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What Kind of Christianity? A History of Slavery and Anti-Black Racism in the Presbyterian Church

Written by William Yoo | Reviewed by Jennifer Morgan

In this well-researched and timely book, Dr. Yoo provides a necessary insight into the complicity of most Presbyterians (in both the north and the south) during the long years of slavery in the colonies and the United States. Many, including myself, do not know our history as Americans and Presbyterians well enough to be truly honest about this complicity. In a time when there are those trying to limit the teaching of only positive views of our past to our children, this book is a valuable lesson. How can we understand systemic racism and work to make change if we have not come to terms with this past and acknowledged it? Understanding this history helps us understand how deeply embedded racial injustice has been throughout the history of our country and our church.

The title of the book “What Kind of Christianity?” is taken from the words of Katie Geneva Cannon, the first Black American woman to be ordained in the United Presbyterian Church in the USA (1974). She was asking where the church and Christians were during slavery, Jim Crow and lynchings, etc. This question is one we should all ask, even though the answer is very tough to hear.

Dr. Yoo divides his book in three parts: “The Tragedy,” “The Indictment,” and “The Reckoning.” He describes the cruelty of slavery in painful detail in Part I, as well as quoting the many white Christians who defended and perpetuated the inhumane system. It is painful and difficult reading. In “The Indictment”, the author describes the efforts to reform Christianity to fit the economic and social desires of the time. The “inferiority” of Black people was emphasized by the church as well. My jaw just kept dropping as thoughts of a “Racially Segregated Theology of Liberation” were declared. Of course, the Presbyterian leaders in this period were as invested economically in the system as most everyone else, and this twisting of the Gospel was necessary to maintain the status quo. Thus, in Part III, “The Reckoning," Dr. Woo finds that there is no white fragility in America during this time and writes about the compliance of Presbyterians to the anti-black racist system.

Please do not let the subject matter deter you from reading this book. If it makes us uncomfortable, then that is good; perhaps it will spur us on to becoming a real Matthew 25 church! It is, after all, a piece of history we should know. There are copies of the book in our church library.

We will be blessed by having Dr. Woo in our pulpit on Sunday, October 1st. I am looking forward to meeting him and hearing him preach!

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