Race, Religion, and Overlapping Crises in United States History

Endorsed by IEHS

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 8:45 AM - 10:15 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Race; Religion; Social Welfare and Public Health; Social Welfare and Public Health


Historians have long recognized the relationship between race and religion in the twentieth-century United States. Scholars have shown identities of religion and race to be co-constructive ("religio-racial"), reinforcing the power and meaning of each category according to the logic of the other. Studying religion and race in the twentieth century requires scholars to think about crises as multivalent, overlapping, and defined by several categories rather than one. However, few works recognize the multiple nodes of contact between race, religion, and responses to crises in "the American century," particularly how religion creates and responds to overlapping crises in contested arenas of citizenship, labor rights, masculinity, and vaccination. As our panelists' papers show, race and religion are central to understanding the overlapping political, economic, imperial, and gendered crises in nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century United States history. Kathryn Gin Lum examines how racist ideas taught by white American missionaries about heathenry and citizenship shaped Chinese responses to Christianity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century periodicals. She shows that Chinese immigrants adopted Christian arguments for and against equal treatment of nonwhites and highlights the diverging ways that missionized people responded to ethnocentric missionary teachings against the backdrop of American racism. Alison Collis Greene analyzes interracial work camps for youth sponsored by the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen throughout the 1940s. She argues that these work camps, where whites and blacks worked beside one another, created relationships across the color lines. However, the Fellowship's dream of eradicating white supremacy and white economic power through Christian community building failed. Greene examines the Fellowship's failures within the context of the 1940s American South. Joseph Stuart considers how W.D. Fard founded the Nation of Islam among Black working-class migrants from the Deep South, who moved to the Motor City during the Great Migration. These migrants resented the Black Middle class—and specifically viewed their Christianity as anathema to improving Black people's lives. Fard taught his converts the "True History of the Black Man," which provided means for working-class Black men to attain idealized masculinity without middle-class trappings—consumerism and meekly accepting racist abuse. The Nation of Islam taught that Black manhood could be proved by breadwinning and disciplining themselves to Allah's commandments. Angela Tarango investigates how and why San Antonio, Texas's La Trinidad United Methodist Church organized vaccination drives during the COVID-19 crisis. While many historians have pointed to vaccine and medical skepticism in Latino communities, Protestant congregations, and citizens in conservative states, she shows that Latino Methodists used the language and logic of their faith to innoculate their members. In doing so, they followed in the footsteps of other Latino congregations, who responded similarly to polio and tuberculosis crises, revealing the often-overlooked histories of Latinos, Protestantism, and medicine. In concert, these papers show the importance of religion in responding to social, economic, gendered, and political power in the twentieth-century United States.

Papers Presented

Conversion in Crisis

This paper considers the stories of two Chinese immigrants to America in the late-nineteenth century, Wong Chin Foo and Yan Phou Lee. Against a backdrop of Chinese exclusion and hostility in America, and of political tumult in China, these two men experienced religious crises. Both converted to Christianity, but Wong quickly became an outspoken opponent of it while Lee rose to its defense. In an article published in the North American Review, Wong explained why he chose to remain a “heathen” after his temporary conversion, arguing that heathenism was superior to a Christian culture that put all its efforts into making more money and building more machines, while treating heathens with hostility and disrespect. In a rejoinder also published in the North American Review, Lee argued for the viability of Christianity for people from historically non-Christian cultures, maintaining that white Christian racism was not the fault of pure Christianity but of a Christianity corrupted by white bigots. In addition to these articles, both men left behind further writings intended for white American audiences. Wong traveled the lecture circuit as a self-proclaimed Confucian missionary to America, while Lee's autobiography of his childhood in China was the first book published in English by an Asian American author. By comparing Wong’s and Lee’s stories, this paper offers a case study of conversion in crisis and of how and why missionized people have responded in divergent ways to the impositions of ethnocentric missionaries against a backdrop of white American racism.

Presented By
Kathryn Gin Lum, Stanford University

“‘Loving Them into Understanding”: Nelle Morton, White Anti-Racism, and Economic Justice in the Post-World War II South

When Nelle Morton, a white woman and head of the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen, organized a series of interracial work camps in the mid-1940s, she dismissed concerns about local white opponents with assurances of “loving them into understanding.” Morton’s language focused on gently winning over white racists. Yet the work camps she organized took a structural rather than individual approach to white racism. She prioritized relationships with local Black community members even as she tried to win over whites. At first modeled on camps run by the peace churches during the interwar years, Fellowship camps emphasized interracial cohabitation as key to cultivating Christian community. They also explicitly supported economic cooperatives and other programs designed to circumvent or undermine the racialized capitalist economy of the South. The work camps adopted an egalitarian racial and economic model that Fellowship members deemed an essential feature of genuine Christian community and a blueprint for a more just economic system. Yet their model of an alternative southern economy, their examples of racial and economic justice, proved neither persuasive nor replicable in the South’s entrenched Jim Crow economies. Even as members of the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen recognized that southern communities must play a role in their own transformation, their membership—always predominantly white, male, middle-class, and Protestant—replicated the South’s white supremacist hierarchy. This paper examines the strategies, successes, and shortcomings of Morton’s emphasis on Christian love as a route to racial and economic justice.

Presented By
Alison Collis Greene, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

True History, True Manhood: The Nation of Islam's Response to the Great Depression's Crises of Masculinity

This paper analyzes how religion responds to particular historical crises by exploring W.D. Fard founded the Nation of Islam among Black working-class migrants in Great Depression Detroit. W.D. Fard, the Nation of Islam's founder, taught the "True History of the Black Man," which claimed Black men were created in the image of Allah's Black body and that white people were demonic, concepts that reinforced Black men's value and worth as inherent—establishing Black Men as Allah's original creations and whites as demonic framed Blackness as superior and whiteness as inferior. As such, white systems like government and religions that supported white supremacy (like Christianity) must be discarded by Black men who had been created in Allah's image. Black men could prove their manhood by breadwinning and disciplining themselves to Allah's commandments—including adhering to strict codes for conduct, dress, diet, and speech. Black men's alignment with other standards for masculinity did not matter—if they followed Allah's precepts, they would be "real" men. Most Black migrants who joined the Nation of Islam resented established structures that reinforced the United States' society's racial, class, and religious hierarchies—and that had failed Black people in the Great Depression's depths. White-led governments did not often help poor Black people as they did white people, and Black churches often refused to help the Black working class, choosing to help those considered more "deserving." Eventually, thousands of Black men found purpose, opportunity, and a community that provided a way for them to "be men."

Presented By
Joseph R. Stuart, Brigham Young University

Tejano Methodists, the Covid-19 Pandemic, and how Religion, Race and Methodist history Shaped Vaccine Acceptance in South Texas

In the Spring of 2021, La Trinidad United Methodist Church in San Antonio Texas, hosted a Covid-19 vaccine drive, and eventually managed to inoculate 98% of its membership. A historic Tejano Methodist Church founded shortly after the Civil War by the Episcopal Methodist Church South, LTUMC bucked the trend of vaccine denial that many Texas Protestant churches embraced during the pandemic. Instead, driven by a strong sense of having to care for their neighbors born out of their holiness Wesleyan tradition, the Methodist tradition of education and public health advocacy, and the reality that the death rates for Latinos in South Texas and the TX/MX border were astronomically high, the church turned to the newly developed Covid-19 vaccines to protect its members. This paper analyzes how the church took its unique blend of Tejano Methodism and used their faith to frame a religious argument for vaccines among Latino Protestants during the crisis of the pandemic by situating it within Methodism’s historic commitment to the education of its Tejano members. By doing this, they found themselves following in the footsteps of the denomination’s previous vaccine advocacy and public health advocacy (chiefly around polio and tuberculosis) during the early 20th century in south Texas and on the U.S.- Mexico border. This paper will also situate LTUMC’s advocacy for vaccines broadly in contrast to other Protestant churches in Texas, (particularly majority white Pentecostal and evangelical churches) and within the larger Latino community of South Texas.

Presented By
Angela Tarango, Trinity University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Judith Weisenfeld, Princeton University
Judith Weisenfeld joined the Princeton faculty in 2007. Her research and teaching focus on African American religious history, religion and race, and religion in modern American culture. She is the author of Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 and African American Women and Christian Activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905-1945. Her most recent book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration, was awarded the 2017 Albert J. Raboteau Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions. Her current research examines the intersections of psychiatry, race, and African American religion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She is also the Co-Director of The Crossroads Project: Black Religious Histories, Cultures, and Communities, which is funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.

In addition to her appointment in Religion, she is affiliated with the Department of African American Studies and the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies and serves on the Executive Committees of the Program in American Studies and the Center for the Study of Religion. Professor Weisenfeld currently serves as Chair of the Department of Religion.

Presenter: Kathryn Gin Lum, Stanford University
Kathryn Gin Lum is Associate Professor in the Religious Studies Department, in collaboration with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford. She is also Associate Professor, by courtesy, of History in affiliation with American Studies and Asian American Studies. Her teaching and research focus on the lived ramifications of religious beliefs; she specializes in the history of religion and race in America.

Professor Gin Lum’s first book, Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2014), asks how widespread belief in hell influenced Americans’ perceptions of themselves and the rest of the world in the first century of nationhood. Her second book project, a co-edited volume (with Paul Harvey), is The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Race in American History (forthcoming, Oxford University Press, 2018). She is currently working on a third book, tentatively titled The Heathen World and America’s Humanitarian Impulse, under contract with Harvard University Press.

Presenter: Alison Collis Greene, Candler School of Theology, Emory University
Alison Collis Greene is Associate Professor of American Religious History and Director of the Master of Theological Studies degree program at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and author of No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta, which was awarded the Southern Historical Association’s 2016 Charles Sydnor Prize. Her current work explores the history of rural religious reform and conservation in the modern South.

Presenter: Joseph R. Stuart, Brigham Young University
Joseph Stuart is an instructor of history at the University of Utah, where he earned his Ph.D. in American history in 2021. He studies African American history, particularly of the relationship between race, freedom rights, and religion in the twentieth century Black Freedom Movement. His dissertation “‘Freedom, Justice, and Equality for Black Men in America: Race, Masculinity, and the Nation of Islam in the Black Feredom Movement, 1931-1975,” examines the Nation of Islam’s racial and masculine ideologies to understand how and why some Black American groups opposed integration in the mid-twentieth century United States. I trace the Nation of Islam’s founding from its origins in Great Depression Detroit to its schism following the death of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in 1975 and its “restoration” under Louis Farrakhan in 1981. My study complicates historians’ ideas about the Black Freedom Movement, highlighting how race, masculinity, and religion led to a Black Nationalist group’s refusal to participate in national freedom rights movements and actions. My research on race, religion, and gender has been published in several journals, including American Quarterly, Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, and Religion and Politics.

Presenter: Angela Tarango, Trinity University
Angela Tarango is professor of religion at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX where she teaches courses in American religions, focusing on Native American and Latino religions. Her first book Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle (UNC 2014) explored the history of Native American clergy and leadership within the Assemblies of God and won the PNUEMA Book Award for best book in Pentecostal/charismatic studies in 2015. Her current project is an ethnohistorical study of San Antonio's historic La Trinidad United Methodist Church, focusing on Mexican-American Methodism in the borderlands of Texas and Mexico through the material culture of the church during the age of the Covid-19 pandemic.