When the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, was introduced in 1845, it was noted as the church of Southern slaveholders.
It would take over a decade – in 1995 – for the church to formally apologise to African-Americans for its support of slavery and segregation
Twenty-three years later, the leaders of the Southern Baptist church have not only confronted their racist past but have documented it as well.
The church’s flagship institution, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has released a report on the role that racism and its defence of slavery played towards its growth.
The educational institution in the 72-page report noted that all four founding faculty members owned more than 50 slaves and “were deeply complicit in the defense of slavery,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the institution, wrote in his introduction of the report.
Six current and former faculty members spent a year researching the report and their findings, as summarized by The New York Times include:
- In its early years, faculty and trustees defended the morality of slaveholding.
- The faculty worked to preserve slavery, nervous that President Abraham Lincoln’s election could doom the practice.
- After slaves were freed, one of the school’s founders, Basil Manly Sr., called the black people in Greenville an “incubus and plague.” (He later advocated for equal rights.) The faculty, meanwhile, supported the restoration of white rule in the South during Reconstruction.
- A wealthy donor and chairman of the board of trustees, Joseph E. Brown, exploited mostly black labourers in his coal mines in Georgia. He used the same brutal punishments once practised by slave drivers
- The faculty before the 1940s generally approved of the mythology that “construed the Old South as an idyllic place for both slaves and masters,” and “claimed that the South went to war to uphold their honour rather than slavery.” It also tried to use science to support its belief in white superiority.
For critics, the SBC has taken too long in admitting its past, as it has for many years blamed its split with northern Baptists over theological differences instead of slavery.
Lawrence Ware, a professor at Oklahoma State University who studies race and religion told the Washington Post that even though the report is “a step in the right direction,” some sections appear to “soften the severity” of the seminary’s actions on racism and civil rights movement.
In the area of civil rights, the school only started admitting black students to degree programs in 1940 and fully integrated 11 years later. It, however, allowed support for civil rights in general as it invited iconic civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at the seminary in 1961.
“We have been guilty of a sinful absence of historical curiosity,”
R. Albert Mohler, 59, who has led the seminary since 1993 wrote in the introductory letter.
“We knew, and we could not fail to know, that slavery and deep racism were in the story. We comforted ourselves that we could know this, but since these events were so far behind us, we could move on without awkward and embarrassing investigations and conversations.”
In recent years, the denomination, which has over 15 million members, has made moves towards progress and reconciliation.
It elected its first African American president, Fred Luter in 2012, and in April, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, the SBC organized a conference in Memphis about efforts to end racism, which brought together about 3,500 pastors and lay readers, reports the Washington Post.
In 2017, the SBC also adopted a resolution condemning white supremacy.
Today, its seminary admits black students, and some Southern Baptist congregations are led by African-American ministers.