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Remembering Tom Skinner, Influential Black Evangelical Who Challenged the Status Quo

By Jemar Tisby
tom skinner
In December 1970, Tom Skinner preachest at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's Urbana '70 conference to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in Champaign, Illinois. (Video screengrab)

(Opinion)—Tom Skinner, the Black evangelical and evangelist who in his early days had been dubbed the “Billy Graham of Harlem,” died 30 years ago this summer.

During his too-short 52 years, Skinner made an indelible, if under-appreciated, mark on the landscape of evangelicalism in the United States, and on me.

I first learned about Tom Skinner around 2015 from a friend who told me about this Black evangelical whose message and story resembled mine.

He was a Black Chistian who closely interacted with white evangelicals. Their acceptance of him depended on him “sticking to the gospel” and not talking about so-called social issues.

When he did, he faced their anger and ostracism. Yet he remained faithful to Jesus and to his calling to preach the gospel in all its heavenly and earthly implications.

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tom skinner
Undated portrait of evangelist Tom Skinner (1942-1994). (Photo: Wheaton College)

Skinner was a remarkable preacher and evangelist. Early in his ministry, some referred to him as “the Black Billy Graham” and white evangelicals celebrated him.

He preached to crowds of inner-city Black people and connected with his audiences in a way white evangelicals never could, if they tried at all.

But he soon fell out of favor with many white evangelicals because, in the tumult of the late 1960s and 1970s, Skinner insisted that the gospel spoke not only to issues of spirituality but racism and material justice.

A powerful rebuke—and vision of freedom

In December 1970, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship brought its triennial Urbana conference to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in Champaign, Illinois.

Urbana ‘70 brought together more than 12,000 college students from across the nation to gin them up for overseas mission trips and evangelism projects. They heard about the urgent mandate to “bring the gospel to the nations” and commit their lives to telling people about Jesus.

But Skinner, in a talk titled “The U.S. Racial Crisis and World Evangelism,” brought a message to the conference designed to give his nearly all-white audience pause.

Before they sailed across an ocean to talk to Black and brown people worldwide about Jesus, they had better check their own racial biases.

According to Skinner, most of the white Christians he knew taught only a Euro-centric version of Jesus.

tom skinner
‘Black And Free’ by Tom Skinner published 1968 (Courtesy image)

He talked about growing up in Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s, where nearly all of the residents were Black, but the images of Christianity were white.

All the pictures of Christ were pictures of an Anglo-Saxon, middle-class, Protestant Republican. There is no way that I can relate to that kind of Christ.

Skinner urged his listeners to focus on the domestic sphere of evangelism rather than solely its international dimensions. He invited them to ponder the racism of their own communities and country so they wouldn’t spread the same poison to far-off nations.

To a great extent, the evangelical church in America supported the status quo…. (I)t preached against any attempt of the black man to stand on his own two feet.

Huddled in their suburban enclaves, white evangelicals looked at Black communities with a combination of apathy and fear that kept most of them from proclaiming the good news in inner-city Black neighborhoods.

Unlike white evangelicalism, Skinner presented a race-conscious version of evangelicalism that did not wave away issues of racial injustice by assuming that change would automatically happen after enough people converted to Christianity.

Instead, Black evangelicals such as Skinner recognized the material concerns of Black people and insisted that comprehensive change had to occur at both the social and the spiritual level.

The crescendo of that well-known speech spoke directly to these concerns.

Proclaim liberation to the captives, preach sight to the blind, set at liberty them that are bruised, go into the world and tell men who are bound mentally, spiritually and physically, ‘The liberator has come!’

In regard to missions both domestically and internationally, Skinner’s expression of evangelicalism disrupted ideas of white centrality and a Eurocentric version of Christianity that sought to convert people not only to a religion but to a white way of life.

Challenging the evangelical status quo

Skinner stood in a long line of Black Christians who denounced the white supremacy often present in missions activity.

His race-conscious approach to Christianity inherently threatened an ideology of missions based explicitly on colorblindness and implicitly on the superiority of white theology, culture, and conceptions of Christ.

The very realities of which Skinner made his audiences aware had the potential to undermine white evangelical power structures and patterns of ministry.

Four months after Skinner delivered his message at Urbana ’70, he made some of the same points on his weekly radio program, broadcast on WMBI, the flagship radio station operated by Moody Bible Institute (MBI) in Chicago.

On April 14, 1971, Skinner received a letter from MBI’s Broadcasting Department, announcing the cancellation of his weekly radio program on Moody’s station.

“We note that the broadcast has been becoming increasingly political with less emphasis on God’s message to all men,” the letter stated.

tom skinner letter

It is an old and frequent tactic of white evangelicals to label any conversation about racism or social justice as “political.”

In subsequent decades, MBI would become an even larger evangelical institution, recently facing multiple scandals and, in line with much of Christian higher education, enrollment declines.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Skinner continued his ministry in various forms. he became chaplain for the football team in Washington, D.C., and committed himself to leadership training and equipping Christians to “infiltrate” the culture with the gospel.

In his work, he was joined by fellow Black evangelicals such as Bill Pannell and his second wife, Barbara William Skinner.

After a short bout with leukemia, Tom Skinner passed away on June 17, 1994, at age 52.

His life and ministry presented an alternate, more inclusive Christianity that sought to make people imitators of Christ rather than whiteness.

This article has been adapted with permission from posts originally published at “Footnotes.”

Jemar Tisby, PhD, a professor of history at Simmons College of Kentucky, wrote “The Color of Compromise” and “How to Fight Racism.” He frequently writes about race, religion, and politics in his newsletter, “Footnotes.”

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10 Responses

  1. (White evangelicals’) acceptance of him depended on him “sticking to the gospel” and not talking about so-called social issues.

    Funny how things have changed today for white evangelicals.

    As Tim Alberta shared in his book, many white conservative pastors in today’s political climate are shunned by their peers and congregants if they simply preach the gospel and avoid MAGA politics.

    1. I met Tom in 1977 when a few of our families were attempting to move to Roxbury as part of an out reach to the community there. We were a bi-racial group and believed the message he preached, that the gospel could have a profound impact if we got honest about justice, judgement and repentance of an Americanized version of Jesus. In the end some other things happened to derail our plans.

      I had the same reaction and thoughts you expressed about the church today doing a 180 and being hijacked by politics.

    2. Politics doesn’t belong in the gospel message at all. Preachers should not be preaching for Trump or Biden, either way. But you should also not be attempting to denigrate people who are in favor of Trump by deliberately labeling them with a perjorative term. That makes you no better than the people you are attempting to smear. It also tells people quite clearly what your worldview is. There is nothing quite so hypocritical as desparaging the behavior of someone you don’t approve of by behaving the exact same way. Good job.

      1. Eddie,

        In 1968, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Wheaton College held a memorial service for him. Timothy LeHaye, fundamentalist pastor and author of the Left Behind books (whose wife founded Concerned Women For America), wrote a letter to the college excoriating them for honoring “a heretic” and someone whose speeches were “responsible for dozens of deaths.”

        We were, and are, part of the problem.

        Today this this is where we are-

        White Evangelicals More Open to Political Violence Than Non-Christians
        Published Oct 26, 2023 at 4:50 PM EDT

        The PRRI poll, released on Wednesday, included what it called “disturbing” results that found almost one-fourth of all Americans agree with the following statement: “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” The new survey found that 23 percent of respondents agreed in 2023, up from 15 percent in 2021.

        Among white evangelical Protestants, 31 percent supported the statement
        https://www.newsweek.com/evangelicals-political-violence-non-christians-1838384

  2. While at MBI from Fall 1971 to Spring 1975, having read Tom Skinner’s book raised my awareness that the Gospel and justice are one and the same. I took the course in Urban Evangelism with Lloyd Lindo who challenged my assumptions through his “political” reading list and dynamic teaching. This drove my volunteer work with project 412, a youth center ministry at 412 W. Chicago in the Cabrini Green Project.
    I thank God for Mr. Lindo’s teaching ministry.

  3. I had long forgotten about Tom Skinner, but I remember him from my youth. A forthright and powerful speaker! Thank you for reminding us of him, Julie.

  4. Evangelicals like L. Nelson Bell [Billy Graham’s father in law and a founder of Christianity Today] made things even worse by saying that segregation was the will of God, and that if we just preached the Gospel, then the individual conversions that resulted would change things…but segregation must continue because it was God’s will. If you think I made that up, google his name and see what you find in his essays for the Southern Presbyterian Journal. And he was writing these essays as late as the 1960s–during the height of the Civil Rights movement!

  5. “Skinner urged his listeners to focus on the domestic sphere of evangelism rather than solely its international dimensions.”
    I very much hope you’re wrong. I hope he did not say the foolishness you accuse him of.
    It’s been 2000 years since the Lord commanded us to make disciples in all nations. Yet 1/3 of the world’s population lives in tribes and cultures that are less than 1% Christian.
    Coca-Cola is only about 140 years old, and it’s already much more well-known than the gospel of Jesus.
    THAT ^ is the church scandal which this website should be reporting on, as well as the other lesser scandals.

    1. Mr. Allcott, I have to disagree. From the late 1940s through the 1960s Southern Baptist Missionaries were telling their mission board that very thing. I remember reading in one of the SBC mission magazines of an African student who wanted to know the name of the university the missionary who had preached to his village had graduated from. The student wanted to apply to that university. That missionary wrote in to the magazine, and told how he had to tell the student in sorrow that this student could not attend this SBC school. The school was segregated, and the missionary knew this student would not be welcomed and admitted. Yes, the SBC missionary was making disciples in another land, in obedience to the Great Commission. But the SBC people who ran that university did not see how support of Jim Crow was sabotaging that mission effort. When any church or denomination lifts an evil above the Great Commission, and still claim they are obeying Jesus, we should not be surprised at the results.

    2. John –

      While I understand the sentiment of your response, I also understand where Skinner was coming from. I see FAR too many American Christians ignoring the evangelism minefields in their own families and communities to take what accounts to little more than extended vacations to places like Kenya, where they post on social media about the safari they were able to fit into their schedule.
      I have seen this happen at my church, and questioned why funding an expensive mission trip to Kenya was more important than heading up the street to the south side of Chicago (where our money would go a lot farther). The responses were little more than excuses and comments on how Kenya is a more fun place to take the youth over their spring break. I was appalled at the priorities – or lack thereof.

      Yes, we are to make disciples of all nations. And there are a lot of fantastic organizations and ways to reach out to places where they have little to no access to God’s Word.
      But evangelism does include our own families and communities.

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