‘Much of the Story Has Never Been Told’: Slavery and Racism in the History of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Albert Mohler, president of the The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written a letter introducing a historic report being released by the school, completing a year-long investigation into and reckoning with their own institutional history with respect to racism and slavery.

Here is an excerpt:

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.

The following 13 points constitute a summary of the findings in the 66-page report:

  1. The seminary’s founding faculty all held slaves.
  2. The seminary’s early faculty and trustees defended the righteousness of slaveholding.
  3. Upon Abraham Lincoln’s election, the seminary faculty sought to preserve slavery.
  4. The seminary supported the Confederacy’s cause to preserve slavery.
  5. After emancipation, the seminary faculty opposed racial equality.
  6. In the Reconstruction era, the faculty supported the restoration of white rule in the South.
  7. Joseph E. Brown, the seminary’s most important donor and chairman of its Board of Trustees 1880-1894, earned much of his fortune by the exploitation of mostly black convict-lease laborers.
  8. The seminary faculty urged just and humane treatment for blacks.
  9. Before the 1940s, the seminary faculty generally approved the Lost Cause mythology.
  10. Until the 1940s, the seminary faculty supported black education and the segregation of schools and society.
  11. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the seminary faculty appealed to science to support their belief in white superiority.
  12. The seminary admitted blacks to its degree programs in 1940 and integrated its classrooms in 1951.
  13. The seminary faculty supported civil rights for blacks but had mixed appraisals of the Civil Rights Movement.

You can read the entire narrative here.