6 things to know from the SBTS report on racism

December 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.

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as the research associate and project manager for the ERLC’s research initiatives. He manages long term research projects for the organization under the leadership of the director of research. Alex is currently pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Mississippi studying evangelical political activity in … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24