Then & Now: The Conservative Presbyterian Race Debate in 1964

Oliver collage 4

In this article, I hope to give some idea of the state of the race debate among conservative Presbyterians, especially those associated with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and those who would later form the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), just following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. This will be done through the lens of The Presbyterian Guardian and will feature a discussion of C. Herbert Oliver’s articles condemning segregation, Morton H. Smith’s article defending segregation, and letters to the editor written by R. J. Rushdoony, E. J. Young, and other Reformed and Presbyterian believers of the day. My hope is that as we reflect on these articles and the state of the debate in 1964, we will see that while much has changed, much of the opposition has remained the same.

Introduction: A Conservative Presbyterian Magazine Addresses Race in 1964

The Presbyterian Guardian was founded by J. Gresham Machen in 1935, just prior to the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and was closely associated with the conservative Presbyterian denomination until its last publication in 1979. Machen, as many are aware, was certainly a segregationist while professor at Princeton Seminary in his 30’s, and seems to have maintained a Eurocentric and potentially white supremacist attitude into his later years. We read in an infamous letter to his mother during his time at Princeton,

It is true some of them are ‘sticklers’ for the civil rights of negroes – it always makes me intensely angry to hear people talking glibly about equal civil rights of negroes when in many parts of the South those equal rights would mean that every legislator and every judge would be a savage of a [] type and the white men would be more unsafe in parts of this country than in the most [] parts of the world where at least the protection of his home government is to some extent with him. (“Machen to Mother.” Received by Timothy Isaiah Cho from the Archives of Montgomery Library at Westminster Theological Seminary, 5 October 1913.)

Twenty years later, Machen wrote the following of his view from the Matterhorn in Switzerland:

There, in that glorious round spread out before you, that land of Europe, humanity has put forth its best. There it has struggled; there it has fallen; there it has looked upward to God. The history of the race seems to pass before you in an instant of time, concentrated in that fairest of all the lands of the earth. You think of the great men whose memories you love, the men who have struggled there in those countries below you, who have struggled for light and freedom, struggled for beauty, struggled above all for God’s Word. (“Mountains and Why We Love Them”)

So, it may have been a bit of a shock to many Presbyterian readers when The Presbyterian Guardian published multiple articles in one issue by black ministers, calling for action to end segregation after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, developing also the Biblical basis for such reconciliation. After discussing the “long hot season” that had gone before, the editors of the Guardian explain their purpose for the July-August 1964 issue:

We are deeply concerned … that Christians—as individuals and as churches—attempt to think and act and exert their influence as Christians in this whole matter, as in all of life. It does seem that our salt has lost some of its savor and that our light shines but dimly. That has been true of these pages, we confess, but in this particular number a start is made at giving thoughtful and dispassionate consideration to our responsibility. We do so humbly, but hopefully.

… Evangelicals, Reformed or otherwise, have been all too silent (or so it seems from our reading). We think Billy Graham was right when he told delegates at the spring NAE convention that “we as evangelicals are going to have to give an accounting to God of our stand in the racial crisis … We should have been leading the way to racial justice, but we failed. Let’s confess it, and let’s admit it and let’s do something about it.” (p. 95)

Herbert Oliver’s, “The Church & Social Change”

In the largest of the three articles published on the topic, “The Church and Social Change,” Rev. C. Herbert Oliver (OPC) seeks to answer, “what is the role of the church in social change?” He begins by discussing the prevailing New Testament era Greek view of social order as outlined in Aristotle’s Politics.

According to Aristotle, some people are slaves by nature, and it is proper and just to war against men intended by nature to be slaves but who will not submit. Slavery is not a tolerable evil but a positive good, an integral part of wealth-making. Labor was disdained as a task for slaves only. Aristotle says further, “That in a well ordered state the citizens should have leisure and not have to provide for their daily wants is generally acknowledged, but there is a difficulty in seeing how this leisure is to be attained” (1269a). (p. 87)

This stratification of humans in the ideal Greek society…

…encompass[ed] a disdain for labor to the extent of not providing for one’s own daily needs, the glorification of a leisure based on the blood, sweat and tears of persons considered to be inferior. It was thought that in such a society absolute justice is within the grasp of those only who avoid common labor. It becomes just to subjugate forcefully inferiors and to expose weak infants to die. There is no social relationship in either class that escapes the distortions imposed by such a view of life. (pp. 87-88)

But the coming of the Son of God—God Himself becoming true man and a carpenter’s son at that!—disrupted, at a cosmic level, these social ideals. And His followers found their highest identity in becoming slaves of this carpenter’s son, thus dignifying that which was previously considered a barrier to perusing true human dignity and virtue.

The church by being the church wrought a transformation of society that can best be described as one of the most profound social revolutions of all time, for the world in time was to see kings and nobles bow the knee to the Carpenter of Nazareth and accept with eagerness the doctrines spoken through common laborers.

Further, the Apostles “preached a love of God so profound and intense as to make a candidate for divine fellowship of the lowest of human beings. The very dregs of society who found no home on earth, found a glorious home in God” (p. 88).

Unfortunately, argues Oliver, these pagan social ideals and class distinctions did not fully disappear, but soon found their way into the Church itself, characterizing the Medieval Church to a great degree, necessitating the great religious and social upheaval of the Protestant Reformation.

It was a movement involving a total world-and-life view—a new religious view of society, a new religious view of politics, a new religious view of economics. It challenged the prevailing opinions that divided men into classes of nobles and peasants, into which the nobles were born fortunate and the peasants born unfortunate.

… Thus was the church, by being the church, the instrument of social change.

These are the social changes, according to Oliver, that led to the stated ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the U.S. (a quite charitable view, in my opinion). But as profound as the Reformational ideals may have been, “slavery of the worst kind took firm hold in lands that were being transformed by the Reformation.” And truly this was slavery of the worst kind, a race-based slavery, reducing those of African descent alone to lifelong vicious servitude, all justified by a burgeoning ideals of “whiteness” and white supremacy. This supremacy would shape both Northern and Southern society, each in their own way, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the day of Oliver’s writing.

This was all to “the Church’s shame,” writes Oliver. “The equation of white with right is one of the most ludicrous monstrosities of history.”

I say before God and all the angels, it is a shame that a doctrine more ungodly than that of Aristotle holds such great sway in the church today and prospective worshippers, with the words of Jesus and Paul on their lips, are hauled from church doors to jails. Jesus said, “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” But in the name of Jesus many “white churches” say if any Negroes come here, we will give them jail. (p. 89)

Rev. Oliver follows this section with a short discussion of John Calvin’s positive view of civil disobedience, especially given the Reformer’s actions in defiance to the powers that were, concluding for his own day that,

When unjust laws require a man to dehumanize himself before he can drink water or eat a morsel, or even sit down, what is left for a person with a sense of dignity to do than to resort to civil disobedience?

He then describes, in vivid detail, his own experience of sitting in his car as his stomach begins to growl—a well educated man, a pastor, a citizen, a tax payer—knowing that not one of the many restaurants in his purview would allow his patronage.

I saw a great problem; a problem that I could not solve by going away from it; a problem that white people cannot solve by driving me away from it. For if all the black people were driven from Alabama, still the problem would not be solved, but only confirmed.

He continues: “I find it hard to understand why the white man refuses to recognize that to which he gave birth” (p. 90). It was the white man who fought for liberty, against the social order of England, and birthed the ideals of the American Revolution. It was also the white man that subjected the black man to worse indignities than they themselves had ever experienced under the English King. How could the white man not see that “the cry of black men for liberty is but the echo of the white man’s cry in the American and French Revolutions”? But the white man, rather, “tries to make himself believe it is the very cry of the illegitimate child of the Russian Revolution” (p.90). The white man must understand, writes Oliver, that if he crushes the liberty sought by black Americans, he crushes liberty itself.

Oliver then briefly recounts the work of Frederick Douglas, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey—particularly the latter. He condemns the “racism” of black “separatism” and black nationalism, arguing that in the case of both white racists and black nationalist, the root problem is lack of identity—viz., identity that can only be found in Christ Jesus. In fact, it is this identity, to be found in Christ alone, that ultimately subverts all forms of stratified social order.

Deeply embedded in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is one of the most profound social concepts of all time running counter to the most penetrating discoveries of human wisdom the idea of voluntary slavery consistent with human dignity. The Son of God became the Suffering Servant. … The social implications of such a view are destructive of all ideologies of racial, national, cultural, religious or color identities. (p. 91)

But American society, by telling a man “from the cradle to the grave that he is not a man; when every facet of his life is made in some way to be a reminder that one is not a man; when the state and church both combine in their testimony that one is not a man,” either causes him to internalize this racism, foregoing all hope, or pushes him from “passivity to action” (p. 92). Rev. Oliver speaks frankly of the racism of the justice system, how murders of black men go unpunished or receive a slap on the wrist, while actions of black men, women, and children are retributed with violence and unjust and extreme sentencing.

Further, he argues, the revolution that the white men of Oliver’s day so feared and derided was of their own doing. They had relentlessly pushed men into this position.

It is hoped that a realization by the white man that the Negro is not by nature non-violent will restrain him from seeking to thwart completely the method of peaceful non-violent resistance so ably championed by Martin Luther King. The destruction of this method will not bring domestic tranquility to our borders but will prepare the way for an approach more in keeping with the American Revolution. Already the spirit of Nat Turner is showing signs of revival. (p. 93)

And not only was this non-peaceful revolution a domestic threat, but America’s civil rights abuses were of international concern. Though the movement was not begun by nor borne of communist ideology, the communist nations of the world were poised to capitalize on America’s hypocritical stance on liberty. Not only was the freedom of the individual black man at stake in this struggle, but the freedom of all men everywhere. “Our failure will contribute to the failure of freedom in other parts of the world. Their failure can in turn accelerate our own demise.”

In conclusion, Rev. Oliver writes,

It is always the duty of God’s people to be a light to the world. There are no considerations that can relieve us of this responsibility. Too often one hears from the white minister such sentiments as, “I know what ought to be done, but if I try to do anything I’ll get put out of my church and they will get an extremist.” This approach does not relieve the minister of his obligation to do what he knows he ought to do.

Nor is the honor of the church upheld by silence in the face of injustice, nor is the true church preserved by failure to do what it knows to be right. The church in Germany did not save itself by its silence in the face of Hitler’s budding inhumanities, but it might have saved Germany if it had preached without fear the biblical concepts of justice and righteousness in the church and in the state. We cannot preserve the church. That is God’s responsibility. Our task is to do what God requires of us-to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. (p. 94)

Presbyterian and Reformed Responses to Oliver’s Articles

Herbert Oliver had another powerful article published in the same July-August issue, largely discussing the meaning of “love thy neighbor” through the Parable of the Good Samaritan, including also a scathing rebuke of white men’s proclivity for women of darker hues—exposing the hypocrisy of their stated disdain for “amalgamation.” But I have focused predominantly on “The Church and Social Change,” not only in hope that its message would be received and translated into our own day, but more so that we might see what was being opposed in the issue published two months later.

The October 1964 issue of The Presbyterian Guardian included both an article in defense of segregation, by founding member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) Dr. Morton H. Smith, as well as eleven letters to the editor in response to Rev. Oliver’s articles. After reading through the entire issue, it seems clear to me that even the Guardian editors were shocked by the negative response. The issue contains a whole article wherein the editorial staff offers a defense of their decision to run Oliver’s articles. They write,

Questions have been raised as to whether the Presbyterian Guardian has departed from its original purpose and perhaps succumbed to leftist propaganda and advocacy of the ‘social’ gospel. Now these are serious allegations and deserve a straightforward answer. (p. 121)

Throughout the piece, “What We Are Trying to Do,” the editors defend the July-August issue’s intent, viz., to foster Christian dialog. They even refer to J. G. Machen’s own articles published in the Guardian over the years, wherein he discussed politics and the Church’s role in society, justifying their own determination to do the same. But they also acknowledge that the vast majority of letters received in response “expressed disagreement” (p. 129) with their decision.

[Note: As to what follows, it is my hope and assumption that these men ultimately repented of these views and I have no evidence to suggest otherwise.]

Morton Smith’s Defense of Segregation

In the October 1964 issue, we first read Dr. Morton H. Smith’s response to Oliver, “The Racial Problem Facing America”. To be honest, I find this piece detestable in so many ways. Smith attempts throughout to sound as though he is taking no hard stances, but merely offering food for thought; unfortunately, both the tenor and arguments of the piece betray this. (Yes, I am not a dispassionate observer; but you are free to read the article for yourself.)

Smith spends the first half of the article arguing from the cause of the Noahic Flood, the Tower of Babel, the Table of Nations, the calling of Abraham, the Mosaic administration, and the reforms of Ezra, to a “principle of separation” of the races that God had supposedly established and intended for mankind. Of Babel he writes,

If from this we may conclude that ethnic pluriformity is the revealed will of God for the human race in its present situation, it is highly questionable whether the Christian can have part in any program that would seek to erase all ethnic distinctions.

Of Abraham’s day, he writes,

It should be noted that this segregation of Abraham’s seed was done by God ultimately for the purpose of preserving their religious purity, yet it was accomplished by means of a racial or ethnic segregation.

Of Israel’s command not to intermarry, he writes that “[t]his was to preserve their racial integrity”; of Ezra’s reforms, he writes, “[a]fter the Exile, Ezra speaks again about maintaining their ethnic purity by not intermarrying with non-Israelites” (p. 126). Smith even recognizes that the New Testament teaches that there is “neither Jew, nor Greek,” but nevertheless argues that “Paul’s doctrine of the unity of the church should not be construed as teaching that the church should forget or erase the God-given distinctions. Rather, she should recognize them and develop them in their particular gifts.”

Smith goes on to state that he himself believes that “Negroes” and whites should worship together in the same churches, as they did in the days of slavery (!), but believes this practice was overthrown by blacks themselves along with Northern agitators:

The present writer feels that it would have been far better had separate churches never been established for the white and Negro races in the South following the War between the States. Before the war the slaves worshipped with their masters in the same churches. After the war, however, under the influence of Northern white leaders, the Negroes established separate congregations and went their separate way.

Now, we are faced with pressure from Northern whites and blacks to abolish a custom and pattern that has become fixed over the past century. (p. 127)

Further, he believes the Southern churches are quite welcoming to blacks; the real problem is that blacks simply refuse to sit in the sections allotted for “Negroes.” For Smith, this proves they are not actually there to worship anyhow, but only there to make a political point.

The fact is that most Southern white congregations would be willing to have Negroes attend, if they were coming for true worship, and would be willing to sit together. This has been the traditional pattern in the South, and it could be continued if it were not for the pressure groups seeking to integrate churches.

Most Christians throughout the rest of the nation and world are shocked to hear that Negroes are turned away from white churches in the South. The ground for this is the assumption that the reason for the coming of the Negro to the church today is not to worship, but rather to integrate and prove a point. That this is the case is shown by the fact that when offered segregated seating in the church, the Negroes refuse it. They insist that they should be allowed to enter and sit where they please. If they were truly interested in worship, it would seem that they would be willing to sit in any section provided for them.

He justifies this stance by a particularly rich inversion, turning the word of the Apostle James on its head:

It is hard to imagine Jesus exhibiting the spirit of the modern integrationist on this point. The fact is that Jesus taught a spirit of humility. He taught that one should take the lowest seat at a feast, and then if invited up to a higher, how much better than insisting on a higher and having to be sent to a lower place.

And as per usual, for Smith, this push for integration was likely the fruit of “Marxist philosophy, namely, the leveling of all to a common uniformity.”

Again, if diversity is God’s revealed way for mankind, one wonders about any program that advocates the intermarriage of the diverse races in a way which will eradicate the differences that God has established. (p. 127)

Morton Smith was willing to acknowledge that Southern separateness had not always been attended with equality, as he’d wished. But, according to Smith, this was only natural.

It should be remembered that this grows out of a particular historic circumstance. That circumstance was one of a relation of master to slave. Even after the freeing of the slaves it was only natural that there should still exist an inequality of development between the two races, and thus an inequality of treatment of the two.

As he concludes the piece, he makes sure to point out how the most segregated areas have the least crime and the most integrated have the most crime, “and the Negro race has played a leading part in this increase of crime.” But not matter, Smith was no racist; he, for his part has always “treat[ed] and shall treat any man as a Christian should, whether it be in a segregated of an integrated society.”

Finally, Smith closes with a little “gospel only”-ism:

Let me close with this thought. Our relations must be natural and Christian. No court or church can legislate our feelings toward our fellow man. Only as we receive the gift of love planted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit will we be able to love our neighbor as we ought, whatever the cultural pattern. May God grant us each a growth in grace and love, so that we each may manifest this love to our fellowman, unto the glory of our God. (p. 128)

“Letters on the Racial Question”

After Morton Smith’s piece, we move into a selection of letters received by the editors of the Guardian. I have only quoted some below—either because they were from notable authors or because the arguments typified the general objections. I also must note that I have only quoted the negative responses to Rev. Oliver, which were according to the editors the great majority, as my purpose is to assess the continued currency of these objections. So, as we read, I ask that we keep an eye to what has and has not changed in these objections and critiques from 1964 to today.

The first is from a Session of a Presbyterian church in Vienna, Va. (For those who don’t speak Presbyterian, a “session” is a local church’s body of elders.)

The Session of Grace Church does not approve the illogical, unwise, historically inaccurate, and unscriptural statements contained in the articles by Herbert Oliver . . . (on these) grounds:

  1. To attribute injustice toward Negroes to “white man” without making any distinctions is unwarranted overgeneralization and therefore illogical (p. 90, col. 2; p. 92, col. 1).
  2. To mention the names and programs of a communist such as W. E. Dubois or a theological liberal such as Martin Luther King with approval, and to fail to point out their true identity is unwise (p. 91, col. 1; p. 93, col. 1).
  3. To say that the situation and activities of John Calvin are truly analogous to the present social conflict in the U.S. is historically inaccurate (p. 90, col. 1).
  4. To say that civil disobedience of laws which are unjust to or discriminate against certain segments of the population is morally right in the sight of God, and is either commanded or permitted by Him, is unscriptural (p. 90, col. 1).

Session shall place a copy of the above in each copy of the July-August issue of the Guardian and send one to the editor.

The next is a selection from a letter by Reformed Old Testament scholar and noted Westminster Theological Seminary professor E. J. Young (1907-1968):

In our desire to make all men welcome in the church there is one fact that must not be overlooked. Men are not equal. There is danger of embracing the modern political doctrine of egalitarianism, a doctrine which is thoroughly unscriptural. Whether we like it or not, it is a fact that men do associate with their own kind of people. Surely we should welcome and embrace in Christian love all of God’s people, whatever their race or nationality, who wish to worship in our churches. But they on their part must want to worship with us and they too must want to associate with us. The past history of our Glenside Church shows what a blessed thing it can be when Negro and White Christians wish to worship voluntarily together.

Unless, however, there is true love and desire for fellowship on the part of both we shall have a forced relationship. Hence, I question very much the wisdom of any attempts to “integrate” the church. Making our Negro brethren in Christ welcome when they voluntarily come to worship with us is one thing; seeking to attempt integration for the sake of a witness may do more harm than good.

… Lastly, I am troubled by the great amount of space devoted to the question of civil rights and race relations in the latest issue of the Guardian. These are not the paramount issues before the church today. In the dense fog of obfuscation which the liberal press has succeeded in raising even true Christians may lose sight of the church’s central purpose. That central purpose is the preaching of the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ. Scripture makes clear that a Christian should do good unto all men, especially to those who are of the household of faith. He who preaches the gospel in its fulness (including the obligations of Christians to others) is doing more for Negro and White than can possibly be accomplished by any method which in giving rights to one may take them away from another.

The next is from Rev. Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001), founder of the Christian Reconstructionism movement:

The Presbyterian Guardian this year shows signs of outdoing the UPUSA Presbyterian Life in its social gospel preaching. The racist articles of C. Herbert Oliver are examples of this. There are two kinds of racism. First, there is the exaltation of one race above others as inherently virtuous, divine, great, or the like. Second, there is the exaltation of humanity as a race and a demand that we identify ourselves with all men as one people. Oliver is of this second type. He asks us so to exalt humanity, and states, “The truly secure personality has identified with all creation and with God through Christ.”

These two forms of racism are both to be rejected as well as their legal safeguards. The first form demands legalized segregation; the second form of racism demands legalized integration. Both deny Christian liberty and the right of free association. …

Oliver reads the Scriptures and the Reformation in terms of “an insistence on the value of the individual,” “the doctrine of the intrinsic worth of the individual,” and similar statements, and regards the French Revolution with approval. This is rather the Enlightenment faith and 19th Century religious liberalism, not the Reformation faith in the sovereignty of God and justification by faith.

The test of the Reformed faith is theocentric, in terms of the sovereignty of God and the infallible Word. The test of modernistic faith is always drawn from humanitarian ethics, and the current test is race, not Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, The Presbyterian Guardian has of late been busy citing one or another of the humanitarian and liberal shibboleths as “tests” rather than the Word and the Confession. Was it for this that Machen fought?

And last, the following are selections from five letters written by ministers and laymen within the Reformed and Presbyterian landscape of 1964:

… I protest that a careful study of Jesus’ words indicates that He did not invade the sphere of civil government. A study of the Christian Church over the centuries shows that its power is not in social action but in spiritual transformation.

… The evolutionary humanists devoted to the worship of man and knowing only the social gospel are not the ones to do our thinking for us! They try to be the guiding force locally and it was through their intense activity on the level of the American Congress that the Civil Rights bill was passed. The Lord’s people should be more securely and surely led of His Spirit than to meddle in even an apparently, on the surface, righteous cause which does carry dynamite for the future.

… Apparently many present day Christians have been overwhelmed by the flood of humanistic socialistic propaganda of this man-worshipping day. …

Brother, it isn’t our job to try to establish a condition of heaven on this present earth even if the majority of so-called Christians have decided to take over and create utopia on earth. … On the personal level for the real Christian there can never be any trouble in the race area. As we proclaim the Gospel and add salt and light thereby to the multitudes we are doing all that we should aspire to.

  1. J. HOUSE, Bible Presbyterian Church (E. P.), Lemmon, South Dakota

“Some persons seem not to know what is going on in our country, while others are fearful that Communists are the cause of the present social revolution” (p. 91 of Guardian).

“The Communist Party must consider itself not only the Party of the working class generally, but also the champion of the Negroes as an oppressed race and especially the organizer of the Negro working class elements.” “It is the basic duty of the Communist Party to develop all revolutionary possibilities of the Negro race, to transform the ‘solid south’ and the ‘black belt’ from reserves of forces for the bourgeoisie into reserves of forces for the proletariat” (Stalin). .’The Communists must participate in all national liberation movements of the Negro which have a real mass character.”-from “American Negro Problems” by John Pappes: Workers Library NO.9, Publishers, 35 E. 125th St., New York.

Indeed, some people do not seem to know what is going on.

RICHARD G. DEEMER, Springfield, Va.

I was truly sorry to read the recent July-August edition.

… There is such a conglomeration of fact and fancy, truth and error, that the net result is fogged in confusion. How is it that a Christian may do evil that good may come? Is this not the reasoning which leads to an approval of civil disobedience? Though these articles are not given to much scriptural interpretation it is a shame that the message of Philemon is so obviously misapplied.

The few points that are made in these articles seem to be drawn largely from a humanitarian ethic rather than from the divine ethic.

… If this is a Holy War let us not fight it in Saul’s armor but, if it is not, let us slay the giant that says it is.

REV. MICHAEL D. STINGLEY, Los Angeles, Calif.

As I see it, the question of integration/segregation is a political, not a moral question; if I am correct, the church as church dare not side with either side lest it exceed its proper function as a spiritual power. I would hope that space would be allotted to someone who can do full justice to all the factors involved in the conviction of so many Southern Christians that segregation is not only necessary, but right, in the political realm.

May I point out some defects in Mr. Oliver’s presentation that a periodical of your reputation should have deleted: 1) an oath; “1 say before God and the holy angels” (p. 89); 2) the equation of publicity-seeking trouble makers with the cause of Christ: “In a very real sense, Jesus has been put in jail” (p. 89); 3) advocacy of civil disobedience where disobedience to God is not involved (p. 90); 4) reference to a communist as a champion of freedom: W. E. DuBois (p. 91); 5) attacks upon the forces of law and order: “vicious dogs, fire hoses, billy sticks and cattle prods, lawless policemen” (p. 92); 6) the implication that what is at stake in the matter of race is only skindeep: “on the basis of skin color or hair texture” (p. 97); 7) an attack on an equitable and just solution to the problem: “The worst form of inhumanity is to be found within the framework of apartheid” (p. 97); finally, and most repulsive of all, Oliver’s attack on the entire South, and also on the white race, charging it with consorting with colored women. …

DAVID W. MOORE, Brandon Presbyterian Church, Brandon, Miss.

The whole article revolves around the injustices done to the Negroes, as has been typical of practically all who have attempted to remedy the situation. … Mr. Oliver never mentions any duties or responsibilities that his race has toward others, only the shortcomings of others.

CHARLES M. SPOONER, JR., Leisure City, Florida

And though this letter did not appear until the December 1964 issue, I will nevertheless quote it here since it so ably represents the worst of the responses:

Dear Sir:

During the history of Christianity in our country there have been three forms of the social gospel which Satan has effectively used to create apostasy and schism. A hundred years ago the country was plagued with the social gospel of abolitionism; fifty years ago it was the social gospel of prohibitionism; today it is the social gospel of integrationism that is rending asunder the Protestant churches.

Our Southern Presbyterian Church is in deep trouble because of theological and sociological liberalism, and a dreaded division seems imminent. Many of us Calvinists have looked with favor toward the OPC because of its stalwart defense of the faith.

But now to see you turn a whole double issue of the Guardian over to integrationist propaganda has appalled us. Has this unwise procedure sounded the death-knell to the growth and development of the OP Church in the South?

JOHN H. KNIGHT, Opelika, Alabama


So why write such a long article, with so many quotes, recounting a mere three-month period of a lone Presbyterian magazine? Answer: because we, as a Church, need to see that the opposition has not changed much in the last fifty years. Sure, few would now actively support a re-introduction of segregation as it existed in 1964; but do we not also see the many similarities and parallels?

Then and now folks believe it is only natural for there to be racial inequalities. Then and now folks believe it is only natural for people to prefer to worship with their “own kind.” Then and now Thornwell and Machen’s view of the “Spirituality of the Church” allows folks to argue that racialization is a political question, not a matter of the Church’s social responsibility. Then and now the movement for Racial Reconciliation is treated as a Marxist, “liberal,” plot rather than a Biblical imperative. Then and now advocates of racial justice are accused of exchanging the true gospel for a social gospel. Then and now folks blame black Americans for the vast and demonstrable economic and social disparities. Then and now black Americans are the real people to blame for segregated churches. Then and now it is black Americans who are considered violent criminal agitators with no respect for the law. In fact, then and now it is black Americans who are the real racists. In short, then and now it is black Americans who are themselves responsible for the ecclesial separateness and social ills confronting the black community, and it is they who must either learn to stay in their lane or assimilate if we are ever to have lasting “peace”; anything else is considered “divisive.”

The similarities between the arguments I’ve engaged in this very week and the arguments C. Herbert Oliver was forced to engage in fifty years ago cannot be ignored. This struggle is not new. It was not born of a conference held in March of 2018. To be perfectly clear, in much too many ways, the state of the debate in conservative evangelicalism has not significantly changed in half a century, despite what the John MacArthurs and James Whites of our day might argue. And if these arguments were used to defend open racism and segregation in the church, should we be surprised that they would be employed to defend the more subtle, color-blind, systemic racism of our own day?

To conclude, I think today, November 26, 2018, we can still give a full throated “Amen” to this last letter written fifty years ago:

Thank you for your July-August issue, particularly the publication of addresses by Mr. Oliver and the article by James White. I deeply appreciate the stand in your editorial. I only pray that it hasn’t come too late. I feel like shouting: Listen, white America! Heed the warning so candidly, yet lovingly given, while there is still time, if there is still time.

MRS. WAYNE BRAUNING, Philadelphia, Pa.

[For further edification, I suggest reading the letters to the editor in the December 1964 issue as well, specifically Joan Brauning’s (p. 163) and Rev. Oliver’s own response to the October letters (p. 162). Additionally, please see “Reflections on Reactions,” by Robert K. Morris, in the January 1965 issue (pp. 11-12).]

8 thoughts on “Then & Now: The Conservative Presbyterian Race Debate in 1964

  1. E. Calvin Beisner November 28, 2018 / 10:32 am

    Thanks for posting this article. It documents well the sad, sad moral confusion and self-contradiction of some of our Presybyterian forefathers, which should serve as a strong warning to all of us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. It drives me to the question, “Where are my own moral self-contradictions?” If men so brilliant as Machen, Rushdoony, Smith, etc., could make errors that are so obvious in retrospect, how can any of us assume infallibility for ourselves? This points to the need for constant self-examination in light of Scripture, every word of which, thank God, is God-breathed and profitable for reproof, rebuke, correction, and instruction in righteousness, that the man of God man be thoroughly equipped for every good work. And as we hope that others will be gracious and forgiving toward us for our failings, whether they become apparent today or not for another half century, so also let us be gracious and forgiving toward our forebears in the faith. Jesus came to save sinners, not the righteous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brad Mason November 28, 2018 / 3:05 pm

      Hello, brother.

      Thank you for reading and commenting! I very much agree with what you have said. I only become concerned when such statements become justifications, but I don’t think that is at all what you are saying. Also, there were many at the time telling them they were in sin. Warfield argued with Machen over segregation, but Machen only thought lesser of Warfield as a result. Oliver himself was an OPC minister trying to make the case, as well as James B White in the same issue, and the several letters also in support of Oliver and the editors themselves. There have always been those who have vigorously contended against slavery, segregation, and racism, just as with every other sin.

      Thank you again!


  2. Samuel Choi February 18, 2019 / 6:05 pm

    I really appreciate the “long” article with all the quotes. The part I particularly liked was the mention of the Greek cultural ideals being embedded in the Western Christianity. The Constantine Christianity has cultivated more of “philosopher-king” ideal of God’s kingdom on earth and failed to embody the “prophetic, priestly, and kingly” offices of Christ that is apostolic and amillennial (or already and not yet kingdom of God on earth). I am indebted to your “prophetic” work of diligently documenting and investigating the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sue April 28, 2020 / 2:42 pm

    When and where was Grace Presbyterian in Vienna, VA??!! NOW Vienna is rather prestigious and maybe snooty, more open, forward thinking in some ways, politically correct and such. But in any year it was normal to use the word negro it was rather a nowheresville, too far from DC to be important or have 2presbyterian churches. So enlighten me about my hometown.


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