History Professor Says Southern Baptist Seminary Report On Slavery Ties Failed to Reflect On Racial Equality Today

The Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, speaks to reporters on on Oct. 5, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Bruce Schreiner / AP file)
The Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, speaks to reporters on on Oct. 5, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Bruce Schreiner / AP file)

In a country where corporate statements of diversity and inclusion are as common as executive offices occupied by white men, a number of institutions have made damning public assessments of their historical engagement with slavery.

The ways in which these institutions sanctioned slavery and profited from it is no longer a secret. So when the Louisville, Kentucky-based Southern Baptist Theological Seminary made public this week a similar report, many wondered: Why now, and what’s next?

The report said that all of the seminary’s founders owned slaves (more than 50 people were owned), and that the seminary used religious ideology to defend slavery and racial inequality both before and more than 100 years after emancipation.

“There is a sense of historical reckoning taking shape that is far larger than one institution or region of the country,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in an interview. “There are unavoidable questions being asked and I think we have quite deliberately not told parts of the story. And it’s the details, frankly, that hit with a certain kind of horror.”

Nothing puts the depravity of slavery in one’s face like a list of slaves — which usually include their ages and dollar value — written in cold ink, Mohler said.

The Southern Baptist Convention represents the largest Protestant denomination in the United States and includes the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary along with thousands of churches that do not answer to central leadership. About 5.3 percent of all U.S. adults identify as members of the church, and 85 percent of them are white, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. Mohler ranks among the denomination’s most influential and well-known figures.

In the days after the report became public, it was widely lauded for its depth and accuracy but also critiqued by some church members who felt it was unnecessary and by others inside and outside the evangelical world who felt it failed to address how the church should respond to troubling revelations about its past and repent today.

The first type of critique came in many cases from the largely white Americans who sit in pews at Southern Baptist churches, said Paul Harvey, professor of history at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs who researches race and religion. He’s also the grandson of a preacher who led a Southern Baptist Convention church in Sacramento, California.

“They are asking, ‘Why did the seminary waste our time and money on this?’” Harvey said of the church members he’s spoken to as well as the comments he saw on social media.

Those sentiments are not unique to Southern Baptists — white Americans are often reluctant to discuss race and the way that it has shaped inequality in the U.S. Some insist that slavery is no longer relevant, and in the case of the seminary report, some deploy claims of exhaustion or overkill.

The Southern Baptist Convention renounced racism and apologized to African Americans in 1995 for its history of supporting slavery and advancing segregation. In 2017, after some debate, the convention passed a measure condemning the alt-right and its ideas. Some Southern Baptists seem to hope, Mohler wrote in a letter accompanying the report, that’s enough.

“That is not possible, nor is it right,” he wrote.

But while some white Americans remain in this state of denial, others are ready for something more than a recitation of past wrongs, Harvey said.

“The Southern Baptist Seminary, and by extension the denomination leaders, they did a very good job reckoning with the past, and a not-so-good job reckoning with the present,” said Harvey, who wrote “Freedom’s Coming,” a book about the way race and religion shaped the post-Civil War South.

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SOURCE: Janell Ross
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