How have deeply held religious beliefs inspired action to confront racial divisions, lift up the disadvantaged and disenfranchised and create a more equitable America? Can stories from history inspire us to continue this work today?
A six-part webinar series, “Religious Resolve: Stories from Our Past, for Our Future,” by the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum, responded to these questions. The series featured historical narratives of people of religious resolve who put their faith into action for the benefit of others between 1710 and 1965. Some were well known; many were not.
Each program highlighted the beliefs and actions of individuals and the series invited questions about the social and civic supports around the actions of these individuals.
Four themes can be observed from our series — each a manifestation of religious expression at the larger community level:
Religious organizations provided the educational foundation for action.
During and after the American Civil War, religious organizations stepped up to form schools and colleges to provide African Americans with educational resources largely prohibited during slavery. Some of these faith-based initiatives laid the foundation for the historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) system of today.
- Emma France Landcaster, born enslaved in South Carolina, was educated behind Union lines in Arkansas during the Civil War at an orphan’s asylum established by Quakers. The school later expanded to become the nation’s first HBCU, Southland College, from which she graduated.
- Alice L.T. Waytes attended Benedict College in South Carolina and Shaw University in North Carolina, both established with the support of the American Baptist Home Mission, which had been engaged since the end of the Civil War in educating formerly enslaved children and adults.
- Francis and Archibald Grimké attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, a college for African Americans founded by the Presbyterians. The education they received there prepared them for graduate work at Princeton and Harvard and future leadership roles in religion and law.
- Some of the individuals featured in the Religious Resolve series became educators and education advocates themselves, using their skills and passions to expand the knowledge and sharpen the skills of African Americans.
- Charlotte Hawkins Brown, a North Carolina native educated in Cambridge, returned to her home state at the urging of the American Missionary Society, which supported her founding the Palmer Memorial Institute for African American students. The society, established by a biracial association of Congregationalists and Presbyterians, helped found Howard, Fisk, Hampton and other historically Black universities.
- Education was a top priority for many of the 33 African Americans elected to the Georgia legislature during Reconstruction, and their advocacy helped drive the adoption of public education in the state. Two dozen of these men were ministers, who worked together to leverage their influence nationally and in Georgia.
- There is no discounting the importance of non-formal education in preparing individuals to effectively exercise their religious resolve. The Rev. Joe Carter and other Louisiana pastors received extensive training from the Congress of Racial Equality, a pacifist organization founded in part by faith leaders inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. This training empowered them to navigate the institutionalized system of voter suppression in Louisiana, opening doors to the franchise for those who had been locked out.
Church women formed associations of support.
Women’s clubs and associations — popular and on the rise during the late 1800s and early 1900s in America — provided a platform for several of the women activists featured in our series.
- Alice L.T. Waytes, for example, undertook a remarkable speaking tour between 1912 and 1916, traveling to at least 12 states and the District of Columbia. Many of her engagements were sponsored by local women’s church groups who shared her passion for suffrage, the rights of women and girls and the Christian social gospel.
- Emma France Landcaster, an African American Quaker in Portland, Oregon, expressed her religious resolve through leadership in women’s clubs and organizations, including suffrage and temperance organizations outside her own denomination, founded by women of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME), AME Zion and Baptist churches.
- For the benefit of the Palmer Memorial Institute, which she founded, Congregationalist Charlotte Hawkins Brown formed relationships across lines of color, class and faith in North Carolina and other states. Her religious resolve also took her to leadership positions within the national YWCA and the North Carolina Chapter of the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.
- In a world of gender inequalities, women of the Black church provided far more energy and support in the broader struggle than has been recognized. For example, The Rev. Henry McNeal Turner and other African American legislators expelled from their seats in Georgia worked hard to regain their positions and advocate for the rights of African Americans in the state. But behind the scenes, the hard work organizing and mobilizing the community was done by women of the Black church.
Personal relationships with others of faith were vitally important.
Although individual initiative was critical to the lives of the individuals we honored, almost all of them relied on relationships with others for inspiration, influence and support. Some of these relationships were built within religious organizations, but some were not.
- There was power and influence in the relationship between The Rev. Richard Allen and The Rev. Absalom Jones in Philadelphia, the city with the largest free African American population in the new republic in 1793. Together these religious leaders formed the Free African Society and the Society for the Suppression of Vice and Immorality. Outspoken and grounded in faith, Rev. Allen became the first bishop of the African American Episcopal Church. Rev. Jones became the first African American priest ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church.
- Relationships between pastors advancing a common cause proved essential in two of the Religious Resolve narratives. The Rev. Henry McNeal Turner and the 24 ministers who comprised the majority of African American legislators in Georgia during Reconstruction worked together to advance their rights and the rights of other African Americans during Reconstruction. In Louisiana in the 1960s, The Rev. Joe Carter relied on other local pastors as allies and co-activists as he became the first African American in his parish to successfully overcome multiple obstacles to voting in the Jim Crow South.
- It was by accident that the Quaker Grimké sisters discovered the three sons their brother had fathered by an enslaved woman, Nancy Weston. Although betrayed by other family members, Nancy Weston’s sons were able to escape slavery and, assisted financially by their aunts, gain a good education. The middle son, The Rev. Francis Grimké, traveled in circles that included African American intellectuals W.E.B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson. The Grimké sisters — abolitionists and suffragists — were associates of William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott and John Greenleaf Whittier.
Religious expression was amplified by other freedoms of the First Amendment.
From the 18th century until today, individuals have relied on all five of the First Amendment freedoms to effectively put their faith into action. They exercised their religious principles, values and beliefs in the public square through free speech, the press, the right to assemble and to petition the government. Below are a few examples from the Religious Resolve series.
- In response to false accusations made against members of the Free African Society, The Revs. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones wrote, published and widely distributed a powerful pamphlet challenging sanctioned racism toward the free African American community — an early exercise in free speech through the advocacy press. Also during the 1790s, soon after the First Amendment was ratified, Jones and Allen became the first African Americans to petition the US Congress — albeit unsuccessfully. Their cause: an end to slavery.
- The Black press in cities of the East and Midwest of the early 1900s supported the mission of Alice L.T. Waytes by promoting her speaking engagements with the flowery enthusiasm of the day, making her something of a celebrity for the causes she represented, helping local church and social uplift groups assemble crowds to hear her speak.
- Sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké exercised their right to speak out on abolition, women’s suffrage and other social concerns through engagements with groups assembled for that purpose and through widely-distributed pamphlets addressed to religious leaders. Their letters were featured in William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator.
- AME Rev. Henry McNeal Turner, one of the 33 Georgia legislators expelled because of their color, was an active petitioner of the U.S. government on issues including reparations, voting rights and justice for African Americans. He was able to take advantage of groups assembled through the Colored Conventions movement of the day to build momentum for these issues.
- The Rev. Francis Grimké took his sermons from the pulpit to paper, printing and widely distributing copies of religious entreaties on race relations. He wrote open letters to President Woodrow Wilson, petitioning the executive for civil and human rights.
- When Unitarians The Rev. Jim Reeb and Viola Liuzzo responded to the call from The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and others to come to Selma, Ala., to help protesters after Bloody Sunday, they were exercising their freedom to assemble, to speak out and to petition the government. Although their murders were reported to the nation through a free press, it was a 21st-century media form that widely disseminated Rev. Reeb’s story decades later: the podcast.
One of the more interesting stories in the program series revolved around the relationship between The Rev. Cotton Mather and the enslaved Onesimus Mather. From 1706 until 1716, Rev. Mather tried instruction, persuasion and pressure to convert Onesimus to Christianity — a Christianity that promised heavenly salvation but justified slavery on earth. Onesimus resisted. It would take more than 150 years for enslaved Africans in Colonial America and their descendants to have a Constitutionally-protected right to exercise the religion of their choosing. But, like Onesimus, many never relinquished their freedom of conscience.
Education, religious groups and organizations, individual relationships, First Amendment freedoms: these provided the tools that enabled individuals in our series to effectively exercise their religious resolve. But ultimately, the energy source that enabled them to do what they did resided not outside them, but in a deep inner commitment shaped and nurtured by their religious beliefs. Without this inner resolve, they would not have been able to sustain faith-in-action in the face of the considerable obstacles of their day.
Writing in 1794, The Rev. Richard Allen and The Rev. Absalom Jones knew well the imperative of individual resolve in the face of social division and inequities:
“Ye Ministers, that are call’d to preaching,
Teachers, and exhorters too;
Awake! behold your harvest wasting!
Arise! there is no rest for you.”
Their challenge was intended for religious leaders of the late 18th century, but it compels us to action still today.
Blair Forlaw is a contractor for the Religious Freedom Center’s Leadership for a Multi-Faith Democracy Project.