- The Doubts of Their Fathers:The God Debate and the Conflict between African American Churches and Civil Rights Organizations between the World Wars
In february 1923, William Pickens, the field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), penned an article in the black radical journal The Messenger called "Things Nobody Believes." The nobody was anyone "with intelligence." The things included bible stories, creation, miracles, Christ's resurrection, Christian creeds, a material heaven, and hell—which was "a helluvanidea." Most Christian teaching was "superstitious buncombe," Pickens asserted, and any "man who believes anything simply because somebody believed it two or three thousand years ago, is an idiot."1 "Pickens Denies Resurrection" and "Dean Pickens Says There Is No Hell" were front-page headlines in African American newspapers.2
Born in South Carolina in 1881, the son of former slaves, Pickens was one of the most high-profile African American leaders of the era, a renowned educator, columnist, orator, and civil rights activist. The NAACP's press release for Pickens's appointment as field secretary in 1920 trumpeted, "No orator of the race is so well known to colored Americans as Mr. Pickens." Pickens published his second autobiography in 1923, his speeches attracted large audiences, and his postbag [End Page 625] was full of fan mail, including one poem that started with the somewhat predictable rhyme, "Pickens, you're the dickens."3 Outspoken, impulsive, and frequently combative, Pickens was quick to get into arguments with anyone who crossed his path, from Marcus Garvey to his daughter's dentist.4 Or as he put it to his NAACP colleague W. E. B. Du Bois in 1921, "I have heard of men without enemies and I have often wondered what they could be doing." High on Pickens's hit list were the superstitions and dogmas "that dispense with the necessity for reason or judgement," including the Christianity that was preached in—as Pickens put it—"the average Negro church."5
Pickens had, in fact, been active in African American church circles earlier in his career. In 1922, just the year before "Things Nobody Believes," he had been a speaker at the Bishops' Council of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. But from the publication of this article onward, the NAACP's main ambassador to local communities spoke out with the zeal of the convert that he was from his self-described traditional Baptist upbringing.6 Part of Pickens's critique was of the institution of the black church and its personnel. After a meeting in [End Page 626] Pennsylvania in 1923, Pickens complained to the NAACP head office, "'The preachers help here in the usual way—by not hindering much. … [T]hey do nothing to help.'"7 Pickens frequently lampooned black clergy for their immorality, too. "We ordinary sinners," he mocked in a newspaper column, "have not even a chance to hit the spotlight any longer."8 (He also condemned "Ku Kluxed pulpits" in white churches, where the Klan had bought preachers by making "donations."9) But Pickens argued that the problem with Christianity in the "average Negro church" was not just misguided behavior that needed reform but also misguided beliefs that needed debunking.
For Pickens, these beliefs not only were out-of-date and irrational but also had practical, detrimental consequences for the struggle for equality and the state of the country. He was frustrated when people appealed to their maker rather than applying themselves to make society better.10 In articles and speeches, Pickens insisted that progress for African Americans would come through self-reliance and scientific thought.11 He also noted that white supremacists were quick to invoke the "God alibi." When people "drag God into the argument," he warned, "you can usually look out for some scoundrelism that could not get by on any real logic."12
"Things Nobody Believes" was a liberal theological position expressed with Pickens's characteristic gusto. But such a position, asserted Levi J. Coppin of Philadelphia, an influential AME bishop, "is out of harmony with the prevailing doctrine of the Christian Church." "So greatly at variance is his [Pickens's] credo from what is...