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Southern Baptist president wants to retire famed gavel named for slave holder

Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear brings the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention to order using the 1872 Broadus gavel, named for John A. Broadus, a slaveholder, at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex on June 11, 2019, in Birmingham, Ala. (Butch Dill/Religion News Service)

J.D. Greear, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, on Wednesday called for the retirement of a gavel that carries the name of a 19th-century Southern Baptist leader who was a slaveholder and led the convention in support of the Confederacy.

Greear said that he was “deeply conflicted” last year when he was handed the gavel named after John Broadus, who was the second president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the SBC’s flagship seminary. The SBC’s annual meeting, which takes place in a different city every year, was held in 2019 in Birmingham, Ala., the city where several significant events took place during the civil rights movement.

“Southern Baptists, I think it is time to retire the Broadus gavel,” Greear wrote in a forthcoming piece in the Baptist Press that was shared with The Washington Post. “While we do not want to, nor could we, erase our history, it is time for this gavel to go back into the display case at the Executive Committee offices.”

The decision comes amid nationwide protests around racial injustice that have led to the removal of Confederate statues and symbols, which have been challenged for years. A spokesman for Greear said the gavel is the SBC’s version of a Confederate monument and that Greear did not realize that he had the option to choose another gavel.

The SBC is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and was founded in 1845 in defense of missionaries who owned slaves. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody has been widely condemned by Southern Baptists.

Greear will preside over one more annual meeting and will get to pick the gavel next year for SBC business. He wrote that he might consider using a gavel representing Annie Armstrong, a pioneer advocate for missions who fought to send out the first female African American missionaries. He also might consider the Judson gavel, named after Adoniram Judson, was one of the first missionaries to travel to Myanmar, then known as Burma.

Dwight McKissic, a black pastor who leads a Southern Baptist church in Texas, said that it’s “high time” the gavel was retired.

“I’m grateful to see this shifting and not excuse-making for keeping these Confederate relics and celebration of Confederate heroes,” McKissic said. “It’s substantive that the convention is beginning to get it and take some steps toward complete healing, equality and reconciliation.”

McKissic has worked to get Southern Baptists to adopt resolutions condemning white supremacy and repudiating the Confederate flag. McKissic said the next step for the convention is to ensure that one of its ministry entities is led by a person of color.

“It’s a serious matter that people of color are willing to be a part of the convention, but you’re not fully included and empowered at this point to be offered a position where you preside over a large budget or large personnel force,” he said.

Kevin Smith, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, who became the second African American elected as executive director of a state convention affiliated with the SBC, said that it was a “fine gesture, but I’m about done with gestures.”

“Too many Southern Baptists act like racial injustice and police brutality are made-up issues,” said Smith, who teaches classes at Southern Seminary.

He said comments Greear made earlier this week, in which Greear said “black lives matter” six times in his presidential address, were significant.

“Southern Baptists, we need to say it clearly: Black lives matter,” Greear said in those remarks. “Of course black lives matter — our black brothers and sisters are made in the image of God.”

Since he became president in 2018, Greear, a 47-year-old megachurch pastor from North Carolina, has made racial diversity a core part of his leadership, adding people of color to committees that had been more predominantly white.

Thomas Kidd, a Southern Baptist historian at Baylor University, said that Greear might get pushback among some, but the wider denomination will continue to grapple with its proslavery origins.

“There’s definitely a constituency in the SBC that thinks this is political correctness and there will never be an end to it,” he said. “There’s a difference between displaying in a museum and using it in official SBC business.”

The gavel from Broadus, a chaplain in the Confederacy, was the longest continuously used gavel since it was first used in 1872, according to Ronnie Floyd, president of the Executive Committee of the SBC.

“I resonate with [Greear’s] desire and for the past year our team has been looking at this consideration and we are committed to handling it appropriately,” Floyd said in a statement.

Southern Seminary, which does not note Broadus’s involvement in holding slaves in a brief biography on its website, detailed more of his beliefs in a larger report the seminary did on the legacy of slavery at the seminary.

The seminary’s report states that Broadus held two slaves, fought for the SBC to favor the Confederacy and described a desirable location for the seminary as “in a white man’s country.” He concluded that “supposed black moral inferiority was connected to biological inferiority.” He lectured on the biblical book of Philemon in his support for slavery. Later in life, he repudiated slavery.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Broadus was previously president, said that while he understood why Greear made the decision, he described Broadus as similar to a U.S. Founding Father for the SBC.

“The reality is, you can’t tell the story of the SBC without John Broadus,” he said. “That does not mean a president should choose his gavel in 2020 or in 2021 to tell that story.”

Mohler, who is widely expected to become the next president of the SBC when Baptists meet in Nashville in 2021, said that the convention probably could not use any gavel from the period of its founding because many leaders at the time supported slavery or held slaves.

Mohler said that he has faced questions over whether to rename buildings and endowed chairs at the seminary he leads but that the issue would be one for his board to decide.

“We can’t rewrite history. We must deal with it honestly,” he said. “At the same time, we can’t erase history. Rather, we must reckon with it.”

Jemar Tisby, president of the Witness: A Black Christian Collective and author of “The Color of Compromise,” said Greear’s decision is surprising because a visible symbol of racism has been kept front and center at the convention.

“It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing,” he said of the gavel’s retirement. “[The SBC is] a big ship that’s really hard to turn. Rooted as it is in slavery and segregation, change does not happen easily.”