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Reckoning with the past

The Southern Baptist report on slavery reveals tragedy but offers Christian hope

Reckoning with the past

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler (Handout)

The four men who founded the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in 1859 owned a sizable amount of property—and people. The four founders together held more than 50 slaves.

It’s one of the many grievous facts recounted in a 71-page report SBTS leaders released last Wednesday.

Seminary president Al Mohler commissioned the report a year ago to document formally the role slavery and racism played in the school’s beginnings and its growth into the 20th century. Six current and former faculty members served on a commission to write the report.

Mohler, who is also a WORLD News Group board member, summarized some of the findings in a letter introducing the report: 

“Many of [the founders’] successors on this faculty, throughout the period of Reconstruction and well into the twentieth century, advocated segregation, the inferiority of African-Americans, and openly embraced the ideology of the Lost Cause of southern slavery.”

He also described part of the purpose for the report: “We must repent of our own sins, we cannot repent for the dead. We must, however, offer full lament for a legacy we inherit, and a story that is now ours.”

You can read the whole report here

Reading Mohler’s lament—and also his hope in Christ who is creating a new humanity by His death and resurrection—brought to my mind the suffering and abuse that Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, also endured in this world in making that redemption possible. 

One of my favorite songs at Christmas is a beautiful meditation on the reality of the incarnation. Sweet Little Jesus Boy evokes the sound of an African-American spiritual, though it was penned by a white man in 1934 named Robert MacGimsey. 

MacGimsey had grown up on a plantation in Louisiana, where his parents employed many African-Americans, including former slaves. MacGimsey’s nanny sang spirituals to him when he was a baby, and he went to church with African-American men he considered “uncles.” MacGimsey loved the music, and he began a lifelong project of transcribing and preserving spirituals originating from the South.

He wrote Sweet Little Jesus Boy in that style:

The world treat You mean, Lord;
Treat me mean, too.
But that’s how things is down here,
We didn’t know t’was You.

MacGimsey once said that when he contemplated this song, he pictured an aging black man whose life had been full of injustice “standing off in the middle of a field just giving his heart to Jesus in the stillness.”

In a world still full of sorrows and sin, it’s still a helpful Christmas hymn to lament our own suffering, the suffering of others, and to rejoice in the beauty of the Christ who came into the world to bear our griefs.


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  • MamaC
    Posted: Tue, 12/18/2018 10:14 am

    Reading the comments on Facebook in response to this excellent article sadly reminded me of someone who says, "Look, I apologized already! Now get over it!"

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Fri, 12/28/2018 07:33 pm

    The Southern Baptists are modeling exactly the spirit of repentance that our country needs right now.  They have been a real blessing in 2018.