‘Full lament’: Southern Baptist Seminary releases report on its history of slavery, racism

The campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship seminary for the Southern Baptist Convention, located in Louisville, Kentucky.
The campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship seminary for the Southern Baptist Convention, located in Louisville, Kentucky. | Facebook/The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

The Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship seminary has released a report detailing their history of racism and support for slavery as part of an endeavor to recognize their past moral failings on race issues.

“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,” wrote The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Jr., in the 71-page “Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Mohler appointed a committee last year to research the history of the Louisville-based evangelical school, which was founded in 1859 as part of the pro-slavery SBC, on the issues of race, slavery and civil rights.

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The committee consisted of six scholars, including Gregory A. Wills, professor of church history and former dean of the School of Theology who chaired the committee.

“The history of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is intertwined with the history of American slavery and the commitment to white supremacy which supported it. Slavery left its mark on the seminary just as it did upon the American nation as a whole,” states the report’s “Summary of Findings.

“The belief in white supremacy that undergirded slavery also undergirded new forms of racial oppression. The seminary’s leaders long shared that belief and therefore failed to combat effectively the injustices stemming from it.”

The report notes that the seminary’s founders all held slaves, supported the Confederacy during the American Civil War, and up until the 1940s actively supported segregation and racial inequality.

The report also found that before the 1940s, the seminary endorsed the “Lost Cause” narrative of American history, which promoted a pro-South perspective on slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, often to justify Jim Crow laws.

There are some positives in the seminary’s history, according to the report, including steps toward advancing black education before the 1940s, integrating their classes three years before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and faculty giving support for the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s.

“This report documents the contradictions and complexities of the experience of Southern Baptists and race in America. We have not overcome all the contradictions, but we are committed to doing so,” notes the report in its conclusion. 

Mohler said that while these questionable positions were believed or practiced widely at the time, “this does not excuse them, nor will it excuse us.”

As he called for repentance, he added, “As Christians, we know no total sanctification or perfection in this life. We await something better, our future glorification by Christ.”

Mohler also noted that while the seminary’s founders had moral shortcomings like slave ownership and support for the Confederacy, the evangelical school will not censor them.

“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,” he stated.

“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.”

Over the past few years, the Southern Baptist Convention has made efforts to acknowledge and seek forgiveness for their history as a denomination founded on pro-slavery viewpoints.

In 2012, the SBC, once founded by pro-slavery Baptists, elected its first African-American president, the Rev. Fred J. Luter, Jr. of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, Louisiana.

In 2014, the denomination passed a resolution that lamented and repudiated America's "long history of racial segregation as well as the complicity of Southern Baptists who resisted or opposed" racial integration.

In 2015, then SBC President Ronnie Floyd was part of a summit with Jerry Young, president of the historically African-American denomination National Baptist Convention, USA. The summit was organized by Mission Mississippi, a Christian organization founded in the 1990s that is centered on creating racial reconciliation.

The SBC's public policy arm, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has also been focused on racial reconciliation in recent years, with its president Russell Moore calling racism "anti-Christ."

In April at the MLK 50 Conference in Memphis, Tennessee, Moore gave a speech in which he declared that the "White American Bible Belt" often paid homage to racism while calling it "Jesus Christ."

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