Brent Aucoin on the Baptist Pastor Who Popularized Racism in the 20th Century

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Christianity is inextricably linked to America’s shameful racist past – Dr. Brent Aucoin

The connection between Christianity and racism is an uncomfortable topic, but it is one that Christians need to address so we learn from our predecessors’ mistakes.

In a recent faculty lecture, Dr. Brent Aucoin tackled this topic by telling the story of two very different white Christians on either side of the racist divide. One, Thomas Goode Jones, was a Christian who promoted African Americans’ dignity and worth. The other, Thomas Dixon, Jr, was a Baptist pastor who popularized racism in the 20th century with a series of widely read novels.

Here’s a transcript of his comments about Thomas Dixon:

“I am focusing on Dixon to start off with in part because he is generally regarded as one of the men most responsible for popularizing racism in America in the 20th century. He did this primarily through his novels. The first of those novels was published in 1902 and entitled The Leopard’s Spots. This novel tells the story of a fictional North Carolina town in the years after the Civil War, and that town is led by blacks and white Republicans. Dixon portrays the leaders of the town as corrupt, incompetent and greedy — and the African American population in general as ignorant, barbaric and lustful.

“The hero of this novel is a pastor, the Reverend John Durham. John Durham forms a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and saves the town from its black and white oppressors, and does so in part by the use of violence and lynching. In the story, one Klan member actually advocates that blacks be provided with industrial and agricultural training so as to make them better manual laborers. Dixon has the character Rev. Durham respond by saying that the only solution to the race problem in America is to remove all blacks from the United States. It is as this point in the story that the Rev. Durham says,

The Ethiopian cannot change his skin, or the leopard his spots. Those who think it possible will always tell you that the place to work this miracle is in the south. Exactly. If a man really believes in equality, let him prove it by giving his daughter to a Negro in marriage.

“What Dixon has Durham saying there is that the African American is innately inferior and that this cannot, will not be changed. Just as an Ethiopian cannot change his skin, or a leopard his spots. Therefore, what he implied, and what he would say more explicitly elsewhere, the races should be separated by a notion if possible and, if not [possible], by law and social custom. The novel was such a success that the publisher, Double Day, eventually produced enough copies for one out of every eight Americans living at the time to own a copy.

“Three years later in 1905, he published a second novel entitled The Klansman, and it immediately became a best seller…. It’s estimated that he sold more than 3 million copies of his novels. How influential was this stunningly radical message of Thomas Dixon’s? Well, Dr. Joel Williamson at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, a historian, asserts that ‘Dixon probably did more to shape the lives of most Americans than have most Presidents.’

“But Dixon’s influence on the thinking of many White Americans did not end here. In 1915, Dixon’s novels became the basis of the first major motion picture in history, a film called The Birth of a Nation. It was the most watched and highest grossing film ever produced until it was finally surpassed by Gone with the Wind.

“So what does Thomas Dixon have to do with Christianity and racism in America? Well, in addition to the fact that Dixon’s main character is an ordained pastor, it is worth noting that Dixon was born in Shelby, NC to a Baptist pastor who remained in the ministry for 55 years until his death in 1959. And although Dixon’s father was himself uneducated, he sent his sons to Wake Forest College. In 1883, Dixon graduated from the school that occupied the very ground we are on at this moment. And after graduating from Wake Forest College, Dixon was ordained as a Baptist pastor.

“I can’t help but point out, make an aside that Thomas Dixon’s older brother, A.C. Dixon, also graduated from Wake Forest College, and became the pastor of the Moody Church in Chicago, Illinois  in 1906, the year after The Klansman was published. And when the movie The Birth of a Nation was released, A.C. Dixon at that time was the pastor Charles Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, England, where he remained the pastor until he retired in 1919.

“But back to the younger brother, Thomas Dixon. After serving as pastor of First Baptist Church Greensboro and then Second Baptist Church Raleigh, Dixon in 1889 at the age of 23 became the pastor of the 23rd Street Baptist Church in New York City. Now ten years after that, Dixon left the ministry, and he left it in part to write his novels. But for the rest of his life, he insisted on being called Rev. Dixon. So, thanks to Rev. Dixon and others like him, Christianity is inextricably linked to America’s shameful racist past.

Some Christians combatted racism because they saw it as being incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“But there’s a flip side to this story regarding Christianity and American racism. It is the story of those who combatted racism because they saw it as being incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“It is well known that some of the earliest and leading abolitionists were guided by Christian principles. It is even more well known that the Civil Rights leaders of the mid- to late-20th century were also Christians, many of them Baptist pastors in fact.

“But what about during Thomas Dixon’s day? It was then in the years after the Civil War and Reconstruction that America was at a major crossroads where it had to decide what would be done with the recently freed slaves. As we have already seen, some who not only called themselves Christians but insisted on being called reverend, urged America to take the path of either expelling all African Americans, or if that was not possible, then separating them from the rest of society and relegating them to the status of uneducated manual workers.

“Were there Christians urging the country to take a different path than that one at this time in American history? Well, unfortunately, the names of such individuals do not easily come to mind as they do with say the era of abolitionism or the Civil Rights Movement.

“But this morning I want to tell you the story of such a person. He was one of the rare individuals living in Thomas Dixon’s day who recognized that America was at a crossroads and who sought to lead the country down the path of acknowledging the innate humanity and equality of African Americans, and that he did so in part at least because he was a Christian.

“The story I want to tell you this morning is that of a man named Thomas Goode Jones.”

Learn more about Thomas Good Jones in Dr. Aucoin’s lecture. Or, check out his new book Thomas Goode Jones: Race, Politics, and Justice in the New South.

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Brent Aucoin

Dr. Aucoin is a Professor of History at Southeastern Seminary. He also serves as the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the College at Southeastern.

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