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Southern Baptist Theological Seminary rejects building renaming bid

The seminary’s board of trustees voted unanimously to retain the names of founders on its college and facilities, despite links to slavery

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary rejects building renaming bid

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Handout)

Trustees of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) voted on Monday to keep its founders’ names on seminary buildings, despite accusations from some black Southern Baptists that doing so celebrates slaveholders.

SBTS trustees had gathered virtually for their annual fall meeting and addressed whether to remove the names of the seminary’s founders from buildings on campus and the undergraduate school. Some Southern Baptists have been calling for the change: The seminary’s founders were slaveholders and active supporters of the Confederacy.

In a unanimous decision, the trustees voted to keep the names in place but take other steps to address the school’s mixed history. The vote prompted varied responses, both criticism and commendation, from those who were pushing for change.

The calls to remove the names were not new, but they gained intensity this year, as George Floyd’s death sparked protests. Seminary founder James P. Boyce and founding faculty members John Broadus, Basil Manly Jr., and William Williams all owned slaves and supported the Confederacy. SBTS’ undergraduate school is named Boyce College. Names of Broadus, Manly, and Williams adorn chapels, student dorms, and other buildings on campus.

On June 19 (the date in 1865 that slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free) Baptist Pastor Dwight McKissic tweeted that Boyce College is “named after a slave master, and a man who’d spoken with great disregard for people of African dissent. Integrity demands that SBTS change the name.” Theologian Celucien Joseph, a professor at Indian River State College, wrote in a June 20 blog post, “The names of these four gentlemen bring too much pain and suffering to African Americans, Black Christians, SBTS Black seminarians and alumni, and the numerous African American and ethnic churches” of the Southern Baptist Convention.  

 

Handout

James P. Boyce (Handout)

Those who argued for the seminary to remove the founders’ names said they damaged the school’s Christian witness and caused pain to black students. But SBTS President Albert Mohler questioned what removing the names would accomplish. He said the school’s history cannot be changed: “If I believed that removing those names would resolve enmity between brothers and sisters in Christ or cause of offense, then I would do it. But I do not believe that action in itself is the responsible way to deal with this.” (Mohler is a WORLD board member.)

Mohler pointed out that every generation of church history includes a mixture of saints and sinners: Christians cannot tell the story of the Church without “including human beings that we would find guilty of enormous shortcomings and sometimes horrible sin.” He said he and the trustees “do not believe as a Christian institution that history is best dealt with by erasing it, but rather by confronting it and following a pattern of telling the story more faithfully every time we get to tell the story.”

Mohler’s report to the trustees ahead of their meeting stated, “Our task is to honor the saintly without condoning, hiding, or denying the sinful. We have not done this well in the past. We must do better in the present and be more faithful in the future.” In 2018 SBTS published a Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It explored the school’s history and the founders’ beliefs and lamented the sin in the school’s past.

Besides deciding to keep the founders’ names, the trustees approved four motions regarding the school’s history. They agreed to continue lamenting the sinful aspects of the school’s past. They established a new scholarship for black SBTS students, to begin in the 2022-2023 academic year, that will be named after Garland Offutt, the seminary’s first African American full graduate.   They resolved to “become more faithful in telling the seminary’s story, and the founders’ story with accuracy and biblical witness.”

Handout

Dr. Garland Offutt receives his degree in a chapel meeting. (Handout)

Finally, the trustees declared vacant the Joseph Emerson Brown Chair of Christian Theology, formerly held by Mohler: Brown was a former SBTS trustee who profited from black convict labor after emancipation. On Monday, the trustees elected Mohler to a new chair.

Responses to the trustees’ decision was mixed. Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor of Anacostia River Church, tweeted: “To say the founding slaveholders’ theology *defines* the institution is GREATER reason to remove their names and to interrogate their continuing influence on the institution. To emerge from this process still honoring them is itself dishonorable.”

Kyle J. Howard, a former SBTS student, said, “Southern is seeking to do the baseline of what is necessary, rather than seeking to bear fruit with repentance, which requires a zealous pursuit of going beyond what is merely necessary in journeying towards reconciliation.” Howard said he was thankful for his time at Southern, but “I remain profoundly disappointed and honestly sad at the conclusion of the Trustees.”

Dwight McKissic wrote a blog post calling the Garland Offutt scholarship “fruit worthy of repentance.” He wrote, “Hats off to Dr. Mohler and the trustee board for this historic decision that is a step towards healing.” McKissic also restated his belief that orthodox Christian faith cannot be reconciled with “the celebration and honoring of men stealers and child abusers.” McKissic predicted that the next generation would change the names of the buildings: “I pray the Lord will let me live long enough to see it.”

Charissa Koh

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CharissaKoh.

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  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Wed, 10/14/2020 03:16 pm

    May I ask, what is the racial make-up of the SBTS?

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Thu, 10/15/2020 04:26 am

    By race/ethnicity, 3,225 White, 147 Black and 144 Asian students out of total 4,121 are attending at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

    I don't think that removing the founders because they owned slaves benefits anybody. What does benefit everyone is studying the issues and acknowledging sin where it was committed. 

  • RC
    Posted: Thu, 10/15/2020 01:34 pm

    West Coast Gramma, I don’t get the point of your question?  Knowing the racial makeup will only generate rabbit trail arguments that interfere with the issue at hand. Which is, how do we honor the memory of the founders, yet recognize their faults, and do all of this with sensitivity and responsibility?

  • RC
    Posted: Thu, 10/15/2020 01:39 pm

    Hey Cyborg3, (on a lighter note) what is the race/ethnicity make-up of the 605 who are not a part of the other groups? (3,325 + 147 + 144 does not equal 4,121)

  • HANNAH.
    Posted: Thu, 10/15/2020 10:03 pm

    RC, in agreement with your first comment, I offer a possible answer for the second: The statistics are probably self-reported, so the 605 unknowns could be Hispanic, Native American (American Indian / First Nations), "mixed race" -- or, most likely, No Response / Decline to Answer. (When given that last option, quite a few people take it.) 

  • BF
    Posted: Thu, 10/15/2020 12:58 am

    John Newton who wrote "Amazing Grace" was a slave trader for months after he became a believer - something the Bible explicitly condemns; I Timothy 1:10. Should we then "cancel culture" Amazing Grace? He finally repented of this many years later. Doesn't that come into the equation?

    Is anyone asking if the founders of SBTS repented? And if they didn't, should we not take into consideration the culture of the time that was only beginning to see the wrongness of slavery? What about the many years Christians kept silent towards abortion (in the 1970s) until the full impact of what was happening felt its impact?

    And should we not be concerned about the current sensitivity towards past slavery? There are different kinds of slavery but our culture doesn't make fine distinctions. Isn't it entirely possible that the Bible itself will be "canceled" some day because it seemingly doesn't condemn slavery? (Read Philemon as just one example of a different kind of slavery, yet slavery nevertheless) Or because it does condemn perversion?

    Isn't there more going on when "just a statue" or "just a name" is torn down? Shouldn't we be concerned when the historic foundations are removed that the whole fabric of Western Civilization is under attack?

    What will go next?

  • BF
    Posted: Thu, 10/15/2020 01:03 am

    Accidentally repeated