Southern Seminary releases ‘honest lament’ on slavery, racism

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary released a report Dec. 12 that discloses the history of slavery and racism at the seminary.

“Slavery was not only tolerated in many schools, but also expressly defended and even praised as divinely ordained,” the seminary said in its news release on the school’s past. “Though this was true of many of the most historic colleges and universities in the nation, it was particularly true of the South. Theological seminaries were not innocent of this charge, and this included Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.”

Produced by a six-person team composed of current and former faculty members, the report recounts the history of these issues at Southern Seminary — from the school’s slave-holding founders in the 19th century to its segregation-defending faculty in the early decades of the 20th century.

Seminary president R. Albert Mohler Jr. said the report comes late in the school’s history, but it represents what he called an institution-wide “honest lament” for the sins of its forebears.

“It was clearly time for this institution to come to terms with historical questions related to slavery and the institution’s founding,” Mohler said.

“There can be no doubt that these questions are now being asked far more frequently and urgently in the larger culture, and there is no way we can separate Southern Seminary’s history from the history of our denomination — or from the history of the nation. Our responsibility is to make sure we know the truth and tell the truth about this single institution for which we have stewardship.”

Southern Seminary was founded as the Southern Baptist Convention’s seminary in 1859 in Greenville. It started with four faculty members at the beginning: James Petigru Boyce, John Broadus, Basil Manly Jr., and William Williams. Each of them owned slaves, publicly defended slavery as a “righteous” institution, and assumed the inferiority of the black race, according to the report. Later generations of Southern Seminary faculty supported the restoration of white rule in the South during Reconstruction, approved the South’s “Lost Cause” ideology, and defended the segregation of schools and society, the report said.

The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 after the Triennial Convention, representing Baptists throughout the nation, rejected a missionary candidate for owning slaves.

In 1995, the SBC addressed its pro-slavery origins, drafting a resolution publicly apologizing to all African-Americans and repenting for the convention’s “[conscious] and unconscious” racism throughout its 150-year existence.

Though Southern Seminary was included in the “spirit and substance” of the 1995 resolution from the SBC, Mohler wrote in a letter released with the report that the school needed to express more candidly its historical connection to slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racism and white supremacy.

“We have been guilty of a sinful absence of historical curiosity,” Mohler said. “We knew, and we could not fail to know, that slavery and deep racism were in the story. We comforted ourselves that we could know this, but since these events were so far behind us, we could move on without awkward and embarrassing investigations and conversations.

“In the larger secular world, just about every major institution of American public life is being called to account for some aspect of its history. This cultural conversation, often confused and intense, is far from over. I also believe that no secular worldview can bear the weight of this reckoning. Thanks be to God, we hold to a theology grounded in Holy Scripture that is able to bear this weight.”

The report leaves Christians, including the students, faculty and alumni of Southern Seminary, to wrestle with a hard question: How could the school’s founders — who eloquently and passionately defended biblical truth and the gospel of Jesus Christ — also own other human beings because of their racist ideology? The answer, Mohler said, is not easy.

The legacy of Broadus and Boyce is as complicated as that of revered Reformer Martin Luther, whose defense of biblical truth was central to the Protestant Reformation, but who also held to the anti-Semitic views common to his age. Though the seminary’s founders — like Luther — were men of their time, this does not excuse them, Mohler said.

“The very confessional convictions they bequeathed to us reveal that there is only one standard by which Christians must make such judgments, and that is the sole authority of the Bible,” Mohler said. “Like our founders, we believe that repentance, which they confessed as an ‘evangelical grace,’ is essential to the gospel. The very gospel truths that they taught, defined, and handed down to us are the very truths that allow us to release this report with both lament and conviction.”

Mohler also stated: “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.

“We cannot go back to the 19th century and change the past, but we can make certain that, in the 21st century, Southern Seminary looks like the people Christ is calling to Himself through the preaching of the gospel.”

— Andrew J.W. Smith writes for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.