Headshot of Curtis Evans next to book cover of Theology of Brotherhood

A Forgotten Story about Christian Anti-Racism

In "A Theology of Brotherhood," Curtis Evans traces progressive Christians’ work in the early twentieth century.

By Emily D. Crews|March 21, 2024

Historian Curtis Evans’s new book, A Theology of Brotherhood: The Federal Council of Churches and the Problem of Race (NYU Press, 2024)tells a forgotten story about Christian anti-racist organizing in the United States. Well before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the work of religious activists like Martin Luther King Jr., progressive Christian thinking about racism was formatively shaped by the Federal Council of Churches (FCC). The FCC was an ecumenical organization founded in the early twentieth century to represent over thirty, predominantly white mainline and liberal Protestant denominations. Evans’s book tells the story of how the FCC came to be a national leader in the movement for racial equality, including how it pushed churches to take more progressive positions on race and helped to lay the groundwork for later, more well-known efforts like King’s.

Evans, Associate Professor of the History of Christianity and Religions in the Americas at The University of Chicago Divinity School and Faculty Co-Director of the Marty Center, said he was motivated to write the book because he thinks the FCC represents an important voice in American religious thinking about race, one often overlooked by scholars and the public. “At a time when many white Christians, especially Southern Protestants, were using the bible and Christian theology to justify and even further entrench racial hierarchies, the FCC was doing precisely the opposite.”

The FCC was founded in Philadelphia in 1908. It was part of the broader Social Gospel Movement, an element within liberal Protestantism that applied Christian values and teachings to issues of social inequality, especially those faced by the poor and working class. The FCC called for fair wages for all, an end to child labor, and safe and sanitary conditions for workers. It organized welfare campaigns and education for the working class and helped to mediate labor disputes, including several major strikes, on the East Coast. It did so under the banner of what Evans calls a “theology of brotherhood”: the belief in the divine interconnectedness of humankind that emphasized equality, solidarity, and community.

It was not until the 1920s, however, that the FCC’s theology of brotherhood was applied to the issue of race. “The FCC saw race and racism as a Southern problem,” Evans said, “which it sometimes termed ‘the Negro Problem,’ meaning that the struggles of African Americans were a problem primarily for Southern Christians.” The FCC represented mainly white Northern church denominations, which were able to remain isolated from the conditions Black Americans faced.

Evans argues that two crucial factors changed the organization’s orientation on race. First was the Great Migration, the massive movement of African Americans from the South to the North and Midwest that began in 1910. The Great Migration forced white Christians to witness firsthand the mistreatment, degradation, and poverty many African Americans experienced, even in supposedly improved circumstances outside the South. Second were the race riots of the “Red Summer” of 1919. Intense mob violence against African Americans broke out across twenty-six American cities, bringing into stark relief the seriousness of “the problem of race.”

In response, the FCC established a Department of Race Relations in 1921. It was overseen by George Edmund Haynes, a Columbia-educated sociologist and social servant with a strong history of advocacy on behalf of his fellow African Americans.

Evans spent years combing through archives in Philadelphia and Nashville to understand the intricacies of the FCC’s attempt to find a solution to “the problem of race” across the country. He discovered that it used a unique combination of biblical interpretation and academic research to argue that racism and racial inequality violated God’s desires for humankind. Evans said that, under Haynes’s direction, the organization crafted the message that “racial oppression had no divine sanction, that racial hierarchies were a misreading of Christian scriptures.” That put them in direct conflict with the views of conversative Protestants, particularly those in the South, who used biblical justifications for white supremacy.

“Haynes was convinced that you couldn’t argue people out of racism,” Evans said. “You couldn’t just provide an alternative theory to white supremacy people had heard all their lives and expect them to be convinced.” Instead, the FCC tried to build interracial cooperation and community based on universal kinship between the races. It initiated a system of pastor swaps between white and Black churches and created social gatherings and other “pleasurable experiences” aimed at lighthearted fun. Haynes thought these positive, friendly experiences would build trust between people of different identities.

The FCC’s most important celebration of this kind was an annual Race Relations Sunday. One Sunday of each February beginning in 1923, participating churches devoted their services to spreading what they called “the gospel of goodwill.” They preached that segregation and racial division did not have to be the law of the land. According to Evans, “their ultimate goal was to create bonds of Christian affection that would break down barriers of racial difference and lead to concrete action toward a more just, integrated society.”

The FCC also made huge efforts to break down structural barriers to African Americans’ social and economic status. One way it did this was through education and political advocacy. It became a clearinghouse for a massive number of instructional materials that it circulated across the country, including informational pamphlets and Sunday school curricula. Many of these focused on the valuable contributions of people of African descent to American culture and on biblical explanations for why the races should live in community. The FCC also sponsored conferences, workshops, and clinics that taught attendees about the most cutting-edge academic research on race, which it argued was an important factor in discrediting the pseudo-science used by proponents of segregation and Black inferiority.

Evans said the FCC’s most public attempt to address the problem of race was its decades-long fight for legislation to outlaw lynching. This public, vigilante murder of African Americans had reached a harrowing peak in the early 1900s. “Lynching was the most brutal, most violent form of racism against Black Americans,” Evans said. By the end of the nineteenth century, an average of more than one hundred African Americans was being hanged, shot, or otherwise murdered by white supremacists each year.

Along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the FCC offered extensive logistical and ideological support for federal legislation against lynching. But unlike the NAACP, Evans writes, the FCC “had a special message for churches, calling them out for their silence, hypocrisy, and often times their refusal to address lynching as a crime and a moral wrong.” It urged its member churches to vote for political candidates who supported anti-lynching laws and to press local and national officials on their stance on the issue whenever possible. “Few today are aware of the FCC’s anti-lynching campaign,” Evans writes. Yet the FCC was the publisher of hundreds of “detailed reports that described at length the brutality of lynching, that stared evil and injustice in the face, calling down judgment upon the nation and the churches for their failure to eradicate this evil.”

Some scholars criticize the FCC for not achieving more obvious success. “It’s accurate to say that they did not get anti-lynching legislation passed or fully transform society in their image of Christian community,” Evans said. But part of his goal in Theology of Brotherhood is to avoid defining “success” by twenty-first–century standards. “I really wanted to understand what the FCC was up against,” Evans said. “In the book, I tried to chart a course between apologetics—basically, painting the best picture of the FCC possible—and criticism that’s not appropriate to the realities of the time.” To evaluate the significance of the FCC, Evans argues, we have to consider the organization in its historical context. “We have to understand its work in the context of segregation, rampant inequality, and racial prejudice. Any success was meaningful under those conditions, even if we also acknowledge that more needed to be done.”

Evans thinks the legacy of the FCC’s work can be seen in the Civil Rights Movement, including the theology of Benjamin Mays. Mays was vice president of the FCC in the 1940s and Martin Luther King Jr. King’s mentor at Morehouse College. The language of brotherhood and Christian community that King and his collaborators embraced has its roots in the work of Mays and the FCC. The same is true of “the taken-for-granted notions of a symmetry between God’s vision of the world and one of racial equality that many advanced during the Civil Rights Movement,” Evans said. “That kind of universalistic conception of Christianity was hard won.”

Evans hopes that A Theology of Brotherhood will give readers new insight into American Protestantism, even beyond its importance in African Americans’ long and ongoing struggle for racial equality. “The FCC has a kind of renewed relevance in light of our current political moment. With the rise of Christian ethnonationalism, many Americans are interested in issues like the separation of church and state, the proper place of religion in legal reform, and the role of churches in political action. The FCC speaks to that, and also to questions about the history and viability of the religious Left.”

Emily D. Crews

Emily D. Crews

Emily D. Crews is the Executive Director of the Marty Center. She oversees its operations and its relationship to its host institution, the University of Chicago Divinity School. In collaboration with its staff and faculty co-directors, she sets the research and programming agenda of the Marty Center. She also acts as its public representative and leads its partnerships with collaborators across the University, the city of Chicago, and beyond.

Emily joined the Marty Center as Assistant Director in 2022, after teaching at the University of Alabama and the University of Chicago. As Assistant Director she managed the research agenda of the Center, as well as its partnerships with media organizations. She also piloted the Center's inaugural Author Talks series, a collaboration with the Seminary Co-op Bookstore; led its Junior Fellows Program and Public Religion Residency Fellowships; and conceived and ran its capstone conference on Religion and Reproductive Politics.