Gregory Wills, a professor of church history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has spent years chronicling American religious history in general—and Southern Baptist history in particular. Last year, seminary President Albert Mohler, a WORLD News Group board member, asked Wills to head a research team investigating the school’s historic ties to slavery and racism.
Based on his previous research, Wills had an idea of what he would find.
“But I was not prepared for just how thorough, how consistent, how unremitting the commitment to white superiority and black inferiority was,” he told me.
Wills and his team of five other faculty members at Southern Seminary and its affiliated Boyce College released their findings last week. In a letter accompanying the report, Mohler said it was time for the school to come to terms with its past.
“The fact that these horrors of history are shared with the region, the nation, and with so many prominent institutions does not excuse our failure to expose our own history, our own story, our own cherished heroes, to an honest accounting—to ourselves and to the watching world,” he wrote. “We have been guilty of a sinful absence of historical curiosity. We knew, and we could not fail to know, that slavery and deep racism were in the story.”
The committee dug through published and unpublished sources detailing the lives and business dealings of the seminary’s founders and early faculty members. The researchers also read personal letters and public commentaries on the social and political issues roiling the country before, during, and after the Civil War.
They found painful—and inexcusable—contradictions. While seminary leaders upheld the God-given human dignity of African-Americans, they passionately defended doctrines of white superiority and corresponding racial inequality. They personally profited from slavery—all four of the founders owned slaves—and turned a blind eye to its endemic abuses. And even after cultural attitudes toward slavery changed, defenses of Jim Crow–era segregation continued.
Mohler acknowledged the details raise one very difficult question: “How could Christians hold, simultaneously, such right and wrong beliefs?”
“The very gospel truths that they taught, defined, and handed down to us are the very truths that allow us to release this report with both lament and conviction,” Mohler wrote. “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.”
Wills acknowledged even this comprehensive account contains large narrative gaps. Sermons, books, and other writings from black leaders weren’t saved or collected—or at least they aren’t documented in collections currently available to researchers. Wills hopes the committee’s work will encourage other researchers to look for those missing pieces.
Southern Seminary is not the first institution of higher education to confront its past ties to slavery and racism, but it intends to respond to the information differently. The school will not try to purge past sins by renaming buildings or disavowing its founders.
“We neither wanted to condemn those who perpetrated past injustices as some kind of moral monsters, because then we would fail to recognize similar sins in our own hearts, nor to exculpate anyone in the present,” Wills said.
He hopes current leaders and students will use the report to see the continued propensity toward the sins of egoism, vanity, and racial conceit in every human heart. That kind of awareness, he said, will bring about true repentance and eventually diminish current racial injustice: “There’s so much here that is important for Christians and especially for white Christians to learn, and so that’s another one of our hopes for this report is that it will begin a process of educating us about the full history of our churches, institutions, denominations, and our nation.”