Religion and the Public Conscience: Ecumenical Civil Rights Work in Seattle, 1940-1960 [Review]

reviewed by Karl Bridges

Religion and the Public Conscience: Ecumenical Civil Rights Work in Seattle, 1940-1960
Randi J. WalkerReligion and the Public Conscience
Winchester,UK:  Circle Books, 2012
ISBN 978-178099081, paperback
192 pages, $22.95

An important issue in religious studies is the examination of the roles that religious communities played in the social development of communities in relation to issues such as poverty and race relations. In Religion and the Public Conscience: Ecumenical Civil Rights Work in Seattle, 1940-1960,  religious scholar Randi Walker provides an overview of this process in the urban Northwest.

Walker takes the cases of two major organizations, the Seattle Council of Churches and the Christian Friends for Racial Equality, to illustrate the role of religion in formation of the idea of a “public conscience” that influenced race relations. Starting with an overview of Seattle from its founding until 1940, she goes on to discuss the philosophical concept of public conscience followed by  a discussion of specific people and events as they influenced developments in the Seattle area.

The modern development of Seattle took place in the context of overall societal changes in the United States.  The northwest region was both less religious and, to some extent, more diverse than other regions of the country, especially during and after World War II, In this context the these organizations approached issues of discrimination, such as segregated blood banks and restrictive real estate covenants, in an effort to create a more integrated society.   These two organizations also provided  venues in which people of different cultures could interact socially.

Walker places these events in  religious and philosophical context relating them to both the views of various religious groups as well as philosophers such as Josiah Royce. In documenting the activities of the organizations and the individual members, the author provides an illustration of how religious communities, especially Christian ones, responded to the call to work out concrete changes in society in keeping with their stated philosophical principles. She points out that the history of race relations was such that the relationships between various racial groups in Seattle resulted in this area having a relatively smooth transition to a more integrated society as opposed to other communities in the United States which experienced much more tension and even outright violence.

This book is a well-documented and well written account of the role of religion in the development of improvements in race relations in Seattle in the mid-20th century.  It is highly focused so, although it provides some good background of history of religion in the United States, it would primarily be of interest to the specialist in either American religious history or urban history.  This book is recommended for academic libraries or for individuals with an interest in religious history of the Northwest.

Karl Bridges is the Assistant University Librarian for Systems at Eli M. Oboler Library at Idaho State University.

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