(RNS) — The flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention decided Monday (Oct. 12) to maintain the names of campus buildings named for school founders who had connections to slavery. At the same meeting, the trustees of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary created a multimillion-dollar scholarship fund for African American students.
“We’re not going to erase our history in any respect or leave our history unaddressed,” said the school’s president, R. Albert Mohler Jr., in a statement. “We are seeking to respond to the moral and theological burden of history by being a far more faithful institution in the present and in the future than we’ve been in the past and in this central respect we acknowledge a special debt to African American Christians.”
Starting in the 2022-23 academic year, the school will earmark $1 million of restricted and endowed funds for the Garland Offutt Scholars Program to honor the first African American full graduate and assist Black students at the seminary. It plans to contribute an additional $1 million every three years until a $5 million goal is reached.
The seminary trustees also declared vacant the Joseph Emerson Brown Chair of Christian Theology, which was held by Mohler. Brown, governor of Georgia during the Civil War, earned a substantial part of his fortune from the exploitation of mostly Black convict-lease laborers and gave a gift of $50,000 to the seminary that helped save it from financial collapse.
Mohler, who in a report to the board described the previous chair title as “problematic,” was elected to a new role titled Centennial Chair of Christian Theology.
The decisions came in response to requests from some SBC members to change the names of the buildings on the campus of the 161-year-old school. Two years ago, the seminary released a 71-page report that showed the founders owned more than 50 slaves and said slavery was morally correct.
In 2019, the seminary denied a request from an interracial ministers coalition to financially support a nearby historically Black college as a form of reparations.
The Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings have long been opened with a gavel named for one of the founders, James A. Broadus, author of what Mohler has called a “definitive book” on sermon preparation. SBC President J.D. Greear said in June that he thinks the gavel should be retired from use.
In an eight-page report outlining the board’s decisions this week, Mohler quoted Scripture and secular scholars who warned against attempts to “erase history.” The report, titled “The Burden of History & The Blessing of Heritage,” opened with a verse from the biblical Book of Deuteronomy: “And I prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord God, do not destroy your people and your heritage.’”
He noted that founders with links to slavery who were honored on campus buildings were instrumental in the seminary’s development. James Boyce donated his personal library while Broadus was instrumental in creating the school’s academic reputation and Basil Manly Jr. wrote the school’s confession of faith.
Mohler, who has declared his plans to seek the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention, also noted leaders of the Christian church could be considered “both saint and sinner,” starting with the apostles.
“Our task is to honor the saintly without condoning, hiding, or denying the sinful,” he said. “We have not done this well in the past. We must do better in the present and be more faithful in the future.”
Mohler also said giving the founders recognition does not honor the Confederacy or slavery.
“We are not honoring any form of racial supremacist ideology — specifically, we are not honoring white supremacy,” said Mohler in his report. “We honor the founding of this Seminary, their sacrificial devotion and leadership.”
Thabiti Anyabwile, an African American pastor in Washington, D.C., critiqued the announcement of the trustees’ decisions in a thread of tweets that said comparing Southern Seminary’s founders to biblical figures “is chalk and cheese” and noted that the scholarship “ought to be called an effort at reparations.”
But, in sum, he said, “I think it’s a disappointing and inconsistent decision.”
Texas minister Dwight McKissic, who was instrumental in getting Southern Baptists to repudiate the Confederate flag in a 2016 resolution, was among the leaders who requested that the seminary consider renaming its buildings.
“I would be the last person to be an apologist for SBTS decision to not remove the slaveholders names,” he said in a Tuesday tweet. “However, shouldn’t they be appreciatively applauded for hopefully providing full scholarships to potentially thousands of AA students? Lament & appreciation are in order.”