Southern Baptists and the Burden of History

Albert Mohler has a powerful essay reflecting on racism and the burden of history. His remarks about Southern Baptist history are particularly candid. He writes:

More humbling still is the fact that many churches, churchmen, and theologians gave sanction to that ideology of racial superiority. While this was true throughout the southern churches, Southern Baptists bear a particular responsibility and burden of history. The Southern Baptist Convention was not only founded by slaveholders; it was founded by men who held to an ideology of racial superiority and who bathed that ideology in scandalous theological argument. At times, white superiority was defended by a putrid exegesis of the Bible that claimed a “curse of Ham” as the explanation of dark skin β€” an argument that reflects such ignorance of Scripture and such shameful exegesis that it could only be believed by those who were looking for an argument to satisfy their prejudices.

We bear the burden of that history to this day. Racial superiority is a sin as old as Genesis and as contemporary as the killings in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. The ideology of racial superiority is not only sinful, it is deadly.

I gladly stand with the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in their courageous affirmation of biblical orthodoxy, Baptist beliefs, and missionary zeal. There would be no Southern Baptist Convention and there would be no Southern Seminary without them. James P. Boyce and Basil Manly, Jr. and John A. Broadus were titans of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

But there is more to the story. Boyce and Broadus were chaplains in the Confederate army. The founders of the SBC and of Southern Seminary were racist defenders of slavery. Just a few months ago I was reading a history of Greenville, South Carolina when I came across a racist statement made by James P. Boyce, my ultimate predecessor as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was so striking that I had to find a chair. This, too, is our story.

By every reckoning, Boyce and Broadus were consummate Christian gentlemen, given the culture of their day. They would have been horrified, I am certain, by any act of violence against any person. But any strain of racial superiority, and especially any strain bathed in the language of Christian theology, is deadly dangerous all the same.

Subsequent generations of Southern Baptists have repudiated and even repented of this sad history. In fact, our official doctrinal standard explicitly denounces racism as a grave sin. Still, Mohler is right. We bear the burden of history, and we do well not to forget that.


  • Andrew Alladin

    Perhaps the only way for the SBC to fully atone for its past is to immediately abolish itself and all SBC affiliated institutions. We can learn much from the Taliban’s cleansing of all pre-Islamic archaeological artifacts and cultural treasures. I propose that this cleansing become America’s new National Project. Imagine the millions of jobs created as America cleanses its conscience. Americans could hold unity bonfires and community demolition projects – perhaps we could invade people’s homes looking for private collections as well. Spare no one until all of America if finally cleansed of its sordid past.

    I am amazed at this mad frenzy that has suddenly made so many people into complete fools. Christians should be sober minded at how the whole thing unfolded and understand that a similar frenzy could occur with churches playing the role of the Confederate flag. Churches are to homophobia as the flag is to racism; Southerners cannot accept that slavery was unjust, Christians cannot accept that homophobia is unjust; Blacks were persecuted for their skin color, gays were/are persecuted for their orientation; Slave owning states wanted to secede from the Union, Christians want exemptions from anti-discrimination laws; people who have Confederate flags in their homes are racist, Christians who attend churches that do not believe in gay marriage are homophobic.

    • Roy Fuller

      To your question, from Mohler’s article, where he stated: “So far as I can tell, no one ever confronted the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with the brutal reality of what they were doing, believing, and teaching in this regard. The same seems to be true in the case of Martin Luther and his anti-semitism. For that matter, how recently were these sins recognized as sins and repented of? Is Mohler suggesting that no one recognized slavery as a sin in the mid-19th century? Is he trying to cut these Southern Baptist founds some slack, suggesting they while they were orthodox in the areas which mattered, they did not know slavery and supporting slavery was a sin because no one confronted them? And, even if true, how would we know that, unless these founders left a record of such a confrontation, which I assume is not the case, since that would have supported Mohler’s argument.

      And another troubling and unproven claim is made by Mohler about these men who founded SBTS. Mohler states: “They would have been horrified, I am certain, by any act of violence against any person.” Perhaps, but that is pure speculation. Slavery was inherently violent, and these men were acquainted with slavery as an institution, and in some cases, as slaveowners themselves.

      Hey, I get it, people are complicated and products of their culture. But Mohler appears to be giving them too much benefit of the doubt, even while making a valid point about the burden of history for Southern Baptists.

      • buddyglass

        Caveat: I know zero about these guys’ history.

        I suspect the probably tried to be “kind” masters (excusing the oxymoron). Don’t beat your slaves, treat them “well” (relatively speaking) in terms of physical comforts, teach them to read so they can read the Bible, keep families together, don’t take advantage of your female slaves, etc.

        If they (the masters) had Christ in them, then surely their conscience rebelled against the institution of slavery (despite their continued engagement). Being human, I can imagine they may have rationalized their participation by telling themselves they’re not “that sort” of master. The “bad” kind. (And, in truth, they probably weren’t.)

        • Chris Ryan

          You’re probably right that that’s how they rationalized it. But that just proves how weak & sinful the flesh is. Human beings can rationalize anything. I’m sure OJ Simpson is like, “I’m so much better than Charles Manson, I “only” killed 2 people.”

          The only way we really grow is by constantly testing our deepest beliefs against the explicit Word of God. We make a hundred rationalizations a day. A donut won’t kill me. No, but a donut every day might. (I’m on a diet, forgive the focus on food πŸ™‚ )

  • Christiane Smith

    there is a lesson learned that even the most profound misinterpretations of sacred Scripture can be enshrined as ‘acceptable’ under certain circumstances by those who interpret it to justify their own ends . . .

    even today, some ‘acceptable’ ministers are of the mind that the South’s slavery was ‘not as bad as’ Roman slavery

    these ministers are upheld by other ministers and writers who, seeking to be ‘irenic’ search out what they can from the strange writings of such advocates of ‘biblical’ slavery in order to prove that they are not ‘really’ pro-slavery . . .

    It doesn’t work. It is an embarassment still when folks attempt to ‘excuse’ what can never be excused

  • Don Johnson

    So the theological liberals were correct on slavery while the theological conservatives were totally and completely wrong and so wrong as be heretical?

    What happens in 100 or 150 years, assuming things continue as now, and the future people in the SBC repent of something that the SBC holds near and dear today?

    • Ian Shaw

      Hoping/wishing for someone or some people to stumble (even if the log is a piece of your own invention) is not something one should hope for.

      • Don Johnson

        I wish no one would misinterpret Scripture, then we would all be on one faith, right?

        My point is how can one be sure that one is not doing the same thing the founders of the SBC did? The truth is we cannot be sure, but we can try to learn from them. One lesson is that an interpretation that puts one group in a one up and another in a one down position is questionable.

  • Curt Day

    How much we care about justice and others can sometimes be seen by what hurts us the most. The more we care about justice and others, the more our greatest pains are the scars we have left on others rather than the scars others have left on us.

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