Negative and positive responses to preaching progress from the pulpit
Finlator discusses the response of his congregation and others to his outspoken support for civil rights and economic justice. He confesses that sometimes negative responses to his activism caused him trouble, but he had many supporters as well. He says, with no small amount of irony, that his religious calling gives him a sense of self-importance that buttresses him against criticism.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with William W. Finlator, April 19, 1985. Interview C-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
I know that when
you're speaking out on civil rights issues, perhaps early and
late, it takes a certain personal toll on a minister and his family when
he champions unpopular causes. Talk about that a little bit.
- WILLIAM W. FINLATOR:
That of course is true. And any minister that becomes involved in issues
like these has got to know that there's a price to pay. I
have been singularly fortunate through my years in that only for the
very last few years in my ministry has my position with the church been
at stake. I've always been aware that the people in the
congregations have not agreed with me and I've always tried
to listen to their grievances. But none of the churches—and
this is amazing Jay—in Pittsboro, in Weldon, in Elizabeth
City, none of them came to the point where they penalized me in
reduction of my salary or asked for my retirement. That never happened.
It never happened until I passed retirement age here in Raleigh.
But you have to realize that it's a dangerous game to play,
putting it in that kind of terminology. It's difficult on
your family. To be fired as a pastor of your church is almost to be
without hope, because to be fired by a church for your social activities
means that very rarely will any other church call you. You have to go
into some other field to survive. But on the other
hand, you have an obligation to understand the congregation. For most
Baptists the race issue was a difficult thing. I've had
people tell me that the first time they saw a black person coming into
our church they were gone for good. In the churches that I've
served the people who ran the industries were on the deacons board.
It's unthinkable that they'd support labor unions.
To be opposed to war, when you have members of your church who were
serving on the foreign field … and to come out and tell the
congregation that this was an illegal war and that we ought not to be in
it, we ought to get out of it, our country stands in Judgement
… these things are terribly hard on a congregation. And
through the years you lose members and they don't come back.
And it's painful because people whom you lose are your
friends as well as your church members. And this is a toll that you have
- JAY JENKINS:
What about reactions from the non-members of your congregation?
Don't you get some reaction from people who are not members
of your church?
- WILLIAM W. FINLATOR:
Oh, absolutely. Every time you do these things you have all kind of
response out in the world. The only thing that keeps you going
… You must make this concession: ministers are vain critters
and we have a high sense of our self-importance and this conflicts with
the situation too. But, if you have the feeling,
Jay, that you're given to these causes for life, because
they're Biblically Justified, because your Christian
conscience demands it, then there is an exhiliration in it and the risk
taken is part of the fun. And you hope that you'll survive.
And you always know that there are people out there—in the
church and outside the church—who understand what
you're doing and who want to support you.
I used to get letters from all over the state, from other churches, in
times of great crisis, and they would say to me, "We wish our
minister would say what you say. It needs to be said and it needs to be
done." So all these things were supportive. But you know that
your finance committee will remind you that the contributions are
falling off. And you know that your evangelistic committee will tell you
that people are not coming to church, you're not getting
recruits, they're staying away. Other churches are drawing
them and you're not. And you know that people will come and
tell you that so-and-so has left us and joined the Episcopal church, the
Presbyterian church, or another Baptist church and these are anguishing
times. And you really begin to question yourself. You say,
"Well, I really am a damned fool after all. I'm a