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Baptist seminary president: Must face sinful past of slavery

December 16, 2018

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The Louisville-based Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on Wednesday disclosed its ties to slavery, detailing decades of racism and how its four founders owned more than 50 slaves.

Its 71-page report found the school, the oldest seminary associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, supported an ideology of bigotry and white supremacy after its founding in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1859.

The seminary moved to Louisville in 1877, where it remains today on Lexington Road.

The report was commissioned by seminary President Albert Mohler Jr. and represents a year of research conducted by faculty and former faculty.

“We have been guilty of a sinful absence of historical curiosity,” Mohler wrote in a letter introducing the report. “We knew, and we could not fail to know, that slavery and deep racism were in the story.”

The seminary’s report comes as schools and cities around the country, including Louisville, have grappled with questions of removing Confederate statues or renaming buildings after revelations of racist comments or behavior.

Mohler told the Courier Journal the “substance of the report is tragic, sinful and sad.”

He said buildings on the seminary’s campus today are named after each of the four slave-owning founders but that no statues of founders are on the campus.

But Mohler said the seminary does not plan on removing the founders’ names from the buildings.

“From a Christian perspective, erasing the past and hiding the past is not the appropriate response, but telling the whole truth is,” Mohler said. “Just like the nation has sad chapters in its history, so does this school.”

On its 150th anniversary in 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination in the country, issued a formal apology for its pro-slavery and pro-segregation views.

And in 2017, the convention, which has about 15 million members across the United States, passed a resolution condemning white supremacists.

Still, Mohler wrote the “moral burden of history requires a more direct and far more candid acknowledgement of the legacy of this school in the horrifying realities of American slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racism, and even the avowal of white racial supremacy.”

“It is past time that The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — the first and oldest institution of the Southern Baptist Convention — must face a reckoning of our own,” Mohler wrote.

Among the findings of the report:

— The seminary’s founding faculty — James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, Basil Manly Jr. and William Williams — together owned more than 50 slaves.

— Early faculty and trustees at the seminary defended the “righteousness of slavery” and supported the Confederacy’s efforts to preserve slavery.

— Some faculty, trustees and students fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

— Joseph E. Brown, the seminary’s “most important donor” and chairman of its board of trustees from 1880 to 1894, earned much of his fortune from exploiting mostly black laborers in his coal mines in Georgia. Brown used the “same brutal punishments and tortures” once practiced by slave drivers, the report said, adding that his coal mines were “hell on earth.”

— In the 19th and early 20th centuries, seminary faculty tried to use science to support their belief in the “superiority of white civilization and that this justified racial inequality.”

The report also highlighted how some faculty members and trustees urged “just and humane treatment for blacks” and “lamented the prevalence of lynching in the South.”

Broadus, one of the slave-owning founders, even “chastised white Christians for assuming their worship was more acceptable to God than that offered by black Christians,” the report states.

Up until the 1940s, seminary faculty supported black education, provided that it was racially segregated, according to the report. However, faculty regularly refused to admit black applicants to the seminary.

The seminary finally admitted blacks to its degree programs in 1940 and integrated its classrooms in 1951, according to the report.

The seminary’s first black graduate was Garland Offutt in 1944, but Offutt was not allowed to participate in regular commencement activities at the seminary, according to the report.

Seminary faculty generally started to support civil rights for blacks, the report states, but had mixed views on the civil rights movement and were uncomfortable with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “direct-action tactics.”

The first black faculty member, T. Vaughn Walker, joined the seminary in 1986.

“The seminary came to reject notions of white superiority that characterized the seminary’s leadership for so much of its history,” the report states. “In the decades following the civil rights movement, the seminary continued to struggle with the legacy of slavery and racism.”

While recognizing the significance of the report, Alison Greene, a professor of American religious history at Emory University, said the report fails to discuss more candidly the denomination’s recent history with white supremacy and seems to suggest the civil rights movement ended in 1964.

“You don’t get the whole story of the seminary’s history of white supremacy,” Greene said. “They are almost claiming it is not relevant.”

Greene said the seminary could take more meaningful steps by taking a stand on voting rights today or exploring some form of reparations for its past treatment of blacks.

Mohler wrote that students, faculty and alumni are left to wrestle with how the seminary’s founders preached the word of God while also owning slaves and dismissing blacks as inferior to whites.

“We must repent of our own sins, we cannot repent for the dead,” Mohler wrote. “We must, however, offer full lament for a legacy we inherit, and a story that is now ours.”

Mohler added that the seminary is “humbled by the grace and love of the many African-Americans who are counted among our alumni, students, faculty and trustees.”

“Our commitment is that this school will honor you, cherish you, and welcome you — everyday, evermore,” Mohler wrote. “You are many and you are precious to this school. You are helping us to write the present and the future, by God’s grace and to God’s glory.”

Mohler said the seminary has taken strides in the past 25 years to increase diversity on its campus but that work remains. He said the school’s history of racism is intertwined with struggles over racism in Louisville and Kentucky.

“We are all part of one very complicated history,” Mohler said. “And our determination is to not hide from the truth.”

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Information from: Courier Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com

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