, Contributing Writer
An essential seminary connected to the Southern Baptist Convention released a report detailing their history of racism and support for slavery as part of an effort to recognize their past sins on race issues. However, many are asking to what end?
The 71-page document entitled “Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary,” was released Dec. 12. The Louisville-based Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is the oldest of the six seminaries affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. The school was founded in 1859 in Greenville, South Carolina, where it was at first located on the campus of Furman University.
While the report bears its soul, it also takes no responsibility for the devastation and trauma it caused in the lives of many Black people who suffered through a century of such bestial behavior.
The seminary moved to Louisville in 1877, where it remains today on Lexington Road. The report was commissioned by seminary President Albert Mohler Jr. and represents a year of research conducted by faculty and former faculty. “We have been guilty of a sinful absence of historical curiosity,” Mr. Mohler wrote in a letter introducing the report. “We knew, and we could not fail to know, that slavery and deep racism were in the story,” he added. “We must repent of our own sins, we cannot repent for the dead,” Mr. Mohler Jr. also noted.
He said buildings on the seminary’s campus today are named after each of the four slave-owning founders but that no statues of founders are on the campus. He said the seminary does not plan on removing the founders’ names from the buildings.
“In light of the burdens of history, some schools hasten to remove names, announce plans, and declare moral superiority. That is not what I intend to do, nor do I believe that to be what the Southern Baptist Convention or our Board of Trustees would have us to do,” he wrote.
The question to be asked then is what you will do? This should be the million-dollar question asked by concerned Black Christians and not sidestepped.
“From a Christian perspective, erasing the past and hiding the past is not the appropriate response, but telling the whole truth is,” said Mr. Mohler. “Just like the nation has sad chapters in its history, so does this school.” On its 150th anniversary in 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination in the country, issued a formal apology for its pro-slavery and prosegregation views.
The sordid history reveals the seminary’s founding faculty all held slaves. James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, Basil Manly Jr., and William Williams together owned more than 50 slaves. They invested capital in slaves who could earn for their owners an annual cash return on their investment. The seminary’s early faculty and trustees defended the righteousness of slaveholding. The report cites as an example the writings of one of its founders.
Basil Manly Sr., one of the most influential Baptist ministers in the South, served as president of the University of Alabama 1837-1855 and chairman of the seminary’s board of trustees 1859-1868 wrote: “Since God in his providence had established this permanent relationship, it would be folly and sin to seek to disrupt it. We cannot alter the facts, nor the providence of God. We must choose either submission to an overruling providence designed by God’s wisdom and goodness to bring good out of this dispensation, or else resistance to omnipotence.”
Providence indicated it was in accordance with God’s will that Blacks should be slaves. To oppose the enslavement of Blacks was, therefore, to rebel against God’s authority.
After emancipation, the seminary faculty opposed racial equality. In the Reconstruction era, seminary faculty supported the restoration of White rule in the South.
Joseph E. Brown, the seminary’s most important donor and chairman of its Board of Trustees 1880-1894, earned much of his fortune by the exploitation of mostly Black convictlease laborers.
Among other findings of the report:
– Some faculty, trustees and students fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
– In the 19th and early 20th centuries, seminary faculty tried to use science to support their belief in the “superiority of White civilization and that this justified racial inequality.”
Up until the 1940s, seminary faculty supported Black education, provided that it was racially segregated, according to the report. However, faculty regularly refused to admit Black applicants to the seminary. The seminary finally admitted Blacks to its degree programs in 1940 and integrated its classrooms in 1951, according to the report. The seminary’s first Black graduate was Garland Offutt in 1944, but Offutt was not allowed to participate in regular commencement activities at the seminary, according to the report. Seminary faculty generally started to support civil rights for Blacks, the report states, but had mixed views on the civil rights movement and were uncomfortable with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “direct-action tactics.”
The first Black faculty member, T. Vaughn Walker, joined the seminary in 1986.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a Baptist minister from Durham, N.C., pointed out, “While it’s notable that one of the most prominent and historic Christian educational institutions in the country is spelling out the nuts and bolts of its racist past, if Mohler–and conservative American Christianity overall– want to address the legacy of slavery, it will take more self-honesty than this report musters,” in an article published in the Washington Post.
“If Mohler and others are genuinely committed to what the report calls ‘awkward and embarrassing’ conversations that Southern Baptists have avoided for generations, I suggest we begin by asking what role the legacy of slavery and racism plays in Southern Baptists’ overwhelming support of White nationalism today,” added Min. Wilson-Hartgrove.
Reverend William B. Moore of Tenth Memorial Baptist Church in Philadelphia said that while he did not read the report, he was raised in the South, and the Southern Baptist was predominant in the state of North Carolina where he is from.
“In many respects, we continue to walk in this type of treatment. Proof positive of this is the strange silence of Southern Baptists as well as evangelicals on the behavior of this president that is currently in office. There has been a strange silence on his behavior and lack of condemnations of racism and Jim Crowism,” Rev. Moore told The Final Call.
“I would say the last thing we need is another study. What we need now is some action. An action that will bring about a change. It’s one thing to condemn an act, but it is another thing to correct it,” he added.
While recognizing the significance of the report, Alison Greene, a professor of American religious history at Emory University, said the report fails to discuss more candidly the denomination’s recent history with White supremacy and seems to suggest the civil rights movement ended in 1964. “You don’t get the whole story of the seminary’s history of White supremacy,” Prof. Greene said. “They are almost claiming it is not relevant.” Prof. Greene said the seminary could take more meaningful steps by taking a stand on voting rights today or exploring some form of reparations for its past treatment of Blacks. (The Associated Press contributed to this report.)