Theology Thursdays: James Cone

James Cone was born in Fordyce, Arkansas in 1939 and grew up in the small town of Bearden. There he experienced the life-affirming community of the black Church alongside the soul-crushing reality of white racism. Through sermons, songs, and prayers that called on God's concern for their well-being, the Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church taught Cone "how to deal with the contradictions of life and provided a way to create meaning in a society not of [his] own making."

Bearden, Arkansas had a population of 400 blacks and 800 whites. The whites in Bearden, as Cone explains, "tried to make us believe that God created black people to be white people's servants." White racism led to "separate but equal" schools, segregated movies and restaurants, beatings and arrests, and political and economic inequality. Cone continually questioned how the whites in his town could consider themselves good Christians, and devised - "but never enacted out of fear" - plans to disrupt their Sunday services and test their commitment to the Gospel.


Cone was called to the ministry at age 16, and became a pastor the following year, 1954, when he went off to college. During his sophomore, junior, and senior years, Cone was a pastor at several small churches. He was also a reporter for his school, and followed closely the Montgomery bus boycott organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. Even though he didn't feel equipped to organize his church members, Cone "wanted to be like King," and was inspired to further his career as a minister by going to graduate school. He attended Garrett Theological Seminary in Wisconsin, and received M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Northwestern University in 1963 and 1965.


It was the voice of Malcolm X that first made James Cone question his theology. Malcolm X proclaimed loudly that "Christianity is a white man's religion," and said that blacks should adopt an understanding of God that grew out of their own history and experience. He railed against a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus and a belief in the delayed rewards of heaven.

Still, Cone, then on the faculty of Adrian College in Michigan, continued to believe in the nonviolent, Christian love of Martin Luther King, Jr.

It was the northern riots and Stokely Carmichael's call for "Black Power!" during the Meredith March in Mississippi that led him to a crisis in faith.


"For me, the burning theological question was, how can I reconcile Christianity and Black Power, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s idea of nonviolence, and Malcolm X's 'by any means necessary philosophy?'" (Preface to Black Theology and Black Power, p. viii.)

Christianity, as he understood it, no longer explained or held meaning in the turbulent years of the late 1960s. "I was within inches of leaving the Christian faith." If he were to remain a Christian, Cone would have to reinterpret his faith to respond to such demanding times.

James Cone currently teaches at Union Theological Seminary. He remains an influential theologian, an important writer, and an inspiring preacher and teacher.

This information was first presented by PBS.

Thursday, August 2, 2007