Dr. Joseph T. Reiff, an Emory & Henry College professor of religion, has been honored by the Mississippi Institute of Arts & Letters for his recent book that highlights biblical teachings against racism and a the efforts of a group of ministers during the time of segregation who bravely fought to convey those teaching to white congregations in Mississippi.
Reiff was honored with the 2016 Mississippi Institute of Arts & Letters (MIAL) Award for Nonfiction for his book, “Born of Conviction: White Methodists and Mississippi’s Closed Society.”
The recently released book explores the theological and ethical understandings of the signers of the “Born of Conviction” statement, which offered an alternative to the segregationist party line. The statement reminded readers of the Methodist Discipline’s claim that the teachings of Jesus permit “no discrimination because of race, color or creed.”
The book provides an account of the experiences of the 28 ministers who signed the statement before, during and after the statement’s publication. It also offers a detailed portrait of both public and private expressions of the theology and ethics of white Mississippi Methodists in general.
Reaction among Mississippi Methodists as well as the public at large to the statement was strongly negative. Three of the ministers who signed it were immediately kicked out of their churches. By mid-1964, 18 of the signers of the statement had left Mississippi in the face of harsh challenges.
At the same time, however, some people in Mississippi voiced public affirmation, many more voiced private support and ultimately the statement caused a significant crack in the public unanimity of Mississippi white resistance.
The Born of Conviction statement was an expression of the passion that the signers had for their cause, Reiff said. “Ministers were saying that they knew what they were signing was going to get them in trouble, but they wanted to say it this strongly anyway.”
Reiff, who is chair of the E&H Religion Department, served as a United Methodist pastor in the Mississippi Conference from 1980 to 1985. He grew up in Mississippi and graduated from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.
The prestigious MIAL awards, first made in 1980, are presented in seven categories: Fiction, Non-fiction, Visual Art, Musical Composition (Concert), Musical Composition (Popular), Photography, and Poetry.