Southern Baptist Seminary Report Ties Founders to Slaveholding, White Supremacy

by: Adelle M. Banks
Dec 12, 2018

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (RNS) — Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship seminary, has released a report delineating its ties to slavery, including its four founders’ ownership of a total of more than 50 slaves.

The 71-page report, released Wednesday (Dec. 12), says the seminary’s early trustees and faculty “defended the righteousness of slaveholding.”

“They argued first that slaveholding was righteous because the inferiority of blacks indicated God’s providential will for their enslavement, corroborated by Noah’s prophetic cursing of Ham,” the report reads. “They argued second that slaveholding was righteous because southern slaves accrued such remarkable material and spiritual benefits from it.”

The seminary was founded in 1859 in Greenville, S.C., but suspended operations in 1862 during the Civil War and reopened in Louisville in 1877.

The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845 when its members defended the right of missionaries to own slaves. Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. told Religion News Service the investigation expanded the knowledge and truth of what that defense meant.

“What we did not know and should have known was the degree to which open expressions of white racial supremacy were a part of the defense of slavery even on the part of some of the founding faculty of this school,” he said.

Other findings include that seminary faculty sought to preserve slavery after the election of President Abraham Lincoln. James Boyce, the seminary’s first president, “believed that sudden secession would be disastrous, and that negotiation with the Republicans would produce guarantees of protection for slavery.”

John A. Broadus, another founding faculty member, presented resolutions at the 1863 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention that pledged Southern Baptist support for the Confederacy. He later supported a possible move to a new location that was “in a white man’s country.”

Joseph E. Brown, who the report described as “the seminary’s most important donor” and its trustee board chairman from 1883 to 1894, earned a substantial part of his fortune from the exploitation of mostly black convict-lease laborers. His iron furnaces and coal mines, once described as a possible “hell on earth,” used torture and other harsh punishments that were similar to those exercised by slave drivers.

Brown gave a gift of $50,000 to the seminary that helped saved it from financial collapse.

The report’s summary noted some instances where the seminary’s faculty urged human treatment of blacks.

But it also acknowledged that before the 1940s faculty members “construed the Old South as an idyllic place for both slaves and masters,” and “claimed that the South went to war to uphold their honor rather than slavery.” They also supported black theological education as long as it was segregated.

The support of white superiority was exemplified in the writings of Edgar Y. Mullins, president of the seminary from 1899 to 1928: “It is immoral and wrong to demand that negro civilization should be placed on par with white. This is fundamentally the issue.”

When the seminary had its first black graduate, Garland Offutt, who earned a master’s of theology in 1944 (and later a doctorate in 1948), it did not permit him to participate in the regular commencement festivities. He instead was awarded his degree during the term’s final chapel service.

(This story will be updated.)

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