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A conversation with Edward J. Robinson

AUTHOR, SCHOLAR  details unique aspects of black church history, culture and ongoing challenges

Religious faith, ministry and ethnic heritage are deeply woven into Edward Robinson’s life. He has ministered for churches in Greenwood, Miss., and Urbana, Ill., and now preaches for the North Tenth and Treadaway church in Abilene, Texas.
The author of five books on race and religion and 15 scholarly articles on the subject, Robinson teaches and lectures extensively. He is regarded as a leading scholar on ethnicity and religion in America.
Robinson has worked for better understanding of the African-American heritage among Churches of Christ and for stronger ties among all congregations.
Robinson holds a dual professorship at Abilene Christian University as assistant professor of Bible and American history. He is a graduate of Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas, and holds advanced degrees from Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tenn., and the University of Illinois. He earned a doctorate from Mississippi State University.
He and his wife, Toni, have three daughters: Clarice, 19; Ashley, 18; and Erika,16.

Why are Churches of Christ still largely segregated?
We don’t know each other because we have not committed ourselves to making time to get to know each other. On the one hand, lack of knowledge of other peoples breeds suspicion, fear and hatred. On the other hand, knowledge of other people fosters appreciation, trust and love.
Have any Churches of Christ made progress in integrating?
Some have definitely made much progress, but there is much more work to be done.
The Holmes Road Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn., with its racially mixed leadership and membership stands out, in my opinion, as a community of believers committed to God and to ministering to all peoples.
Many black churches seem to prefer remaining predominantly black. Why?
Because some black congregations want to maintain control of how they worship and how they conduct their affairs. Many black churches are comfortable with their “freedom” and independence.
I remember sitting in a business meeting as a little boy with my grandfather, and it was interesting to me that some of the brothers voiced their desire to run their own affairs. Most people don’t like being pushed out of their comfort zone.
Help us understand some of the unique aspects of black church culture.
W.E.B. Du Bois, in his classic work “The Souls of Black Folk,” noted that enslaved Africans brought three gifts to the New World — the gift of labor, the gift of song and the “frenzy” or the gift of the Spirit.
African-Americans survived slavery and segregation because of their faith in God. One way African-Americans expressed their faith was by praising God amid dark and dismal circumstances. There is nothing like a black worship service when people are “free” to lift up their voices and praise God uninhibitedly.
The black church helped birth hope into the hearts of black people. African-Americans who know Jesus have learned that “troubles don’t last always” and that the Lord “didn’t bring us this far to leave us now.”
Regardless of how difficult times are, there are “brighter days ahead.” This hope and optimism pervade most black congregations.
I grew up in an African-American Church of Christ in Jacksonville, Texas, and I have ministered in black congregations in Neches, Texas, Greenwood, Miss., and Champaign-Urbana, Ill. While there are some stark regional and theological differences in black congregations, there are many prevalent similarities. The black congregations I worked with in Texas and Mississippi were committed to worshiping God according to Scripture, rigidly stressed “the plan of salvation” and were deeply interested in impacting their communities for Christ.
These issues were important for black Christians in Illinois, but I noticed that our worship services there tended to be more emotionally expressive and celebratory.
From your research, what insights have you gained regarding black church history?
Black church history is complex and complicated. There is no monolithic black religious experience. Just as there were divisions among black Methodists, Baptists, and Pentecostals, the same held true for black Churches of Christ.
G. P. Bowser and his cohorts charted a different path from Marshall Keeble and his proteges. Even though Keeble did not openly contest segregation, some of his “boys” such as Fred Gray, Franklin Florence, Floyd Rose and Arthur Lee Smith Jr. (now Molefi Kete Asante) did.
Black pioneering preachers were both courageous and committed to God. Samuel Robert Cassius, Marshall Keeble, G.P. Bowser and others often put their lives in harm’s way to advance the “pure gospel.” They were not in it for the money. They loved God and the souls of men.
The story of black Churches of Christ is much larger than Keeble and Bowser. I am astonished that very few people in Churches of Christ — black and white — know anything about Samuel Robert Cassius (1853-1931), who converted to the Stone-Campbell movement about 1883 and worked in Oklahoma from 1891 until 1922 as an evangelist, educator, Justice of the Peace, postmaster, writer and intellectual. Cassius was on the battlefield long before Bowser and Keeble entered the fray.
While slavery remains an unpleasant topic, one cannot understand the origins of black Churches of Christ in the United States without examining the subject, since many of the earliest leaders — including Samuel Robert Cassius, Samuel W. Womack (Marshall Keeble’s father-in-law) and Alexander “Cleveland” Campbell were all formerly enslaved Africans.
Many pioneering black leaders brought cultural baggage into Churches of Christ, and I mean this in a positive sense.
For example, G.P. Bowser and Annie C. Tuggle were both former Methodists; therefore, they brought their thirst for knowledge from Methodism into Churches of Christ. The push for religious education and religious journalism came from such committed Christians.
What do people need to understand about African-American churches?
There is richness and variety among black churches, especially Churches of Christ. They are not all the same. Some are more emotionally subdued and reserved in their worship services. Others are not. Some have vibrant outreach ministries. Others do not. The differences often depend largely on the kind of preacher and leaders the churches have.
I’m not saying this is an altogether good thing or bad thing. But it is a fact that in most African-American congregations, the black preacher is viewed as “the leader” or “the point man.” This is more a cultural practice than a biblical one.
In West Africa, the priest was often viewed as a healer, politician and community leader. In antebellum America, the black preacher replaced the West African priest. Many black preachers in post-Civil War America, such as Henry M. Turner, Blanche K. Bruce and Hiram Revels, functioned as “preacher-politicians.”
And it’s no accident that the civil rights movement was born in the black church and that its leaders — Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis and Fred Shuttlesworth — were also in many ways “preacher-politicians.”

  • Feedback
    So interesting. . .I’m going to read this again and chew on these ideas. This article reminds me of my visit Jan 2007 to Oceanside Calif when I simply picked a congregation out of the telephone book and went there. I was surprised that the congregation was mostly African-American and I was certainly in the minority. Still, several hours later when it was time to go, I could hardly bear to leave. I kept thinking, I could be right at home in this lovely, lively congregation. And now when I look at a map of California, I think of dear Christian brothers and sisters there in Oceanside.
    January, 20 2009

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