I have an immense amount of respect for Albert Mohler and the institution he leads, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, for having commissioned a hard-hitting report looking into the seminary’s racist past. This is a profoundly Christian act of historical reflection and repentance. Read the report and Mohler’s cover letter here.
We have been guilty of a sinful absence of historical curiosity. We knew, and we could not fail to know, that slavery and deep racism were in the story. We comforted ourselves that we could know this, but since these events were so far behind us, we could move on without awkward and embarrassing investigations and conversations.
In the larger secular world, just about every major institution of American public life is being called to account for some aspect of its history. This cultural conversation, often confused and intense, is far from over. I also believe that no secular worldview can bear the weight of this reckoning. Thanks be to God, we hold to a theology grounded in Holy Scripture that is able to bear this weight. We know that evil is not merely moral wrong; it is sin, a falling short of the glory of God and the breaking of God’s commandment. We understand the wrong of American slavery and segregation to be sin, a rebellion against God’s creation of human beings equally in his image.
We do have heroes and heroines, even as we find them in the Bible. But, in the end, the Bible reveals only one true hero, Jesus Christ. Even the heroes and heroines of faith honored in the Bible, as in Hebrews 11, were sinners. That same Bible is honest about their sin. We must be equally honest about our theological, denominational, and institutional heroes.
The founding faculty of this school—all four of them—were deeply involved in slavery and deeply complicit in the defense of slavery. Many of their successors on this faculty, throughout the period of Reconstruction and well into the twentieth century, advocated segregation, the inferiority of African-Americans, and openly embraced the ideology of the Lost Cause of southern slavery.
We must repent of our own sins, we cannot repent for the dead. We must, however, offer full lament for a legacy we inherit, and a story that is now ours. But this report is not the shattering of images. Boyce, Broadus, Manly, and Williams would be first to make that clear. As Christians, we know no total sanctification or perfection in this life. We await something better, our future glorification by Christ.
We also rejoice in knowing that Christ is creating a new humanity, purchased with his precious blood. Thanks be to God, we are seeing the promise of that new humanity, right here on the campus of Southern Seminary and Boyce College. Right here, right now, we see students and faculty representing many races and nations and ethnicities. Our commitment is to see this school, founded in a legacy of slavery, look every day more like the people born anew by the gospel of Jesus Christ, showing Christ’s glory in redeemed sinners drawn from every tongue and tribe and people and nation.
We are particularly humbled by the grace and love of the many African-Americans who are counted among our alumni, students, faculty, and trustees. Our commitment is that this school will honor you, cherish you, and welcome you—everyday, evermore. You are many and you are precious to this school. You are helping us to write the present and the future, by God’s grace and to God’s glory.
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.
We do not evaluate our Christian forebears from a position of our own moral innocence. Christians know that there is no such innocence. But we must judge, even as we will be judged, by the unchanging Word of God and the deposit of biblical truth.
Consistent with our theology and the demands of truth, we will not attempt to rewrite the past, nor can we unwrite the past. Instead, we will write the truth as best we can know it. We will tell the story in full, and not hide. By God’s grace, we will hold without compromise to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
That is what Christian courage looks like.
The report itself makes for painful reading, to put it mildly. Though none of my ancestors were ever Southern Baptists, no white Southerners with roots in the region are untainted by the kind of sin the report discusses.
Two parts of the report jumped off the page:
Note well: Brown was both a senior political leader in the South, and a leader within the church. He explicitly repudiated the idea that slavery was a necessary evil, but said that it was a positive good. And he said flat-out that slavery was “one of the prime causes of the war,” not ancillary to it, as some Southerners still maintain.
The first black graduate of the seminary was not allowed to march in the graduation ceremony, for fear of running afoul of segregation statutes. That did not happen in the 19th century; that happened within living memory.
Mohler’s introduction to the report seems to me to be exactly right: recognizing the severity of the evil the seminary’s forebears once approved of, and repudiating that evil. But at the same time, those naming the evil do not take a holier-than-thou approach to their ancestors, and, judging from Mohler’s introduction, are not willing to allow those who spite the Southern Baptist churches to weaponize this act of examination of conscience and public repentance. Good for them.
What SBTS did is an act of strength and confidence, not of weakness and fear. It is an act of moral courage, and of true Christian discipleship.
By the way, if you think this was confined to the Southern Baptist church, think again. Here’s an excerpt from the black Louisiana actor Wendell Pierce’s memoir, The Wind In The Reeds, on which I collaborated with him. “Mamo” was his grandmother, who lived in a small town on the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans:
In the book, Wendell’s uncle, L.C. Edwards, tells another story about a white Irish priest from Brooklyn assigned to serve the black Catholics of their town. Contrary to the behavior of his predecessors, that priest fought for his black flock. Father Maloney upset the white power-holders, who protested to Archbishop Rummel in New Orleans that this Yankee priest was stirring up trouble. The archbishop told them to leave him alone, that he was doing the Lord’s work. I love L.C.’s salty remembrance of the Catholic schools (“Papo” was Wendell’s grandfather, L.C.’s father):
Race, religion, and the American South: mysteries within mysteries. Who can comprehend it? May God bless Al Mohler and his team for what they have done.