Southern Baptist Convention must grapple with its racist legacy, say SBTS leaders at SBC panel
DALLAS, Texas. (SBTS) — The Southern Baptist Convention must continue to acknowledge and repudiate its racist origins, said leaders of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at a panel during the June 12-13 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in Dallas, Texas. While the convention has owned its role in recent years — formally repenting in a 1995 statement — its journey is incomplete, said the panelists.
The panel, which was hosted at the SBC Cooperative Program stage, featured R. Albert Mohler Jr., Kevin Jones, Matthew J. Hall, and Curtis Woods. The panel was moderated by Jarvis J. Williams, associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary.
Mohler, president of Southern Seminary, preached the sesquicentennial sermon at the 1995 SBC annual meeting, the same event at which Southern Baptist leaders released a formal statement repenting of the convention’s approval of slavery. During last week’s panel, Mohler stated publicly for the first time that he now believes the 1995 statement did not go far enough. The convention’s complicity was not entirely a thing of the past, he said.
“In 1995, Southern Baptists wanted to say that we were born in a racist past, we’ve been complicit with racism in segregation all the way through Jim Crow to the recent present, and we’re drawing a line in 1995 saying, ‘That was then, this is now.’ I think that was honest, but I think it was wrong,” Mohler said.
Mohler’s 2015 sermon “The Table, the Nations, the Tower of Babel, and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb” inspired Williams and Jones to write their 2017 book, Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention. Each member of the panel contributed a chapter to the book. Mohler said he tried in his sermon to express his grief over the SBC’s racial failures. And the effects of those failures did not end with a formal declaration in 1995, Mohler said. The convention must continue to condemn its racist past and work toward a more integrated future.
“It’s going to take everything we’ve got in the gospel, in the Scriptures, to escape the trap of history,” he said. “We can’t just draw a line. We’re going to have to deal with it, we’re going to have to confront it, and we’re going to have to recognize the word ‘stain’ is exactly the right word. It’s a stain that we’re going to carry as a denomination until Jesus comes. But it’s a stain that, if we deal with it rightly, can actually show the power of Christ.”
The SBC formed in 1845 as a split from its national fellowship, wrote Hall in his chapter, “Historical Causes of the Stain of Racism in the Southern Baptist Convention.” The primary reason was slavery. Fifteen years before the secession of the Southern states and the American Civil War, white Baptists from the South elected to break from the American Baptist Home Mission Society because of its refusal to commission a slaveholding missionary applicant. By 1860, not everyone favored secession, Hall wrote, but “virtually all supported slavery.”
The first Southern Baptists did not claim that African slaves were not made in the image of God, said Mohler during the panel. But they believed God instituted a natural hierarchy for humanity — a social order that rendered white people as leaders and black slaves as servants. Although slavery ended after the Civil War, that sense of social order remained.
“We ended up with completely different churches, with the argument that that’s the natural order of things — to have different churches,” Mohler said. “But the gospel order of things is that men and women from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation declare the glories of Christ together. So in other words, arguing for a natural order of things — in which you have a separation of peoples by race and ethnicity — is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Bad theology leads to a horrifying distortion of the gospel. We’re not saying that we are smarter than those who came before us. We’re saying that, by God’s grace, we’ve been shown this the hard way.”
Jones, associate dean of academic innovation and professor of teacher education at Boyce College, said Mohler’s 2015 address motivated him to write a book that would help the convention move forward. According to Jones, progress starts with recognizing that racism is still a problem.
“Each African American that I know has experienced racism in some shape, form, or fashion,” he said. “So I said [after Mohler’s address], ‘What do we do within the convention as a Bible-centered organization to lead the charge in removing the stain?’ I think it’s a gospel issue, and I think institutions like Southern Baptist Theological Seminary ought to lead in the charge in correcting this issue.”
Woods wrote the concluding, summarizing chapter to Removing the Stain of Racism and argued the convention has not yet finished its journey toward justice and reconciliation. Racism is not just a result of individual sin, he said. It is often expressed socially and institutionally — and the evangelical church needs to own its role in cultural prejudice.
“We cannot be indifferent, we definitely cannot be insolent, and we have to dispel ignorance as it relates to the issue of racism within SBC life,” said Woods, who is associate executive director for the Kentucky Baptist Convention. “There are a lot of people who say, ‘Racism is a thing of the past. I’m not a racist.’ And typically they’ll think about racism on an individual level or a situational level as opposed to institutional and systemic. So within my chapter, I was basically making an appeal that Southern Baptists have been involved historically with trying to remove the stain, but we still have a ways to go.”
All Christians should pursue the good of their brothers and sisters, and that means listening to each other, said Hall, who is the dean of Boyce College. True reconciliation is only possible if the SBC acknowledges its historic complicity in racist ideologies, he said.
“You can’t really come to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus as your Lord and savior if you don’t acknowledge the truth about who you were as a sinner. So if our reconciliation with God demands truth-telling about the past — the same is true in our horizontal relationships with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
“There are stories all over the Southern Baptist Convention about pain and trauma and of reconciliation and healing, and we need to start telling those stories. I think that’s where we’ll start to see healing.”
That storytelling can start with Baptists reading stories told by people different from them, said Jones. Much of American history is written by white people for a largely white audience, Jones said. The curriculum used in SBC churches and institutions therefore needs reforming.
“Every class that I teach at Boyce and College and Southern Seminary has a book by a female and by a minority. So if you take any class with me, you’re going to read from each of those groups,” Jones said. “I think [changing the curriculum] requires us as individuals humbling ourselves and saying, ‘listen we just don’t know enough. We don’t know enough, and what we’ve been taught — because it lacked voices from other ethnic postures — is not the complete picture.’”
The book, Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention, is available in both Kindle and paperback formats on Amazon.