Tom Skinner’s “New Beginning”

Handbill advertising Tom Skinner evangelistic meetings held in St. Petersburg, Florida from October 28 to November 4, 1973.

In celebration of Black History Month this February, the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives commemorates the spiritual legacy of Tom Skinner (1942-1994), Christian evangelist, social reformer, and persistent critic of racial divisions within American culture. Collection 430: Papers of Tom Skinner contains oral history interviews, correspondence, articles, newspaper clippings, photographs, and other materials documenting the development of Tom Skinner Associates and provides a fascinating glimpse into Skinner’s tireless efforts to challenge the white evangelical community to engage issues of systemic racism, while still prioritizing his call to Christian evangelism.

Portrait of Tom Skinner shortly after his conversion. Notation on the reverse reads: “Rev. Skinner. Brooklyn.”

In an oral history interview recorded four years before his death, Tom Skinner describes his childhood in New York City. Born in Harlem in 1942 to a Baptist minister father and devout mother, Skinner recalls an early emphasis on education and self-improvement inherited from his father who was deeply influenced by W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. Despite his Christian upbringing, the adolescent Skinner encountered competing attraction—black nationalism and gang violence prevalent in Harlem in the 1950s and ’60s. Skinner eventually rose to leadership in the notorious gang, the Harlem Lords, before a dramatic conversion experience in October 1956 prompted him to abandon a life of street violence for one of Christian ministry. Skinner began giving evangelistic messages soon after, eventually meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1958, obtaining seminary education at Manhattan Bible Institute, and forming the Harlem Evangelistic Association, which launched its first evangelistic rally at the iconic Apollo Theater in Harlem in the summer of 1962. Skinner went on to participate in the National Association of Black Evangelicals; found Tom Skinner Associates, which focused on evangelism, leadership training, and community development; and serve as chaplain of the Washington Redskins in the 1970s and ’80s.

In addition to his many evangelistic rallies and speaking engagements, Skinner also authored multiple books, several of which are held in the Buswell Library Evangelism & Missions Collection at Wheaton College, including the compelling account of his journey to conversion and Christian ministry Black and Free (1968), How Black is the Gospel? (1970), Words of Revolution (1970), and If Christ is the Answer, What Are the Questions? (1977).

Poster promoting Tom Skinner’s nightly evangelistic meetings at the Coliseum in Chicago from April 19 – 26, 1970. The sketch at the top of the poster highlights Skinner’s connection to Harlem, NY, where he was raised and became involved in gang violence until his conversion to Christianity.

Across four decades of ministry, Tom Skinner’s message was marked by a consistent focus on the cross of Jesus Christ, a prophetic call for racial unity among Christians across social, denominational, and political divides, and unswerving conviction that American evangelicals must both preach the gospel and address the social ills of their communities.

Tom Skinner delivering his controversial Urbana address. December 1970.

While his ministry was cut tragically short by his early death at age 52 from acute lymphatic leukemia, Tom Skinner’s legacy as a patient bridge builder and prophetic voice is reflected far outside the boundaries of Tom Skinner Associates. In addition to Collection 430, Skinner’s influence is documented in multiple collections throughout the Archives,  starting with his electrifying message “The U.S. Racial Crisis and World Evangelism” delivered at the 1970 Urbana Missionary Convention hosted by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The controversial plenary address——popularly known as “Christ the Liberator”—combined with the recently published How Black Is The Gospel? [1970] catapulted the young evangelist to white evangelical attention.

The charismatic speaker at a Voice of Calvary event in Mendenhall, MS. Undated.

Other archival collections documenting Skinner’s visionary leadership include Collection 538: Records of the National Summits on Black Church Development, two conferences held in 1984 and 1986 to stimulate more effective cooperation between Black evangelical leaders and produce resources for Black churches and ministries. Skinner’s messages at the 1986 Summit in Detroit are included in the video series of Collection 538, alongside speakers like Matthew Parker, William Pannell, and John Perkins, among others.

Another collection of note is Collection 548 Records of the Atlanta ’88 Congress on Evangelizing Black America, which contains both audio and video recordings from plenary and workshop sessions by both Tom Skinner and his wife Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner. According to its promotional material, Atlanta ’88 was convened to “1) Increase knowledge of the Scriptures, 2) Offer how-to methods for effectively communicating the Gospel to others, 3) Encourage support and sharing of resources with other Christians, and 4) Challenge the Black churches in different denominations about the responsibility of the world evangelization.”

Undated portrait of evangelist Tom Skinner.

The impetus for the ‘88 Atlanta Congress can be traced to the National Convocation on Evangelizing Ethnic America held in Houston in 1985. While the stated objectives of Houston ’85 included strengthening networks and creating greater resources for evangelism among minority groups in the United States, many Black Christian leaders believed the Convocation overlooked the unique concerns of the African American population. Before the final session of Houston ’85, several Black leaders had already formed a task force to convene a conference focused on evangelism within the African American community by African American evangelists. By the time the Atlanta Congress on Evangelizing Black America opened in August 1988, Tom Skinner was already a seasoned evangelist, speaker, author, and persistent critic of racism in America and the American evangelical church. As one of the featured evening speakers at the Congress, Skinner addressed a range of topics and issues, including the role of the Black church in the broader scope of American evangelicalism; the pressing need for greater Black participation in the work of evangelism; the necessity of cooperative evangelism efforts across racial divides; and the nature and content of the gospel contextualized for twentieth-century American audiences. Tom Skinner’s Atlanta ’88 message was recorded in two sections and Part 1 and Part 2 are available for online and include an introduction by Elward Ellis and several musical selections.

Another noteworthy source of information on Tom Skinner’s ministry is the Archives’ oral history collection with William E. Pannell described in Collection 498. Recorded in five sessions between 1995 and 2007, the interviews contain Dr. Pannell’s memories of working with Tom Skinner Associates as a young man, the challenge of evangelism using approaches and techniques developed by white evangelical communities, and Pannell’s assessment of Tom Skinner’s legacy. The audio files for those interviews are available through the finding aid for Collection 498 here.

For more information about Tom Skinner’s life and ministry, browse the finding aid for Collection 430, listen to his 1990 oral history interview with an archivist, or view a complete list of collections containing materials by or about the evangelist here.

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