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Southern Baptist seminary report ties founders to slaveholding, white supremacy

Boyce College on the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., on Nov. 29, 2018. Boyce College is named for James Boyce, the seminary’s first president, who was a slaveholder. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (RNS) — Founders of one of the nation’s largest seminaries owned more than 50 slaves and said that slavery was morally correct.

But an internal investigation found no evidence the school was directly involved in the slave trade, according to the seminary’s president.

A 71-page report released Wednesday (Dec. 12) from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship seminary, says its early trustees and faculty “defended the righteousness of slaveholding.”

“They argued first that slaveholding was righteous because the inferiority of blacks indicated God’s providential will for their enslavement, corroborated by Noah’s prophetic cursing of Ham,” the report reads. “They argued second that slaveholding was righteous because southern slaves accrued such remarkable material and spiritual benefits from it.”

The seminary was founded in 1859 in Greenville, S.C., but suspended operations in 1862 during the Civil War and reopened in Louisville in 1877.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845 when its members defended the right of missionaries to own slaves. Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. told Religion News Service the investigation expanded the knowledge and truth of what that defense meant.

“What we did not know and should have known was the degree to which open expressions of white racial supremacy were a part of the defense of slavery even on the part of some of the founding faculty of this school,” he said.

The report demonstrates how interwoven Southern Seminary’s history has been with the wider racial and political history of the denomination and the nation. It follows a 1995 resolution passed by Southern Baptists on the 150th anniversary of the denomination in which they said “we lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery” and “we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty.”

Brantley Gasaway, chair of Bucknell University’s religious studies department, said the report, like the earlier resolution, is “symbolically significant.” It shows that some Southern Baptist leaders have grown in their sensitivity to diversity and racial reconciliation, he said.

But he said it did not point to substantive policy or structural changes.

“The leaders of Southern Seminary confess and lament their racist heritage, but they pledge only to continue to welcome and celebrate racial diversity at their institution,” said Gasaway, whose research focuses on evangelicals. “Such an approach reflects most evangelicals’ view that racial reconciliation does not necessarily include any reparations or recompense for the injustices suffered by minorities.”

Mohler said his decision to call for a one-year investigation by a team of six faculty — three African-American and three white — was prompted by actions of other institutions of higher education, specifically Princeton University, which released a report last year on its ties to slavery, including the sale of slaves on its campus.

Mohler said Southern was not found to be involved in the slave trade as an institution.

Asked if the seminary will apologize for its founders’ stances, Mohler said he could offer “a very clear statement of institutional sorrow,” but it is not possible to apologize for the dead.

“We certainly want to make very clear that we are a very different institution than we were then,” he said, noting its more recent history of inviting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the school in 1961. That visit prompted white Southern opponents in the Baptist denomination to withhold money from the school and the seminary’s president at the time to issue an apology.

Asked if the seminary is repenting for its ties to slavery, Mohler said “to the extent that repentance rightly applies, we surely repent.”

“The problem is theologically repenting for the dead,” he said.  “We cannot repent for the dead.”

A portrait of James Boyce, the first president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, hangs in the president’s office in Louisville, Ky. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

In his written introduction, Mohler said he rejoices in the “new humanity” now demonstrated on his campus. He expressed appreciation for the school’s black students, alumni, trustees and faculty. In its 2017-18 academic year, the seminary had 228 blacks enrolled, comprising 4.26 percent of the total student body of 5,354.

“Right here, right now, we see students and faculty representing many races and nations and ethnicities,” he wrote. “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.”

Among other findings: 

  • Seminary faculty sought to preserve slavery after the election of President Lincoln. James Boyce, the seminary’s first president, “believed that sudden secession would be disastrous, and that negotiation with the Republicans would produce guarantees of protection for slavery.” Boyce was the only one of the four founding professors who served in the Confederate Army, where he was a chaplain.
  • John A. Broadus, another founding faculty member, presented resolutions at the 1863 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention that pledged Southern Baptist support for the Confederacy. They were adopted unanimously. He later supported a possible move to a new location for the seminary that was “in a white man’s country.”
  • Joseph E. Brown, whom the report described as “the seminary’s most important donor” and its trustee board chairman from 1883 to 1894, earned a substantial part of his fortune from the exploitation of mostly black convict-lease laborers. His iron furnaces and coal mines, once described as a possible “hell on earth,” used torture and other harsh punishments that were similar to those exercised by slave drivers. Brown gave a gift of $50,000 to the seminary that helped saved it from financial collapse.
  • In some instances, seminary faculty urged humane treatment of blacks. But before the 1940s, faculty members “construed the Old South as an idyllic place for both slaves and masters” and “claimed that the South went to war to uphold their honor rather than slavery.” They also supported black theological education as long as it was segregated.
  • The support of white superiority, which was taught by seminary faculty, was exemplified in the writings of Edgar Y. Mullins, president of the seminary from 1899 to 1928: “It is immoral and wrong to demand that negro civilization should be placed on par with white. This is fundamentally the issue.”
  • The seminary refused requests by blacks for admission for decades. When the seminary had its first black graduate, Garland Offutt, who earned a master’s of theology in 1944 (and later a doctorate in 1948), it did not permit him to participate in the regular commencement festivities. He instead was awarded his degree during the term’s final chapel service. Blacks first participated in graduation services in 1952.

The reports concludes with a statement about the seminary’s eventual rejection of white supremacy.

“This report documents the contradictions and complexities of the experience of Southern Baptists and race in America,” it reads. “We have not overcome all the contradictions, but we are committed to doing so.”

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

29 Comments

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  • can you point me to where you’d find that?

    I understand the bible teaches that Jesus suffered a great deal, but I don’t know of any biblical or extra biblical writings that would say that Jesus suffered more than anyone ever as a historical statement

  • I flagged it also. I disagree with you abt 99.9% of the time, but Vlacka2’s comment crossed the line.

  • There isn’t any intolerance in the comment. Check your sources, white folks typically respond to things differently than folks of color.

  • Of course there is.

    Had it been “Typical black response”, “Typical homosexual response”, or “Typical Mexican response”, it would stand out in bas-relief.

    And the response “Check your sources, (black-homosexual-Mexican) folks typically respond to things differently than white folks.” would have been just as true.

  • No, you had to let everyone know about your communion, blah, blah, blah.

    Do you think you’re that important?

  • So many things are “sins against others,” to use your phrase.

    But now we’re able to show exactly how the UCC and MCC (and the UMC too if they vote to bow their behinds to the Devil in late February) are “sinning against others.”

    Therefore it’s time for you and I to call for apologies (since that’s what you are waiting for, yes?) from these Libbie outfits around here.

  • Honestly, how many trainings, workshops, classes, etc. have you taken on racism, institutionalized racial bias, etc have you taken? I wager none.

    You haven’t a clue.

    Moving on.

  • You seem new here. I haven’t noticed you before.

    He’s caught in a Catch 22. He’s losing his intellect and forgets to take his meds, forgetting his meds further reduces his intellect. He’s constantly threatening to “block” folks and then continues to read their posts and comment back with these childish statements. Best to consider yourself blocked and ignore him for more fruitful conversation.

    You’re also batting your head against a wall conversing with your fellow countrywoman, sandinwindsor. She has a really bizarre concept of Christianity and isn’t interested with anyone who believes differently.

  • Oh, I have a clue.

    Racism is a belief that you are specially entitled solely because of your race.

    That makes you a racist.

    Bigotry is a belief that you are specially entitled solely because you belong to a group, in your case LGBT.

    That makes you a bigot.

    Unfortunately both have become institutionalized in the United States, with entire organizations devoted to continuing aggrieved poses, mandating training, workshops, classes, etc. all aimed at one thing: keeping the grievances relevant and fresh.

    It’s more or less what the PLO does in Palestine to keep relevant and the money coming in.

  • “As a son of the Southern Baptist Church, I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to understand how our tradition’s justifications of slavery shaped our understanding of the Good News. It produced something I and others call ‘slaveholder religion,’ which is a distortion of the Gospel.

    Slaveholder religion makes a relationship with God separate from one’s obligation to work for God’s justice.”

    ~ Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “A Southern Baptist seminary just admitted its slave-owning past. But it didn’t touch the theology behind it,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2018/12/13/southern-baptist-seminary-just-admitted-its-slave-owning-past-it-didnt-touch-theology-behind-it/

  • Are you seriously suggesting the SBC is “heretical” because YOU say so?

    What are your criterion?

  • My criterion is the ease with which they declare other Christian traditions as heretics. Therefore, they cut themselves off from the rest of historic Christianity. They are isolationists. They are the least ecumenical of the major denominations/traditions. So I acknowledge their desire to be separate.

  • How easy do they declare other Christian traditions as heretics?

    Be specific with examples.

    Christianity is isolationist at its core.

  • The history of the SBC is essentially formed by their belief that other ‘liberal’ denominations have apostatized. Perhaps they wouldn’t say that now, perhaps they would.

    Christianity is not isolationist. In the slightest. It’s to live differently in the world. Just as Christ was not an isolationist but became God with us, Christians are to be in the world. And especially with each other.

  • Commands include teaching what Jesus taught us and handing on the tradition (St. Paul).

    If in fact other denominations are distorting what Jesus taught us and NOT handing on the tradition, that would appear to be a problem.

    The SBC agrees with the Orthodox, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, the Catholic Church, several Lutheran bodies, and others that some other denominatons are distorting what Jesus taught us and NOT handing on the tradition.

    Let’s consider the Episcopal Church, a liberal denomination by any stretch of the imagination, which “marries” same sex couples, whose religious program is essentially indistinguishable from the Democratic Party platform.

    Does pointing out that by any reasonable definition it has apostatized cause you some problem?

    If so, the problem may be at your end.

  • The liberal/conservative divide did not come into existence with issues of homosexuality. But if I say I believe the Bible is not inerrant in the way that many conservatives, including much of the SBC believe it is I would be viewed as close to, if not out right, heretical.

  • The liberal/conservative divide, as you call it, arrived with the late 19th century Germans and their histora-textual criticism, Weisse’ imaginary, er “hypothetical”, “Q” (German “Quelle”), and so on which simply gutted everything prior to it.

    For reasons beyond a simple comment, it swept a portion of American theology into the drain system.

    The “normalization” of homosexuality is simply one manifestation of the debacle which gutted belief.

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