Book Review: Richmond’s Priests and Prophets Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era Douglas E. Thompson

Richmond’s Priests and Prophets examines Richmond, Virginia, during the 1940s and 1950s, exploring the ways in which white Christian leaders navigated the shifting legal and political battles around desegregation even as members of their congregations struggled with their own understanding of a segregated society.


Douglas E. Thompson’s Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era presents a compelling study of religious leaders’ impact on the political progression of Richmond, Virginia, during the time of desegregation. Scrutinizing this city as an entry point into white Christians’ struggles with segregation during the 1950s, Thompson analyzes the internal tensions between ministers, the members of their churches, and an evolving world.


In the mid-twentieth-century American South, white Christians were challenged repeatedly by new ideas and social criteria. Neighborhood demographics were shifting, public schools were beginning to integrate, and ministers’ influence was expanding. Although many pastors supported the transition into desegregated society, the social pressure to keep life divided along racial lines placed Richmond’s ministers on a collision course with forces inside their own congregations. Thompson reveals that, to navigate the ideals of Christianity within a complex historical setting, white religious leaders adopted priestly and prophetic roles.


Moreover, the author argues that, until now, the historiography has not viewed white Christian churches with the nuance necessary to understand their diverse reactions to desegregation. His approach reveals the ways in which desegregationists attempted to change their communities’ minds, while also demonstrating why change came so slowly—highlighting the deeply emotional and intellectual dilemma of many southerners whose worldview was fundamentally structured by race and class hierarchies.


Douglas E. Thompson is a professor of history and southern studies at Mercer University. He is the editor of the Journal of Southern Religion and the coeditor of Jessie Mercer’s Pulpit: Preaching in a Community of Faith and Learning.


“Richmond’s Priests and Prophets makes a substantial contribution to scholarship in an empirically grounded and conceptually engaging way.”

—Paul Harvey, author of Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity


“Thoroughly examining the clergy in one upper-South city, but one that just happened to have been the capital of the Confederacy, Thompson provides a compelling argument that the standard evaluation of the white southern clergy as too invested in advancing up the ministerial ladder ‘ain’t necessarily so’ and raises a cautionary voice against the ‘Silent South’ thesis.”

—Andrew Manis, author of A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth


About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.