We are living in an age of historical reckoning. Communities, nations, institutions, Christian churches, and denominations are now called upon to ask hard questions and, when necessary, to face hard realities. This is true of the Southern Baptist Convention, and it is true for The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
In 1995, when Southern Baptists celebrated the one-hundred fiftieth anniversary of the founding of our convention, we recognized a reckoning was required. The Convention overwhelmingly adopted an historic resolution which, among other affirmations, stated:
Our relationship to African-Americans has been hindered from the beginning by the role that slavery played in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention; many of our Southern Baptist forbears defended the right to own slaves, and either participated in, supported, or acquiesced in the particularly inhumane nature of American slavery; and in later years Southern Baptists failed, in many cases, to support, and in some cases opposed, legitimate initiatives to secure the civil rights of African-Americans.
That was an historic act in which the Southern Baptist Convention also declared to the public, “we apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously or unconsciously and we ask forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters, acknowledging that our own healing is at stake.”
That was more than twenty years ago. I was honored to be part of the small working group of both white and African-American Southern Baptists who drafted that historic statement. Then, as now, I was president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. At that time, I think it is safe to say that most Southern Baptists, having made this painful acknowledgment and lamenting this history, hoped to dwell no longer on the painful aspects of our legacy.
That is not possible, nor is it right. 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. Since our founding in 1859, at no moment has the history of this school been separated, by even the slightest degree, from the history of the denomination. What is true of the Convention was and is true of her mother seminary. We share the same history, serve the same churches, cherish the same gospel, confess the same doctrine, and bear the same burdens.
We cannot escape the fact that the honest lament of the SBC should have been accompanied by the honest lament of her first school, first seminary, and first institution. We knew ourselves to be fully included in the spirit and substance of that resolution in 1995, but the moral burden of history requires a more direct and far more candid acknowledgment 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. The fact that these horrors of history are shared with the region, the nation, and with so many prominent institutions does not excuse our failure to expose our own history, our own story, our own cherished heroes, to an honest accounting—to ourselves and to the watching world.
We have been guilty of a sinful absence of historical curiosity. 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. We know that evil is not merely moral wrong; it is sin, a falling short of the glory of God and the breaking of God’s commandment. We understand the wrong of American slavery and segregation to be sin, a rebellion against God’s creation of human beings equally in his image.
We do have heroes and heroines, even as we find them in the Bible. But, in the end, the Bible reveals only one true hero, Jesus Christ. Even the heroes and heroines of faith honored in the Bible, as in Hebrews 11, were sinners. That same Bible is honest about their sin. We must be equally honest about our theological, denominational, and institutional heroes.
The founding faculty of this school—all four of them—were deeply involved in slavery and deeply complicit in the defense of slavery. Many of their successors on this faculty, throughout the period of Reconstruction and well into the twentieth century, advocated segregation, the inferiority of African-Americans, and openly embraced the ideology of the Lost Cause of southern slavery.
What we knew in generalities we now know in detail. As president of this school, I have sought models for how an institution can honestly deal with such truths. In candor, I found the most encouraging model in the approach of Princeton University in its “Princeton & Slavery” project. Princeton’s report begins with these words: “Princeton University, founded as the College of New Jersey in 1746, exemplifies the central paradox of American history. From the start, liberty and slavery were intertwined.”
If you change the name of the school and the year of its founding, you could make the same statement about almost any prominent and early institution of American life through at least some point in the nineteenth century. Those words would certainly be true of Southern Seminary.
A year ago, I asked a team of Southern Seminary and Boyce College faculty members to spend twelve months conducting a thorough investigation of these questions. Some of our own students were asking these questions. We all should have been asking these questions. How can a school like Princeton University face the truth while we, holding to the truth of the gospel, would refuse to do the same?
The chairman was Dr. Gregory A. Wills, professor of church history and former dean of the School of Theology. Author of our sesquicentennial history, published by Oxford University Press, and a skilled historian, Dr. Wills convened the meetings and wrote the draft of the report. Others serving with him include Dr. Jarvis J. Williams, associate professor of New Testament interpretation; Dr. Curtis A. Woods, assistant professor of applied theology and biblical spirituality and associate executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention; Dr. Matthew J. Hall, dean of Boyce College; Dr. John D. Wilsey, associate professor of church history; and Dr. Kevin Jones, associate dean of Boyce College at the time of commissioning and now interim chair of the School of Education and Human Development at Kentucky State University. To each of them we owe a great debt. Their year of labor is now an important contribution to Southern Seminary’s history.
With this letter, I release this entire report to the public. Nothing has been withheld. At the onset, I made a pledge to this team that I would hold nothing from the public and would release their report in full.
What does all of this mean? We are faced with very hard questions, but they are not new to historic Christianity. When I arrived as a student at the Seminary in 1980, I came ready to make the history of this school my history, even as the history of the Southern Baptist Convention is my history. Over time, I had to think some hard thoughts. How could Christians hold, simultaneously, such right and wrong beliefs? How could a heroic figure like Martin Luther, that great paragon of the Reformation, teach, defend, and define the glorious truths of the gospel while expressing vile medieval anti-Semitism? The questions come again and again.
Eventually, the questions come home. How could our founders, James P. Boyce, John Broadus, Basil Manly Jr., and William Williams, serve as such defenders of biblical truth, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the confessional convictions of this Seminary, and at the same time own human beings as slaves—based on an ideology of race—and defend American slavery as an institution?
Like Luther, they were creatures of their own time and social imagination, to be sure. But this does not excuse them, nor will it excuse us. 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. They preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to all people, slave and free. We hold to that same gospel, pointing sinners to the promise of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. 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.
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. But this report is not the shattering of images. Boyce, Broadus, Manly, and Williams would be first to make that clear. As Christians, we know no total sanctification or perfection in this life. We await something better, our future glorification by Christ.
We also rejoice in knowing that Christ is creating a new humanity, purchased with his precious blood. Thanks be to God, we are seeing the promise of that new humanity, right here on the campus of Southern Seminary and Boyce College. Right here, right now, we see students and faculty representing many races and nations and ethnicities. Our commitment is to see this school, founded in a legacy of slavery, look every day more like the people born anew by the gospel of Jesus Christ, showing Christ’s glory in redeemed sinners drawn from every tongue and tribe and people and nation.
We are particularly 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. 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.
In light of the burdens of history, some schools hasten to remove names, announce plans, and declare moral superiority. That is not what I intend to do, nor do I believe that to be what the Southern Baptist Convention or our Board of Trustees would have us to do.
We do not evaluate our Christian forebears from a position of our own moral innocence. Christians know that there is no such innocence. But we must judge, even as we will be judged, by the unchanging Word of God and the deposit of biblical truth.
Consistent with our theology and the demands of truth, we will not attempt to rewrite the past, nor can we unwrite the past. Instead, we will write the truth as best we can know it. We will tell the story in full, and not hide. By God’s grace, we will hold without compromise to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
We will seek to be faithful to Jesus Christ, his gospel, and his commands. May God lead us, guide us, correct us, protect us, and teach us. This is our witness.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president
December 12, 2018