1619 Plus 1776 Plus 1830 Equals What?
Teach your history in church. It may be one of the most subversive actions a congregation can take.
America needs a better story. Nearly everyone agrees on that. What that story should be: now, that’s where things get interesting, and potentially as divisive as the Civil War.
The President and allies are massing their power to tell a well-varnished narrative of greatness and freedom, undiminished by slavery and its continuing aftereffects, or by the theft of Native lands. On Constitution Day this year, he proposed the creation of a 1776 Commission to teach “patriot education” in public schools.
He has rejected the 1619 Project, an attempt by the New York Times to tell a very different history than the one the president prefers. He utterly rejects the Pulitzer-prize winning 1619 Project as teaching a false history of racism and oppression. If the 1776 Commission does its work, I assume they’ll include history as written by David Barton, a Christian nationalist darling who is completely rejected by historians of many perspectives for his proof-texting use of history to claim the U.S. was founded as, and ought to be, a Christian nation.
These and several other perspectives constitute a must-engage ideological battle, the results of which will be real and profound. I am among those who don’t want to live in the land of 1984—the sales of which, remember, skyrocketed up nearly 10,000 percent after the 2017 inauguration. And I would argue that Christian churches, especially predominantly white ones, should show leadership in this war of founding stories.
Regardless of the outcome of a 1776 Commission, leaders of predominantly white Christian churches cannot be prohibited by the federal government for telling the truth. That prohibition, as the Southern Baptists are already finding, can come only from within.
I’ll use my own denomination, The United Methodist Church, as an example. No one could tell our history and not see in it the church’s, and the nation’s, racism. From the beginning. A few examples.
John Wesley, English founder of the Methodist movement and the man who sent Methodist ambassadors to the new nation to start a church, was an ardent abolitionist. His emissaries, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, were, also—at first. No Methodist, either clergy nor laity, should hold slaves. However, as plantations closed to preachers from abolitionist churches, Asbury began to compromise, reasoning that it is better to have access to a soul than to be on record for opposing chained bodies.
Issues of race and self-determination led to two of the first splits in Methodism (within 20 years of the church’s formation), with the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion being the results.
By the mid-19th century, historians estimate some 25,000 Methodists enslaved 200,000 persons. The Methodist North-South split in 1844, following the withdrawal of the abolitionist Wesleyan Methodists from the “slaveholding denomination” the prior year, presaged what would happen in the nation.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln noted that more Methodists fought on both sides than any other denomination. The partisan battles were engaged also from the pulpits. Southern Methodist preachers, along with white Christians of other stripes, defended slavery as God’s will. Many Northern preachers decried slavery but also believed that a society with free Black people was untenable.
During and after the Civil War, while some white Methodists defended the rights of Native peoples and worked alongside them, other Methodist leaders bought into and promoted Manifest Destiny. They helped the push all the way to the Oregon Territory. One member of the clergy, a Union officer, led the despicable, shameful, horrible attack on a defenseless group of Native peoples at Sand Creek, Colorado in 1864. The Rev. (Colonel) John Chivington led the massacre, and his men took body parts as souvenirs. While Chivington was a particularly bad actor, he was not unique.
When the Civil War ended, it took until 1939 for Methodists North and South to re-embrace. Why so long? Perhaps because, by then, the combatants had nearly all died. Perhaps the work of Northern church leaders to appease Southerners and welcome “brothers” back into fellowship—including forgiveness for the war (which was not theirs to offer)—over the decades contributed.
Or perhaps the Jim Crow South provided the “separate but equal” idea behind the cost of white reconciliation in 1939: the creation of a separate, race-based jurisdiction for Black churches. That separate but not equal Jim Crow-appeasing house of segregation lived on until the early 1970s. But its death then did not mean there was racial reconciliation in the newly formed (1968) United Methodist Church. To this day, white United Methodists, as a whole, are far from saying even to ourselves, “Black lives matter.”
Only someone with blinders could read these snippets of history from one subset of America and think, “Wow. Those people are and always have been great! They believe God is love, that God loves every one of us equally, that we all have sinned and have access to God’s abounding grace. They have practiced these beliefs throughout their history. Sure, there are always a few bad apples, but there is nothing systemically or foundationally wrong that needs attention and correction. This church ought to form a commission that promotes only the upside of United Methodist history. Any bad stuff is either in the past, with no ill effects today, or the result of individual bad actors who need to be rooted out.”
This United Methodist history, its fuller version and in the context of American history, subverts any claim that the U.S. was founded on freedom and kindness, for all. If one were to look at Methodists and immigrants and immigration policy, Methodists and labor, Methodists and women, or United Methodists and sexuality/gender/gender identity/sexual orientation, one would find further evidence of deep ambiguities in practice and in official positions claimed.
I would make an educated guess that nearly every predominantly white Christian church in the U.S. could tell a similar history in which the events and symbols of 1619, 1776, and 1830 (Indian Removal Act), with many others, continue to play out in stories that need to be told with honesty.
Robert P. Jones, scholar and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, has written a brilliant example of how a personal narrative, a denomination’s history, and the struggles of a nation intersect. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity is the book. He not only tells this intertwined history for Southern Baptists. He includes disturbing examples such as mass murderer Dylann Roof’s connections to the mainline Lutheran world. The consistency of racist perspectives of mainline and Catholic Republicans with their white evangelical co-partisans will surprise many readers.
In reality, the president of the U.S. does not have the direct authority to shape local school curricula. But, through a commission, partisan governors, working with legislative partisans to create financial carrots and sticks, and stoking white fear, a president can effect change. That said, a president has no authority—direct or indirect—over the histories white churches tell themselves, nor how those churches link their histories and stories to America’s narratives.
I limit that last sentence to white churches—because predominantly Black congregations, Native American congregations, congregations of other faith groups, and many first generation immigrant congregations already know that one cannot honestly tell any story related to 1776 without also telling the stories related to 1619, and 1830, and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Oklahoma Land Runs, and the 1924 immigration act, and the U.S. and the Shoah (Holocaust), and the Muslim Ban… and… and…and….
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Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.