In the years before the Civil War, the major evangelical denominations divided into regional factions based in part upon their views of human enslavement. The DNA of each new Southern denominational tradition was imprinted with racism, casting a long shadow over their subsequent development.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was formed under these circumstances in 1845, and for most of its history, the Southern part was at least as important to the Convention’s identity as the Baptist part. Southern Baptists were a thoroughly white denomination that, for the most part, accepted and often defended the white supremacist status quo.
There were dissenters within the SBC who rejected the racist assumptions of their tradition and encouraged a more prophetic posture against racial segregation. Arguably, the most prominent among them was T. B. Maston (1897–1988), who taught ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1925 until a coerced retirement in 1963, occasioned by his views on race. Maston wrote widely on ethical topics, but one of the driving concerns of his ministry was advocating a biblical view of race that would undermine Jim Crow and ultimately lead to a holistic integration between Black and white communities.
Maston was no mere theorist. He modeled his views on race in his call for desegregating Southwestern Seminary and his personal relationships with Black seminarians. His writings and actions inspired two generations of denominational activists against racism, including pastors, missionaries, and professors.
Three levels of integration
In his new book, Integration: Race, T. B. Maston, and the Hope for the Desegregated Church, Paul J. Morrison offers a detailed study of Maston’s views and their influence. Morrison, who is provost at Emmaus Theological Seminary in Cleveland, argues that Maston was not merely concerned with ending segregation in the South, though he certainly longed for legal desegregation.
Based on his understanding of Scripture, Maston believed that the biblical ideal was racial integration, rooted in biblical teachings on the image of God and the reconciling work of Christ in his death and resurrection. Maston articulated his biblical vision of integration in numerous articles and pamphlets, as well as three key books: Of One: A Study of Christian Principles and Race Relations (1946), The Bible and Race (1959), and Segregation and Desegregation: A Christian Approach (1959).
Morrison identifies several key themes in Maston’s criticisms of racism. He rooted his ethical assertions in key biblical principles about humanity and reconciliation. He argued exegetically against the Scriptural arguments advanced by segregationists. He also applied his ideas about race to missionary efforts. This approach was important in winning over Southern Baptists, a denominational tradition that was thoroughly Bible-centered and committed to evangelism and missions.
At a more conceptual level, Maston affirmed an implicit version of deontological virtue ethics, a school of thought proposing that certain actions are morally obligated, regardless of the consequences. For him, that meant emphasizing the importance of both biblical propositions and cultivated virtues, of obeying God’s commands and reflecting God’s character. He was averse to simplistic dichotomies in the Christian life, believing that Scripture mandated a both/and posture toward many thorny questions, like whether Christians should emphasize personal evangelism or social activism. He was always in search of “third way” options rooted in Scripture and its implications.
At the heart of Maston’s racial thinking was the conviction that integration, rather than desegregation, was the biblical ideal. Following Maston, Morrison outlines three levels of integration. Believers should first seek to integrate their interpersonal relationships. This should be motivated by the biblical principles of human dignity, based on the image of God, and love of neighbor. This first step is prerequisite to all others.
Morrison also champions an integrated Baptist academy. He laments the relative lack of minority professors at SBC-related seminaries. While Morrison rejects a mandated affirmative-action policy, he does commend a principled effort to intentionally hire professors from different ethnic backgrounds. He further champions the integration of racially diverse voices into seminary curricula, along with strategic initiatives to recruit minority students.
The final level, after personal relationships and seminary life, is integrating churches themselves. Morrison rejects many common approaches to integration as simplistic or inappropriate. Examples include tokenism (which achieves only surface-level representation), cultural appropriation of minority practices, and majority pressuring of ethnic minorities to assimilate to the majority’s preferences. Instead, Morrison calls for deliberately cultivating more substantive ethnic representation in both church and denominational leadership, resulting in a more holistic integration.
Morrison is not afraid to critique Maston on some points. Most notably, he notes that Maston argued against interracial marriage, not on racist grounds, but because he believed it was unwise in the cultural climate of his day. Morrison believes Maston could have been more consistently prophetic on this point. He also raises the question of whether Maston held to biblical inerrancy, deciding that the answer is unclear. His protégés fell on both sides of the inerrancy question, though most of them sided with the more progressive “moderates” when Southern Baptists debated the issue in the latter two decades of the 20th century.
Regardless of his views, Maston definitely affirmed a high view of biblical authority and made explicitly biblical arguments to persuade Southern Baptists. As David Roach argues in another recent book, The Southern Baptist Convention & Civil Rights, 1954–1995: Conservative Theology, Segregation, and Change, it was just these sorts of theologically conservative arguments against segregation, rooted in biblical exegesis, that persuaded Southern Baptists to gradually reject racial animus and publicly renounce their racist past in 1995.
The ‘third way’ we need
One lingering question, after reading the book, is whether historically Black churches should embrace integrated congregations. Morrison is writing for a mostly white evangelical audience. While many predominantly white churches are eager to pursue greater ethnic diversity, many African American believers argue that the unique history and emphases of the Black church tradition should not be so quickly abandoned. Whereas Black churches should not harbor racial animus toward whites or exclude them from their memberships, it is not at all clear that they bear the same burden of integration as white churches, which in some cases banned Black believers from joining.
Integration is a helpful introduction to Maston’s views on race and their implications for contemporary Christians. The book is not a strictly historical study, but rather an exercise in applied history. Morrison is himself an ethicist, so his aim is to commend Maston’s approach to Scripture-driven integration to contemporary Southern Baptists and other predominantly white evangelical churches. Many evangelicals will find the book helpful as they seek to navigate racial tensions faithfully during a season when racial animus is arguably more pronounced than at any time since the height of the civil rights movement.
At the very least, many readers will be encouraged to learn more about the views of a scholar-activist who can help us avoid the errors of both right-wing colorblindness and progressive antiracism. That is exactly the sort of biblically motivated third way we need for such a time as this.
Nathan Finn is provost of North Greenville University. He is a co-author of The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement.