Guess Who’s Coming to Church

Guess Who’s Coming to Church:
The Chicago Defender, the Federal Council of Churches, and Rethinking Shared Faith in Interracial Religious Practice

by William Stell

published in Church History, 92:3, page 607–625
Cambridge University Press, 2023-12

Abstract: On the cover page of the September 23, 1922, issue of the Chicago Defender, editor Robert S. Abbott announced Go-to-a-White-Church Sunday. Less than a month later, the Federal Council of Churches announced its inaugural Race Relations Sunday. Through a comparative analysis of these two events, this article reconsiders historians’ tendency to assume and emphasize a shared faith across racial lines when discussing interracial religious practice in various historical contexts. Go-to-a-White-Church Sunday was intended both to introduce white churchgoers to black respectability and to provide moral guidance to white churchgoers, whose racism rendered their faith something other than true Christianity. Notwithstanding ceremonial nods to interracial religious brotherhood, Abbott’s campaign hinged more so on shared understandings of respectability than on shared Christian faith. While the FCC’s Race Relations Sunday differed in its valorization of white Christianity, with proclamations that interracial religious brotherhood was sufficient to solve “the race problem,” both events displayed a shared faith in the power of interracial proximity in itself to accomplish their respective ends. Historians have replicated this problematic faith in interracial proximity by using language of racial transcendence and writing as if interracial religious practice is egalitarian unless proven otherwise. This article calls for more critical, contextually mindful approaches.

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