A reckoning at Southern Seminary


NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 18th of December, 2018. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: historic racism at the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship seminary.

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary opened its doors in 1859. After a brief pause due to the Civil War and a relocation to its permanent home in Louisville, Kentucky, the school flourished.

Despite its history, the seminary did make some positive racial strides. The first African-American student graduated in 1944. In 1961, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a lecture there.

EICHER: But those moments of racial harmony belie a long history of division. In 2017, the president of the seminary Al Mohler, who is also a member of WORLD’s board, commissioned a study detailing the school’s historic ties to slavery and racism.

Last week, the six-member committee issued its report. I will talk with Mohler more on our Friday program, but for now WORLD Radio’s Leigh Jones is here with a report on the details.

LEIGH JONES, NEWS EDITOR: Gregory Wills is a professor of church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He’s spent years chronicling American religious history in general—and Southern Baptist history in particular.

So when Al Mohler asked him to head a committee to investigate the school’s past, he had an idea of what he would find.

WILLS: But I was not prepared for just how thorough, how consistent, how unremitting the commitment to white superiority and black inferiority was.

The committee dug through published and unpublished sources detailing the lives and business dealings of the seminary’s founders and early faculty members. The researchers also read personal letters and public commentaries on the social and political issues roiling the country before, during, and after the Civil War.

Wills admits it was hard work.

WILLS: It’s not easy to confront the horrific face of human sinfulness when from the perspective that we have now, the delineations of that sin are so clear.

Wills and his fellow researchers found painful—and inexcusable—contradictions. While seminary leaders upheld the God-given human dignity of African-Americans, they passionately defended doctrines of white superiority and corresponding racial inequality. They personally profited from slavery and turned a blind eye to its endemic abuses. And even after cultural attitudes toward slavery changed, defenses of Jim Crow-era segregation continued.

In a letter accompanying the report, Mohler acknowledged the details raise one very difficult question: How could Christians hold, simultaneously, such right and wrong beliefs?

While the report doesn’t provide an answer, Wills hopes it will start conversations that eventually lead to answers. And healing.

WILLS: We cannot live with wisdom unless we are able to profit from the lessons not just of our own generation, but of all the generations before. And yet we cannot profit from the generations that have gone before, if we are not willing to listen to them or we are not able to hear them and the fullness of their teaching.

But even this comprehensive account contains large narrative gaps: The accounts of African-Americans themselves are missing. Sermons, books, and other writings from black leaders weren’t saved or collected—or at least they aren’t documented in collections currently available to researchers.

WILLS: So the archives that historians are now able to benefit from also reflect generations of the assumption of white superiority and the assumption that the papers, the letters, the diaries, the sermons and the books produced by African-American pastors, African-American leaders, were not really worth keeping.

Wills hopes the committee’s work will encourage other researchers to look for those missing pieces.

WILLS: Part of the benefit of a continued conversation is, I hope, a surge of interest in the study of slavery, of racism, so that we can get all the voices and have a much better understanding of the entirety of the story.

Southern Seminary is not the first institution of higher education to confront its past ties to slavery and racism. But it intends to respond to the information differently.

WILLS: We neither wanted to condemn those who perpetrated past injustices as some kind of moral monsters, because then we would fail to recognize similar sins in her own hearts, nor to exculpate anyone in the present.

The school will not try to purge past sins by renaming buildings or disavowing its founders. Instead, Wills hopes current leaders and students use the report to see the continued propensity for the sins of egoism, vanity, and racial conceit in every human heart. He says that kind of awareness will bring about true repentance and eventually diminish current racial injustice.

WILLS: There’s so much here that is important for Christians and especially for white Christians to learn, and so that’s another one of our hopes for this report is that it will begin a process of educating us about the full history of our churches, institutions, denominations, and our nation.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Leigh Jones.


(Photo/Handout)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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