Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s 71-page report on the institution’s history of slavery and racism garnered coverage in hundreds of media outlets during the week following its release. Reaction to the report ranged from affirmation by many evangelicals to criticism from both the left and right.
“Insofar as there is any legitimacy to any criticism, we need to hear it,” Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. said Dec. 17 on NPR’s On Point radio broadcast. “… I intend to deal with honest partners in this, with people who want to engage in a conversation about the Christian responsibility that we face as Southern Seminary. And I think Southern Baptists would be willing to enter into that conversation.”
The report was researched and drafted by a six-member committee of current and former faculty appointed by Mohler in late 2017. Their work, released Dec. 12, documents the racist history of the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship seminary — from its slaveholding founders in the antebellum South to its segregation-defending faculty in the early 20th century.
Overall, reaction has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Southern told Baptist Press. Among those to praise the report are African-American pastors on social media.
Dwight McKissic, a Texas pastor long known for speaking to racial justice issues in the SBC, tweeted Dec. 12, “I’m unaccustomed to reading racial truth & transparency at this level from author(s) who were not liberal or African-American. Refreshing to get an honest, insightful, and helpful historical overview of race/slavery. Truth that you acknowledge & act upon will set [you] free.”
Thabiti Anyabwile, a Washington pastor and speaker at Gospel Coalition events, tweeted Dec. 12, “One of the things to point out about this report is that there’s a faculty at the institution that was being prepared over many years, not just when someone decided to write a report. The report is only possible because the Spirit has been at work in private for a long time.”
Among conservative evangelical critics of the report was Douglas Wilson, a Reformed author and pastor known for defending some aspects of the Confederacy. The report, Wilson wrote in a Dec. 17 blog post, seems to succumb to “a bizarre form of works righteousness” that repeatedly rehashes past racial sins without offering full forgiveness and pardon to members of the offending group.
“With regard to this original sin of American slavery, under no conceivable scenario will Al Mohler ever be allowed to stand before the students of Southern Seminary and declare to them that their sins are entirely and completely forgiven,” Wilson wrote.
Other critics claimed the report should not have ended its historical survey with the mid-1960s. Emory University historian Alison Greene told the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal the report failed to address more recent alleged instances of white supremacy among Southern Baptists. “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.”
Lawrence Ware, an Oklahoma State University philosophy professor, said “the vast majority” of Southern Baptist churches still “are going to be white supremacist churches, and we have to kind of deal with that and be honest about that.” Ware made his comments during an On Point appearance with Mohler and Curtis Woods, a member of the report’s drafting committee.
Woods, co-interim executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, challenged Ware. “We have to have research in order to back a statement like that up,” he said. Woods also recounted steps toward racial inclusion taken by the SBC and its entities.
Still other critics claimed Southern Seminary must revise its theology entirely to address adequately its racist history.
North Carolina Baptist minister Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wrote in a Dec. 13 Washington Post op-ed that Southern Baptists stand in the tradition of “slaveholder religion” and need “a theological reckoning that gets to the heart of what it means to read the Bible, to share its Good News and to be saved.”
“Slaveholder religion makes a relationship with God separate from one’s obligation to work for God’s justice,” Wilson-Hartgrove wrote. “It made it possible for Southern Baptists in the early 20th century” to “feel righteous in their defense of white supremacy” and for today’s Southern Baptists “to say they’re concerned about the evangelization of migrants” while also claiming “they are in no way obligated to work for polices that would help those people find homes in the United States or anywhere else.”
When asked on NPR about such criticism, Mohler said he thinks “there will be very little interest on the part of Southern Baptists — or for that matter, evangelical Christians — in discussing the dismantling of Christianity in order to meet a political objective.”
SBC President J.D. Greear was among positive reactors to the report. He tweeted Dec. 13, “I am grateful for this historic step of gospel healing @albertmohler & @sbts have taken. No matter how painful it can be to learn, we cannot heal what we do not know.”
— David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.