Bob Jones University campus (photo courtesy of BJU).

A former president of Bob Jones University, a conservative Christian school in South Carolina, has issued an apology for a statement he made in 1980 on stoning homosexuals.

BJU Chancellor Bob Jones III was president of the university in March of 1980 when he and a group of fundamentalist ministers brought to the White House a petition signed by 70,000 people who opposed extending provisions of the Civil Rights Act to gays.

“I’m sure this will be greatly misquoted,” Jones said in 1980, according to the Associated Press. “But it would not be a bad idea to bring the swift justice today that was brought in Israel’s day against murder and rape and homosexuality. I guarantee it would solve the problem post-haste if homosexuals were stoned, if murderers were immediately killed as the Bible commands.”

Bob Jones III (photo courtesy of Bob Jones University). Bob Jones III (photo courtesy of Bob Jones University).

On Saturday, Jones, 75, issued an apology in response to a petition for him to do so that received about 2,000 signatures.

“I take personal ownership for this inflammatory rhetoric,” he said in a statement. “This reckless statement was made in the heat of a political controversy 35 years ago.”

“It is antithetical to my theology and my 50 years of preaching a redeeming Christ Who came into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved,” Jones said. “Upon now reading these long-forgotten words, they seem to me as words belonging to a total stranger — were my name not attached.”

Jones said in the statement that he wishes he could erase his earlier words.

“The Bible I love, preach, and try to practice, does not present today the stoning of sinners as God’s way,” he said in his statement. “Its message is the good news that Christ Jesus was condemned on behalf of sinners to rescue all of us from condemnation and judgment by His willing sacrifice, for He was made sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.”

BJU, with about 3,000 students at its campus in Greenville, S.C., has carved out a significant space within fundamentalism after its leadership parted ways with evangelist Billy Graham, an icon of more mainstream American evangelicalism. Graham briefly attended Bob Jones, but the evangelist distanced himself from the school’s more strident form of Christianity.

BJUnity, which offers support for past and present lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students, mailed the petition Wednesday, said Jeffrey Hoffman, the executive director, according to the Greenville News.

“We are grateful that Bob Jones III has taken responsibility for these words — words that have caused deep harm for many more people than any of us knows,” BJUnity said Saturday. “This means a lot to us because it represents the beginning of a change in the rhetoric and conversation.”

In December, school leaders apologized to victims of sexual assault. The school also received national attention when then-presidential candidate George W. Bush visited in 2000, prompting the school to drop its ban on interracial dating, which it had unsuccessfully tried to defend before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983.

The university has been historically a family-run operation. Bob Jones Sr., Bob Jones Jr., Bob Jones III and Bob Jones III’s son, Stephen Jones, have all served as presidents. A year ago, Stephen Jones resigned because of health concerns and was replaced by Steve Pettit, the first non-Jones family member to lead the school.

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