Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear, left, discusses racial unity with Atlanta pastor Dhati Lewis, a vice president of the SBC’s North American Mission Board, during Evangelicals for Life on Jan. 17, 2019, in Washington. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
In recent decades the Southern Baptist Convention, which was founded defending slavery, has attempted to come to terms with its record on race.
Now as the nation’s largest Protestant denomination faces a rare leadership vacuum at the top of two of its agencies and two of its seminaries — and installs a new mission board president Wednesday (Feb. 6) — questions have arisen about whether its statements committing to diversity will be reflected in hiring decisions.
SBC President J.D. Greear told Religion News Service he has recommended that search committees seeking new executives keep racial diversity in mind and consider going beyond “following networks that you know” in their search.
“In the ones that have asked me I have strongly encouraged there to be at least consideration given,” he said in an interview in January.
Greear noted that he does not have direct control over the selection of the new leaders. But he said that the search committees are open to diverse candidates.
“I haven’t received resistance from any of the search committees that I’ve talked to,” he said.
James Merritt is a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Photo courtesy of James Merritt
Last week, two former SBC presidents, joined by a prominent Las Vegas pastor, took the unusual step of sending a letter to the search committee for the new president of the SBC Executive Committee, inquiring about the breadth of efforts to replace Frank Page. Page retired last year after a “morally inappropriate relationship.”
“In your search for the person to fill this position, have you interviewed any minority candidates?” asked James Merritt, Bryant Wright, and Vance Pitman in an email to the search committee, according to the Biblical Recorder, a Baptist journal in North Carolina. “If not, we respectfully ask why not?”
Merritt confirmed to RNS that he sent the email. In response, he said, the committee “respectfully declined to answer our questions,” saying it could not reveal internal discussions.
“We felt like it was a legitimate question to ask out of a deep concern that we do indeed fulfill both the spirit and the letter of what we resolved to do,” said Merritt, a Georgia pastor. “And that is to reach far and wide and include minorities in the process.”
Almost a quarter century ago, Southern Baptists passed a historic resolution repudiating slavery. In 2012, they elected New Orleans pastor Fred Luter as the SBC’s first black president to a one-year term and re-elected him the next year. In 2015, they passed another statement that urged “Southern Baptist entities and Convention committees to make leadership appointments that reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the body of Christ and of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Texas pastor Dwight McKissic, who has called for the SBC to place minorities in appointed executive positions — beyond the elections of denominational officers to one-year terms — tweeted his appreciation of the email sent by the three Baptist leaders.
“It would be a travesty to appt a Prez, without … interviewing a minority,” he tweeted Saturday. “It would be a huge statement of disrespect to the 20% + minority churches who comprise the SBC.”
Roger “Sing” Oldham, spokesman for the Executive Committee, responding to a request for additional information, said the search committee is “diverse in its composition” — including a white woman and two black male pastors. He expects it will update the full committee about its search by its Feb. 18 meeting.
Oldham noted that the nominees elected to the SBC’s boards and committees in June, and chosen by its Committee on Nominations, were 12.6 percent non-Anglo. Of those nominees who were not serving as pastors, 43 percent were women.
Recently, at least two milestones also have been reached among the six SBC seminaries. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Kentucky-based flagship of those seminaries, appointed its first African-American board officer in 2018. Also last year, a woman was elected chair of the trustee board of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina.
Merritt said he hoped that all the current search committees would consider and interview diverse candidates.
“I think too often that Southern Baptists, we kind of come to the party a little bit late and too often we’ve been the caboose and not the locomotive,” he said. “And I think that we have an opportunity here to kind of start changing that narrative.”
After Wednesday’s installation of Paul Chitwood as president of the International Mission Board, four major SBC institutions will need to find new leaders: the Executive Committee, two seminaries and LifeWay Christian Resources, the SBC’s publishing division.
Paige Patterson was ousted as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas in May after allegedly dismissing women’s concerns about rape and domestic abuse. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley announced in October that he would retire at the end of this academic year. Thom Rainer announced in August that he plans to retire from LifeWay this year.
The Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, speaks with reporters at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting on June 14, 2017, in Phoenix. Photo by Van Payne/Baptist Press
McKissic said in an interview that he has seen progress in blacks being hired as Baptist association and state convention staff. He said he also is aware of minority candidates who have applied for past open executive positions and were not chosen.
“It’s not because they are not interested or they don’t apply,” said the black pastor, who has proposed SBC statements condemning the Confederate flag and “alt-white supremacy.”
“The Southern Baptist Convention has not demonstrated a willingness to place a black — a minority, period — to those high-level positions,” he said.
Dhati Lewis, the sole African-American vice president at the convention’s North American Mission Board, said he is not optimistic about diversity being accomplished soon in the top ranks, though he believes it should occur.
“They’re going to choose people that they trust,” he said of selection committees. “And when your relationships aren’t diverse, it’s hard to find people that you can trust that don’t look like you, talk like you and act like you.”
Appointing more diverse executive leadership beyond the traditional choices, he said, would be an opportunity for the convention “to show that we genuinely want to reach North America and we can get beyond our Southern roots and we can become more global.”
Asked about whether a woman could assume any of these positions, some leaders said that there’s nothing in the denomination’s constitution that precludes a female executive. The SBC’s faith statement declares that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Greear said his North Carolina megachurch has reviewed its staff directory and determined that many roles that traditionally had been held by men could be held by women. Now, the captain of its domestic and overseas missions program is a woman.
“I think the SBC as a whole – that’s in front of us – is asking the same questions,” Greear said.
Frederick Douglass, known as the father of the civil rights movement, an abolitionist, and a former slave was also a licensed preacher.
Here are five religious facts about Douglass:
1.He was a licensed lay preacher.
Douglass was licensed to preach by a congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New Bedford, Mass., and had many roles in the denomination. The AME Zion Church was where he honed his famous oratorical skills.
“He was what we call an exhorter first and then secondly, he was a licensed preacher but he was never ordained,” said the Rev. James David Armstrong, retired historian of the AME Zion Church. “He held other offices in the AME Zion Church, like steward, Sunday school superintendent, sexton.”
2.He published The North Star, an abolitionist newspaper, from the basement of an AME Zion church.
The Rev. Kenneth James, pastor of Memorial AME Zion Church in Rochester, N.Y., said the church building still exists but the congregation, now with 300 members, is in a new location. “It makes all of us proud,” James said of the statue dedication. “Especially being pastor of the church that he once was a member of, it heightens it for me.”
3. Douglass’ Washington home featured religious artifacts.
Cedar Hill, the home where Douglass lived in southeast Washington, D.C., for the last 17 years of his life, includes books, sculptures and photos that reflect his interest in religion. Ka’mal McClarin, curator of the National Park Service historic site, said the home includes images of angels and Jesus and photos of the interior and exterior of Washington’s Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church. A fireplace mantle features busts of two of his favorite philosophers, DavidFriedrich Strauss, author of “The Life of Jesus,” and Ludwig Feuerbach, author of “The Essence of Christianity.” The library included several Bibles and books such as “History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church” and “Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race.”
“He pretty much embraced all religions,” said McClarin. “He studied all of them.”
Frederick Douglass daguerreotype portrait c. 1850. Photo courtesy National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institute
4.He attended several churches in Washington.
After he moved to the capital city in 1872, he had a favorite pew in Metropolitan AME Church, which now bears his name. When the church dedicated a new building in 1886, he gave it two standing candelabras. The congregation presented him with a Bible before he departed for Haiti as a U.S. diplomat. Church historian Thelma Dean Jacobs said he gave many lectures at the church, including his last major speech, “The Lesson of the Hour.” His funeral was held there in 1895.
5.A church in Elmira, N.Y., was named for him.
Frederick Douglass AME Zion Church in Elmira, N.Y., was named for the abolitionist. Its website notes that the church was inspired by an 1840 anti-slavery lecture by Douglass. It was founded by a group of slaves in the town that was a station along the Underground Railroad, which aided fugitive slaves. After its building cornerstone was laid in 1896, the church continued to grow and “was the largest Black church in the region during the late 1940’s.”
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.”