This week, the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship seminary released a detailed, historical accounting of its white supremacist founding. Over 71 pages, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary made explicit its founders’ slave-owning and the fact that its teachers and leaders used the Bible to justify it. The report explained for the first time in plain words that seminary leaders defiantly passed on a legacy of white supremacy well into the latter half of the 20th century.
“We knew, and we could not fail to know, that slavery and deep racism were in the story,” seminary President Albert Mohler wrote in his introduction to the document.
And that’s where the report stopped.
While it’s notable that one of the most prominent and historic Christian educational institutions in the country is spelling out the nuts and bolts of its racist past, if Mohler — and conservative American Christianity overall — want to address the legacy of slavery, it will take more self-honesty than this report musters.
It will take a theological reckoning that gets to the heart of what it means to read the Bible, to share its Good News and to be saved.
As a son of the Southern Baptist Church, I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to understand how our tradition’s justifications of slavery shaped our understanding of the Good News. It produced something I and others call “slaveholder religion,” which is a distortion of the Gospel.
Slaveholder religion makes a relationship with God separate from one’s obligation to work for God’s justice. It made it possible for Southern Baptists in the early 20th century to not only justify but feel righteous in their defense of white supremacy, because they imagined they were saving poor black souls. It makes it possible today for them — and other conservative Christians — to say that they’re concerned about the evangelization of migrants, and support spending time and money reaching them with the Bible, but that they are in no way obligated to work for policies that would help those people find homes in the United States or anywhere else.
The report comes up to the edge of this inevitable theological distinction:
“Since abolitionists generally appealed to the Bible as one of the chief weapons against slavery, white southerners generally relied on the evangelical clergy’s interpretations of scripture in defense of slaveholding.”
The report acknowledges that this was a theological mistake, but it fails to examine how two very different ways of understanding the Gospel emerged from this conflict between abolitionists and white Southern clergy. And it fails to make clear that the prophetic understanding was always there in plain sight.
“Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference,” abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote in the midst of this conflict, insisting that the religion of the slaveholders was the very opposite of the faith he confessed.
Any honest attempt to address the legacy of the Southern Baptist church must take seriously the understanding of the Christian Gospel that always challenged the legacy of white supremacy.
That white supremacy was not simply a mistake in judgment or a capitulation to the dominant culture. It was, the abolitionists understood, a fundamental misunderstanding of the message of Jesus.
The Rev. Thornton Stringfellow, whose popular writings in defense of slavery were celebrated by Southern Baptists, wrote in 1850 that the plantation economy “has brought within the range of gospel influence millions of Ham’s descendants among ourselves, who, but for this institution, would have sunk down to eternal ruin; knowing not God, and strangers to the gospel.”
The Gospel that Southern Baptists preached to enslaved people was the same message they trusted for their own salvation. It separated spiritual freedom and eternal security from the demands of justice in this life.
The blindness of Southern Baptists in the early 20th century didn’t simply allow them to tolerate the white supremacist mythology that reread the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan as a “redemption” from the “corruption” and “immorality” of Reconstruction. They actively promoted it. Thomas Dixon, the chief propagandist for white supremacy in the early 20th century, was a Southern Baptist minister whose novels were positively reviewed by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professors.
To be fair, there were by mid-20th century some scholars at the seminary and in the broader Southern Baptist world who had learned from preachers of what Gary Dorrien calls the “Black Social Gospel” that the message of Jesus for individual souls cannot be separated from its Good News for the poor and freedom for captives. Their influence was great enough by 1961 that they invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak on campus. But institutionally, the seminary rejected the Gospel that King preached — the prophetic Christianity he had inherited from the abolitionists of the 19th century.
“The Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees, together with President Duke K. McCall, wished to express regret for any offense caused by the recent visit of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to the campus of the Seminary,” the official statement said.
The most telling confession of this new report may be its silence on the history of the seminary in the years since McCall.
Mohler knows that history well, as he came there to study before McCall retired in 1982 and has called the seminary home ever since. Seminary faculty in the 1980s included professors who studied King and the faith-rooted civil rights movement, advocated for prophetic Christianity and sought to reject slaveholder religion’s separation of personal salvation from social justice in this world.
But when those voices questioned the legacy of slavery and racism at the seminary, they were accused of not believing the Bible by the self-identified leaders of what became known as the Conservative Resurgence in the Convention. Those leaders ended up pushing out the president who had resisted them and installed Mohler in 1993. During this more recent history, which the report omits, the phrase “traditional values” has replaced “white supremacy” as the socially acceptable way of defending the legacy of a Christianity that supported slavery.
All of this matters not only to Southern Baptists and others who care about the Gospel of Jesus, but also to the broader American public, because many experts believe that Christian nationalism is the primary force driving support of Donald Trump and the resurgence of white nationalism in our public life.
What I call slaveholder religion isn’t exclusive to white Christians; it applies to anyone who says you can be saved without being caught up in creating the kingdom of God in this life and the life to come. Anyone who separated spiritual freedom and eternal security from the demands of justice in this life. But in the United States in 2018, it is manifesting itself as Christian nationalism.
For example, this week prophetic Christianity inspires congregations that have offered sanctuary to undocumented neighbors facing deportation and clergy who were arrested for offering welcome at the U.S.-Mexico border. At the same time, slaveholder religion allows white evangelicals to pray for individuals souls while voting for politicians who promise to advocate for religious liberty while calling to “take our country back” from the imagined corruption of its first black president.
The Gospel that had understood slavery as Good News for Africans continues to understand white rule as Good News for America.
If Mohler and others are genuinely committed to what the report calls “awkward and embarrassing” conversations that Southern Baptists have avoided for generations, I suggest we begin by asking what role the legacy of slavery and racism plays in Southern Baptists' overwhelming support of white nationalism today.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a Baptist minister in Durham, N.C., and the author of “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom From Slaveholder Religion.”