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6 things to know from the SBTS report on racism

Dec 14, 2018

The story of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is filled with paradoxes. That is the major finding of the recently released “Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.” The same faculty who supported slavery later taught Greek to freed African-Americans in their offices and homes. The same seminary that criticized the actions of the civil rights movement invited Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at a chapel service. In the letter from the president at the beginning of the report, Albert Mohler admits that “we have been guilty of a sinful absence of historical curiosity.” This report is an attempt to begin to rekindle that historical curiosity and examine the institution’s history. Here are six of the most important claims and findings of the report which can be read in full here.

1. The founding faculty of SBTS were slaveholders and supporters of the cause of the Confederacy.

Any account of SBTS must begin with the fact that the four founding faculty members (James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, Basil Manly Jr., and William Williams) were all slaveholders. An honest reckoning of these men and the oldest institution of the SBC must acknowledge that no matter their contributions, in this, they supported a wicked and immoral system. As Dr. Mohler acknowledges in his letter to open the report, “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.” Any accounting of the history of SBTS must deal with this legacy and all of its downstream effects.

2. The same faculty who argued for slavery, also argued for ministry among enslaved persons.

Here lies one of the most paradoxical findings of the report. The same faculty that upheld slavery as either morally permissible or a divine good, also taught the equal humanity of enslaved African-Americans. Broadus argued that Christian slave owners had a duty to provide instruction and teaching to their slaves. To be able to admit the humanity of the person while also upholding the dehumanization of the same person to the level of property is an option only to a conscience seared by sin and numbed by willful ignorance. In this, the faculty joined a long line of those who would have the soul of a person cared for, while neglecting physical needs and rights. The false dichotomy of evangelism or social justice was as strong over 150 years ago as it is today.

3. Though the faculty could not legally teach African-Americans because of segregation laws, they did so privately in offices, homes, and historically nonwhite colleges.

Some of the same faculty present at the founding would also eventually teach some of the later African-Americans who wished to be trained for the ministry. They were not opposed to education of African-Americans, “as long as it was racially segregated.” In this, they worked to help establish Louisville Simmons University in Louisville, Kentucky, and the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. Though it would be many years before they would consider admitting anyone to SBTS who was not white, the faculty and trustees helped to set up spaces which would prove beneficial to African-Americans. Though created out of a wicked belief in white supremacy, the two institutions would train, and in the case of ABTS still train, African-Americans for service as pastors and ministers.

4. The first African-American graduate of SBTS was Garland Offutt, who received a Th.M. in 1944. The seminary would fully integrate on March 13, 1951.

Though legally prevented from teaching integrated classrooms, the faculty at SBTS began to teach to segregated classrooms in 1940. The first African-American student to graduate was Garland Offut in 1944 with the degree Master of Theology (He was not allowed to participate in graduation services because of segregation laws. To circumvent these laws, the faculty awarded his degree during the final chapel of the year). In 1950, Ellis Fuller began the work of calling the seminary to fully integrate its African-American and white students. Though he would die later that year, his call to action would be approved by an almost unanimous vote on March 13, 1951. Students were admitted to all levels of the seminary in the fall of 1951 and would participate in graduation services the following spring in 1952.

5. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon during a chapel service on April 19, 1961, brought both praise and criticism to the seminary.

The seminary was emblematic of the white moderate position during the civil rights era. They were supportive of the goal of racial equality, but were uneasy about the tactics employed by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). King criticized the position of white moderates in his Letter from Birmingham Jail as being more dangerous than outright racism. The faculty of SBTS invited King to speak at a chapel service on April 19, 1961 where he advocated for church support in racial desegregation. King called those gathered at SBTS to actively engage in the work of racial equality for “the churches had a moral duty to tell the truth” about African-Americans. Some 1400 people attended the chapel and gave him a standing ovation. Another 500 students listened to King speak later with seminary faculty on civil rights issues. However, many churches, especially in the deep, rural South chose to withhold their tithes from the seminary after learning of the event. Over the next several years, other noted civil rights activists and leaders would be invited to speak in the same lecture series including D. E. King, Garner C. Taylor, and John Perkins.

6. If the church gets the question of racism wrong , then it gets the gospel wrong.

The most important claim that the report makes is found in a quote from Dr. Mohler’s 2015 convocation message: “If the church gets this wrong, it’s not just getting race and ethnic difference wrong. It’s getting the gospel wrong.” The question of race is not, as some believed because of pseudo-scientific theories, the result of superior and inferior classes of human beings. Racial diversity is “a sign of God’s providence and promise.” Theologies that create hierarchies based on race or flawed exegesis of passages such as Genesis 9 and the curse of Ham are not just the result of bad interpretation. They are a wicked attack on the diversity and plan of God. The future of the cosmos is not one of racial superiority or a mythologized Dixie. It is a kingdom where all will bow before the throne of Jesus with members of every nation, tribe, tongue, and yes, race.