The Color of Christ: America’s own personal Jesus?

Our friend Paul Harvey, the proprietor of Religion in American History and a Professor of History at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, has had a banner month in September.  First, his new book with Edward J. Blum, The Color of Christ:  The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2012)  has just been published.  Then the authors got a nice bit of publicity from the Chronicle of Higher Education a few weeks ago when it published a brief explanation of their argument, along with some thoughtful comments about Mormonism, Mitt Romney, and representations of Barack Obama as a Christlike figure.

The book ranges over the entire course of American religious history, from puritan prohibitions on representing Christ at all, to Mormon imaginings of a blue-eyed, phenotypically northern European-looking Jesus, to the emergence of a black Jesus in the Civil Rights era.  As the publisher’s website suggests, “[t]he color of Christ still symbolizes America’s most combustible divisions, revealing the power and malleability of race and religion from colonial times to the presidency of Barack Obama.”

But that’s not all!  Last week, I got an e-mail from Fraguy while he was at Denver International Airport, reporting that Harvey and Blum had published an opinion piece in the New York Times about “Fighting over God’s Image.”  They point out that Americans bloviating over “Muslim rage” about recent profane American representations of the prophet Muhammad overlook the fact that “Americans have had their own history of conflict, some of it deadly, over displays of the sacred.” 

Dippy Jesus

Recovering Sunday-school students like me will recall the aesthetic of all of those representations of Jesus on the walls of our classrooms even in the 1970s and 1980s, most of which seemed to date from the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  This is no accident, as the authors explain:

Only in the late 19th century did images of God and Jesus become commonplace in churches, Sunday school books, Bibles and homes. There were many forces at work: steam printing presses; new canals and railroads; and, not least, the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Catholics who brought with them an array of crucifixes, Madonnas and busts of saints. Protestants began producing their own images — often, to appeal to children — and gradually became more comfortable with holy images. In the 20th century, the United States began exporting such images, most notably Warner Sallman’s 1941 “Head of Christ,” which is one of the most reproduced images in world history.

But there was also resistance. When Hollywood first started portraying Jesus in films, one fundamentalist Christian fumed, “The picturing of the life and sufferings of our Savior by these institutions falls nothing short of blasphemy.” Vernon E. Jordan Jr., an African-American who was later president of the National Urban League and an adviser to President Bill Clinton, recalled that white audience members gasped when he played Jesus as an undergraduate at DePauw University in Indiana in the 1950s.

In fact, race has been a constant source of conflict over American depictions of Jesus. In Philadelphia in the 1930s, the black street preacher F. S. Cherry stormed into African-American churches and pointed at paintings or prints of white Christs, shouting, as one observer recounted, “Who in the hell is this? Nobody knows! They say it is Jesus. That’s a damned lie!”

During the civil rights era, black-power advocates and liberation theologians excoriated white images of the sacred. A 1967 “Declaration of Black Churchmen” demanded “the removal of all images which suggest that God is white.” As racial violence enveloped Detroit that year, African-American residents painted the white faces of Catholic icons black.

But that’s not all!  Listening to This American Life this weekend, I heard a fascinating memoir of integration and then white flight from an immigrant Catholic neighborhood in Chicago by NPR reporter Sonari Glinton, a Chicago native and former Catholic schoolboy.  In “Soul Sister,” Glinton recalls the formidable principal of his school, her determination to make an important change in the Crucifixes that adorn each classroom, and the significance of that decision for the rest of his school years and for his lived experience of his faith as an adult.

Bro Jesus

Clearly:  someone is sending me the clear message that we need to buy and read this book.  And congratulations to the authors!  I just received my annual autumn royalty check from my publisher, and I thought I was hot stuff for selling 500 books last year.  It looks like I need to make a pilgrimage down to Colorado Springs to learn from a local master of book publicity!  (Click that last link to see their book tour schedule, and an interview by Ask Mormon Girl’s Joanna Brooks, Blum’s colleague at San Diego State University.)

18 thoughts on “The Color of Christ: America’s own personal Jesus?

  1. My tribe doesn’t believe in Jesus although he was born to the tribe. Earlier today driving back from a hike along the Potomac, my car passed through multitude of churches. In each church, the parking lot overflowed. As one who grow up in a secular society governed by a leftist government, women paid a salary by social security on a three months maternity leave, nationalized medicine and no private colleges, religions seem redundant.

    Europe where I spent months every year is secular as well (even Italy). We successfully find excuses to war without religions lately. We don’t need god’s blessing anymore.


  2. Come on down, Historiann! (And thanks for the post). I have a lot to learn about how to get a thriving nation to follow and comment avidly on a blog as they have done here for years. Happy to come up to CSU sometime if there’s interest, I’ll email you. I missed This American Life this week, sounds like I best catch up.


  3. You know, that was exactly my thought quixote, when I heard Glinton’s excellent memoir essay. I wondered how many girls in Catholic school ever think of drawing boobs on their Jesuses?

    I wondered too if girls would be subject to more reprimands for that, because after all Jesus’s ethnicity is not a major doctrinal issue for the Church, whereas of course his sex is (in that his masculinity plus the absence of women disciples according to Church dogma is the justification for restricting the priesthood to men only.)


  4. Well, actually, according to Aaron Fogleman (Department of History, Northern Illinois University), early American Moravians thought a LOT about the symbolic or perhaps fictive femaleness of Jesus. The book is titled _Jesus Is Female_, forgetting the sub-title and don’t have the full cite to hand, but U. of Penn Press. I haven’t exactly read it in full, but if I’m remembering it from the seminar and conference circuit level, it was not about boobs, but rather about elongated gashes in the side in the context of the crucifixion scene. Better informed scholars than me might want to chime in.


  5. I heard Sonari Glinton’s story and what struck me most profoundly was that the principal made the change on a school day with classes in session. It was a beautiful nonviolent political act. I went on to ponder how her status as a nun played into her action. In my personal experience, both nuns and priests engage in radical nonviolent actions but I wonder if there are differences in subject matter (that is the particular issues addressed) between the two groups. My sample size is too small to tell.


  6. Although the title of Color of Christ is all about race, the book definitely focuses on gender, sexuality, and family life. Race is gendered; gender is raced; religion is racialized and gendered. And Christ’s body – both neck up and neck down – experience it all.


  7. Indyanna: Yes, we discuss that very image from the Moravians quite extensively in the book (drawing from Fogleman, Rachel Wheeler, and Lin Fisher), and discuss its rather obvious gendered implications. As Ed just wrote above, the book has a more gendered analysis than you might gather merely from the title or short op-ed pieces we have done.


  8. I forgot about the Moravian example–thanks, Indyanna and Paul. Jane Merritt has written about the blood and wounds theology of the 18th C Moravians as well.

    I guess I should have written, “the Catholics have Mary & Marian devotion. MAINLINE Protestants? No way.”


  9. Historiann, we are running a series on the book’s website ( on reactions to a series of paintings by Janet McKenzie, “Stations of the Cross”: her 1999 painting “Jesus of the People” is well known (it portrays Jesus as black/multiracial and feminine). The videos up presently can be viewed at

    And yes, definitely used Merritt as a source for this part of the book.


  10. No matter what color Jesus may be? I can attest to Jesus being the son of God. Jesus has been very instrumental in my life, and though i may fall to my flesh Jesus is there to protect me.God is real and his son Jesus!!


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