The Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on Oct. 5, 2015. (Bruce Schreiner/AP)
More than two decades after the Southern Baptist Convention — the country’s second-largest faith group — apologized to African Americans for its active defense of slavery in the 1800s, its flagship seminary on Wednesday released a stark report further delineating its ties to institutionalized racism.
The year-long study by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary found that all four founding faculty members owned slaves and “were deeply complicit in the defense of slavery,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the seminary, wrote in his introduction to the 72-page report he commissioned.
The report also noted that the seminary’s most important donor and chairman of its Board of Trustees in the late 1800s, Joseph E. Brown, “earned much of his fortune by the exploitation of mostly black convict lease laborers,” employing in his coal mines and iron furnaces “the same brutal punishments and tortures formerly employed by slave drivers.”
The report provided largely harsh assessments of the seminary’s past actions, even as it at times lauded the institution for racial strides.
Many of the founding faculty members’ “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,” that recast the South as an idyllic place for both slaves and masters and the Civil War as a battle fought over Southern honor, not slavery, Mohler wrote in his introduction.
The faculty opposed racial equality after Emancipation and advocated for the maintenance of white political control and against extending suffrage to African Americans, the report said. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the seminary faculty relied on pseudoscience to justify its white supremacist positions, concluding that “supposed black moral inferiority was connected to biological inferiority,” according to the report. And decades later, the seminary was slow to offer full support for the civil rights movement, advocating a “moderate approach.”
The seminary’s public reckoning comes as universities grapple with the darker corners of their pasts amid passionate challenges from students and faculty. At colleges across the country, protesters have toppled some Confederate monuments, while other statues remain the subjects of fierce debate.
“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,” Mohler wrote.
Colby Adams, a spokesman for Mohler, said the theologian launched the historical investigation because people asked him specific questions “he didn’t know the answer to. We knew there was involvement. We didn’t know the full history.”
The report has elicited a lukewarm reaction from experts who said while the seminary should be commended for admitting its racist history in writing, the revelations don’t come as a surprise, especially given the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 after a split with northern Baptists over slavery. The SBC is now the largest Protestant denomination in the country, with over 15 million members.
What does matter, the experts said, are the actions the seminary takes from here and whether it makes reparations.
Jemar Tisby, a historian who writes about race and Christianity, said he expects many white Evangelicals will push back on the report by saying the seminary is being divisive and re-litigating its past. The school’s leadership needs to sit down with racial and ethnic minorities and “let themselves be led” to racial reconciliation, Tisby said. “They are at the very beginning of the journey,” he said. “What this document does it open up a new phase of the seminary on racial justice.”
Critics and other observers said the Southern Baptist Convention for too long has been hesitant to take full ownership of its past, for decades framing its split with northern Baptists as one over theological differences, not slavery.
By commissioning the seminary’s report, Mohler may have been trying to change that., said Lawrence Ware, a professor at Oklahoma State University who studies race and religion. “I think that what he’s trying to do is he’s trying to force the Convention to have a conversation on race and racism that the Convention has really not wanted to have,” Ware told The Washington Post.
Ware said that while the report is “a step in the right direction,” some sections seem to soften the severity of the seminary’s racist actions. He called the report’s description of faculty’s mixed record on the civil rights movement “double-handed” and said the document fails to account for the seminary’s lack of diversity among top leadership.
The seminary’s progress in the area of civil rights was slow. The Louisville school began admitting black students to degree programs in 1940 and fully integrated 11 years later. The report said that the seminary was skeptical of the civil rights movement’s direct-action tactics, but noted that faculty in the 1960s urged support for civil rights in general and invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at the seminary in 1961.
In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution stating its explicit connection to slavery:
“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.”
Many Southern Baptists hoped the resolution would be the last time they would have to confront the denomination’s racist past, Mohler wrote in the report.
“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,” he wrote. “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.”
“[T]he 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,” Mohler wrote in the report. “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.”
The denomination has focused in recent years on efforts toward racial reconciliation and progress. In 2012, it elected its first African American president, Fred Luter. And in April, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, the SBC’s public policy arm — the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission — organized what it thought would be a small conference in Memphis about efforts to end racism. About 3,500 pastors and lay leaders showed up.
“Father, Lord, would you have mercy on us sinners?” ERLC Commission President Russell Moore prayed at the Memphis event.
There have also been notable stumbles.
The group voted at its annual meeting in 2017 to condemn the white nationalist movement known as the alt-right — but only after it faced backlash to an earlier decision not to vote on the issue.
The same year, a professor at a different Southern Baptist seminary posted to Twitter a photo appearing to show five white professors posing in hoodies and gold chains, with some pointing their fingers like guns. Barry McCarty, a professor of preaching and rhetoric at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, later posted that the photo was meant to be a send-off for a professor who occasionally raps.