The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has a historical stain. The SBC once affirmed slavery and openly opposed and condemned abolitionists. Even though the convention repented of this sin publicly, a profound divide between the white majority and the black and brown minority still exists for many churches.
This stain is more than historical fact; it prohibits Southern Baptist churches from embracing the one new man in Christ promised in Ephesians 2:11–22 and from participating in the new song of the saints from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation in Revelation 5:9.
The glorious gospel of Jesus Christ commands all his followers to do our part in removing racism from our midst. Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention is a powerful and practical call to sacrifice, humility, and perseverance—along with a relentless commitment to Christian unity—for the sake of the gospel and our brothers and sisters in Christ.
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About the Author
Kevin M. Jones is associate dean of academic innovation and assistant professor of teacher education at Boyce College in Louisville, KY.Jarvis J. Williams is associate professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY and author of numerous books and articles.
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Removing the Stain of Racism
From The Southern Baptist Convention
By Jarvis J. Williams
B&H Publishing GroupCopyright © 2017 Jarvis J. Williams and Kevin M. Jones Sr.
All rights reserved.
Conceived in Sin, Called by the Gospel: The Root Cause of the Stain of Racism in the Southern Baptist Convention
R. Albert Mohler jr.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Ps 51:5 ESV). This crucial verse from the Psalter of Israel rings in the memory of most Christians. David is pouring out his heart after Nathan the prophet confronts the king with his sin, a sin that meant the death of another man and the taking of that other man's wife. David, filled with remorse and repentant of his sin, traces that sin back to the moment of his conception. Where else can he trace it? His sin is his own from the beginning of his existence.
Rightly understood, the human story is David's story. From the moment Adam and Eve disobeyed God, sin has distorted and corrupted human existence and every dimension of human life. Since Eden, anything humanity touches is marked by our sin. Perhaps one of the saddest and most sordid evidences of the fall and its horrifying effects is the ideology of racism. Throughout history racial ideologies have been driving forces of war, of social cohesion, of demagoguery, and of dictatorships. Race theory was central to the Nazi regime and was used by both sides in the Pacific theater of World War II. In that theater of the war, both the Japanese and the Americans claimed the other was an inferior race that must be defeated by force. The Japanese claimed racial superiority as central to their subjugation of other Asian peoples.
At the same time many white Americans claimed and assumed the superiority of white skin to black and brown skin or to any other color of skin. The main "color line," as Frederick Douglass called it in 1881, has always been black and white in America. While this is a national problem and theories of racial superiority have been popular in both the North and the South, the states of the old Confederacy gave those ideologies their most fertile soil. White superiority was claimed as a belief by both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, but the Confederacy made racial superiority a central purpose. More humbling still is the fact that many churches, churchmen, and theologians gave sanction to that ideology of racial superiority. While this was true throughout the southern churches, Southern Baptists bear a particular responsibility and burden of history.
Historians date the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention to 1845, when representatives from Baptist churches in the South gathered to create a new Baptist missionary-sending organization. They gathered because the existing national convention's missionary-sending societies had decided not to send missionary candidates who were slaveholders. William B. Johnson, the first president of the SBC, acknowledged what he called "the peculiar circumstances in which the organization of the Southern Baptist Convention became necessary." Those particular circumstances had everything to do with slavery. Baptists in the South were outraged that they were being asked to give financial support to mission societies that would no longer send slaveholding candidates to the mission fields.
They were also outraged that slavery was the dividing line. After all, they argued, Baptists in the North had only fairly recently decided that slavery was evil, and their own cities and states had benefitted richly from northern dominance in the slave trade for generations. Methodists in the North and the South had already divided over the issue. After the Baptist split, Presbyterians likewise divided. The issue was the same. The issue was slavery. Indeed, we cannot tell the story of the Southern Baptist Convention without starting with slavery. In fact, the SBC was not only founded by slaveholders; it was founded by men who held to an ideology of racial superiority and who bathed that ideology in scandalous theological argument. At times white superiority was defended by a putrid exegesis of the Bible that claimed a "curse of Ham" as the explanation of dark skin, an argument that reflects such ignorance of Scripture and such shameful exegesis that it could only be believed by those who were looking for an argument to satisfy their prejudices.
The founders of the SBC would insist that the ultimate issue was the Great Commission. Missions, faithfulness to the Great Commission, was indeed the cause of the convention. But history proves slavery was the cause of its founding. Further, notable Southern Baptists James P. Boyce and John Broadus, founders of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, were chaplains in the Confederate Army. Just a few months ago I was reading a history of Greenville, South Carolina, when I came across a racist statement made by James P. Boyce, my ultimate predecessor as president of SBTS. It was so striking that I had to find a chair. This is a staggering moral fact, and it raises many urgent questions. How can a missionary convention conceived in race-based slavery become or remain a viable and honorable force for the gospel of Jesus Christ? Put in the larger historical context, the questions grow even more vexing. How could the nation itself, supposedly "conceived in liberty," have been simultaneously conceived in racism?
Even most abolitionists were racists. Racial segregation was legal in the United States for most of the twentieth century. Racism is so insidious that it appears even where it is declared to have been eradicated. In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the SBC, the denomination publicly repudiated its roots in the defense of slavery. That was a start, a horribly delayed but important start. Today far more is required of us. Repudiating slavery is not enough. We must repent and seek to confront and remove every strain of racism that remains and seek with all our strength to be the kind of churches of which Jesus would be proud, the kind of churches that will look like the marriage supper of the Lamb.
The separation of humans into ranks of superiority and inferiority differentiated by skin color is a direct assault on the doctrine of creation and an insult to the imago Dei, the image of God in which every human is made. Racial superiority is also directly subversive of the gospel of Christ, effectively denying the full power of his substitutionary atonement and undermining the faithful preaching of the gospel to all persons and to all nations. We still see racism in both covert and stunning overt forms. Every society shows the stain in every epoch. Every human heart reveals the stain. This brings us back to Psalm 51:5, which reminds us that even Israel's greatest king, one described in Scripture as "a man after [God's] own heart" (Acts 13:22 NIV), was "brought forth in iniquity" (ESV) and conceived in sin. And yet the Messiah sits enthroned upon King David's throne.
How can good and even greatness come out of such evil? Can a man conceived in sin, even an adulterer and a murderer, become useful to God? If so, what about the racist? Is even a racist able to become saved and transformed by the power of the gospel? The gospel offers an emphatic yes! Both individual racists and even an entire convention of churches conceived in sin can in fact be transformed by the gospel.
One key to our understanding must be David's heartfelt cry: "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!" (Ps 51:1–2 ESV). That has to be the starting point for the SBC as well. Our confidence is not in our ability to extricate ourselves from the stain of racism. We have no such power. But God does, according to his steadfast love and his abundant mercy.
A new generation of Southern Baptists bears the responsibility to beg God for his abundant mercy and steadfast love in transforming this convention of missionary churches and its people, removing racism stain by stain as a sign to the world of the power of the gospel of Christ. We cannot change the past, but we must learn from it. We have no way to confront the dead with their heresies, but neither do we have any way to avoid the reckoning we must make and the repentance that must be our own. The legacy of the SBC and its present influence and reach are great. But our commitment to Christ requires that we confess in every generation the sin in which this convention was conceived and the sin that remains, while working relentlessly to see racists within our convention redeemed from the powerful effects of this sin.
As we look across the cultural landscape, we see racial injustice and systemic wrong. We also recognize that the church, including the SBC, has often been on the wrong side of these issues. This is why the gospel needs to be preached to the church even before the church preaches the gospel to the world. We are the stewards of the only story that saves, the only story that leads to the healing of the nations and the gathering of a new humanity in Christ. The gospel is the only story that offers real hope and celebrates what the world fears. Principalities and powers offer many plans but no real hope. The gospel offers a hope that celebrates the breaking down of ethnic barriers and celebrates the sound of the gospel in different languages and tongues.
We must look forward to that day when the table of the Lord will be set and all the nations will live in light of the Father and of the Lamb. Diversity is not an accident or a problem; it is a sign of God's providence and promise. If the church gets this wrong, it is not just getting race and ethnic difference wrong. It is getting the gospel wrong. We cannot obey the Great Commission without celebrating the glory of the new humanity only Christ can create. For now we must humble ourselves and confront our responsibility — our own responsibility — to oppose the stain of racism with the resolve of a people saved only by grace.
"In sin did my mother conceive me" (Ps 51:5 ESV). How can anything good or righteous or true to the gospel follow those words? The answer is only by the power of Almighty God. By God's grace alone, being conceived in sin is not the end of the story. The SBC is a fellowship of churches determined to follow Christ's call to the nations and to our nation. The SBC was conceived in sin and is called by the gospel. The stain of racism is real — all too real — but the power of the gospel is grace greater than all our sin!CHAPTER 2
Historical Causes of the Stain of Racism in the Southern Baptist Convention
Matthew J. Hall
Southern Baptists are more haunted by the ghosts of white supremacy and racism than most denominations. While the specter of racialized injustice and evil left no corner of American religious life untouched, our family of churches has had a particularly sordid and tragic part to play in this story. In fact, we helped invent the ghosts themselves and then baptized them in pseudo biblical and theological categories.
Reconciliation is the goal. We certainly want to remove the stain of racism from our Southern Baptist Convention. But we want more than that. We want to see an SBC that is made up of churches that represent the diversity of the kingdom of God. In our fellowship — our koinonia — we bear testimony for good or for ill. We want to see the power of the gospel at work, tearing down the dividing wall of race.
That kind of demolition — a critical part of reconciliation — requires some difficult elements. To begin, it requires telling the truth, especially about our past. We know this to be true in our individual relationships. We understand full well that two persons cannot be truly reconciled to each other without a clear acknowledgment of wrongdoing, confession of it, and the exchange of forgiveness. This is, at its core, a profoundly Christian vision.
We seem to struggle to understand what reconciliation would require of groups of persons, including groups of Christians. But for us, as a convention of churches, to see true gospel reconciliation within our fellowship, a measure of historical truth-telling is required — a stance that is not always comfortable, popular, or simple. Instead, talking about it will be difficult; it will provoke those who refuse to acknowledge the past, and it will remind us that these are complex issues.
White Baptists and the Hypocrisy of Freedom
Long before the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, white Baptists in the South were laying the foundation for a society built on racial hierarchy. The irony is that as they did, they were also the leading voices calling for religious liberty. These bold voices were often among those most complicit in a system that treated black bodies as commodities to be bought and sold. For example, John "Swearing Jack" Waller was an early Virginia Baptist imprisoned for not obtaining a preaching license. However, he was also a slaveholder who seemed not to find any contradiction in advocating for liberty and owning other humans.
John Leland, one of the most prominent advocates of religious liberty, provides another complicated example. At one time Leland advocated for an abolitionist position. But as he grew older, the Virginia Baptist landed on an ardent pro-slavery position. By the time he relocated to New England, he had begun to argue that slavery was a civil or political issue, not a religiousone. Leland's argument was common in its day and endured throughout southern religion. For two centuries, those that defended the racialized status quo routinely used one form or another of this argument to silence the church's witness on slavery, segregation, lynching, rape, and racial injustice.
Of course, what was true of these white Baptists was true more generally of this generation of white Americans. Those figures we are most prone to admire — including leading men such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield — seemed entirely blind to the wickedness of American slavery. How could those most courageous for the sake of independence and liberty also be among those most enriched by the slave system? Our national story is complex, as is our denominational story.
The Birth of the Southern Baptist Convention and Racism
Our own denomination was birthed out of a commitment to preserve and defend slavery. We cannot evade that historical fact. Along with Presbyterians and Methodists, Baptists broke their national fellowship over the morality of slave ownership. The nomination of James Reeve, a Georgia Baptist and slaveholder, to serve as a missionary through the American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) was a clear test intended to force the society's hand one way or another, to take sides with either abolitionists or with slavery's defenders. The ABHMS chose not to receive the application, thereby trying to avoid making any pronouncement on the issue. When Alabama Baptists subsequently wrote to the Triennial Convention, headquartered in Boston, regarding the board's disposition toward appointing slaveholders to foreign mission work, things took a more concrete form. The board membersreplied: "If ... any one should offer himself as a missionary, having slaves, and should insist on retaining them as his property, we could not appoint them. One thing is certain, we can never be a party to any arrangement which would imply approbation of slavery." In response, by May 1845 white delegates from the deep South gathered in Augusta, Georgia, and formed a new mission society, the Southern Baptist Convention. The majority of the 293 delegates came from Georgia and South Carolina. After organizing the new fellowship, forged in defense of slavery, the distinguished guests ironically joined together to sing "Blest Be the Tie That Binds."
The formation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 preceded Southern states' secession from the Union by fifteen years. By the time secession arrived in 1860, Southern Baptist support for the South's "peculiar institution" had further hardened. Not all supported secession. But virtually all supported slavery. James P. Boyce provides one example. Boyce, scion of a prominent South Carolina planter family, plainly articulated his discomfort with secession. However, his opposition to the Confederate break was due to a fear that war would result in the demise of slavery. He declared himself to be "an ultra-slavery man."
Among Southern Baptist leaders, the cause of the Civil War was clear. "Slavery is the only issue," argued Samuel Boykin, editor of the Christian Index. "The United States is fighting against the Confederate States for slavery." At The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, all four founding faculty were slaveholders. These men typified the "gentlemen theologians" of the South, deeply tied to the planter class and invested in the slave system. In turn they were willing to identify slavery as the beneficial means by which God had providentially introduced the Christian gospel to millions of otherwise unevangelized Africans. For example, Basil Manly Jr. concluded that "their introduction into this country has been, in the providence of God, instrumental in saving more of their race from heathenism, than the united membership of all the churches which foreign missions have planted." This kind of rationale took a legitimate biblical principle — the providential rule of God over all the affairs of his creation — and then used it to smooth out the hard edges of the wickedness of kidnapping and selling Africans.
Excerpted from Removing the Stain of Racism by Jarvis J. Williams. Copyright © 2017 Jarvis J. Williams and Kevin M. Jones Sr.. Excerpted by permission of B&H Publishing Group.
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Table of Contents
Dedication Contributors Abbreviations Selected Southern Baptist Convention Resolutions on Race from 1845 to 2007 Preface Foreword Chapter 1 - Introduction: Conceived in Sin, Called by the Gospel: The Root Cause of the Stain of Racism in the Southern Baptist Convention Chapter 2 - Historical Causes of the Stain of Racism in the Southern Baptist Convention Chapter 3 - Biblical Steps toward Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention Chapter 4 - Theological Steps toward Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention Chapter 5 - The Role of Ethics in Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention Chapter 6 - “Play the Men”: Preaching and Pastoral Steps toward Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention Chapter 7 - Administrative Steps toward Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention Chapter 8 - Educational Steps toward Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention Chapter 9 - Publishing for Church Leaders to Remove the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention Chapter 10 - Are We There Yet? Concluding Thoughts about Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention Epilogue 1 - Why the Stain of Racism Remains in the Southern Baptist Convention: An African American Pastor’s Perspective Epilogue 2 - Why the Stain of Racism Remains in the Southern Baptist Convention, An Anglo Seminary President’s Perspective Postscript Appendix 1: Suggested Reading List on Race and Race Relations Appendix 2: Sample Syllabus for Southern Baptist Educators Teaching on Race Bibliography