- Evangelicalism and the Politics of Reform in Northern Black Thought, 1776–1863
In Evangelicalism and the Politics of Reform in Northern Black Thought, Rita Roberts sets out to explain why so many black northerners in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries identified themselves proudly as “Americans” despite their country’s wretched record on issues of racial justice. She concludes that African American activists and reformers remained committed to the United States because they believed that the Christian God would soon transform the country into a land of hope and opportunity for all. Evangelical northern blacks, she argues, were convinced that “Americans, black and white, would become a new people, distinct from any population in the world, because of their Christian republican faith” (3). African American northerners, in her account, began to lose hope in this millennial vision by the 1850s and started seriously to consider emigration away from white Americans. With the coming of the [End Page 440] Civil War, however, and particularly with Lincoln’s move toward emancipation, they recommitted themselves to the country of their birth.
People of color in the antebellum North generated a rich body of literature, which Roberts plumbs for her analysis. She draws extensively on the public record: on periodicals, pamphlets, convention records, and published narratives. The fact that evangelicals authored such a large proportion of African American publications in the antebellum period—and enshrined their hopes for uplift in them—resoundingly supports Roberts’s basic contention about the linkages between evangelicalism and reform (by which Roberts means “abolition, antiracism, and black community development” ). However, her decision to limit her use of ecclesiastical sources to denominational newspapers and published sermons constrains her ability to probe fully the connections between evangelicalism and activism. How did activists conceptualize the relationship between their public advocacy for reform and their work within individual congregations? To what extent did church members empower or restrain their activist leaders? On what issues were there the greatest conflicts between rank-and-file members and activist leaders—or among leaders? Roberts may have found answers to these and other questions in church minutes, records from denominational meetings, theological treatises, and other such sources, all of which would have helped to situate her authors in specific faith communities and give more content to their beliefs and practices.
What is more, Roberts might have used ecclesiastical sources to develop more fully her understanding of the concept of millennialism. She holds that black evangelicals believed that God would intervene in history to help them transform the United States, but she does not interrogate this belief systematically. In a nice section on David Walker, Roberts notes that black evangelicals by the late 1820s were moving with the Arminian stream of the Second Great Awakening toward what Timothy Fulop has called a more activist “progressive millennialism” (77–83). She does not address the relative weight of the two other varieties of black millennialism that Fulop identifies, however, or wrestle with tough questions about black evangelicals’ understanding of race and millennialism. Laurie Maffl y-Kipp has recently demonstrated how profitable a more aggressive interrogation of the concept can be in Setting Down the Sacred Past (2010), a theologically astute analysis of African American race histories.
In a powerful fifth chapter subtitled “The Problem of Race and Black Evangelical Reform,” Roberts surveys the often contradictory strategies through which leading black activists confronted racism in the late antebellum period. In African Americans’ efforts to combat new theories of black inequality, Roberts argues, “reformers placed themselves at a disadvantage [End Page 441] when they shared with promoters of scientific racism a nearly similar standard of civilization and a restricted application of Christianity” (152). For instance, when intellectuals such as New York physician James McCune Smith, who receives central billing in the chapter, used science to refute white claims of racial dominance, they tended to do so in a way that reified the idea of essential racial differences. African American activists’ response to this rhetorical dilemma illustrates Roberts’s thesis...