The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the first and oldest institution of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, released a report this week documenting its history of support for slavery and white supremacy.
The seminary was founded in 1859 by slaveholding members of the Southern Baptist Convention, which broke away from northern Baptists in 1845 over its support for slavery. The denomination has 15 million members in the United States today.
“The founding fathers of this school — all four of them — were deeply involved in slavery and deeply complicit in the defense of slavery,” school President R. Albert Mohler Jr. wrote in a letter accompanying the report. “Many of their successors on this faculty, throughout the period of Reconstruction and well into the 20th century, advocated the inferiority of African-Americans and openly embraced the ideology of the Lost Cause of southern slavery.”
A year ago, President Mohler appointed a committee of six current and former seminary faculty members to research and write the report, which relies heavily on seminary archives, including correspondence among the four founders. He wrote that the “moral burden of history requires a more direct and far more candid acknowledgement of the legacy of this school in the horrifying realities of American slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racism, and even the avowal of white racial supremacy.”
The report acknowledges the leading role that the seminary’s early faculty and trustees played in creating and perpetuating the elaborate mythology of racial difference that was created to sustain slavery in America. “A number of the seminary’s prominent trustees advanced public defenses of slavery,” the report says. Seminary leaders argued that slavery was essential to civil society, “an institution of heaven,” that benefitted enslaved people, whose inferiority “indicated God’s providential will for their enslavement.”
All four of the school’s founders enslaved black people, and in addition to providing moral and spiritual justifications for slavery, they also defended it in practice, “denying that abuses, violence, assault, and rape were in any way commonplace or systemic.”
Seminary leaders opposed the election of Abraham Lincoln and argued vigorously in favor of secession “as the only hope for preserving slavery.”
After emancipation, the seminary faculty opposed racial equality. They defended white rule and the disfranchisement of black people based on the doctrine of white supremacy, arguing that white political control was essential to preserve order in the South. While serving in the South Carolina state constitutional convention in 1865, seminary founder James P. Boyce delivered a speech arguing that “this is a white man’s government,” and in an 1868 speech before the northern Baptists’ Home Mission Society, founder Basil Manly Jr. openly conceded, “We at the South do not recognize the social equality of the negro” and expressly condemned the idea of extending suffrage to black Americans.
The seminary’s most important donor and chairman of its board from 1880 to 1894 earned much of his fortune by exploiting black workers in his coal mines and iron furnaces through convict leasing. As the report explains, “The legal system entrapped thousands of black men, often on trumped up charges and without any due process protections, and earned money for sheriffs and state treasuries by selling their labor. It was worse than slavery.” Investigations of Joseph E. Brown’s Dade Coal operation concluded that “if there is a hell on earth, it is the Dade coal mines.” Brown used his profits to save the seminary from financial collapse in 1880.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the seminary faculty advanced white supremacy by embracing pseudo-scientific studies that concluded that white people were the products of more advanced evolutionary processes. In 1882, founder John Broadus wrote that black moral inferiority was connected to biological inferiority. Seminary President 1899-1928 Edgar Y. Mullins said, “It is immoral and wrong to demand that negro civilization should be placed on par with white.” Professor Charles Gardner concluded that: “The negro should in some way be brought to the frank recognition of his racial inferiority.”
For much of the 20th century, seminary leaders continued to defend racial segregation throughout society and refused to admit black students. “The seminary still largely insisted on the racial hierarchy of white superiority in broader American culture,” the report says. President Mullins supported Herbert Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign because he reasoned that Hoover would provide better security for white rule in the South; Professor Gardner argued that Jim Crow laws were necessary given “the absolute demonstration of the political incapacity of the negro race, viewed as a whole.”
The report ends its detailed chronology in 1964. It concludes, without further explanation: “In the decades following the civil rights movement, the seminary continued to struggle with the legacy of slavery and racism.”
Alison Greene, a historian of U.S. religion at Emory University in Atlanta who was raised as a Southern Baptist, expressed disappointment that the report failed to acknowledge the implications of Southern Baptists’ support for conservative politicians and policies in the modern era. “It papers over a generation of hand-in-glove cooperation with efforts to roll back every single social program that served African-Americans or promised to rectify, even in the smallest ways, the gross economic and social effects of enslavement and segregation and inequality on black communities,” she told NPR.
The report acknowledges that the “racism that was fundamental to the defense of slavery in America endured long after the end of legal slavery” and that the “belief in white supremacy that undergirded slavery . . . also undergirded new forms of racial oppression.” In other words, because the myth of racial difference was not abolished, slavery did not end in 1865 — it evolved.
While the report is a welcome and necessary atonement for the institution’s “sinful absence of historical curiosity,” as President Mohler put it, it stops short of exploring fully the seminary’s and the denomination’s role in perpetuating the legacy of white supremacy, which can be seen today in the presumption of guilt and dangerousness assigned to African Americans, the racial profiling and mistreatment that presumption creates, and the racial dynamics of criminal justice practices and mass incarceration.