Founders of one of the nation’s largest seminaries owned more than 50 slaves and said that slavery was morally correct.
But an internal investigation found no evidence the school was directly involved in the slave trade, according to the seminary’s president.
A 71-page report released Wednesday (Dec. 12) from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship seminary, says its 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.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
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.
The report demonstrates how interwoven Southern Seminary’s history has been with the wider racial and political history of the denomination and the nation. It follows a 1995 resolution passed by Southern Baptists on the 150th anniversary of the denomination in which they said “we lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery” and “we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty.”
Brantley Gasaway, chair of Bucknell University’s religious studies department, said the report, like the earlier resolution, is “symbolically significant.” It shows that some Southern Baptist leaders have grown in their sensitivity to diversity and racial reconciliation, he said.
But he said it did not point to substantive policy or structural changes.
“The leaders of Southern Seminary confess and lament their racist heritage, but they pledge only to continue to welcome and celebrate racial diversity at their institution,” said Gasaway, whose research focuses on evangelicals. “Such an approach reflects most evangelicals’ view that racial reconciliation does not necessarily include any reparations or recompense for the injustices suffered by minorities.”
Mohler said his decision to call for a one-year investigation by a team of six faculty — three African-American and three white — was prompted by actions of other institutions of higher education, specifically Princeton University, which released a report last year on its ties to slavery, including the sale of slaves on its campus.
Mohler said Southern was not found to be involved in the slave trade as an institution.
Asked if the seminary will apologize for its founders’ stances, Mohler said he could offer “a very clear statement of institutional sorrow,” but it is not possible to apologize for the dead.
“We certainly want to make very clear that we are a very different institution than we were then,” he said, noting its more recent history of inviting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the school in 1961. That visit prompted white Southern opponents in the Baptist denomination to withhold money from the school and the seminary’s president at the time to issue an apology.
Asked if the seminary is repenting for its ties to slavery, Mohler said “to the extent that repentance rightly applies, we surely repent.”
“The problem is theologically repenting for the dead,” he said. “We cannot repent for the dead.”
A portrait of James Boyce, the first president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, hangs in the president’s office in Louisville, Ky. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
In his written introduction, Mohler said he rejoices in the “new humanity” now demonstrated on his campus. He expressed appreciation for the school’s black students, alumni, trustees and faculty. In its 2017-18 academic year, the seminary had 228 blacks enrolled, comprising 4.26 percent of the total student body of 5,354.
“Right here, right now, we see students and faculty representing many races and nations and ethnicities,” he wrote. “Our commitment is to see this school, founded in a legacy of slavery, look every day more like the people born anew by the gospel of Jesus Christ, showing Christ’s glory in redeemed sinners drawn from every tongue and tribe and people and nation.”
Among other findings:
Seminary faculty sought to preserve slavery after the election of President 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.” Boyce was the only one of the four founding professors who served in the Confederate Army, where he was a chaplain.
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. They were adopted unanimously. He later supported a possible move to a new location for the seminary that was “in a white man’s country.”
Joseph E. Brown, whom 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.
In some instances, seminary faculty urged humane treatment of blacks. But 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, which was taught by seminary faculty, 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.”
The seminary refused requests by blacks for admission for decades. 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. Blacks first participated in graduation services in 1952.
The reports concludes with a statement about the seminary’s eventual rejection of white supremacy.
“This report documents the contradictions and complexities of the experience of Southern Baptists and race in America,” it reads. “We have not overcome all the contradictions, but we are committed to doing so.”
Mali Music as Jesus in a scene from the new film “Revival!” Photo courtesy of TriCoast Worldwide
For creator Harry Lennix, the new movie “Revival!” — a retelling of the Gospel of John with a mostly black cast — is a film whose time has come.
“I think to be able to imagine yourself as somebody like Christ is a great, powerful tool that has been denied us, not necessarily even from outside sources,” said Lennix, a black writer, producer and actor in the film.
Neither John nor the other gospel writers describe Jesus’ skin color, but Lennix, in an interview just after the film’s world premiere Tuesday (Dec. 4) at the Museum of the Bible, said depicting him as a man of color is something black people often “don’t have the daring to delve into, and that’s a shame.”
The movie, which features singers Chaka Khan as Herodias, Michelle Williams as Mary Magdalen and Mali Music as Jesus, is to be released Friday (Dec. 7) in 10 cities from New York to Los Angeles. It is expected to expand to more cities in January.
Lennix, co-star of NBC’s “The Blacklist,” said the production — which mixes onstage, movie-set and technological performances — was conceived at his New Antioch Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, with an aim to include spirituals and gospel music.
Harry Lennix addresses the audience after premiering his film “Revival!” at the Museum of the Bible on Dec. 4, 2018, in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
“New Antioch is made up of mostly black people,” he said of the Pentecostal congregation. “When it comes to singing that kind of music, it is vital to have the authentic voices.”
Lennix’s twin goals for the look and the sound of the movie were met in his choice for the character of Jesus. Mali Music is a Grammy-nominated gospel and R&B artist who added original songs to the movie, including “Not My Will,” sung in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus contemplates his pending crucifixion.
“Acting as Christ and portraying Christ is so powerful, but portraying Christ in a musical is even more because no one thinks how he would sing, what words it would be, how his voice would be,” Music said before the premiere, attended by 350 faith, business and community leaders.
In addition to Music’s and other contemporary gospel tunes, spirituals are used to accompany the story: “Down By the Riverside,” in the scene where Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist; “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” as Mary and Martha share a short-lived grief over the death of their brother Lazarus; and “Wade in the Water.” During the latter, dancers surround an onstage boat and use blue strips of fabric to simulate waves as Jesus walks on water
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Lennix said he chose the Gospel of John in part because it was the poetic book that included “dense imagery” that was “perfect for film,” with the wedding at Cana — where Jesus is said to have turned water into wine — and the raising of Lazarus from the dead.
The former Catholic seminary student — Lennix had considered joining the priesthood — cited Romans 8, which speaks of conforming to God’s image, as a key motivation for the people who partnered on “Revival!”
“That’s a mighty thing: ‘so that you can be conformed to look like him in his image,’ and nobody does that with us,” Lennix said of black people. “So I’ve taken the liberty.”
T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh plays Rebah, a female member of the Sanhedrin, the traditionally male tribunal of rabbis, who calls for Jesus’ death. She embraced the focus on what she called “the color correction” of the film.
“It’s not colorblind casting, in my opinion; it is correct,” said Keymáh, who was an original cast member of the sketch comedy series “In Living Color.” “The people of that time were brown so this is, to me, not a black version of something. It’s just telling of a story.”
“Revival!” is not the first time a predominantly black cast has recounted biblical stories. Playwright Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity,” which premiered more than a half-century ago, was adapted into a 2013 movie that mostly focused on the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Mali Music, who starred as Jesus, performs during a premiere event for the film “Revival!” at the Museum of the Bible on Dec. 4, 2018, in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
More than a decade ago, Lennix played a Pharisee — in the three gospels other than John — as part of an all-black cast of voices for the audio Bible “Inspired By … The Bible Experience.”
Lennix, who created his own adaptation of John’s gospel, unexpectedly joined the cast as Pontius Pilate when Scottish actor and “Braveheart” star Angus Macfadyen was not able to film his scenes because a snowstorm canceled his flight.
“It’s kind of a big part and so I had to figure out a way that somebody could know those lines,” Lennix recalled. “Since I wrote them I figured, ‘Why not?’”
Norton Hall houses the president’s office at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has appointed its first “women’s support coordinator” to address any gender-related “difficulties or challenges” that women encounter on its campus.
“In our own internal review, we determined it was not fully supportive of women to require any woman to have to describe what could be very intimate matters to a man,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., the seminary’s president, told Religion News Service Thursday (Nov. 29).
Mohler announced this week that Garnetta Smith, director of the seminary’s Center for Student Success, will provide “women with a safe, and as much as possible, private opportunity for complaints or requests for assistance. There is no tolerance on this campus for sexual harassment, assault, or disrespect.”
Garnetta Smith will be the first “women’s support coordinator” at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Photo courtesy of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Smith, whose appointment was effective immediately, has master’s degrees in biblical counseling and practical theology from the seminary. She was previously its associate dean for women, academic counselor and manager for disability services. Smith also was recently appointed by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin to the state’s Commission on Human Rights.
“Studying in seminary doesn’t recuse anyone from sinful attitudes and sinful actions, but in a context that is primarily male, it can be intimidating for some women to speak up,” Smith said in a statement. “Incidents in some church contexts and in our own convention show us that the need is there, and Dr. Mohler and Southern Seminary are taking significant steps toward ensuring those incidents do not happen here.”
Her appointment comes months after the May termination of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson after reports he made comments demeaning to women and mishandled student rape allegations.
Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University, who helped Southern Baptist women petition Southwestern’s trustee board to address Patterson’s leadership, called Smith’s appointment a helpful development within the Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Seminary, which includes Boyce College and a missions-focused school named after Billy Graham, is one of the convention’s six seminaries.
“I am unaware of any similar positions at any Southern Baptist seminaries or institutions,” Prior said. “Respecting and caring for women has never been rocket science. I’m encouraged by this small, simple — but potentially groundbreaking — step that signals significant change for women within the convention.”
The controversy over Patterson and questions about women’s roles in the church dominated the annual meeting of the denomination in June. Attendees at the meeting affirmed “the dignity and worth of women.” Protesters outside the meeting called for increased training of clergy on how to handle abuse allegations.
Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear has begun a study group to address sexual abuse and it has included meetings with leaders of seminaries, state conventions and abuse survivor groups.
“Seminaries are the training ground for many of the next generation’s Christian leaders,” he told RNS. “So it is a welcome development to see Dr. Mohler announce this position to serve female students.”
HIV primarily affects white gay men. You can contract HIV by getting tested for the virus that causes AIDS. Active church members aren’t at risk for HIV.
When NAACP researchers spent a year talking with black faith leaders in 11 cities, they found myths like these continue to circulate among their pews and pulpits. Those findings led the nation’s oldest civil rights organization to mount a campaign calling on black churches to speak out about the disease that disproportionately affects African-Americans.
The pastoral brief, sprinkled with Bible verses, includes a “modern-day parable’’ of a minister who tried to “pray the gay” out of a heterosexual man after he received his HIV diagnosis. It later quotes a Houston minister who feared being in the same room with relatives with HIV/AIDS.
The NAACP recommends partnering with health organizations on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. The group compares the church’s need to address HIV to Jesus’ ministry healing the sick and advocating for the oppressed.
“As we make efforts to address the HIV crisis, the Black Church should not be a place where people experience HIV stigma and discrimination, but rather a place of healing, support, and acceptance,” the brief says.
The 66-page manual asks churches to dispel HIV myths and spread the truth. For instance, most black women get HIV through heterosexual sex, and there is no risk for transmission of HIV through testing.
“Regardless of our church activity or engagement, as long as we are having unprotected sex or sharing needles in our communities, we are at risk for contracting HIV,” the manual notes.
The NAACP urges churches to be a “safe space” for HIV prevention and treatment, even if they have to start small: “We understand that incorporating HIV activism into a spiritual setting may be perceived as a difficult process, but it is possible to begin with small steps even in the most conservative environments.”
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An Atlanta-area black megachurch led by the late Bishop Eddie Long has announced it has chosen a new leader, plucked from another black megachurch, as its pastor.
The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, will move to Lithonia, Ga., to assume the position of senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. He will also be shifting from an African Methodist Episcopal congregation to one affiliated with a Baptist network.
“Rev. Dr. Jamal-Harrison Bryant embodies the rare balance of spiritual gifts and practical educational experiences that connects pastoral leadership and discipleship teaching with prophetic preaching and courageous social action,” New Birth said in a news release on Monday (Nov. 19).
The transition comes months after Long’s first successor resigned after serving for about a year and a half. Bishop Stephen A. Davis said in June that he would return to serving the branch of New Birth in Birmingham, Ala.
Long died in January 2017 at age 63 after fighting health issues for several months. When he became pastor of the church in 1987, it had about 300 members. Its membership reached more than 25,000. When the church announced Davis’ departure in June, the membership had dropped to slightly more than 10,000, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
“One of the big difficulty with churches that have had nationally significant pastors is precisely the problem of continuity,” said the Rev. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, professor of African-American studies and sociology at Colby College.
And the issue of succession, no matter the prominence or the size of the church, becomes an “incredibly painful problem” when a pastor dies.
“Even though pastors are professional, it is like losing a family member,” she said, and a successor often winds up preaching with “some kind of enshrined shadow or ghost sitting or standing over the person.”
Bryant started his Baltimore church in 2000 with 43 members and, according to its website, now has more than 10,000. It is affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, an historic black denomination that celebrated its bicentennial in 2016.
Bishop Frank M. Reid, who is in charge of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s ecumenical affairs, said a shift of a megachurch pastor from an AME-affiliated congregation to New Birth would be a new dynamic that would have to be worked out between the pastor and the leader of the former AME district where the pastor was previously located.
“We would have to ask Jamal, ‘Are you leaving the denomination or are you maintaining your ties with the AME Church or are you turning in your ordination papers?’” Reid said. “But that would be between him and the bishop of the district.”
Gilkes said the AME Church, which includes bishops, is organized differently from Baptist churches, which traditionally recognize only the offices of pastor and deacon. But Long became a bishop of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International, a 24-year-old network of churches, in the 1990s.
Both Long and Bryant encountered controversy even as they watched their congregations grow under their leadership.
Long faced suits, settled in 2012, from young men who accused him of using money and gifts to coerce them into sexual relationships. In 2011, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa concluded a three-year probe of six ministries including New Birth and found that Long’s staffers declined to respond to most of their questions, including the amount of the senior pastor’s salary.
Bryant and his ex-wife, Gizelle Bryant, who later became a star in “Real Housewives of the Potomac,” divorced in 2009 after he had an extramarital affair. In 2015, he announced a run for Congress only to end his campaign eight days later.
New Birth said Bryant’s first Sunday as “senior pastor elect” will be Dec. 9.