White Protestants and the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky
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White Protestants and the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky

A mere two weeks after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional, Southern Baptists flocked to St. Louis for their annual convention. Attendees at that June 1954 meeting heard a stirring report that lauded the High Court’s action as “in harmony with the constitutional guarantee of equal freedom to all citizens and the Christian principles of equal justice and love to all men.” Although the ten thousand Baptists who gathered in St. Louis represented every state in the nation, two Kentuckians dominated the debate that followed. W. M. Nevins of Lexington warned that the Brown decision put the nation on a dangerous path toward racial amalgamation: “If we are going to eat with [blacks], and go to school with them, and go to church with them, the time is going to come … when some of you that sit in this audience today will have grandchildren with Negro blood.” Another Kentuckian, J. B. Weatherspoon, sprang to the report’s defense. The Southern Seminary professor urged that rejecting the progressive statement would send the message that America could “count Baptists out in the matter of equal justice.” “I don’t think we want to do that,” he concluded, to enthusiastic applause. The report sailed to victory on the wings of Weatherspoon’s oratory, his hearers approving it by an overwhelming voice vote. As if to acknowledge this commitment to a perilous but worthy path, [End Page 543] the convention then burst into a chorus of “He Leadeth Me,” the traditional Baptist hymn of surrender.1

Yet the dispute between Nevins and Weatherspoon more accurately prophesied Southern Baptists’ response to the civil rights movement than the resounding convention affirmation. Back home in their churches, parishioners objected strenuously to the progressive report. In the ensuing years, heated altercations erupted over other convention measures that seemed to challenge the racial hierarchy or to endorse black activism. Indeed, the quest for black equality ignited an argument about the meaning and merits of racial justice in America’s white Protestant communities. The two Kentuckians’ leadership in an opening salvo of this debate strongly suggests that faith communities in the Bluegrass State may offer keys to understanding the relationship of American religion to the civil rights struggle.

Writing Religion in Kentucky

The subfield of American religious history has mushroomed in recent years. Important scholars have turned to religious history to explain the thorniest issues in the national past, and a new generation of younger historians has launched their careers with groundbreaking treatments that place Americans’ faiths at the center of their story. A variety of new conferences, journals, and blogs devoted to the history of religion attests to the vitality of this field and its ability to deepen our understanding of politics, economics, and race relations.2

Kentucky has benefitted unevenly from this attention. For periods before Reconstruction, scholars seem to have long regarded the Blue-grass State as a place where the religious story illuminates significant issues in American history. From John Boles, in his 1976 classic Religion in Antebellum Kentucky, to Luke Harlow, in the recently published [End Page 544] Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830–1880, historians maintain that Kentucky’s religious life registered the national pulse on key concerns such as slavery and race. Indeed, Harlow argues that the religious debates over slavery unfolded in Kentucky with both wider range and sharper distinctions than anywhere in the nation. A border state such as Kentucky could easily appear a mushy middle, where converging streams dilute one another to the point of bland meaninglessness. Yet, in these treatments, the collision of ideas casts each in brighter and more distinct light.3

The landscape changes dramatically for the period after Reconstruction, when religious histories of Kentucky nearly evaporate. A pitifully short list of narrowly focused articles and a few monographs focused on Appalachia—Richard Callahan’s Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields and Deborah Vansau McCauley’s Appalachian Mountain Religion, for example—comprise the scholarly attention to religion in Kentucky after about 1880. If we gauge by the attention of historians...


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