings of the Scriptures. The Jews and Gentiles had as strong antipathies as the whites and blacks. They were never recommended to form distinct organizations. The course we believe to be hurtful to both races and destructive to the Spirit of Christ” (GA 1874, 1020).

When, in 1878, David Lipscomb heard about an African American who was refused membership in a white church, he wrote this: “Nothing is more clearly taught in the Bible than that Christ came into the world to break down middle walls, family prejudices, natural animosities, race antipathics, and to unite the different kindreds, tongues and tribes into one undivided and indivisible brotherhood. The race prejudices in the days of the Savior and of the apostles were just as strong as they are to-day…We believe it is sinful to have two congregations in the community for persons of separate and distinct races now. The race prejudice would cause trouble in the churches we know. It did this in apostolic days. Not once did the apostles suggest that they should form separate congregations for the different races. But they always admonished them to unity, forbearance, love and brotherhood in Christ Jesus. We believe it sinful to do otherwise now..For the whites to reject the negro is to make the whites self-righteous, self-sufficient, exclusive and unchristian in spirit…[Those who resist the participation of African Americans in white congregations] show a total unfitness for membership in the church of God. A church that will tolerate the persistent exhibition of such a spirit certainly forfeits its claims to be a church of God…Our treatment of the negro at best is that of criminal indifference and neglect. To discourage and repel him, when, despite that cruel neglect on our part he seeks membership in the church of God, is an outrage that ought not for a moment to be tolerated.”.” (GA, 1878, 120-1).

While Lipscomb opposed segregated congregations, he also had a paternalistic and assimilationist attitude toward African Americans in those congregations. He thought, given their proclivities to “over-much religiousness or superstition” created obstacles to their “knowing the truth,” and it was “a misfortune” that “the colored population ever attempted separate religious organizations or separate worshiping assemblies,” which he regarded as “unscriptural” despite the “difficulties” that “might have arisen in their worshiping together” (GA, 1874, 281). Indeed, “the negroes needed the care, the counsel, the oversight, the instruction of their white brethren” (GA, 1874, 282). Since “in the providence of God they were freed,” it is a Christian “ambition and desire to encourage, instruct, and elevate them” (GA, 1874, 283).

In other words, even Lipscomb—who was beloved by many African Americans in Nashville and in other places—was shaped by the assimilationist and paternalistic racism of his time (see Kendi’s history Stamped from the Beginning). That is quite a somber warning for all of us, especially if we claim there is not a racist bone in our bodies.

Lipscomb, nevertheless, has harsh words for the whites who encouraged separate congregations. It seems to suggest that northern whites encouraged and promoted this tactic as part of their agenda during Reconstruction, and then this was continued during the Jim Crow era. “The whites who came into the country to use the blacks for selfish ends, encouraged the forming of separate churches that through these organizations they might control the blacks. The white members of the churches of this country, when themselves not guilty of a narrow and unworthy prejudice against church association with the colored members, gave way to a cowardly fear of the prejudices of others.”

By 1915, times had changed. Womack noted that “only a few of the whites have much or any confidence in the black man, and so many have none.” African Americans now worshiped in congregations segregated by the attitudes that formed by the Jim Crow south.

There were, of course, segregated churches before the Civil War, including Nashville where the first African American congregation in Nashville was planted in 1859. But these increased throughout the lifetime of David Lipscomb and S. W. Womack and much to their disappointment. The influence of Reconstruction and Jim Crow shaped how churches segregated themselves into white and black.

We are still dealing with the effects of that history today.

May God have mercy!

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