In a country where corporate statements of diversity and inclusion are as common as executive offices occupied by white men, a number of institutions have made damning public assessments of their historical engagement with slavery.
The ways in which these institutions sanctioned slavery and profited from it is no longer a secret. So when the Louisville, Kentucky-based Southern Baptist Theological Seminary made public this week a similar report, many wondered: Why now, and what’s next?
The report said that all of the seminary’s founders owned slaves (more than 50 people were owned), and that the seminary used religious ideology to defend slavery and racial inequality both before and more than 100 years after emancipation.
“There is a sense of historical reckoning taking shape that is far larger than one institution or region of the country,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in an interview. “There are unavoidable questions being asked and I think we have quite deliberately not told parts of the story. And it’s the details, frankly, that hit with a certain kind of horror.”
Nothing puts the depravity of slavery in one’s face like a list of slaves — which usually include their ages and dollar value — written in cold ink, Mohler said.
The Southern Baptist Convention represents the largest Protestant denomination in the United States and includes the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary along with thousands of churches that do not answer to central leadership. About 5.3 percent of all U.S. adults identify as members of the church, and 85 percent of them are white, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. Mohler ranks among the denomination’s most influential and well-known figures.
In the days after the report became public, it was widely lauded for its depth and accuracy but also critiqued by some church members who felt it was unnecessary and by others inside and outside the evangelical world who felt it failed to address how the church should respond to troubling revelations about its past and repent today.
The first type of critique came in many cases from the largely white Americans who sit in pews at Southern Baptist churches, said Paul Harvey, professor of history at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs who researches race and religion. He’s also the grandson of a preacher who led a Southern Baptist Convention church in Sacramento, California.
“They are asking, ‘Why did the seminary waste our time and money on this?’” Harvey said of the church members he’s spoken to as well as the comments he saw on social media.
Those sentiments are not unique to Southern Baptists — white Americans are often reluctant to discuss race and the way that it has shaped inequality in the U.S. Some insist that slavery is no longer relevant, and in the case of the seminary report, some deploy claims of exhaustion or overkill.
The Southern Baptist Convention renounced racism and apologized to African Americans in 1995 for its history of supporting slavery and advancing segregation. In 2017, after some debate, the convention passed a measure condemning the alt-right and its ideas. Some Southern Baptists seem to hope, Mohler wrote in a letter accompanying the report, that’s enough.
“That is not possible, nor is it right,” he wrote.
But while some white Americans remain in this state of denial, others are ready for something more than a recitation of past wrongs, Harvey said.
“The Southern Baptist Seminary, and by extension the denomination leaders, they did a very good job reckoning with the past, and a not-so-good job reckoning with the present,” said Harvey, who wrote “Freedom’s Coming,” a book about the way race and religion shaped the post-Civil War South.
White supremacy was an organizing principle in everything from citizenship to schools, health care to policing, homeownership to jobs, and that ideology hasn’t simply evaporated, said Edward Baptist, professor of history at Cornell University and author of “The Half That Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.”
Structural inequalities and legacy effects remain. African Americans live at the perilous end of almost every measure of social or economic well-being.
The church confronts the same riddle facing any overwhelmingly white institution that wants to grow and remain a dynamic participant in American life. The Southern Baptist Convention has thrived with a theology focused on a literal reading of the Bible, repentance from sin and elements of the Protestant ethic: American individualism, capitalism and uplift by hard work, not charity. Talking about modern school segregation, the racial wealth gap, health care as a human right, police misconduct and civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter will not be comfortable, Baptist said.
“When we talk about their current complicity, it would seem to me that they are pretty directly failing to witness to their flocks about this issue of racial injustice just as they did in the past,” Baptist said, noting that the words “Black Lives Matter” do not appear in the report.
“I’m glad when any institution does some due diligence to look at their past and engagement with this history,” Baptist continued. “But they do appear to be refusing or avoiding what this means in the present. For all of the quality scholarship and detail, it’s sad they didn’t even swing and miss.”
Mohler wrote in the letter attached to the report that he felt obligated to excavate the seminary’s racial history because secular institutions, such as Princeton University, have completed inquiries and drawn eloquent and important conclusions. The seminary’s 71-page report contains exactly what Mohler assigned a year ago — an in-depth look at the seminary’s ’s history up until the civil rights movement, he said. He finds it hard to believe that people would read more.
The findings are both simple and complex, filled with the kind of contradictions that any true story about human beings contains.
The school’s founders and the faculty who followed them were directly involved in slavery, gained wealth and influence from the exploitation of human beings, resisted legal and social change during Reconstruction and advocated for the continued subjugation of black Americans well into the 20th century. The school legitimized the “Lost Cause” concept still circulating today.
Faculty members helped to bolster the fake science of white racial superiority but also denounced lynching. The seminary began accepting black students in 1940, but taught them off campus or in private. The seminary integrated its classrooms in 1951. Still, that happened three years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision and amid some faculty members’ support of black civil rights.
At the same time, the school’s leadership and faculty often objected to the tactics of civil rights protesters, and multiple churches withdrew seminary funding after the school invited Martin Luther King Jr. to speak before a crowd in 1961. The seminary’s then-president and trustees ultimately apologized for inviting King.
That one conflict is in many ways emblematic of how the church and its members have tended to view any threat to the existing social order. The problem is that black subjugation has always been central to the American way, Baptist said.
Slaves were so essential to America that some of the nation's first laws were related to policing them. The cotton that Southern owners forced their slaves to produce with brutal efficiency became the most traded and important commodity in the world, occupying a place analogous to oil today. American cotton created wealth around the globe. And in the South, some plantation owners used portions of their wealth to build churches and fund missions.
“It’s slaves that helped to drive the American economy from being a backwater to being the second-most important in the world by the 1860s,” Baptist said.
For the Baptists, the question of slavery came to a head in the 1840s when northern Baptists insisted it was inappropriate to send a half-Cherokee slave owner and white slave owners like him to do missionary work within the U.S. In 1845, the southern Baptists officially broke away, forming the Southern Baptist Convention, which counted planters and plantation owners among its members.
In the nearly two centuries since, the denomination has remained among the nation’s most conservative mainline churches. And at some critical moments, Southern Baptists have opted to become ever more conservative despite resistance from moderate and progressive factions, Harvey said. That’s led some to drift away from the church — Baptist’s aunt, for example, was the last member of his North Carolina family to leave, about a decade ago, after her church’s new, young pastor told her that it was inappropriate for a woman to lead a Sunday school class.
Given this history and the church’s demographics, neither Harvey nor Baptist were surprised that the report did not ask what supporting racial equality would look like today.
“As much credit as is due to them for taking on this effort,” Harvey said, “there is also the reality that this is probably as far as it goes.”
The seminary has spent the period since the civil rights movement engaged in a variety of work to make the school, its faculty and board of trustees more diverse. Today, students from 70 countries learn at the seminary, Mohler said. He believes that historic American institutions like the seminary have a “unique responsibility” to African Americans, but he said the report was designed to deal with the past, not the present.
“This report encourages us to do more and to do better,” Mohler said.
“What happens when some future generation judges us?” he asked rhetorically. “My answer is that as long as we stand on scripture and on the historic Christian faith, I am just going to have to leave it to current and future generations.”