A Burden Removed: A Biblical Path for Removing the Racism of Our Forefathers

Editor’s note: The following article is authored by Reed DePace, senior minister of The Church at Chantilly, Historic First Presbyterian of Montgomery, Alabama. DePace has served The Church at Chantilly since 2008. He holds degrees a MAR from Westminster Theology Seminary in Philadelphia and a DMin from Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies. He’s a self-described “Philly boy” now serving in the South.

“But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, so that I walked contrary to them . . . then I will remember my covenant” (Lev. 26:40-42).

Is this something a congregation should consider? Should a congregation repent of the sins of their forefathers?

Church in Decline

This was a particularly relevant question for us. First Presbyterian Church (PCA) of Montgomery, Alabama, was the first church formally established in Montgomery (1824, we beat our Baptist brothers and sisters by six months; whew!). We’ve seen lots of blessings from God over our history. One of our early pastors was the great-uncle of Winston Churchill. In the late 1800s we were key supporters of the Presbyterian missionaries God worked through to bring about the 1907 Pyongyang Revival and the Christianization of Korea. In the 1920’s we were a “megachurch” before there were such, with a membership more than 2,000. Even in 1961, our membership was still at a respectable 1,100.

When I was called to be the pastor of Historic First Church (our nickname) in 2008, the church had moved from its downtown location to a suburban one, where it was thought that folks more like the existing congregation would join. Yet that hadn’t really happened. While official membership was around 100, the reality was that we had about 50 active members—many of whom were from the Silent Generation, well into their 70s and 80s. The common renewal plan of many a downtown church (move to the suburbs) wasn’t working for us.

Yet, as often happens with a new pastor, we saw an increase in our ministry over the next few years. By 2011 membership rose to a little more than 100. It looked like there was a re-birth of new life, that God was going to bless us with more years of ministry. Yet over the next few years, the historic slide toward dissolution continued. By 2015 membership was down to the 70s, with active membership back at the 50s.

The elders at the time agreed that we needed to spend some time investigating why God seemed to be “walking contrary” to us (Lev. 26:41), why he seemed to be cursing rather than blessing our ministry efforts.

The Past Is Never Dead

I conducted a thorough search of our church records (something Southern Presbyterians are very good at keeping) back to the founding of our church. Regarding our current circumstances, the records from the civil-rights era forward seemed most relevant. Starting in the 1950s our church, both the congregation and also leadership, engaged in actions and decisions that are most simply described as racist, a refusal to love our black neighbors as ourselves.

Oh, historic First Church wasn’t all racist all the time. Some members sought to obey Christ and love our fellow black Montgomerians. For example, Rosa Parks’s white attorney was a deacon in our church, and his wife was one of Mrs. Parks’s best friends. In the 1960s, even though he suffered for it, one of our ministers accepted the call to be the pastor of a small struggling black congregation (planted out of our church in the 1880s). Other notable examples were seen throughout 1950s and ’60s.

Yet far more often in this era, our church chose to partake of racial sins. In 1956, about a decade before most other white churches in Montgomery took this action, our leadership chose to formally block blacks from membership and attending services at our church. In 1961 our church was located a half-block away from the Greyhound Bus station where the Freedom Riders were attacked. Rather than offering sanctuary, we ignored what was happening. As late as 1974 our elders and deacons were still affirming their intention to not allow backs to join or attend any services at our church. Numerous other racist attitudes and decisions littered Historic First Church through the civil-rights era. In fact, these attitudes and actions only began to disappear from our records in the late-1970s.

Yet these sins were still present and would occasionally make themselves known. An outreach decision to open up a daycare was actively hindered for the whole of the 1980s, in part, because it would require letting black children participate in the daycare. The dominant debate among the elders in the 1980s and ’90s was whether or not to reach the surrounding community with the gospel, a community that was no longer white. While not overt in every discussion, the underlying opposition to including blacks in outreach meant that virtually no witnessing ministries took place. Then in 1999 the decision was made to move to a suburban community where the demographics of the surrounding community matched that of the congregation.

Back to 2015. Despite a number of attempts, witnessing efforts at Historic First Church met with little response from the congregation. Comparing this to the research gleaned from our history showed a startling similarity. In the civil-rights era Historic First Church refused to reach out to a people unlike them: blacks. By 2015, with most members never being a part of the downtown church, we had become a congregation that was all but unwilling to reach out to anyone. All might be “welcome,” but we weren’t putting any effort into taking the gospel to them, white, black, or the proverbial purple with pink polka dots.

This was the context for the debatable practice of repenting of our forefathers’ sins. It sure looked like we were experiencing the fruits of past sins, even though we were no longer racist. It certainly looked like God was “walking contrary” to us. Was repenting for past sins, sins that no one in the existing congregation participated in, God’s path to restoring the ministry of the gospel among us?

Visits from God

The answer to this question is not immediately obvious in the Scriptures. There seems to be a contradiction at play in this question. As many others have noted in recent years, the Bible is expressly clear that God does not impute the culpability of forefathers’ sin on their descendants.

The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. (Ezek. 18:20)

On the other hand, there are numerous warnings that God “visits the iniquities” of forefathers on their descendants (Exod. 20:5; 24:7; Num. 14:18; Deut. 5:9; Lev. 26:39-41; Isa. 14:21; Isa. 65:6-7; Jer. 14:20; 32:8, and so on). The notable examples of Daniel (Dan. 9:8, ff.), Ezra (Ezra 9:6-7, ff.), and Nehemiah (Neh. 9:16, ff.), each confessing their forefathers’ iniquities, gives strong evidence that God both fulfills the warnings and the promises attached to “visiting the iniquities.”

The way out of the apparent contradiction here is found in the details associated with the words visit and iniquity. Rather than overwhelm you with the breadth and depth of these details, let me summarize them. One of three words used for sin in the OT, the Hebrew word translated iniquity, is used to express sin with its results. We are most familiar with the result of culpability. Sin makes us culpable before God, accountable to him for our rebellion against his law.

Yet there is another result of sin, one that is as common as culpability, but not often focused on. In addition to culpability, sin also results in corruption. This is the spiritual pollution, the contamination factor attached to sin. It spiritually infects others. A significant part of the Mosaic ceremonial law dealt with picturing the corruption result of sin:

And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. (Lev. 16:21-22)

One of the reasons for church discipline is to protect the other members of a congregation from the corruption of the offending member’s sin:

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Cor. 5:6-7)

The corruption result of sin is so pervasive that there is nothing we can do to avoid it:

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. (Isa. 64:6)

The Hebrew word visiting explains how the sins of forefathers corrupt their descendants. The visiting in view is not some sort of social call, as if God were promising to drop in for milk and brownies. Instead, the word refers to a covenantal visiting: God visits on people, he gives them the experience of, the blessings or curses of his covenants to those in covenant with him, and their descendants. The fourth commandment (Exod. 20:5-6) illustrates the pattern of covenantal visiting succinctly:

“You shall not bow down to them or serve [other gods], for I the LORD your God am a jealous God:
[covenant curse] visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,
[covenant blessing] but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

It is quite simple: God gives to the descendants of those in covenant with him the corruption results of their forefathers’ sins. If the culpability result of sin is personal (it only attaches to the sinning individual), then the corruption result of sin is corporate (it also attaches to those in covenant relationship with the sinning individual).

Admittedly there are many more details that show this corruption result is basic to the nature of sin. But this is nothing more than the historic understanding of the church: God curses the descendants to follow in the sinful footsteps of their forefathers, sinning in related ways.

This explains why Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah were resolute in confessing their forefathers’ sins. They knew that God had promised to forgive those sins, not their culpability, but their corruption. So, they confessed and led their congregations to confess with them. Likewise, in the letters to the Seven Churches of Revelation, Jesus advises certain congregations to repent of sins committed only by some of their members (e.g., Pergamum, Rev. 2:13-17; Thyatira, Rev. 2:18-29; Sardis, Rev. 3:1-6). While not personally culpable for the sins of the few, all the members of these congregations were corrupted by these sins. Corporate repentance, confessing the sins of others to whom they were covenantally related, was Jesus’s gospel-rooted solution.

Time to Repent?

In 2016 as we explored these things, our leaders were aware of some of the controversy around repenting for sins of the forefathers. But as they played no part in our considerations, we did not give much attention to various social motivations and concerns. It was quite straightforward for us. We understood we could not repent for sins we did not commit. But could we repent of sins, sins committed by those covenantally related to us?

We were shepherding a congregation that seemed to be experiencing problems related to sins of forefathers. For us then, it was purely a matter of gospel practice. Did our forefathers commit atrocious racial sins? Yes. Was God visiting the corruption of these sins on subsequent generations, including the congregation under our care? Yes. Was repenting of these:

  • Acknowledging the wickedness of those sins,
  • Acknowledging God’s righteousness in visiting the corruption of those sins on us,
  • Trusting that in Jesus there is cleansing from the corruption of these, and
  • So confessing the sins of our forefathers,

The gospel-rooted resolution before us?

We understand that this corporate usage of repentance is outside the common personal usage. We respect that others may come to different conclusions. That’s ok. We didn’t apply this principle to make a statement, to persuade others to do likewise. Our sole purpose was to seek God to remove the burden of our forefathers’ sins, and thereby bring glory to his holy name.

Forgiveness Brings Freedom—and Fruit

In summer 2016, following the tradition of our Presbyterian forefathers, the elders and I signed a solemn declaration of all these things, particularly identifying our forefathers’ sins, and our repentance for them. At the beginning of 2017 we entered into a formal period of renewal. We added to our historic name a second name that identified us with our community: located on the grounds of a historic slave plantation, the name “The Church at Chantilly” (the location marker) declares that this church has been freed from the curse of sin, including all forms of racism. The members of the congregation at that time asked to follow their elders’ lead, and signed their names to the declaration of repentance. That document now hangs in the entry hallway of our church, right next to a picture of our downtown buildings, for all visitors to see.

In God’s providence and through no intention of ours, the story of our repentance was publicized both locally and nationally. This many years after the civil-rights era, and after many other churches took a similar action decades ago, we were not concerned with publicizing our actions. Yet God honored our efforts in restorative ways. Over the last few years we have been contacted by numerous former members of our church, and even some of the descendants of former members, who had all taken a stand against Historic First Church’s racism and had been driven out of the congregation for doing so. The experience of asking them to forgive the sins of our forefathers brought healing and, in some cases, a believable gospel witness from a church with a previous reputation of hypocrisy.

While our current congregation is small, for the first time in more than half a century (possibly longer) we are seeing new conversion growth. In the last year and a half we have seen a good half-dozen millennials make a profession of faith and actively participate in the ministries of the church. Sustained weekly witnessing activities have been going on for more than a year now. Two-thirds of the congregation has participated in evangelism training, now offered twice a year.

In 2016 we were blessed to partner with Korean brothers and sisters in Orlando, Florida, to plant Montgomery Open Kingdom (Korean, PCA) church. In fall 2018, we were blessed to host a Spanish-speaking (Baptist) congregation, Light to the Nations, reaching Spanish speakers in Montgomery hailing from numerous Central and South American countries. Today all three congregations share Historic First Church’s facilities, with multiple worship services, joint children’s Sunday school, and numerous joint activities throughout the year.

You might notice that I didn’t mention anything about outreach into the black community in Montgomery. While we maintain strong relationships with sister black congregations in our area, God has not yet seen fit to grace us with this blessing. We prayerfully continue to reach into the black community around us, praying for God to raise up a family or two from which he would grace us with further elders and deacons.

Truth be told, we’re small enough now (about 40 active, 50 + including shut-ins), that statistically speaking, there is every possibility that Historic First Presbyterian Church of Montgomery might close before she reaches her 200th anniversary. We’re ok with that. Repenting of the sins of our forefathers was not some pragmatic church renewal step. It was simply the right thing to do. The corruption of sin is real. In a community filled with so many churches, and the next generation all but abandoning them, turning to God and pleading for his forgiveness from all sins (including those of the past) is nothing more than what gospel-believing people ought to do. Because in God’s providence, some who had lost hope, who had been helped by our forefathers’ sins to disbelieve in Jesus Christ, have found a new hope in him through our repentance.

Repentance Comes Home

Let me end with one of the most interesting and unexpected examples of this. Vivian is an older Baby Boomer raised in Montgomery. With some background in the hippie movement, she was won to Christ and then spent some time as one of the early English-language teacher missionaries in China. In 2016, sensing she only had a few more years in Montgomery before she would need to move to be near family members as health needs increased, she wanted to join our church because she wanted to focus on reaching millennials.

Like many members raised in Montgomery, Vivian was a tad suspicious when her pastor and elders first began discussing repenting of the sins of our forefathers. “Social justice” concerns, and so on, filled her with questions about the what and why. Yet as the biblical basis for the action was explained, Vivian began to see that repenting of the forefathers’ sins was a godly thing completely consistent with living by faith taught through the gospel’s ministry. She willingly joined her fellow members in signing her name to the declaration of repentance.

At the beginning of the following year, 2017, Vivian got an odd query from her brother (living in a Western state). He asked if she knew about any first cousins still living in Montgomery? The answer was no; Vivian was the only one left from her family in this area, all others having moved away years ago. When she asked why, her brother told her that a DNA test he had completed sent back results telling him that he had a first cousin, one he didn’t know anything about, living in Montgomery. He gave her the contact information and left it up to Vivian to do the sleuthing.

Vivian contacted the first cousin, Mattie, and arranged to meet her. I was blessed to briefly meet Vivian’s new-found family at one of those first meetings. Gathering at a hospital for a doctor’s appointment, Vivian, white, sat with her new-found cousin Mattie, black.

The story that unfolded was in some sense rather common here in the Deep South. Yet because it was personal for Vivian and Mattie, their meeting was momentous for both of them. Mattie was the daughter of Lily (half-black/white). Lily’s father was Ray, Vivian’s (white) grandfather (poppee). An archetype story, Lily’s mother, Mattie the first, had been the maid in Ray’s household. In case you haven’t put things together yet, let’s put it in biblically blunt terms: Vivian’s white grandfather had raped her cousin’s black grandmother.

As a little girl Vivian remembered her poppee taking long walks on Sunday afternoons, ostensibly to smoke down at the park, and not coming home till well after dark. Vivian now heard the real story. Her grandfather would walk two blocks down from his house, get picked up by his daughter of rape, Lily, and spend the afternoon with his black family. They all resented him, yet consistent with the times, he was their patriarch, and they had to show him some respect.

You can just imagine Vivian’s shock as she learned all this family history she had never heard before. She knew that her poppee, like many Southern white men from the first half of the 20th century, showed common racist behaviors (e.g., Jim Crow cultural attitudes and acts). But that he had raped a black woman, and had a whole other, black, family?!

I was fascinated by the new family history Vivian had to share. But then she revealed a fact that caused me to join her in being shocked to my core. While her poppee was raping his black maid, while he was engaged in keeping a second family with their daughter, Vivian’s grandfather was a respected elder of, yep, First Presbyterian Church of Montgomery!

When repented of the sins of our forefathers, we did not envision the opportunity to express repentance to some of the families that had been hurt by those sins. Imagine our delight when Vivian’s family circumstances surfaced. Here a terrible wickedness, one attached to the name of Christ, perpetrated by a man who had been a shepherd in our church, had come to the fore only after we had taken the action of repenting of our forefather’s sins. Imagine our delight later that year, when Vivian’s new-found black family attended worship with us in the very congregation where their white rapist grandfather was formerly an elder. Imagine their joy as the pastor of that church asked that family to forgive the sins of their forefathers, particularly the rape of their matriarch. Imagine this black family in Montgomery, Alabama, home of some of the best and worst from the civil-rights era, receiving the amen-ing applause of the white congregation affirming their pastor’s repentance of their forefathers’ sins!

Burden Removed

Some discussion and investigation about this doctrine of repenting of the forefathers’ sins is well and good. The congregation at the Church at Chantilly, Historic First Presbyterian Church of Montgomery, Alabama, is sufficiently satisfied that God has given this principle in his word to bless his people, that their repentance might show forth his glory, glory that removes the stain of the worst sins, and restores the gospel’s hope in Jesus Christ.

In Jesus, the worst of burdens can be removed, including our forefathers’ racism. With that, we’re grateful to submit to his will and repent. He has removed the burden of our forefathers’ sins, and his gospel is going forth from us!