Richmond's Priests and Prophets in the 1950s: White Ministers and Congregations Struggle with Racial Change

Thompson, Douglas Eugene, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Warren, Heather, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

A photograph taken shortly after the fall of Richmond to Federal forces in 1865 revealed numerous church spires in the city. This city of churches, as community boosters referred to Richmond, had held two identities in tenuous balance: religion as a pervading ethos and slavery as a God-ordained institution. However, with Richmond in ruins, the Confederacy a memory, and slavery abolished, white religious Richmonders struggled to understand the demise of the Confederacy in God's divine providence. From the end of the Civil War to well into the twentieth-century, white Richmonders, along with whites across the South, labored to reconfigure a society based on white supremacy. Religion and race mattered deeply to white Christians in Richmond in complex and contradictory ways. By the 1950s, white Christians had compartmentalized their lives – an outgrowth of the modern tendency to separate life into private and public functions – with regard to both religion and race. While some Christians saw direct connections between their private convictions and public actions and were able to integrate those areas into a comprehensive vision of faith influencing social contexts, others shielded one aspect of their life from another – decoupling religious thought from its social context. Such tension created numerous divisions within denominations. The theologies of race that evolved during Virginia's massive resistance campaign revealed the ways white Christians connected theology and practice to the contested category of race. The tensions between the prophetic and priestly impulses limited how white iii congregations in Richmond engaged desegregation in both public schools and churches. By recognizing the varied responses as authentic representations of faith, this study expands our understanding of the way churches encountered social crises.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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