By Bob Allen
The president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s oldest seminary says he agrees with the denomination’s ethicist that it’s time to take down the Confederate flag, but he has no plans to remove the names of slaveholders from campus buildings.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said in an essay June 23 that founders of the seminary started in Greenville, S.C., were “heretics” in their belief that whites were inherently superior to blacks.
“To put the matter plainly, one cannot simultaneously hold to an ideology of racial superiority and rightly present the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Mohler said. “One cannot hold to racial superiority and simultaneously defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”
Mohler said he gladly stands with Southern Seminary founders James P. Boyce, Basil Manly, Jr. and John A. Broadus “in their courageous affirmation of biblical orthodoxy, Baptist beliefs, and missionary zeal.” But he acknowledged placing their names on buildings, professorial chairs and endowed scholarships “do not represent unmixed pride.”
Boyce, the seminary’s first president, described himself as “ultra pro-slavery.” In 1860 he owned 23 slaves. He served six months as a chaplain in the Confederate army before being elected to the South Carolina legislature. He ran unsuccessfully for the Confederate Congress in 1863.
Broadus, the seminary’s first professor of New Testament interpretation and homiletics, served as an evangelist to General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. In 1886 he delivered an address at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville declaring that fallen Confederate soldiers had not died in vain.
Manly was one of the seminary’s four founding professors and drafted the Abstract of Principles that still serves as the school’s doctrinal statement. His father, Basil Manly Sr., owned 40 slaves and was an ardent supporter of slavery who used the Bible to justify the institution and on occasion resorted to whipping disobedient servants.
All three were Calvinists. In 1982 seven men met at a hotel in Euless, Texas, to discuss ways to recover emphasis on the “doctrines of grace” that were embraced by the denomination’s founders. The outcome was an annual Founders Conference that over time gave rise to the New Calvinism nicknamed as “Young, Restless, Reformed” that is sweeping across evangelicalism, including within the Southern Baptist Convention. Mohler is considered a leader in the movement, and his Southern Seminary its flagship school.
After last week’s deadly shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., Russell Moore, head of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission who before taking the job taught at Southern Seminary and served as one of Mohler’s top administrators, penned a commentary that appeared in the Washington Post saying that displaying the Confederate flag as a symbol of pride “is out of step with the justice of Jesus Christ.”
“The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire,” Moore wrote.
Others have called for even further distancing Southern states from their segregationist past. Two top Democrats and the state Republican Party chairman called Monday for removal of a bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a figure in the early days of the Ku Klux Klan, from the Tennessee statehouse.
“Symbols of hate should not be promoted by government,” U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said in a statement to The Tennessean. “South Carolina should remove the Confederate battle flag from its Capitol, and Tennessee should remove the bust of Forrest inside our Capitol.”
Pulpit and Pen, a group watchdog blog often critical of SBC leadership, suggested June 22 that it is hypocritical for Southern Baptist leaders to call for removal of racist symbols from the public square while walking past buildings named not only after Confederate chaplains but founders of a denomination that asserted the “right” of white Southerners to own slaves.
Mohler said he is uncertain all that will be required for Southern Baptists to keep their 1995 pledge “to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry” but for now he intends “to keep those names on our buildings and to stand without apology with the founders and their affirmation of Baptist orthodoxy.”
“I will not remove those names from the buildings, but I bear the burden of telling the whole story and acknowledging the totality of the legacy,” Mohler wrote. “I bear responsibility to set things right in so far as I have the opportunity to set them right. I am so thankful that the racist ideologies of the past would rightly horrify the faculty and students of the present. Are we yet horrified enough?”
“I will not remove those names from the buildings, but I could never fly the flag that represented their cause in battle,” he continued. “I know full well that today’s defenders of that flag — by far most of them — do not intend to send a racial message nor to defy civil rights. But some do, and there is no way to escape the symbolism that so wounds our neighbors — and our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Today, most who defend that flag do so to claim a patrimony and to express love for a region. But that is not the whole story, and we know it.”
Mohler said 150 years after the Civil War, “I do believe that racial superiority is a heresy,” but as far as he knows no one ever confronted the SBC founders about their false teaching while they were living and it is impossible to confront the dead. He said the same is true of Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who for the most part was certainly not a heretic but made statements that today are understood to be anti-Semitic.