Pioneer for Racial Justice in America’s Largest Denomination

Archives and Special Collections, James P. Boyce Centennial Library, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kent

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has had the dark stain of racism on its identity from its inception. In 1845, when the convention was founded, Baptists in the South split from their Northern counterparts over the issue of slavery. The specific dividing point was whether owners of slaves could serve as missionaries. Baptists from the Southern states were generally in favor of slavery and had no problem with their missionaries owning slaves.

The convention’s flagship seminary, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), also bears this historical stain of racism. In 1859, SBTS was founded in Greenville, South Carolina. One of its founders and first presidents, James Pettigrew Boyce, owned slaves and self-identified as “ultra pro-slavery.” And he wasn’t alone. Other presidents supported and participated in race-based slavery, too.

The racism of the SBC and SBTS continued well into the 1900s, during the eras of reconstruction and segregation. In 1961, when Martin Luther King Jr. was invited to speak in an SBTS chapel service, for example, there was racist outrage.

But throughout SBC and SBTS history there have been shining gospel lights of racial reconciliation—people who risked their lives to fight against white supremacy with both word and action. Clarence Jordan, a white man, was one of them. He fought against the racist status quo, landing on the right side of the issue in the 1900s.Archives and Special Collections, James P. Boyce Centennial Library, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

Dining Hall Duplicity

Courage was essential to embodying true biblical community within the racially charged environment of 1930s Georgia. Growing up behind the Talbot County jail in Talbotton, Jordan’s neighbors included the mostly white prison employees and the mostly black prison population. One night he witnessed the white prison warden passionately singing in church—and the next day torturing and killing a black man. This encounter was life-changing for Jordan, and it made him furious with God. The duplicity of the church—exemplified by the warden—turned Jordan away from pursuing a law degree toward agriculture, with the hope of ending hunger caused by sharecropping. Troubled by the inequality and injustice of the sharecropping system, Jordan saw self-subsistence farming as a viable exit for those in the system. However, through involvement with the Baptist Student Union at the University of Georgia, he temporarily abandoned farming for the call of preaching, and enrolled at SBTS in the fall of 1933.

While earning his PhD in Greek New Testament at SBTS in the late 1930s, Jordan was involved in Louisville’s inner-city life, even teaching at the local black seminary, Simmons University. Once, an SBTS campus organization invited the Simmons students to lead a prayer gathering at SBTS, customarily preceded by lunch in the dining hall. When SBTS president John Sampey learned of the potential integration of the lunch room, he banned the black students from eating there, but he allowed the spiritual activity of prayer to continue. A few SBTS students stood firmly against this duplicity, prompting an apology from Sampey. Frequent racial tensions and conflicts led Jordan to transfer his white Baptist membership to a black Baptist church.

Birth of a Movement

Around this time, all of Jordan’s experiences—growing up behind the prison, experiencing racial injustice in seminary, studying agriculture, and embracing a pastoral heart—came together. He sought to create a biblical and agricultural community where members could live, work, and worship together in an interdependent community. So in 1942, in Sumter County, Georgia, Jordan launched Koinonia Farm. Koinonia aimed to be racially inclusive and dual-purposed: a community where Christians would (1) live in radical obedience to Christ and (2) help local farmers, especially the poor. Residents believed commitment to Christ is a total one involving surrender of self, vocation, and possessions. They shared every aspect of their lives.

Jordan and others held that fellowship with God is a matter of the heart, not of the skin, and that every person has equal access to the Father’s love. Jordan’s devotion to these principles of racial reconciliation intentionally challenged white supremacy for the cause of the gospel in the Deep South.

Yet it was clear Jordan understood the potential consequences of this work. As he told his biographer:

We knew white men could disappear just like black men. It scared the hell out of us, but the alternative was to not do it, and that scared us more. . . . It was not a question of whether or not we were to be scared, but whether or not we would be obedient.

When the non-violent civil-rights boycotts began with the Montgomery bus boycott, whites in Southern Georgia undertook a boycott of their own: refusing to support Koinonia. The Ku Klux Klan had opposed the farm from its inception, but 1956 saw an increase of gunfire, attempted killings, and the bombing of Koinonia’s roadside market. Government officials did not respond; even President Eisenhower refused to come to their aid.

Sadly, persecution also came from the church. The entire Koinonia family was excommunicated because they desired for blacks and whites to worship together. Though white, Jordan and his family were labeled “black” because they identified with the suffering of black people.Archives and Special Collections, James P. Boyce Centennial Library, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

Yet Jordan’s perseverance through this time resulted in God using the farm for his glory. In fact, Koinonia provided the conceptual foundation for what we know today as Habitat for Humanity.

Despite the Consequences

Clarence Jordan aimed to adorn the gospel and love his neighbor by working to bring racial equality to economic sectors. He started housing initiatives with low-interest rates to help the poor—a helpful roadmap for Christian entrepreneurs today. Jordan’s life pressed in toward reconciliation, despite the consequences. He aimed to radically obey the simple commands of Jesus to love your neighbor and your enemy.

As God’s people, may we be agents of change through the ministry of reconciliation entrusted to us, using our gifts to transform our communities for the glory of Jesus Christ. Who knows what the Lord might do?

Editors’ note: This article is a revised version of a research paper titled “The Road to Reconciliation: Race, Rage, Renewal, and Redemption,” written by Kelly Nall at SBTS and submitted to Matthew Hall and Jarvis Williams. The paper compares the reconciliation work of Clarence Jordan and John Perkins to show that, although these men lived two different lives (one white and the other black, one from Georgia and the other from Mississippi), they both walked the path of gospel reconciliation in their communities. To read more on this topic, see the new book edited by Jarvis Williams and Kevin Jones, Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention: Diverse African-American and White Perspectives (B&H Academic, 2017).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

three + twelve =