Bootleggers and Baptists in Bonhoeffer’s America


Those who never examine how they are connected to the history around them, it seems to me, miss a great deal of the marvelous complexity of God’s creation. And so I begin with the 20 minute drive south out of Roanoke along state road 220 into Franklin County which, during Prohibition, earned the name “Moonshine Capital of the World.” One estimate suggested 99 out of 100 residents of the county were involved, in some way, in the manufacturer, distribution or sale of illegal distilled spirits which should cause the sizeable local Dunkard community no small amount of angst.
The movie Lawless chronicles the exploits of the Bondurant Brothers, the bootlegging (called “blockading,” locally) family headed by Jack Bondurant, and including his brothers Howard and Forrest. The film is based upon an historical novel written by Jack Bondurant’s grandson, Matt, but the Bondurants were real people, and so was their distilling empire. (There are a number of scenes, and language, in the film that prevents us from recommending it.) It almost all ended one day, at a shootout with an alleged crooked deputy, at a bridge over the Magadee Creek. Jack sported the scar from the gunshot wound up until his death at the age of 91.
Franklin County is a Virginia anomaly in many ways, not the least of which is its low level of religious affiliation—measurably lower than the national average. Apart from the German Dunkards (Church of the Brethren), there are Southern Baptists and a smattering of what the census calls “other.” As in much of Southwest Virginia, a variety of local dialects and colloquialisms greet the attentive ear.
While the Bondurant era was “modern” Franklin County, at the end of the Civil War, it was sparsely populated along the Magadee Creek, well above the “fall line” below which the streams and rivers of the Piedmont became navigable. One small dwelling at Martin’s Mill along the Magadee was home to a “mostly Indian” woman and her daughter, Sally Dunning, a “free woman of color.” Sally named her son Adam, after her brother. Little could she have imagined that her young boy would grow up to become pastor of what was, at the time, America’s largest Protestant church.
In an era when many mixed race individuals tried to hide their African American roots, the light-skinned, blue-eyed Adam Clayton Powell chose to identify himself as black. He would work his way through seminary, and then on to Yale, eventually accepting a call to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York. Imbued with a strong sense of justice, Powell would straddle the line between the “social gospel” advocate’s emphasis on justice issues, and the conservative theology of the African-American churches. In some ways, he proved a man far ahead of his times, rock-ribbed Republican who challenged the church to live up to its theology. (His son, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., would squander most of his inherited moral capital on serial marriages, public scandals and eventual self-imposed exile on the island of Bimini).
Yet, it was in the preaching of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. that the young seminarian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would finally find the authentic sanctorum communio—loving fellowship in action—he found so lacking in the liberal churches and seminaries of 1930s America. Powell also found in the young Bonhoeffer a kindred spirit, not only placing Bonhoeffer in charge of teaching a boys’ Sunday School class, but inviting the German Protestant to preach from the pulpit of his huge Harlem church. Powell, Sr.’s bold stand against racism and public corruption would have a profound impact on sharpening Bonhoeffer’s own struggle to overcome the constraints of Lutheran “two kingdom” theology. In Harlem, Bonhoeffer would learn that the Christian faith brings with it an absolute call to action in society. From a young lad born along the Magadee in Martin’s Mill, Virginia, Bonhoeffer would not only learn the cost of discipleship, he would eventually pay it.
I have tried my best to understand Bonhoeffer’s theology and concluded at long last that there simply isn’t one. There is the Bonhoeffer sitting under von Harnack in Germany and the Bonhoeffer at Union Seminary. There is the Bonhoeffer who collaborated uneasily with Karl Barth, and then there is the Bonhoeffer in the pew at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Bonhoeffer with his black gospel records regaling his students in the underground seminary with stories of America. Bonhoeffer the conspirator. Bonhoeffer hanging naked in the prison yard eleven days before American troops would arrive, his execution personally ordered by Adolph Hitler. So much presumption, so many questions we would like to ask. In the end, we must be satisfied on the one hand with the uneven picture composed from his surviving books, sermons and notes, and on the other, with the indelible picture etched in our mind’s eye of his death.