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3 “We Need No New Doctrine for This New Day” African Americans Adapt Fundamentalism W. A. Taylor, the pastor of the Florida Avenue Baptist Church in Washington , DC, shared his dilemma with his fellow National Baptist Convention, Incorporated members. In a 1935 article rhetorically entitled, “Is There a Need for a Restatement of Baptist Doctrine and Polity,” he captured the problem by posing two answers to the title’s implied question and noting that “either horn of which may get us into trouble.” “If we answer yes,” he explained, “we fly into the faces of those orthodox fundamentalists, who stand guard over the traditions of the church and dare to jealously defend the ‘doctrines once for all delivered to the saints’ and to see that no one word used by the pioneers of the church in that original document shall be changed.” But, if the answer were no, he continued, the response would “bring upon us the condemnation and censure of modern scholarship, reactionaries , and progressives, and be styled as back numbers, behind the times and out of line with the march and progress of modern religious thoughts and recent Biblical interpretation.” Taylor sought a middle ground, using the US Constitution as his model, and argued that “the doctrines of our church are sufficiently flexible and elastic enough, if properly understood and properly stated, to touch every phase of human welfare.”1 Well into the 1930s, Taylor, like many other black (and white) ministers, worked to reconcile what he saw as the conflicting theologies of fundamentalists and modernists with the goal of making them useful for his pastoral work. Although African American ministers were excluded from full fellowship with their white brethren in the 1920s and 1930s, they spent a great deal of time writing about many of the same topics that concerned the fundamentalists as they sought to respond to the gauntlet the fundamentalist movement had thrown. Editorials and articles decrying the changes in African Americans Adapt Fundamentalism 69 biblical interpretation, intellectualism, and social customs were a common staple in the pages of the National Baptist Union-Review, the Star of Zion, the Christian Recorder, and, to a lesser extent, the National Baptist Voice. Overwhelmingly, editors, authors, and readers denounced the growing tide of modernism while at the same time extolling that “old time religion.” Even those denominational papers that tended to view the white fundamentalist movement with less sympathy, such as the National Baptist Voice, worried that modernism had gone too far. As the black Baptists and Methodists labeled modernism a white phenomenon , they wrestled with other tenets of the fundamentalist challenge. Historians have debated how to define fundamentalism, and, indeed, when examined too closely, any list of doctrines that purports to define fully the term usually falls short.2 To say that fundamentalists believed such ideas as the Virgin Birth or the divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible is to be too imprecise. Large numbers of evangelical Protestants who would never have called themselves fundamentalists subscribed to those notions. Indeed, the idea that the church is the community of believers only has deep roots in Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic. When one tries to measure how sympathetic African American denominational papers were to fundamentalism, one quickly realizes the shortcomings of the term fundamentalism . For the purposes of this study, it will mean an anti-modern evangelical movement that stressed notions such as biblical inerrancy, the Virgin Birth and deity of Christ, the need for holy living, and an emphasis on the literal return of Jesus. Black Methodists and Baptists tended not to call themselves fundamentalist, even though they agreed with white fundamentalists on many topics. And in the 1920s and 1930s, as the debates in white seminaries and denominations raged, African Americans used their denominational publications to underscore their adherence to what they understood as traditional evangelical Christianity, even as they declined to self-identify as fundamentalists. Instead, black Baptist and Methodist writers used their understanding of evangelical Christianity to delineate an understanding of belief that would embrace traditionalist notions without siding definitively with either white modernists or white fundamentalists. In this respect, the African American Baptists and Methodists were remolding and reshaping what fundamentalist movements offered them: a chance to declare their allegiance to traditional evangelical Christianity as they understood it and to use that same Christianity to chart a course for their members to navigate the treacherous seas of modernity and post– World War I American society. Their attachment to the basic tenets of...


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