The Chronicle Review

The Contested Color of Christ

How the image of Jesus has been made and remade in American history

Reiner Harscher, laif, Redux

The Christus, an 11-foot-tall statue of white marble, stands in the Mormons' Temple Square, in Salt Lake City.
September 17, 2012
The Contested Color of Christ

Photo illustration by Bob McGrath

In a world filled with images of Jesus, this one made headlines. He stood in a stained-glass window wearing a simple white robe and a dark tunic. When sunlight struck the glass just so, kindness radiated from his white face and warmth from his brown eyes. This was a comforting Jesus, and for decades he had been with this black congregation in Birmingham, Ala. But on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, less than three weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed his dream of racial equality, dynamite set by white supremacists exploded outside the 16th Street Baptist Church, and four little girls who had gone to the basement lounge to freshen up were dead. The face of Jesus shattered into a thousand shards of glass. In the blink of an eye, the prince of peace was a casualty of racism.

The bombing would become a pivotal moment in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. The outrage that grew around the nation helped spur the voting-rights campaign and pave the way for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By 2004, two days after winning the Democratic nomination for a U.S. Senate seat, Barack Obama flew to Birmingham to give a speech at the city's Civil Rights Institute. He took the opportunity to cross the street and visit the church, by then a national historic landmark. When he entered, he observed a "still-visible scar" along the wall where the bomb had gone off. He saw portraits of the four young girls and thought about his two little daughters at home. He sat to pray, and above him in stained glass was the Jesus installed in 1965 to commemorate the bombing. This one seems sad, his arms stretched out, crucified. His hair is short, cropped; his face black.

The same year the church's black Jesus was dedicated, Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City resurrected an image of Jesus to present themselves to the nation and the world. The Christus, as the statue is known, was created in the early 19th century by a Dutch artist, but Latter-day Saints made it their own when they placed a replica in a Visitors Center in Temple Square. Jesus stands more than 11 feet high. He is made of all-white marble, and his hair flows below his shoulders. His right arm and pectoral muscle are exposed to reveal his chiseled physique. He could just as easily adorn the cover of a best seller as a Bible storybook.

If these two Christ icons could stand side-by-side, their differences could not be more startling. One is huge and authoritative; the other reserved and contemplative. One showcases power, the other suffering.

Although the image of the white Christ has a varied, sometimes sordid history in the United States, it is the default image. It is there even when being challenged, mocked, and parodied.

Together, they illustrate how the image of Jesus has played a vital role in American debates about race, political power, and social justice. The story of the color of Christ is the story of a Jesus made white, challenged by rival figures contending with white supremacy—like the black Jesus now looking down from the window of the 16th Street Baptist Church—and re-formed in a different color.

As recent presidential elections remind us, it is also a story still unfolding.

Almost 50 years after the bombing in Birmingham and the installation of the Christus in Salt Lake City, today's campaign features candidates as different as the two Christ figures. The biracial child of an African immigrant and a Midwestern white woman squares off against the son of a powerful American midcentury politician.

Less remarked are the differences in how the color of Christ pertains to each candidate's campaign. Ever since videos emerged in 2008 of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright shouting "God damn America" and "Jesus was a poor black man," Obama has been attacked for the words of his Chicago pastor. The Jesus of Wright's black-liberation theology is too incendiary for many voters, black and white. (Surveys show that very few African-American churchgoers think of Jesus as black, and that many whites are affronted by the idea.) At the same time, Obama has been presented in rhetoric and imagery as a Christ-like figure who can redeem the nation and world (sometimes portrayed with a crown of thorns, sometimes riding on a donkey). This black savior is a fellow sufferer.

By contrast, Romney, whose religion is so very much a part of his life, has experienced few questions about the many whitened images of Jesus in Mormon art. Although European and American artists have commonly depicted Jesus as white, Mormons were among the first Americans to give him blue eyes, and their theology has a particular focus on the body—they believe that Jesus still has the same physical body he had 2,000 years ago. Even though the Christus was first placed in Salt Lake City just a few years before Romney entered Brigham Young University, there has been no public debate over the race of the candidate's Christ. Of course, no one has compared Romney to Jesus, either.

As is often true, both the rhetoric and the silence speak volumes. Time and again throughout American history, what has been said about the color of Christ (and what has been left unsaid and displayed through art) highlights some of the most profound struggles within the nation.

How is it that a Jewish prophet from the Roman era could become so entangled with the American obsession with race? How could the color of Christ be invoked throughout American history to justify some of the worst atrocities of white supremacy as well as to inspire some of the most heroic civil-rights crusades?

The first English settlers in the Americas carried with them no sense of what Jesus looked like. The Bible was central to their beliefs, but it offered no physical description of Jesus's face, hair, eyes, or body. Roman Catholics were already placing images of Christ in their churches, but many Protestant settlers were anti-Catholic and were more likely to report their visions of Satan than to worship icons of Christ.

That all began to change in the 18th century, during the Great Awakenings. Up and down the East Coast, whites, blacks, and American Indians began reporting visions of Jesus as emotional revivals pushed Americans toward personal relationships with Christ. In some cases, their images focused on the blood that poured from Jesus' hands and side. It was a broken and battered Christ that seemed to speak to their difficult lives. But mostly Jesus was seen in a blinding light. Light, not white. For colonial Americans, light connoted power, goodness, love. White was a sign of trouble. The lack of association between Jesus and whiteness left the spiritual terrain open to linking other peoples to the sacred. Thus a small but significant cohort of American Indians moved toward Christ, as did a charter generation of African-Americans.

The Contested Color of Christ

Viewtopia Pictures

A stained-glass window in the 16th Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Ala., was installed in 1965 to replace one destroyed in a racially motivated bombing in 1963.

At that stage, however, America was still far from being a Jesus nation. When the Russian diplomat Pavel Svinin came to the new United States in the first years of the 19th century, he was amazed to find busts and images everywhere. In homes, in civic spaces, in businesses, he kept running into the same image. It was not Jesus, but George Washington. "It is noteworthy that every American considers it his sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his home," Svinin wrote, "just as we have images of God's saints."

As the 19th century progressed, Americans did begin publishing and mass-producing images of Jesus. New roads and canals, coupled with improvements in paper production, made it possible for evangelical organizations such as the American Tract Society to flood the nation with millions of illustrated pamphlets, newspapers, and Bibles. The religious material spread so fast and in such numbers that Mark Twain joked about using it on the Mississippi River to sink pesky skiff boats.

The rise in the images of Christ took place at the same time slavery was expanding and American Indians, such as the Cherokee, were being pushed further into the interior. Most states were also in the process of eliminating state-sponsored denominations; a wave of Irish-Catholic immigrants after 1830 were further challenging American Protestant identity. A new image of Christ would emerge: the bringer of civilized Christian values. Light was becoming white.

During the 1830s and 1840s, the young Joseph Smith agonized over how to describe what he had seen. He often strained to find the most accurate phrases, crossing out words or including new ones above the line. He saw a "pillar of fire." He crossed out "fire" and replaced it with "light." He saw a "pillar of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me." Smith continued to explain: "I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph thy Sins are forgiven thee." That was not exactly right, either. He saw the "crucified Lord," who actually said, "Joseph my Son thy Sins are forgiven thee."

In the mid-1840s, Smith began to further describe the indescribable, telling a follower in 1844 that the Jesus he beheld had a "light complexion [and] blue eyes." Mormon artists have continued to depict Jesus as white, usually with blue eyes, and often with blondish-brown hair. Smith, however, did not live to see that artwork. Running for president in 1844, and angering locals in Illinois, he was gunned down in a jail cell by a vigilante.

The white Jesus represented just one part of Mormonism's approach to race. Although the new Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was willing to challenge some of the most profound Protestant traditions, including monogamous marriage and the place of the Bible as the only sacred text, in some ways it furthered the nation's white supremacy (although Mormon leaders did denounce slavery). Its white Christ was coupled with antiblack and anti-Indian teachings, like those of Smith's successor, Brigham Young, who once lectured: "If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot." Less sensational but more widespread, a priesthood ban on people of African descent that kept black men from full membership in the church was not lifted until 1978.

By midcentury, notions of Christ and Christianity often took center stage in the increasingly violent debate over slavery. Although by then just about all Americans assumed that Jesus was white, proslavery and antislavery sides struggled to claim Christ for their cause. Proslavery forces preached that since Jesus never spoke against slavery in the Bible, the institution must be acceptable. Antislavery forces invoked the golden rule and asked slaveholders if they wanted to be slaves.

In that context, the whiteness of Jesus was used both to prop up and to tear down white power. Several proslavery theorists claimed that God demonstrated the supremacy of whites by making Jesus white. Slaves embraced the white Jesus as a loving figure, a white man who came to redeem, not to rape, who listened but never used the lash. White abolitionists also deployed the white Jesus: In illustrated editions of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and on the masthead of William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator, a white Jesus disapproves of slave whippings.

Abraham Lincoln did not believe in visions like Smith's, and he did not believe in divine intervention. These were not "the days of miracles," the president told two ministers who pressed him for emancipation in 1862. But other Americans did believe.

Only one month after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1863, Lincoln was petitioned by a man named George F. Kelly. "We see that you are surrounded by Spies and men of evil intentions," Kelly wrote Lincoln. He worried that the president was losing courage amid the carnage, and called on him to adopt "Radical" plans to emancipate slaves not just in areas rebelling against the Union but throughout the nation.

"I have Seen in 'visions,'" Kelly concluded his letter, and "I wept for joy when the Angels, Showed me how God would destroy their power and Save the Nation." God was about to redeem the nation as he had done in older days—through his son, Kelly said. "Have ye not heard that in one of the New England States 'God has raised him up in humble life.'" In two weeks, Christ would reveal himself—as a New Englander who had most likely worked on a farm and probably looked like the hundreds of thousands of white Union troops who were camping, marching, loading rifles, and dying to save the nation. He was white. The savior had joined the abolitionist crusade. Lincoln was not impressed. On the front of one envelope from Kelly, he wrote sarcastically: "a vision."

Despite being dismissed by Lincoln, Kelly spoke to a larger belief in the Civil War North: that the spirit of Christ was on the Union's side against enslavement—a white savior who paternalistically took care of oppressed African-Americans. Images of a black Jesus had come up before, even linked to analyses of racial inequality. But rarely did black Jesus replace white Jesus. In 1833, William Apess, a Pequot Indian, a Methodist, whose mother had been a slave, berated whites for their hypocrisies: They counseled love but barred whites and Indians from marrying each other. They taught that Jesus died for all, but they enslaved others and segregated people by race and status. Worst of all, they made the son of God into their own image. Jesus was a Jew, Apess reasoned, and " his Apostles certainly were not whites." Therefore "you are not indebted to a principle beneath a white skin for your religious services, but to a colored one." But he still argued that "skin, color, or nation" should not matter. Those were obsessions of the current day.

Only slowly did a new image emerge among some radicals, and it developed with the expanding freedoms that African-Americans gained during and after the Civil War. Leaving white churches en masse throughout the South and beginning to acquire new resources, a small set of African-Americans began talking about a black Jesus. One of the first, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, proclaimed that "God is a Negro." In the early 20th century, both Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois referred to Jesus in terms of his blackness.

In the years after the Civil War and Reconstruction, the dynamics of race changed once again. Millions of new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, along with Asia, came to the United States. Many of the Europeans were Catholic or Jewish, spoke languages relatively foreign to American ears, and had festivals and rituals that seemed strange or frightening. Who was "white" became a prominent issue. At the same time, the United States formed its first overseas empire after the Spanish-American War. It now had to determine whether people in Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and elsewhere could be full citizens. Nativist groups emerged that wanted to define who was "white" and who was a "citizen."

At this confusing moment, a film that captured the attention of the nation tied white supremacy directly to Jesus. D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, in 1915, told the gripping saga of how men who burned crosses and disguised themselves in white sheets had joined together to save and unite the nation. Ku Klux Klan vigilantes were the heroes in this travesty of a historical narrative, and they paved the way for Christ's return.

The Birth of a Nation was a technological marvel. More than three hours long, it featured close-ups and panoramic shots, action sequences, and hundreds of extras. President Woodrow Wilson loved it. So, too, did members of his cabinet and the Supreme Court.

As the film concluded, a brown-haired, brown-eyed, white-robed, white-skinned Jesus appeared on screen to bless the United States. This white Jesus seemed to smile upon white supremacy—whether President Wilson's outlawing interracial marriage in the District of Columbia and condoning the segregation of government offices, or the many lynchings of black men at the time.

The film generated two conflicting approaches to Christ. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in 1917, picketed the film and expressed disgust over Wilson's endorsement, some protesters held posters that proclaimed "the spirit of Christ should be manifested in the making and execution of laws." The newly remade Ku Klux Klan, of course, disagreed. Klan advocates not only created artwork with Klansmen as Christ's disciples (passing out fishes and loaves of bread), but also claimed that Jesus himself would have joined the Klan and "worn a robe."

Although the Klan withered in the 1920s and the NAACP struggled in the 1930s, the color of Christ continued to animate civil-rights and political discussions. After the Montgomery bus boycott of the mid-1950s launched the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into national prominence, he received a letter for his newly syndicated "Advice for Living" question-and-answer column that cut to the heart of concerns about racial identity and God's work: "Why did God make Jesus white, when the majority of peoples in the world are nonwhite?"

King answered with the essence of his developing political and religious philosophy: colorblindness. He denied that the color of one's skin determined the content of one's character, and there was no better example than Christ. "The color of Jesus' skin is of little or no consequence," King reassured his readers, because skin color "is a biological quality which has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the personality." Jesus transcended race, and he mattered "not in His color, but in His unique God-consciousness and His willingness to surrender His will to God's will."

But as King continued his attempt to separate Christ's body from his soul, he inadvertently upheld the assumption that Jesus was white. The son of God, he wrote, "would have been no more significant if His skin had been black. He is no less significant because His skin was white."

At least one letter writer responded by demanding proof of Christ's whiteness (a letter to which King did not respond), and in the 1960s a new set of African-American theologians created black-liberation theology, which challenged white images of Jesus and portrayed Christ as black. They felt frustrated by assumptions like King's and artwork like the original window at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Led by James Cone and J. Deotis Roberts, these theologians crafted the rhetoric and the theoretical concepts that Jeremiah Wright used when preaching in Chicago.

Even though the United States has become increasingly pluralistic since the 1960s, the color of Christ continues to animate and vex our politics. When it comes to Obama, even the Tea Party and Occupy movements have joined the fray. In response to characterizations of Obama as a messiah, anti-Obama conservatives have hung him in effigy. One Tea Party blogger wrote that the stakes in the current election are clear: "Jesus versus Obama." "Woe unto black pastors who encourage their flocks to vote racial loyalty over biblical principles," the writer warned. As for the Occupiers, one popular poster at rallies reads: "Obama is not a brown-skinned antiwar socialist who gives away free health care. ... You're thinking of Jesus." Many of these posters have darkened images of Christ on them; they are held by white hands.

And what about Mitt Romney? When his Mormon church made the Christus a central icon of its faith, it did so 13 years before African-Americans like Obama could be full participants. Today the church is growing by leaps and bounds globally but still struggles to attract African-Americans, in part because of its racial past. Today its stores and Web sites still feature images and art work of a blue-eyed, blond, white Jesus, and most Mormons refuse to recognize any racial meaning or importance in images like the Christus. Some Mormons have created new images that present Jesus as nonwhite, but those tend to be on the margins or discussed primarily among scholars.

Wright's preachings of a black Jesus created a media firestorm in 2008, and Obama's connections to Wright and black-liberation theologians remain a staple of the right-wing-talk circuit. Silence surrounds Romney's white Jesus. Although the white Christ has a varied, sometimes sordid, history in the United States, it is the norm. It is the default image. It is there even when being challenged, mocked, and parodied (as has been the case on television in Good Times and South Park, and in films such as Talladega Nights and Dogma). And when it comes to Mormonism, most Americans are too busy learning the basics about the faith (who was Joseph Smith?) or too focused on the sensational (do they really wear sacred underwear?) to grapple with its cultural, theological, and racial particularities. So Romney's white Jesus rarely gets questioned.

Jesus will probably remain white for most Americans, because Christ still serves as a symbol and symptom of racial power in society. But because of the nation's complicated histories of race and religion, Jesus will also continue to be a complicated savior—white without words, and yet made and remade in many shades.

Edward J. Blum is an associate professor of history at San Diego State University, and Paul Harvey is a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. They are the authors of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, just published by the University of North Carolina Press.