What to do if you unearth a history of slavery in your church, college or institution?

With increasing attention to the roots of American slavery in religious life, more churches and faith-based ministries that existed prior to the Civil War are unearthing truths they wish weren’t true.

Then the hard questions arise: How should a church, university or organization that discovers its founders or in rare cases even the organization itself owned slaves respond to such a revelation? How should such institutions respond when it becomes known that some of their buildings were erected by slave labor or financed by the sale of enslaved persons?

This is the dilemma currently facing Baylor University, where the board of regents recently released a 90-page report detailing the slave-owning history of its founders and a set of recommendations for response. Typifying the political divisions in America today over systemic racism, to some, the Baylor report and its recommendations go too far and to others the recommendations offer too little.

R.E.B. Baylor

One thing Baylor said it will not do is change the school’s name, even though there is documented evidence that its namesake, R.E.B. Baylor, was a slaveholder. The Baylor name also graces other prominent institutions in Texas, including the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, Baylor College of Medicine, and Baylor Scott and White Health, the largest nonprofit health care system in Texas.

Wake Forest and Wingate

Soon after Baylor University’s announcement, Wake Forest University in North Carolina — which began as a Baptist school well before the Civil War — announced May 7 a major development from its Slavery, Race and Memory Project. The university will rename its Wingate Hall to May 7, 1860 Hall. The date reflects when 16 enslaved people were sold to fund Wake Forest’s initial endowment under the leadership of then-president Washington Manly Wingate.

Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University.

However, Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch said Wait Chapel — which is attached to the building currently known as Wingate Hall — will retain its name as a reminder of the slave-holding past of the school’s founders. Namesakes Samuel Wait and Washington Manly Wingate both were slaveholders.

Said Hatch of the dual approach to naming: “The complexity and contradictions create a tension that invites engagement with our story and the people whose lives are remembered and honored.”

The news from Wake Forest suddenly put the spotlight on another Baptist-founded institution in North Carolina, Wingate University. Although not founded until 1896, Wingate takes its name from the same Washington Manly Wingate associated with Wake Forest. He had been dead 17 years when the school adopted his name in tribute to his leadership among North Carolina Baptists.

Washington Manly Wingate

In a news release, Wingate officials said: “Wingate President Rhett Brown recently became aware of the slave-owning past of the school’s namesake during a phone call with Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch. Washington Manly Wingate was a two-time president of Wake Forest University, and, according to Wake Forest sociology professor Joseph Soares, it was found that ‘every president of Wake Forest until the Civil War had enslaved human beings under him.’ That includes Manly Wingate.”

The news release added: “Knowing that the stain of past transgressions can never be eliminated and that the debt to people of color can never be repaid, Wingate University officials do believe this deeply upsetting news can serve as an opportunity for reflection, reconciliation and growth.”

The multi-campus university will appoint a group of faculty, staff, students, alumni, trustees and town officials to determine how to respond to this historical information about the namesake of both the university and the town where it is located.

Rhett Brown

“This truth hurts,” President Brown said. “It casts a shadow over our university, my alma mater, and is not in keeping with who we are today, what we value and how we strive to be more inclusive for the students who study here and the people who work here.”

Joe Patterson, chair of the Wingate board of trustees, added his own pledge: “While we can’t erase history, we can learn from it. The Board of Trustees eagerly awaits the group’s recommendations on how to move forward.”

When universities ‘discover’ their racist roots

To some, the idea that such historical information has been “discovered” at any institution or church belies a willful ignorance. Often, the information now coming to light has been readily available for decades, but no one in authority wanted to know it. Yet in other cases, information truly lost to the passage of time is now resurfacing as more people go digging up the past.

While universities most often land in the news for such historical research related to slavery, the same challenge presents itself to other faith-based nonprofits and even local congregations.

1792 engraving of Brown University campus.

Baylor and Wake Forest are far from the first faith-based school to unearth or acknowledge roots in racism and slavery. Some universities also have created plans for reparations once they’ve researched their past. One model for such is Brown University, which in 2006 issued a report about its founders’ connection to slavery. In response, the university created the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, which has been lauded as a model.

Other Ivy League schools also have undertaken similar tasks, including Georgetown, Harvard, and Princeton Theological Seminary. Others have not. The approaches taken by these schools have been both lauded and lamented.

While the slave economy funded many of the nation’s historic colleges and universities, at least two campuses are known to have been built by slave labor — the University of Virginia, and the College of William and Mary.

The journal Inside Philanthropy reports that the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2019 gave a $1 million grant to the College of William and Mary to support research and education pertaining to the college’s history with enslaved people. The cruel irony — or redemption, depending on perspective — is that the Mellon family reportedly includes ancestors who owned slaves.

Mercer University, a historic Baptist school in Georgia, is among 75 schools that have joined the University of Virginia’s Universities Studying Slavery consortium. This group is dedicated to sharing “best practices and guiding principles about truth-telling projects addressing human bondage and racism in institutional histories.” Its member schools are “committed to research, acknowledgment and atonement regarding institutional ties to the slave trade, to enslavement on campus or abroad, and to enduring racism in school history and practice.”

Mercer’s two origin stories

Mercer offers an interesting window into the complexities of collegiate histories and slavery because of its location in the Deep South — Macon, Ga. — and because of its connections to Georgia Baptists. Another twist for Mercer is that the school has two origin stories — one most certainly rooted in the realities of the slave economy and one rooted in the Reconstruction era.

The chapel at Mercer’s original Penfield campus is one of the few buildings still in use there.

The first Mercer story begins in 1833 in a place called Penfield, Ga., which is located about halfway between Atlanta and Augusta, Ga., and 70 miles northeast of Macon, Ga. The town was named for Josiah Penfield (born 1785), who gave $2,500 to the Georgia Baptist Convention with a challenge to match that amount and create an educational enterprise in what at the time was considered some of the richest farmland in America.

The Baptist convention amassed nearly 1,000 acres of land in and around the village and first opened a manual labor school for boys in 1833. It was named Mercer Institute, in tribute to Jesse Mercer, a local pastor who also was a major financial contributor.

The idea was that students would tend the fields part of the day and study part of the day, emulating a European model of work-study. That feature carried over even as Mercer Institute became Mercer University in 1838. By 1844, the manual labor department was suspended indefinitely, due to economic inefficiencies and the physical danger it presented to students.

Yet the students continued to be fed and housed, even after they stopped tending the fields and doing the manual labor. Who did that work? Who built the buildings? Who farmed the cotton? Penfield is located in Greene County, which fell within the heart of the old plantation culture with slavery as a way of life.

Archival photo of Mercer president’s home in Penfield, Ga.

And herein lies the historical problem with documenting the ways slavery made possible colleges and universities. While there is no record indicating that Mercer University owned slaves, scholars believe it is most likely that the school’s faculty and presidents did.

Mercer Institute, and then Mercer University, operated not just classrooms but a post office, bank, mercantile stores, print shops, hosiery mill and cotton warehouses on 450 acres surrounding the campus.

And in a quaint twist, Mercer in Penfield did not build dormitories. The Georgia Baptist Convention sold property to interested parties who would commit to live in Penfield and operate boarding houses for students. If those boarding house proprietors owned or rented slaves, the university’s hands would remain clean.

Mercer’s second origin story

Doug Thompson

In 1872, Mercer University moved to Macon, abandoning the Penfield campus. Thus, modern Mercer — its buildings and expansion — comes about after emancipation. And it is here that Mercer history professor Doug Thompson picks up the story.

“There are no buildings on our campus that would have had enslaved people building them because there was no slavery,” he said. And while that historical break from Penfield to Macon makes it easier to distance the school from ties to slavery, students increasingly want to know more about the university’s early history.

Archival photo of Mercer students visiting Penfield.

For decades, Mercer students have taken an annual pilgrimage to Penfield as part of the passed-down tradition. But until recently, deeper research on the Penfield story has not been done, in part because no one on the university’s history faculty is a 19th century American specialist.

One of the student traditions is to visit the graves of Mercer founders, such as Jesse Mercer. However, now there’s a new wrinkle with the recent rediscovery of a separate burial ground for African Americans that exists on the other side of a wall from the Penfield Cemetery. The burial ground holds perhaps hundreds of graves, including marked stones that identify formerly enslaved members of the community and their children.

In 2019, Mamie Hillman, director of the Greene County African American Museum, learned of the burial ground and now leads an effort to research and restore it. For Mercer students and alumni, this adds a new perspective.

An inquiring alumna

Summer Perritt is a Mercer alumna who went to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland for graduate work and became interested in university connections to the transatlantic slave trade — also a current topic on that campus at the time. She communicated with her alma mater back in Georgia to ask whether anyone had ever traced its history related to slavery. The end result was that she wrote a master’s thesis on the topic.

Summer Perritt

“She uncovered a lot,” said Thompson, who noted that before the coronavirus pandemic changed everyone’s agenda, “we were picking up her work and formulating a proposal to take before the president.”

As a result of Perritt’s research, Mercer’s Student Government Association “became very interested and said we’ve got to tell a better a story about Penfield,” he explained. Whatever the school’s history has been, its present-day reality is one of intentional integration and equality, with 28% of the student body being Black. Mercer integrated its student body in 1963.

“There has been a push for universities to begin this work for almost two decades now, but a lot of places have been reticent to begin the process, Mercer included,” Perritt said. When she got to Edinburgh, she took a class on slavery and universities, which prompted her to learn more about her own alma mater.

“I felt compelled to see some recognition for those enslaved people who helped build the very institution I had attended,” she explained.

What Mercer is doing now

All this prompted Mercer to join the Universities Studying Slavery consortium. That work will be run through Mercer’s King Center for Southern Studies, which was created in 2014 with a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The King Center’s website lauds Perritt’s master’s thesis as a prompt for further research. “There is more to uncover and explore in the description of the physical space at Penfield and the financial structure that allowed the institution to grow,” the site says.

Slaves on the cotton plantation of Samuel T. Gentry, Greene County, Georgia, ca. 1850. Daguerreotype, quarter plate. The Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

It adds: “Financial records document that the college rented enslaved people who lived and worked on the campus at Penfield. Where the university housed them on the original campus remains unclear. We also know that the holding of enslaved persons built much of the wealth of Mercer’s founders and benefactors. A fuller exploration of Mercer’s slave past will help us understand the nature and purpose of a Baptist education that required graduating students to defend the institution of slavery in the early 1860s curriculum.”

This research also will seek to understand what daily life would have been like for students, faculty and staff in Penfield. “Given the proximity of the African American cemetery to the cemetery of the founders of Mercer, we can deduce that their interactions were daily and constant, but we do not yet know the fuller story,” the King Center website says. “Mercer’s initial vision for this work is an accounting for the geography of slavery at Penfield and then how that geography shifted in the post-Emancipation world, first while still in Penfield and then with Mercer’s move to Macon, Ga.”

Not just in the South

While observers might think historic connections to slavery would be limited to the American South, that is not the case at all. In fact, the connections are not even limited to America.

This is true because of the power of the slave economy, which pumped money into institutions well beyond the South, and because of historical figures in Europe and the American North who enabled the slave trade.

That was the case in Edinburgh, Scotland, for example, where Perritt first came to be interested in this research.

“Slavery was an incredibly pervasive system that affected almost every aspect of life for Americans, no matter where they lived. Even those who never enslaved people still benefitted from an economy that depended on their stolen labor,” Perritt said. “The same is true for other countries, even ones we don’t typically associate with slavery.

“Many of the donors I looked at either profited from plantations in the Caribbean, had family members who did, or were involved in the slave trade in some capacity, but few ever enslaved people in their own right.”

“As an example, in the work I did for the University of Edinburgh, I looked at the original donors who contributed to the construction of the university. Many of the donors I looked at either profited from plantations in the Caribbean, had family members who did, or were involved in the slave trade in some capacity, but few ever enslaved people in their own right.”

An irony of this finding is that Scotland often is lauded for its role as a refuge for abolitionists like Frederick Douglass. That’s how pervasive the slave economy was at the time.

“Most schools that were created prior to the abolishment of slavery, and even some after, had some dealings with slavery,” Perritt said. “Be they as explicit as the university actually enslaving people in their own right, or more commonly, being run by leaders who profited from the institution of slavery in some capacity. All these connections, no matter how small, are still significant to the memory of those Black people who were exploited, and all these schools have an obligation to recognize their role in that exploitation.”

Brown University

That’s also how Brown University — located in Providence, R.I. — came to be implicated. Brown, the nation’s seventh oldest university, was chartered in 1764 with an initial mission to train Baptist clergymen.

“The school’s founding documents contain no references to slavery, which most at the time regarded simply as a fact of life, irrelevant to the university’s mission,” noted a report of the university’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice in 2004. “If any contemporaries were surprised or troubled when the school’s first president, Rev. James Manning, arrived in Rhode Island accompanied by a personal slave, they seem never to have said so publicly.”

Brown University’s first president, minister James Manning

Initially, Baptists were guaranteed a majority of seats on the university’s board of trustees, with smaller allocations for Congregationalists, Anglicans and Quakers. And among these, “the presence of slave traders among the group occasioned no discussion,” the report stated. “While no precise accounting is possible, the steering committee was able to identify approximately 30 members of the Brown Corporation who owned or captained slave ships, many of whom were involved in the trade during their years of service to the university.”

So here, in the Rhode Island colony, where slavery was legal until 1843 but not as prevalent as in the South, religious leaders and university founders were engaged in making the slave trade possible and benefited from it financially. Which also means Brown University was funded — and continues to benefit today — from the ill-gotten gain of human trafficking.

This is the story most colleges and universities that predate emancipation either don’t know or don’t want to hear.

“It isn’t that you consciously don’t think about it; it’s that you don’t consciously think about it. Then something forces you to have to think about it.”

Thompson, the Mercer history professor, summarizes the challenge to white leaders of universities about this upending historical research: “It isn’t that you consciously don’t think about it; it’s that you don’t consciously think about it. Then something forces you to have to think about it. Then how do you respond once you know?”

Not just a challenge for universities

Knowing or unearthing histories with ties to racism or slavery is not just the domain of colleges and universities, however. Some faith-based social service ministries — or their founders — also predate the end of slavery.

One of the largest of those is Buckner International, based in Dallas. Although Buckner Orphans Home was not formally organized until 1879 — 14 years after the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery — its founder and namesake, R.C. Buckner, was a well-known Texas pastor well before then.

R.C. Buckner

In 2020, modern-day Buckner leaders received the shock of a lifetime when they were presented historical evidence that “Father Buckner,” as he was known, had owned at least one slave in his lifetime. An 1860 “slave schedule” from Lamar County, Texas, lists Buckner — who then was pastor of First Baptist Church in Paris, Texas — as the owner of an enslaved 16-year-old Black female.

How Buckner responded

Soon after this revelation, Buckner CEO Albert Reyes released a video statement about the finding, and the organization’s board of directors took formal action to address it.

“Regardless of who we are, our past shapes us and influences us,” Reyes said in the video. “Today while we recognize the global impact of Buckner, we’re also faced with a fact of history that only recently came to our attention. And we’re reminded that history is, indeed, painful at times.”

To say that R.C. Buckner is a historically revered figure in Texas Baptist life would be vast understatement. This is the man who after the great Galveston hurricane of 1900 traveled by train to the devastated city and rescued children left parentless by the storm. This is the man who started the first Black high school in North Texas and the first orphanage in Texas that admitted Black children. He was the founder of the first Black Baptist association in the state of Texas.

Albert Reyes

Reyes and the Buckner board did not run away from the news of their founder’s slave-holding history, nor did they seek to explain it away. They barely understood how it could be possible, yet the historical documentation was verified.

“We cannot vindicate history, nor can we vindicate those who lived it,” Reyes said in the video. “Slavery in America was one of the vilest sins ever perpetuated against humanity. It was wrong. And those who own other human beings cannot and should not be given a pass. We owe it to the enslaved people of the past and their descendants to openly acknowledge this evil.”

He added: “While we are disappointed with R.C. Buckner’s human failure, we nonetheless remember the impact of this ministry throughout 14 decades and we rejoice for those whose lives have been changed.”

The Buckner board quickly adopted a statement repudiating “racism, injustice and racial inequality” and pledging to ensure the organization’s racial diversity.

“Slavery in America was one of the vilest sins ever perpetuated against humanity. It was wrong. And those who own other human beings cannot and should not be given a pass.”

“As an organization, we denounce racism in all its forms as being inconsistent with Scripture and with Buckner’s Christian mission,” the board said.

The Baptist Standard reported Board Chair Rodney Henry explaining: “Buckner has a strong history of racial inclusion among our staff and those we serve, but our board wanted to publicly affirm where we stand on this issue. We wanted a statement that clearly articulated our views about the evils of racism and one that calls for action.”

Reyes noted that the organization’s workforce — including him — is 67% non-white and the majority of clients served are persons of color.

“We’re by no means perfect, but we have done some things right,” he said. “Still, we realize that this is more than a fad or a temporary issue. As followers of Jesus, our board and the organization must keep justice and racial reconciliation front and center.”

Where are the stories of other nonprofits?

Surely there are other examples of faith-based institutions like Buckner addressing their racist pasts, but such examples are not easily identified in public statements. Of all the church-related children’s homes, hospitals and charities birthed before the end of slavery, Buckner appears to stand alone in public statements about past ties to slavery.

Valerie Cooper

That’s not surprising to Valerie Cooper, associate professor of religion and society and Black church studies at Duke Divinity School. As one of the nation’s leading academics on this subject, she knows most institutional leaders don’t want to know the details of the past because then they will have to address hard issues.

Yet more and more details are coming forward today, and as other scholars have noted, most of that information is standing in plain sight. It is so easy to find that even “non-specialists are finding it,” Cooper added.

Churches with slave histories too

Nor are the historical skeletons of slavery limited to educational and charitable organizations. Churches and pastors of churches are implicated by historical records as well.

Writing about American slavery in 1842 (The American Churches, The Bulwarks of American Slavery), James Gillespie Birney gives real-time context to the situation.

“Ministers and office-bearers, and members of churches are slave-holders — buying and selling slaves, (not as the regular slave-trader,) but as their convenience or interest may from time to time require. As a general rule, the itinerant preachers in the Methodist church are not permitted to hold slaves — but there are frequent exceptions to the rule, especially of late.”

“Instances are not rare of slave-holding members of churches selling slaves who are members of the same church with themselves.”

Birney reports that of the estimated 2.5 million slaves in the United States at the time, 80,000 were members of the Methodist church, 80,000 of the Baptist church and 40,000 of other churches. Then he explains: “These church members have no exemption from being sold by their owners as other slaves are. Instances are not rare of slave-holding members of churches selling slaves who are members of the same church with themselves. And members of churches have followed the business of slave-auctioneers.”

First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon

When Scott Dickison arrived as pastor of First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Ga., in 2012, he quickly learned the historical connection of his congregation to the other First Baptist Church located across a parking lot. As is true across the South, his church is the white First Baptist Church; the other is the Black First Baptist Church.

Scott DickisonIn time, Dickison and James Goolsby, pastor of the historic Black congregation, became friends, led their congregations to work together and became a national model within a racial reconciliation movement known as the New Baptist Covenant. But that was only the beginning of the story that needed to be told.\

By 2016, Dickison and Thompson, the Mercer history professor who also is a member at First Baptist Church of Christ, wanted to know more about the church’s possible connections to slavery. The church was founded in 1826 in a region dependent on the slave economy.

What they soon learned was shocking if not surprising: Five of the six founding members of the church were slave owners. Some owned several slaves, some just a few. “One of our early pastors, Charnick Tharp, owned a pretty sizable plantation where he owned a great many enslaved people,” Dickison explained.

Charnick Tharp, slave-owning pastor of First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Ga.

The church’s history remembered Tharp as being so generous that he didn’t accept a salary from the church. But there’s a reason he could do that: He likely was the wealthiest person in the church because he owned a plantation and hundreds of slaves.

And while that fits the imagined profile of America’s slaveholders, Tharp’s story is not the most common connection between churchgoers and slavery, Dickison explained. “When we think about slavery, we think about these large plantations. And that was not the case. It was way more common for middle-class folks to own slaves.”

One historical illustration makes this point clear.

Dickison and Thompson began digging into the public records related to the church and its early 19th century members. They cross-referenced church membership rolls with public records at the county courthouse. That’s how they learned about Mary Lamar.

The Lamar family gave the land for the Black First Baptist Church to erect its own worship space, and they were regular donors to the white church, where they were members.

“We found records where Mary Lamar had sold two enslaved teenagers, and such and such amount of money given to different church funds,” Dickison said. “It was very clear … all the money was wrapped up in the slave trade. To see it laid out there with names attached to it was very shocking.”

The grand sanctuary of First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Ga., circa 1876.

Then, applying some basic logic led to the next discovery. In the 1850s, the white Baptist church built a grand new sanctuary that was hailed as the “jewel” of the frontier city. Where did the money come from? How was the construction project financed?

“There has not been a lot written on how churches were built and paid for in those days,” Dickison noted. “How did churches pay for those things?”

Cross-referencing data from the church records with county records provided the answer.

A Mercer University student interviewed on local TV, Channel 13 WMAZ, about her work preparing slave records and other documentation for digitization at the Bibb County Courthouse in Macon, Ga.

“It is entirely likely that they sold enslaved people and gave the proceeds to the church. Or it was made possible by their habit of mortgaging enslaved people,” Dickison said. “That church building would have been financed or mortgaged by the sale of its own members.”

This was before the separate Black church was built, so the enslaved Blacks would have worshiped at the white church attended by their owners — who sometimes sold their fellow worshipers to give money to the church.

Dickison included this information in a sermon he preached in March 2016. “You could hear a pin drop in there, and there were audible gasps,” he reported.

How the church responded

This new information came to light just as the church was revving up conversations on another controversial topic, human sexuality and LGBTQ inclusion. So the question of how to respond to the slave history got put on hold. By the dawn of 2020, the church was ready to talk more about its history, and then the global pandemic hit.

Now it’s time to pick up the conversation. “We’re going to have to reckon with that past,” Dickison said. “What is owed is a question that is very important to me.”

One part of that response is sanctioning more research to be able to tell the story as fully as possible.

“We have recruited lay volunteers who will be trained on how to access these public records and cross-reference our archives and see what additional information we can turn up,” Dickison reported.

Archival photograph of slaves in Bibb County, Ga.]

“I see this as a kind of honest accounting of all that we’ve been handed down. I don’t think it’s fair any more just to talk about the rich inheritance we’ve received as congregations and not talk about the unsavory parts of that history that have been gifted to us.

“What are we afraid of ultimately?” Dickison asked. “This has been an unbelievable opportunity for us to encounter the gospel in a new way. … The path to salvation, this is what we’ve talked about. Honest confession and accounting. Only then can you really open yourself to repentance and reconciliation. We have the language available to us to understand what this work means. As hard as it’s been, as painful, and as much as it has been a point of contention, it’s also been a source of spiritual growth.”

And his church is by far not the only one that needs to do this kind of work, he added. “Our story is valuable not because it is unique but because it is representative. In Macon, every major denomination has the same story here. That’s true all over the South.”

What is an appropriate response?

Churches and universities are late to the discussion about historical ties to slavery, said Perritt, the Mercer grad who studied at Edinburgh. That’s partly due to the fact that “white Americans’ perception of slavery and racism has evolved over time. Unfortunately, this changing perspective and the recognition of slavery’s continuing effects has been slow and remains a process even today.”

However, renewed calls to address the wrongs of the past are proving to be good for universities in ways their administrators might not have thought.

“Some university administrations have ignored their institution’s connections to slavery in an effort to avoid what they see as an embarrassing and potentially costly affair. Oddly enough, I have found the opposite to be true in my personal experience. Those schools that have acknowledged their participation in the institution of slavery and have devoted resources to further research in earnest have almost always been viewed more favorably, at least by student populations.”

“Respectfully talk to Black Americans within and around your school’s community. This is their history, and they should get to decide what is done with it.”

“The best course of action, in my opinion, is for a school to openly and readily acknowledge its connections to slavery,” Perritt advised. “Further ignoring or denying such information only reinscribes trauma, both to the memory of the people they exploited and potentially to their current Black student populations.”

Once a school has acknowledged its role in slavery, there are many ways to move the conversation forward, Perritt said. “First and foremost, schools should devote additional resources to further research. There is always more to the story. Beyond that, I think the best step is to seek out professionals who have experience in these fields. Talk to historians who have the necessary background and expertise to properly contextualize a school’s history with slavery, talk to public historians who can determine the best ways to present this information to the public, talk to students who can tell you what they would like to see done with the new information.”

And above all else, she said, “respectfully talk to Black Americans within and around your school’s community. This is their history, and they should get to decide what is done with it.”

Listening to Black Americans

Many Black Americans feel like they’ve been talking about these problems for years but white people haven’t listened or cared. And there is danger in drawing attention to these easily documented facts just because some white folks suddenly got interested.

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Judge Wendell Griffen

“Black perspectives are required on the issue” said Wendell Griffen, a judge and Baptist pastor in Little Rock, Ark., who has been a vocal advocate for social justice. “Baylor University, Princeton Theological Seminary and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s recent ham-handed efforts amply show how white leaders are ethically compromised about the subject of the complicity of their institutions in chattel slavery and exploitation of Black lives and labor.

“Only the morally obtuse or perverted would reason that successors to the Nazi regime were competent to investigate and decide the outcome of claims of atrocities committed by people complicit with the Nazi regime,” he added. “Yet, white Christian leaders claim to be morally and ethically fit to do the comparable work concerning the involvement of their institutions with slavery and its aftermath.

“I have maintained for more than two decades that the decisions about how to remedy historical injustice must be driven by the perspectives of the descendants of the victims of those injustices, not by the descendants of people who benefited from it.”

Even denominations and seminaries that consider themselves liberal or progressive are at fault on these issues, said J. Alfred Smith, pastor emeritus of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif. He found this to be true on the West Coast, far from the historic ties to slavery in the American South but close to other forms of historic racism mainly targeting Asians.

J. Alfred Smith Sr.

“The West Coast seminaries that are mostly liberal have a kind of silent complicit liberalism that’s not willing to take on the history of their past or willing to look at it because it’s too painful and ugly for them,” Smith said. “Or they sanitize and baptize it with the theology of white exceptionalism. They criticize their more conservative brothers, but in terms of having a theological curriculum where the works of Black authors are read and where Black faculty are respected and their courses are not electives but are part of the core curriculum, that’s what I find missing.”

What about reparations?

Inevitably, the conversation at churches, institutions and schools uncovering their historic ties to slavery turns to one difficult word: “reparations.” That word alone incites controversy and political divisions.

White people often dismiss talk of reparations on the basis of the passage of time. Slavery was made illegal in the United States in 1865 — nearly 160 years ago. A typical response might be: “What responsibility do I have for the sins of ancestors so far removed I never knew them?”

Perritt, the Mercer grad, believes the effects of slavery are still being felt in the present day.

“Things like a lack of generational wealth and an abundance of generational trauma are just two of the continuing side effects of slavery for Black Americans,” she said. “Universities that preach diversity and inclusion should feel obligated to address the systemic causes of inequality that they have historically participated in.”

“Universities that preach diversity and inclusion should feel obligated to address the systemic causes of inequality that they have historically participated in.”

That sentiment is shared by Cooper, the Duke Divinity School professor.

“One of the things that racism and Jim Crow and slavery did was to inhibit their ability to have wealth and to pass it on,” she explained. And this has simple yet overlooked implications today, such as explaining why so many Black people are in jail simply because they can’t pay bail. White people in similar circumstances get bailed out. Black people accused of crimes and awaiting trial are less likely to be able to post bail.”

“Historic inequality means that people of color end up with less money on the dollar and a million ways for our money to be stolen from us,” she continued. “Unless we fix a wicked system that allows people of color to be exploited, the minute we give people of color money there will be people to steal it from them.”

Therefore, reparations in the form of some direct payment is not enough, the professor said. “Reparations must address the system.”

Sometimes appropriate reparations are not even called “reparations,” Cooper added, explaining that university and seminary admissions policies need holistic overhaul not only to admit Black students but to help them thrive once enrolled. Especially in schools that were built on the backs of Black forebears.

For schools as well as churches, “the answer is not only to accept Blacks as members but also to empower some Blacks to become leaders,” she said.

Another form of reparation is to honor the legacy and memory of the forgotten Black slaves who have been whitewashed out of institutional histories.

At least 67 graves have been identified in this slave cemetery excavation at UVA. (Photos by Cole Geddy used courtesy of UVA Magazine)

For example, at the University of Virginia, excavation for a building project in 2011 revealed nearly 70 graves — previously unknown in modern times — in the direct path of the new construction. Eventually, the university administration was persuaded to change the building plans and avoid covering up the burial site.

UVA — where as many as 5,000 enslaved people are believed to have worked — last year dedicated a $6 million memorial called Memorial to Enslaved Laborers that not only honors the past but helps tell the story of those enslaved workers.

A difficult call for churches

When churches with congregational polity — like Baptists — attempt to address racism and slavery in their past, the pastors have no real incentive to lead the charge, Cooper noted. “In churches where the polity is congregational, you can get fired for getting on the wrong side of a congregation. There is absolutely no incentive to speak on race or on any issue that makes your members angry.”

This is not a new phenomenon, she added. “In the South, Jim Crow was upheld not because everybody believed in it but because too many people were afraid to challenge it. Part of the difficulty for Baptist churches is the polity that keeps Baptist pastors tied to pleasing rather than prophetically challenging their members.”

“In the South, Jim Crow was upheld not because everybody believed in it but because too many people were afraid to challenge it.”

Cooper, who is a United Methodist, said the incentives against prophetic church leadership extend to nearly all denominational groups, even those with hierarchical governance. “In addition to throwing you out, people can close their checkbooks.”

Are reparations biblical?

White church leaders who don’t want to talk about the legacy of racism and slavery may proffer a variety of excuses for why they want to look the other way. Cooper wants them to know, however, that reparation is a biblical mandate.

“It’s clear that the biblical text (Luke 19:1-10) mandates what we would call reparations,” she said. “When Jesus calls Zacchaeus out for everything he has stolen as a tax collector, Zacchaeus proposes to make financial restitution. Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 5:23-24) says if you get to the altar and realize your brother has something against you — not that you have something against your brother — go and make it right.”

This is different from the theology of American individualism, which “tends to emphasize our relationship with God and neglect the part Jesus preached about, our relationship to our brother,” Cooper said. “Reparations is what you do to make your community whole. It’s the work of Zacchaeus. Not to win heaven, but to win earth.”

Architect’s rendering of the Slavery Memorial at UVA.

And for evangelicals who are concerned about winning the world to faith in Christ, reparations ought to be a good incentive, the professor continued. “Right now, Christianity is not doing a particularly good job of recommending God to the world. Wouldn’t you like us to do better?”

Instead of owning up to the history and repercussions of racism, “white America is saying, ‘We’re not racist!’ as though saying it louder makes it true.”

Revival in America will not happen without addressing racism and slavery, Cooper asserted. “If you look at the history of American revivalism, they were all times when everybody was welcome. It is my opinion that God doesn’t send the Holy Ghost to where all people are not welcome.”

A church makes reparations

Beginning in 2018, First Church in Cambridge, Mass., modeled what the work of reparations might look like in a local church through a Louisville Institute-funded project titled “Remembrance and Reparation at First Church.”

The congregation, which dates to 1636, studied its history with regard to slavery and race in the context of Colonial Massachusetts. Led by Pastors Dan Smith and David Kidder, the church studied the congregation’s minutes, identifying how the church treated Black and indigenous persons of color who sought membership. They studied how ministerial leadership addressed questions of slavery and whether or not they themselves owned slaves.

The historical study found the congregation was “slow to address the challenges of abolition and a growing Massachusetts population of free Black persons.”

The historical study found the congregation was “slow to address the challenges of abolition and a growing Massachusetts population of free Black persons.” Even as Northern opinions regarding slavery began to change, “Black families found more welcoming options in the growing number of predominantly Black churches in New England.”

Following this historical work of remembrance, in 2019, the congregation turned toward studying the matter of reparations. They studied the theological and biblical basis for which a congregation might participate in the work of reparations. Pastors Smith and Kidder led the congregation in discussions regarding national and public reparations.

First Church encouraged individuals to take a personal reparations pledge with the organization FOR Truth and Reparations, a grassroots organization dedicated to encouraging “individuals, businesses and institutions of moral conscience to reflect on their unfair advantages and do their part in redistributing value to people who have less because of generations of structural discrimination and political inequality.”

In June 2020, First Church adopted a statement on “Becoming an Anti-Racist Church,” and their work is ongoing. In their statement, they acknowledged “the problem of racism is a white person’s problem and that this is white people’s work.” The work is both personal and communal.

Necessary discomfort ahead

One of the hardest parts of discussing historic ties to slavery and racism for white Christians is that it puts them in the uncomfortable position of asking forgiveness from Black people.

“America requires performances of forgiveness from Black people, so that white Americans don’t have to be afraid of our anger,” Cooper said. “Can you think of a single example of a performance of repentance by whites?”

“Most whites have never been in a situation where they’ve had to be directed by Blacks, led by Blacks.”

As an example, after the murder of nine people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, reporters quickly asked the Black survivors and family members of the Black victims if they would forgive the white shooter. “In some cases, that happened before the bodies were even cold,” Cooper recalled.

This expectation of a one-way street on asking forgiveness also makes it difficult for white people to sit down and let Black people suggest a course of action to address historical wrongs.

“Most whites have never been in a situation where they’ve had to be directed by Blacks, led by Blacks,” Cooper said. “So this will require submission. Part of the work is just putting yourself in places you’ve never been and working through that discomfort of not being the leader, not getting to make the choices. That’s also part of reparations. … Honoring people who don’t look like you has a spiritual benefit.”

The portion of this article about First Church in Cambridge was reported by Andrew Gardner and originally appeared in a separate article published by BNG Aug. 5, 2020.


Some suggestions for further reading:

The pandemic slowed down Mercer on Mission but a $10 million gift is powering the future

“Coddiwomple,” Craig McMahan says, pretty much describes Mercer on Mission as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a word that means to move purposely toward an unknown or vague destination, and we are certainly moving cautiously but confidently toward an unknown goal,” said McMahan, director of the Mercer University program that provides service learning and study abroad opportunities for students.

Only one of the 20 projects scheduled for 2020 actually occurred, cutting overall participation from 300 students to 30 last year.

While the program’s goal is to emerge from pandemic-imposed travel restrictions to a full slate of global missions, knowing which destinations will reopen, and when, remains unclear, he said.

But the moving-with-confidence component also is operative thanks to a $10 million donation announced this month and a year spent fine-tuning administrative and logistical practices and maintaining international relationships via video conferencing technology.

This is not altogether unlike plants during winter, McMahan said. “Their roots keep growing but not the leaves. Mercer on Mission did a lot of underground growing by making good use of the time when we weren’t traveling.”

But the growth came with a significant amount of pain, he said.

Mercer on Mission volunteers building a wall in the Dominican Republic.

“Probably the biggest challenge posed by the pandemic was having to tell students they could not travel. A lot of our students come to Mercer precisely because of Mercer on Mission, and for those who were seniors, not being able to travel was a big hurt.”

Only one of the 20 projects scheduled for 2020 actually occurred, cutting overall participation from 300 students to 30 last year.

While planning is under way for 15 projects in 2022, activity this year is still expected to be modest, with four missions involving 90 students slated for late summer — assuming that the Dominican Republic, the Republic of Georgia, Rwanda and Vietnam reopen in time, McMahan said. “The way forward isn’t clear, but we are trying to get everything in place for what we hope is the reality, the possibility, of travel this summer.”

Yet a major upside has been the $10 million donation from the Macon, Ga.-based Phil J. and Alice S. Sheridan Foundation to support the work of Mercer on Mission.

The gift will establish The Sheridan Center at Mercer University, which will benefit the entire Mercer on Mission program but also will expand the university’s unique prosthetics ministry beyond its current operation in Vietnam, McMahan said.

Mercer students fit a Vietnamese man with a prosthetic.

Since 2007, Mercer volunteers have fitted more than 16,000 Vietnamese with patented, highly durable and low-cost prosthetic legs that were designed and are manufactured by Mercer faculty, staff and students. Most of the patients fitted with the prosthetic legs have been victims of land mines left over from the Vietnam War. With the new gift, Mercer will be on track to become the largest supplier of high-quality prosthetics throughout the world to people who could not otherwise afford them.

Such a goal would have been impossible before the contribution orchestrated by local businessman and philanthropist Chris R. Sheridan, chairman of the Sheridan Foundation board, a Mercer trustee and longtime supporter of the Vietnam prosthetics project.

The impact of the gift is already being felt as the university is able to purchase more prosthetic components, hire staff and actively explore other ministry sites around the world.

Since 2007, Mercer volunteers have fitted more than 16,000 Vietnamese with patented, highly durable and low-cost prosthetic legs.

“We are seriously looking at going to Colombia, which has one of the highest concentrations of amputees in the world because of their civil war,” McMahan said. “We are looking at finding local partners and opening clinics.”

In Mercer’s announcement of the gift, Sheridan extolled the program’s impact on underprivileged people around the world. “This partnership extends our reach beyond our experience and our lifetimes; it is one that multiplies the effect of our financial donation with infrastructure, reach, vision and results.”

Mercer President William Underwood described the gift as transformative. “This endowment will serve to empower the lives of impoverished persons globally through research and innovation,” he said.

DeLoach confirmed as McAfee School of Theology dean

After serving in an interim role for more than 18 months, Gregory DeLoach has been named dean of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.

Prior to being named interim dean in 2018, DeLoach served as a development officer for Mercer’s School of Theology and College of Professional Advancement. A Georgia native and former member of the university’s board of trustees, he has had a long association with the school, although he is not a Mercer graduate.

Greg DeLoach

He earned an undergraduate degree from Shorter College, also in Georgia, and earned a master of divinity degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Columbia Theological Seminary.

He served several Georgia Baptist congregations as pastor over a nearly 30-year span, concluding with a 10-year pastorate at the historic First Baptist Church of Augusta. He then became executive director of Developmental Disabilities Ministries, an Atlanta-based nonprofit.

McAfee School of Theology, founded in 1994, is one of several seminaries and divinity schools that emerged from the schism in the Southern Baptist Convention that began in 1979. While the university’s main campus is in Macon, Ga., the seminary has been located from its beginning in Atlanta. It is a partner school with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, also based in Atlanta.

The most recent data published on the school’s website reports 50 graduates in the 2019 class, with three types of degrees granted: master of divinity, master of arts in Christian ministry, and doctor of ministry. The 2019 graduating class was 54% female and 46% male, 54% African American and 44% white. The school boasts a high placement rate for its graduates within one year of graduation.

McAfee last year announced accreditation for a fully online option for the master of divinity degree, which will begin this fall.


CBF Georgia adds coordinator for young Baptist ministries

Megan Turner Doud grew up Baptist without knowing of the diversity of the Baptist universe.

“I didn’t know what CBF was. I didn’t know women could be in ministry. It wasn’t until I started looking for seminaries that I learned what CBF was,” she explained.

Megan Turner Doud

Now it will be Doud’s turn to pass that knowledge along to a new generation of college students and young adults as CBF Georgia’s coordinator of young Baptist ministries, a newly formed position she begins today.

It’s a role Doud said she has been prepared for through previous ministry. Most immediately she served as minister for students and missions at Aiken’s First Baptist Church in South Carolina and previously was a student ministry resident at First Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala. She earned a master of divinity degree from Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology and served on the coordinating council for CBF South Carolina. She currently is serving on the CBF Ministries Council and is the current past-president of the CBF Youth Ministry Network.

For CBF Georgia, she will be responsible for fostering networks among children and youth workers, establishing college campus ministries and helping churches learn how to improve outreach to young adults.

“I remember that my time as a youth was very formative and that my youth minister spoke into my life, so I wanted to give that back to students who are growing up,” she said.

Doud recently spoke with Baptist News Global about this new chapter of ministry in her life and how it fits into CBF life.

How do you understand your calling, and how has it evolved over the years?

I was first called into ministry during high school and I finally listened in college — and still had to live into it a little more. It continued to evolve by working with students during my time at McAfee, where I was given the opportunity to work with students at area churches. Working with their youth confirmed my calling to student ministry.

I feel like my calling is always about growing and changing and seeing where the Spirit leads me. I saw this especially during my time in Aiken, where I had roles as minister to students while picking up missions. It developed my love for serving others and instilling that into my students.

How did you come to have those different roles there?

About a year into my time at Aiken we had a big staff turnover because of retirements, which left me as the only full-time minister on staff. So, I started going to Personnel Committee, Finance Committee and business meetings and being part of those conversations, plus supervising the office. That also has shaped me and given me strategies in how I do ministry.

I also had opportunities to work with college students in Aiken, taking then on mission trips to the Bahamas and also doing an urban immersion mission with Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries in New York. I witnessed how formative that was for them and to this day they will still say it was the best learning experience they ever had. That’s why I am excited to work with college students in my new position with CBF Georgia.

Why do you feel such an affinity for college students?

Part of it is that I was one myself. Trying to find community while I was in college was hard. How can you stay true to who you are and grow closer to God and be involved at a church with all the other things going on? I was given different experiences during my time in college, and I want to pass that along to college students now.

“I was given different experiences during my time in college, and I want to pass that along to college students now.”

This is not just about them coming to us but us going to them to bridge that gap between them and faith. It’s also important to me that students see me and my family as their extended family while they are away from home. That’s how those relationships start. When you are vulnerable with them, they in turn trust you. My husband and I are looking for homes in Macon that have space for that. We need a place here where they can come to hang out.

What are some of the bigger challenges facing college and young adults?

Oh my gosh. Number one, it’s just hard. I’ve been out of college for almost 10 years, and even then it was hard. It’s even harder now because of social media and all the other distractions in college life today. Some of them have been burned by the church. Some people don’t see the need to have a faith. A lot of people these days don’t grow up with church like I did. Many had travel for sports leagues on the weekends and church was not at the center for them. My parents had me in church every Sunday and Wednesday. A lot of youth don’t have that today.

What is the mission and scope of this this new position at CBF Georgia?

Part of my time will be spent with the churches and working with youth and college minsters, and also with family ministers, to let them know they are not in this alone, especially in this crazy time of COVID we are in. They need to know they have a cheerleader supporting them and providing them a community. That cheerleader is not only me but CBF and CBF Georgia. My goal will be to connect ministers to other ministers in the state and in their immediate areas. Being connected like that is so important when you are doing this work.

“The idea is to create sustainable campus ministries to serve college students in middle Georgia.”

The other part of my job will be helping develop CSF — Cooperative Student Fellowship — ministries on college campuses. Think of a BSM (Baptist Student Ministry), but it’s through CBF. The idea is to create sustainable campus ministries to serve college students in middle Georgia.

What kinds of resources and approaches will you have to offer fellow ministers?

It’s being able to connect them together. I have served on the CBF Youth Ministry Network board for six years now, so I’ll be making sure ministers are part of that community. And I’ll be doing the same with connecting children’s ministers with CBF’s Children’s Ministry Network. This is all about being able to brainstorm together and to borrow ideas from other ministers.

How much of your time will be devoted to educating churches about the needs, habits and preferences of young adults?

A lot of it will be. Young people want a place where they feel accepted, where they will be handed leadership roles and will be trusted and where they will have community. A lot of times we expect them to come to us and that they will just show up at our normal hours, Sunday morning for Sunday school and worship. That’s just not the case. It requires us to be adaptable, whether that’s having a Theology on Tap ministry or forming groups that meet in people’s houses.

And it’s having virtual options. Some of my college students love that we are livestreaming on Facebook and Vimeo and that they can be in their dorm rooms and watch and be part of church — or watch the recordings later when they have time. All of this is about establishing relationships and dialoguing and learning together. This is one of the ways I want to be a resource for our churches and young people.

Are you also responsible for educating college students and other young adults about CBF?

Yes. Everybody thinks all Baptists are Southern Baptists. I do want to let students know there is a moderate-to-progressive Baptist identity that they can find space in, and that there is a church that will accept you. The youth I have served, all they wanted was a place where they are welcomed and where their friends are welcomed. They often have a stereotype of what the church is. They have a stereotype of what a Baptist is. I won’t be alone in this because there are college kids at Mercer University who have deep roots with CBF, and they can help steer some of this effort, too.

Hopefully, when all is said and done, the students we encounter will know what to look for in a church. I’m just excited for the opportunity to connect and give back and to let students, churches and ministers know they are not alone in this and that here are people walking this journey with them.


What should it cost a denomination to control governance of a university?

How much money should a denominational body have to give to a university in return for the ability to control that university’s governance?

Turns out, not much in many cases.

As state, regional and national denominational bodies have faced declining incomes, their affiliated universities have faced dramatically increasing costs. Lower annual contributions from the denominations, combined with growing overall revenue needs for higher education have created a paradox: In many cases today, denominational groups that control electing university trustees provide 1% or less of a university’s revenue.

In some cases, the denominational bodies control 100% of a university’s trustee nominations while providing a minute fraction of the annual revenue.

In some cases, the denominational bodies control 100% of a university’s trustee nominations while providing a minute fraction of the annual revenue. This has led to major philosophical disputes between universities and their alumni, between universities and their denominations and between universities and their larger donors.

But there are reasons some universities haven’t cut ties with their denominational bodies. These include historical identity, student recruitment, pressure from the denominations, and the reality that even a $1 million annual contribution would require a $20 million endowment to replace.

While this dilemma is especially prominent among Baptist universities, it also looms large over Lutheran and Methodist schools, as well as among other denominational traditions. One of the outliers to the issue is the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., which has a completely decentralized system of schools.

How did we get here?

Among Baptists — and a similar story may be told for other denominational groups — creating institutions of higher education became a priority in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the denominationally affiliated schools outside the Northeast date to this period, although denominations had been starting colleges in the East for years prior.

Also in the late 19th century, among Baptists, the concept of state Baptist conventions was emerging, creating a broader layer of cooperation than local associations, each of which perhaps encompassed a few counties.

Baylor, 1892

Texas provides a clear example of this historical context. What is today known as Baylor University was the first Baptist college founded in Texas and was intended to be the primary, unified Baptist school in the state. Baylor was formed in 1845 by a group called the Texas Baptist Education Society, which predated creation of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

In time, however, Baylor solidified its relationship with the new state convention out of financial need. The school received an updated charter in 1886 and soon after, trustee President B.H. Carroll stated: “The Convention was our Pharaoh, and we were the Israelites making bricks without straw.” Those words would prove to be prophetic well into the latter 20th century and beyond.

In his sesquicentennial history of Texas Baptists, Leon McBeth reports that by 1892 Baylor University faced a “staggering debt” of $92,000. A young George W. Truett, who was at the time described as “uncolleged,” stepped in, canvassed the state over 23 months and raised $92,000 to save Baylor.

Around that time, a flood of new Baptist schools popped up in Texas, and most of them soon faced dire financial circumstances due to the financial panic of 1893. By 1898, a new Texas Baptist Educational Commission had formed to bring the Texas Baptist schools together in federation.

Through that education commission, the colleges and universities agreed to let the state convention name their trustees and, in return, the commission agreed to raise funds for all the schools. McBeth reports: “The Education Commission launched an ongoing series of financial campaigns to finance the schools. Most of these were marked by great enthusiasm, handsome pledges, and little actual cash raised.”

Over time, the surviving schools — and several new ones mainly formed between 1900 and 1910 — assumed more direct control of their fundraising but also received some annual funding from the state convention. In most every case, the state convention still held total sway over trustee governance.

Bill Crouch

“My grandfather in the late ’30s early ’40s was director of Training Union for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina,” recalled Bill Crouch, former president of Georgetown College in Kentucky and now a fundraising consultant. “I remember him saying that these colleges, most of them in very rural areas, were placed there for a reason.”

He remembers seeing an old advertisement for one of the schools that said: “Send your children (here), it’s eight miles from the nearest known sin.”

Affiliation with denominational bodies helped with recruitment of students and trust of parents, he explained. And having a steady source of income also seemed like a fair trade for governance control.

“During the war (World War I) or right after the war, the colleges began to struggle financially. A deal was struck state by state that the conventions would invest in you, but the conventions wanted 100% control of the governance. It was a survival option. It wasn’t forced upon them; it was given to them. The state conventions said, ‘We’ll invest money in you, but we want governance of you,” Crouch said.

Wake Forest breaks away

Within the modern era, Wake Forest University in North Carolina was the first of the Baptist-affiliated schools to break away. In 1986 that break was finalized by vote of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, which chose to sever what already were loose ties with the highly rated research university.

Old Wake Forest University

By that vote, the state convention released Wake Forest to elect all its own trustees in exchange for receiving no more money from the convention. The year prior, the convention had contributed just $500,000 of the school’s $141 million budget — 0.35% of the annual revenue.

Trouble had been brewing since the 1970s — and in reality since the early 20th century — as the more conservative state convention tangled with the university over academic freedom, the acceptance of government funding and the teaching of evolution. For example, in 1977, the National Science Foundation awarded the university a $300,000 grant, of which $85,000 was to be used to construct a biology department greenhouse. The Baptist convention didn’t like that and asked the university to spend the money some other way. University trustees refused.

The greenhouse dispute was not about science or evolution, as it might appear 50 years after the evolution controversy, but was about bricks and mortar. The state convention did not want its universities to take government money for physical projects.

So by 1986, when the university and state convention fully parted ways, it was the natural outcome of a longstanding problem.

Five other schools affiliated with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina broke away from convention governance at the same time in 2007. Those schools are Campbell University, Chowan University, Gardner-Webb University, Mars Hill College and Wingate University.

That unanimous break was hastened by a development within the national denomination.

That unanimous break was hastened by a development within the national denomination. It was only after the SBC amended its program assignments to give college-level education to its six seminaries that some of the North Carolina college and university presidents changed their position and asked to be free. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, an SBC seminary located in North Carolina, had started offering undergraduate programs.

That change in program assignments has played a major role in relationships between state conventions and their schools since now through the SBC’s unified budget, the Cooperative Program, states support the seminary-related colleges as well as their state schools. And in most cases, support for seminary-related colleges is increasing while state convention schools experience decreased support.

A new relationship for Samford

Ironically, the president of the state Baptist convention at the time the five North Carolina schools broke  away was Mark Corts, whose brother, Tom Corts, was president of Samford University, a Baptist-affiliated school in Alabama, which 30 years later also would break ties with its state convention, although under a different president.

The Samford break with the Alabama Baptist State Convention was fully realized Jan. 1, 2018, but began 24 years earlier, when the university reverted to its original structure and declared a self-perpetuating board not named by the state convention. The school continued in an affiliated relationship with the convention, though, and still received funding through 2017.

The initial trustee decision resulted in two years of negotiations between the state convention and Samford that resulted in an operating agreement that was overwhelmingly approved by the state convention. That agreement included a plan whereby names of trustees were presented to the convention for ratification. Also, the Samford charter stayed the same and it contained the stipulation that all trustees would be active Alabama Baptists. A lawsuit was prepared but never filed because of convention approval of the negotiated agreement.

However, the relationship hit a rocky patch again in 2017, when application was made to form a student group to discuss LGBTQ issues. When the state convention heard about the student group’s application, a State Board of Missions study committee was approved and the first action they took was to send a demand letter saying Samford must not allow the proposed group or the convention would withdraw its funding.

Subsequently, Samford’s accreditation was threatened because of the perception that an outside group was exerting undue influence on the governance of the institution.

Andrew Westmoreland

Samford President Andrew Westmoreland said the convention’s demand letter threatened the school’s accreditation and led trustees to decline any additional money from the state convention. In return, Samford no longer would submit trustees for ratification and the state convention executive director no longer would sit on the trustee board.

Rather than be controlled by the state convention on this issue, the university forfeited the convention’s $3 million annual contribution toward its $166 million budget, thereby losing 1.8% of its annual revenue stream.

Samford is still listed as a “fostered entity” of the state convention and reports regularly to the convention in annual sessions and in associational meetings.

Baylor sends up a flare

After Wake Forest, the next big chapter in this story begins with “the controversy” in Southern Baptist Convention life, when two men figured out a way to gain control of the SBC’s boards and institutions by controlling the convention presidency beginning in 1979. Soon, fear rippled into more independently minded state conventions, like Texas, that these new powerbrokers would next take over the state conventions — which they, in time, in fact did. Even though, legally, the state conventions are fully autonomous from the SBC.

Fast forward to Sept. 21, 1990. On that day, with no advance notice, Baylor University’s board of trustees — all elected to their posts by the Baptist state convention — adopted an amended charter that created a new self-perpetuating board of regents no longer controlled by the state convention, as had been the case since 1886.

Herbert Reynolds at this Baylor inauguration, 1981.

Baylor President Herbert Reynolds said afterward that the action was necessary to protect Baylor from the encroaching fundamentalism of the SBC, which trustees feared was on its way to Waco in rapid order.

The university trustees did their homework and concluded that this was possible since the university had been chartered under the Republic of Texas, predated the state Baptist convention, was created by a Baptist Education society that no longer existed and — most importantly — the university’s 1845 charter never had been amended to remove a provision that the trustees themselves had the sole legal authority to amend the charter. Even though the state convention’s constitution claimed for it the right to approve all charter changes for its institutions, the Baylor charter predated that and was found to supersede it.

After two years of negotiations, Baylor and the BGCT agreed to a process in effect still today whereby the university names 75% of the board and then works through the BGCT to elect the remaining 25%.

This change was a shockwave heard around the nation and eventually set off a wave of Baptist schools in other states separating from or loosening ties with their state Baptist conventions.

Among those: Mercer University in Georgia, Belmont University in Tennessee, Samford University in Alabama, Georgetown College in Kentucky, William-Jewell College in Missouri, Furman University in South Carolina, Stetson University in Florida. Later defections from state convention ties included University of the Cumberlands and Campbellsville College, both in Kentucky.

A student-initiated revolt in Missouri

The Hilltop Monitor, student newspaper of William-Jewell College, in 2015 published a retrospective on the school’s split with the Missouri Baptist Convention. The action began in February 2003 when the Student Senate amended the Student Bill of Rights to include sexual orientation as a focus of disallowed discrimination.

David Sallee, president at William Jewell at the time the 2015 article was written, told the paper: “Jewell was founded by Missouri Baptists in 1849. During that period of time, Missouri Baptists established 12 to 15 colleges around the state, many of which did not survive for very long. We were founded by Missouri Baptists, but we were established through an act of the Missouri Legislature, meaning that the legislature wrote a specific law establishing William Jewell, as opposed to us just being established under the other laws of the state.”

Among those rights, Sallee said: autonomous governance

The Missouri Legislature “allowed for a self-perpetuating board of trustees, which is very important,” he explained. “Self-perpetuating means the board elects its own members, as opposed to an outside group electing the members. So most Baptist colleges, their members are elected by a state convention, but that was not true for the founding of the college.”

Exercising that right, however, meant breaking ties with the state convention.

What started in the Student Senate soon became an issue with the college’s trustees — not in restricting the student government leaders but in resisting pressure from the state convention to do just that.

State convention officials put pressure on the college to intervene in the Student Senate’s decision about the Student Bill of Rights. Initially, college trustees decided to “wait it out” and see what action the convention would take. Nine months later, the convention took its own action to cut ties with the college.

This all played out just months after the state convention filed its lawsuit against five other affiliated institutions that attempted to break away on their own.

This all played out just months after the state convention filed its lawsuit against five other affiliated institutions that attempted to break away on their own. One question raised by messengers at that year’s annual meeting of the state convention was why it was bad for the five institutions being sued to elect their own trustees since Jewell already did. That put the convention leaders in an awkward position of supporting a school that elected its own trustees and was perceived to be more liberal than the other institutions.

Some observers believe the relationship between the Missouri Baptist Convention and Jewell would have ended that year no matter what because the state leaders were looking for a reason; the Student Bill of Rights just became a convenient issue.

Whatever the reason, the split meant William Jewell lost about $1 million in annual funding from the state convention but gained the ability to set its own trustee demographics and student life policies.

Under convention control, Jewell was required to have half its trustees be Baptists and one-third specifically Baptist pastors. Also, half the entire faculty was required to be Baptist. The state convention never directly named trustees but chose from names submitted by the university for consideration.

Ironically, the Student Bill of Rights issue — that the state convention attempted to stop — lost in a campus-wide student vote.

Nevertheless, after the split, the college adopted student life policies more consistent with non-Baptist schools: Student of legal drinking age were allowed to consume alcohol on campus, dorms became co-ed and a gay and lesbian support group was created. Sallee summarized to the student paper: “We, in general, have become less parental when it comes to student life.”

A story told over and over but with some twists

Similar stories can be told of other Baptist schools that broke ties with their state Baptist conventions. Some have maintained cordial relationships with the state conventions afterward, and some have not. Each story has its own twist, but the common thread always returns to demands for control that are not matched by cash in the coffers.

In a few cases, schools have thought that they — like Baylor — had authority to make unilateral decisions but later learned they did not have similar authority and had to reverse course. Two legal cases in two states illustrate this.

In Georgia, Shorter College after years of a contentious relationship with the Georgia Baptist Convention declared a self-perpetuating board of trustees, removing the state convention from its governance. From 1959 to 2001, the state convention chose college trustees from a larger list of candidates provided by the school. By 2002, the state convention began unilaterally naming trustees without consulting Shorter’s leadership.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools began warning that the state convention had too much control over Shorter’s governance and its accreditation was at risk. That led college trustees to vote to sever ties with the Georgia Baptist Convention and to take the convention to court to continue getting donations it received for Shorter.

This court drama finally reached the Georgia Supreme Court where, in 2005, the trustees lost by a single vote. Judges decided Shorter’s board did not have the authority to break ties with the convention.

Within six years of the state convention gaining absolute control of the trustee board at Shorter, faculty and staff were required to submit to both a doctrinal test for employment and agree to a “lifestyle” statement. As a result, 83 of Shorter’s faculty, staff and administration resigned over the next year, including 35 of its 94 full-time faculty members on the undergraduate campus. The college lost four of its deans and a vice president.

In Missouri, a court also overturned the attempt by Missouri Baptist University to declare a self-perpetuating board — although it took 17 years of litigation. The university was one of five Missouri Baptist entities to face litigation after declaring independence from the state convention in 2000 and 2001. Two of those were successful in the breakup, but three were not.

As a result of the February 2019 court ruling, the entire board of trustees for Missouri Baptist University was replaced with a slate named by the state convention.

In Kentucky, a delayed reaction

When Bill Crouch arrived at Georgetown College in Kentucky as president in 1991, his trustees had to be Baptist, had to live in Kentucky, had to go to church two out of four Sundays a month, and had to be approved by the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

“I had three Fortune 500 CEOs who were alums of mine who couldn’t be trustees,” he explained. But on the other hand, the state convention swung a big carrot in return for those restrictions: “We were getting $3 million a year from the KBC. That is the equivalent of a $46 million endowment.”

Early photo of Georgetown College Library.

At the time KBC gifts represented about 6% of total revenue for the college, but over time the ratio shifted. “It was probably closer to 3% by 2002,” he said.

In those days in Kentucky — before the state convention was taken over by the fundamentalist movement in the SBC — relations between the three KBC-affiliated university presidents and the convention were cordial. The state convention nominating committee worked closely with the presidents on trustee nominations — within the defined bounds, but still respecting the wishes of the presidents to bring on donors and alumni and people with expertise in higher education.

Ironically, the Georgetown trustees knew when they hired Crouch that his father and grandfather had been involved with Wake Forest University leaving the North Carolina Baptist Convention.

“One of my instructions the first year was to create a plan where we might leave the KBC if it were to the point where we were going to lose our academic freedom. We were able to hold off another 13 to 14 years.”

Finally, by 2006, Georgetown College broke with the state convention. “We were fortunate, we never got sued,” he said. “A lot of other schools got sued. By 97% approval we were able to leave the convention and they funded us four more years” in a step-down formula.

Still, it was hard. “The college was so dependent on that unrestricted money because tuitions were rising out the roof and facilities were needing repairs, and there was all this divide within the Baptists.”

At the time, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported that Georgetown College was receiving $1.3 million a year from the KBC, about 3% of its operating budget.

A historical precedent in Georgia

William Jewell College and Georgetown College, like most faith-based schools, are liberal arts colleges.  These two schools relied more heavily on denominational funding than the comprehensive universities that shed denominational control. For larger schools, breaking away is easier because they have many more resources and larger alumni bases.

Kirby Godsey on the cover of Macon Magazine.

That’s certainly the case for Mercer University, which not only has deep historical ties in Georgia — akin to Baylor’s story in Texas — but is a larger, more prominent school than other schools in Georgia. If Baylor were considered the crown jewel of Baptist higher education in Texas — a phrase actually used in the early 20th century — Mercer would have been the crown jewel of Baptist higher education in Georgia.

Mercer was founded in 1833 by Georgia Baptists and is the oldest private university in Georgia. When the school broke ties with the Georgia Baptist Convention in 2006, it ended a 173-year relationship.

But that break actually happened in stages and predates the late-20th century conflict in the SBC.

This story begins in 1939 when Mercer had a famous heresy trial on campus. John Birch — yes, that John Birch, namesake of the far-right John Birch Society — as a Mercer senior that year joined a group of 12 other students in accusing four professors and a student laboratory assistant of heresy.

John Birch

Their primary focus was on Professor John D. Freeman, who taught in the Christianity department.

Kirby Godsey, president of Mercer from 1979 to 2006, tells the story: “The trustees held a heresy trial all day long in Groover Hall. Trustees found Professor Freeman innocent of those charges, but it really broke his heart. To be attacked like that was something he couldn’t bear. After that, the trustees were obviously in conflict with the convention … so a committee of convention people and trustees came together in a small group of about half a dozen, and they reached an agreement about the makeup of Mercer’s board.”

Thus in 1939 — bucking the trend everywhere else of increasing denominational control — Mercer gained the ability to indirectly determine its own board of trustees while still receiving funding from the Georgia Baptist Convention.

What that meant for Godsey when he became president 40 years later — the very year the fundamentalist takeover effort in the SBC began — was this: “While the convention would elect our trustees, they could do so only from persons nominated by the board at Mercer. They couldn’t just put somebody on our board. We interpreted that pretty generously while I was there. We set up the system that we would provide three nominees for each vacancy. We had a big board, 45. … We just told them you can choose one of these three or reject all them and we’ll give another set.”

Godsey worked this process for 27 years. “I would go to these meetings and the other colleges were there, and (the Georgia Baptist Convention) just put whoever they wanted on these college boards, friends and preachers and people who had the same ideology they had. … Eventually it became thoroughly fundamentalist. They would often ignore what the presidents wanted.

“In our case,” Godsey said, “when I went in, for the first 30 minutes I had to sit there and listen to that committee harangue and complain about our methodology. … I would listen to that and at the end — I never argued with the fundamentalists —I’d say, ‘Thank you for your comments; I’m here to present you a slate of trustees.’”

This gave Godsey all sorts of freedom his counterparts at other Baptist schools didn’t have. “We did not require that trustees be Baptists,” he noted. “I wanted a Roman Catholic on the board. I didn’t put a Baptist in the group (for the committee to choose from), so they couldn’t choose a Baptist.”

As the battle for the SBC and its affiliated state conventions raged, Mercer maintained a non-fundamentalist board of trustees. “This was an academic institution,” Godsey said. “We couldn’t be ruled by the whims of the convention.”

The ascendant conservatives in Baptist life came to loathe not only Mercer’s escape from their control but Godsey individually.

In 1996, Smyth & Helwys, then a new moderate Baptist publishing house based in Macon, published Godsey’s book When We Talk About God … Let’s Be Honest. That book set off a firestorm of protest and led some Georgia pastors to accuse Godsey of heresy.

Among Godsey’s critics was a young Al Mohler, who had just left the editorship of Georgia Baptists’ newspaper, the Christian Index, to become president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

At the time of this controversy, Mohler told Baptist Press: “The word heresy has been considered off-limits for too long. Those who love the truth must oppose error.” He accused Godsey of “theological error” that goes to “the very heart of the gospel.”

This book “drove them crazy,” Godsey recalled. “They called for me to be fired.”

Eventually, the executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, Robert White, was invited to speak to the university’s board of trustees about the concerns. He made his case, then sat down, and the chair of the board asked if there were any questions.

Judge Bootle

Present in the room was Judge William Augustus Bootle, a life trustee of the university, which meant he had the power to speak to the board but no longer could vote. Bootle, then in his 90s, had been a young leader at Mercer back in 1939 and had been instrumental in framing the governance compromise that kept Mercer affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention after the debacle of the John Birch-inspired heresy trial.

Godsey watched the scene play out: “Judge Bootle sat in silence for a few minutes, then stood up at his little desk and said, ‘Mr. Chairman, if the president is not free, no one in the university is free.’ And then he sat down, and that was the end of it. There was no other discussion.”

Still, Mercer maintained its connection with the Georgia Baptist Convention for another decade. Finally, by 2005, the relationship was too strained to continue. Godsey approached the board with a recommendation that it break ties with the state convention.

“I said our differences had become so significant and substantial that we’d be better to separate from the convention and enjoy hopefully a fraternal relationship,” he recalled. “We as a university should be independent. The trustees voted unanimously to withdraw.”

That was December 2005. At the time, the Georgia Baptist Convention gave Mercer about $3 million a year in undesignated revenue. “It was 2% or 3% of our revenue,” Godsey recalled. “The cost of that money was too great. There was a continuing effort to interfere in our operations.

“The university simply could not be managed by a political constituency of a Baptist convention.”

“What I wanted to do was to protect the academic integrity of the university. We’re built on intellectual freedom, on religious freedom and respect for religious diversity. That became my mantra. The university simply could not be managed by a political constituency of a Baptist convention.”

Two current applications

What Mercer faced and what Baylor sought to avoid currently have two other Baptist schools embroiled in controversies about denominational governance given for scant funding.

Chief among those is Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., which is affiliated with and controlled by the Missouri Baptist Convention. The battle for control of the SBC that began in 1979 has taken full root in Missouri, where SBC-style fundamentalists now control the state convention. Some schools, like William Jewell, have gone their own way. But Southwest Baptist University remains.

Even though it is considered a conservative school by any outside definition, leaders of the state convention and critics among Missouri Baptist pastors have found the school to be not conservative enough. They recently required religion faculty, for example, to affirm four separate doctrinal statements, including the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message doctrinal statement of the SBC.

The conflict over control of the university — and its governing board — escalated this fall with the abrupt resignation of President Eric Turner.

In October 2019, the Missouri Baptist Convention replaced the university’s entire slate of trustees to put five new trustees on the board. In his report to the convention’s annual meeting, Turner criticized that action, which deviated from a previous pattern of collaborative board nominations. This year, the convention officially amended its Nominating Committee rules to align with its actions last year and give more absolute authority in trustee selection to the convention.

Alumni and other defenders of the university point out that the state convention provides less than 2% of the university’s annual revenue. For less than 2% commitment to funding, the Baptist convention retains 100% control over trustee selection and thereby governance.

As with so many Baptist colleges and universities, it didn’t start out that way. Southwest Baptist University, founded in 1878, was chartered by the state of Missouri. Facing financial difficulties, the school in 1921 deepened its ties with the state convention, which brought in more funding and more control. That same year, the school gained accreditation after struggling for decades and even closing completely from 1910 to 1913 before relaunching.

The political situation among Missouri Baptists has been so fraught that the convention ended up in more than 16 years of litigation with five formerly affiliated institutions the convention sought to retain control over. Among those five was one other university, although Southwest Baptist was not in the group.

In 2003, about five months into the legal fight, Baptist layman and attorney Darrell Moore proposed that all sides drop litigation and agree that the convention would get to elect the percentage of trustees that matched the percentage of revenue the convention gave each institution. That would have meant less than 50% control over the five institutions being sued and less than 20% for some in particular.

The state convention rejected that. It wanted 100% control despite giving only a fraction of each institution’s revenue.

Back to Texas

Similar concerns about governance control for relatively little funding have surfaced in a current dispute at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. The school’s president and trustees have come under fire from an ad hoc alumni group for a decision to close the university’s Logsdon Seminary.

University leadership claims the closure was necessary to correct a dismal financial strain. The alumni group — called Save Hardin-Simmons — claims the administration has misrepresented the financial situation and has wrongly used investments intended for the seminary to keep the rest of the university afloat.

Save Hardin-Simmons also charges that the university administration has been unduly influenced and threatened by a few conservative West Texas pastors who thought the seminary was too liberal. University administrators deny this charge while acknowledging there are different visions of where the school should fall on certain issues of the day.

The university’s trustees are required to “maintain membership in a Baptist church” during their terms of service, according to the school’s website. A controlling majority (51%) of the board is chosen by the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

“The root of the problem in the case of Hardin-Simmons is that BGCT names 51% of university trustees while giving only 0.7% of the annual budget. This is not only the case at HSU, but many other similar institutions,” said Jonathan Davis, an alumnus and leader of Save Hardin-Simmons. “Giving the BGCT a level of influence that is disproportionate to its own financial support arguably and needlessly causes erosion of academic freedom.”

Like so many other Baptist colleges and universities, the relationship between Hardin-Simmons and the state convention has changed over time. The school was founded as Simmons College in 1891 by the Sweetwater Baptist Association — which then encompassed a vast swath of West Texas — and a group of cattlemen and pastors. It was the first school of higher education established in Texas west of Fort Worth.

The West Texas school was founded to be distinctly Baptist but to follow “the Roger Williams doctrine of entire liberty in religious concernment” and that “no religious test shall ever hinder any person … from entering and receiving instruction,” McBeth reports.

Unlike most other Baptist schools of the time, Simmons College began without debt, thanks to generous benefactors. And when in 1898 the other Texas Baptist school joined the new “federation of schools” proposed by the Texas Baptist Education Commission, Simmons College declined. It was not until 1941 — 50 years after the school’s founding — that it became formally affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

A high price for Belmont

Among all the Baptist schools that have broken away from governance control by state Baptist conventions, none has paid a higher price to do so than Belmont University in Nashville.

The school, which today has deep ties to the music industry, voted to create a self-perpetuating board in 2005. Even though the university proposed to maintain a “fraternal relationship” with the Tennessee Baptist Convention and require all board members to be Christians including 60% who would be Baptists and grant the head of the state convention an ex officio seat on the board, the convention said no and filed suit against the school, seeking $58 million in damages.

After two years of litigation, Belmont agreed in 2007 to pay the state convention $11 million over 40 years.

A news release from the school at the time said $1 million was to be paid in 2008 and the university would make annual payments of $250,000 to the convention for the next 40 years. The university statement explained: “These gifts are an expression of gratitude to Tennessee Baptists for the financial and spiritual support that they have provided to the University over the past five decades. The funds will be added to an endowment at the Tennessee Baptist Foundation to support Tennessee Baptist missions and ministries.”

Beyond the Baptist world

These challenges are not unique to Baptists. Lutherans and Methodists, for example, face similar issues.

Michael Dorner

Six years ago, Michael Dorner wrote his doctoral dissertation on the subject. The dissertation’s title: “The Governance of Denominational Colleges and Universities in an Era of Declining Denominational Identity among Students.”

Today, he serves as vice president for finance and assistant professor of accounting at Concordia St. Paul University in Minnesota. The school is affiliated with the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod.

Within this branch of Lutheranism, the Concordia system encompasses all the affiliated colleges and universities. There used to be nine schools in the system; now there are seven. One school closed this year due to debt, and two merged.

Currently, all trustees of schools within the Concordia system must be members of Missouri Synod Lutheran churches. They are elected in a blended approach, however, that gives half the nominations to the denomination and half to the institution itself. For every four trustees elected, one is to be a pastor, one is to be a teacher and two are to be laypersons.

In the past, say 70 years ago, these boards were more likely to be called boards of control, he explained. “The nature of serving on the boards has changed a lot. Seventy years ago, it was more a matter of overseeing what is being taught.”

At that time, the Lutheran churches were concerned with trustees maintaining reine lehre, German for “pure teaching,” he said. Today, trustees deal with more practical matters and not just doctrinal purity.

“You have these conventions making decisions about how these institutions are supposed to operate, and what do they know about higher education?”

Higher education is an extremely complex enterprise in today’s world, he added. “You have these conventions making decisions about how these institutions are supposed to operate, and what do they know about higher education?”

Financially, Missouri Synod Lutherans — like Baptists — used to give more money to their schools than they do today. “Thirty years ago, we might have been getting about 20% of our revenue,” Dorner said. “By 2005, that was down to zero. We haven’t received any operating funds. They have some endowments they hold that they (the denomination) distribute for student scholarships.”

The Methodist landscape

Scott Miller serves as president of Virginia Wesleyan University and leads the North American Association of Methodist Schools, Colleges and Universities. That group brings together colleges and universities with historic relationships to the United Methodist Church, whether currently affiliated with the church or not.

Scott Miller

He’s a lifelong Methodist and has served a combined 30 years in four presidencies of schools affiliated with the UMC.

Due to conflict within the Methodist church — particularly over LGBTQ inclusion — some Methodist schools have dropped affiliation with the denomination.

“The Methodist colleges have affirmed for years that we are inclusive, that we don’t discriminate,” Miller explained. “Several times the Methodist presidents as a whole have asked the Council of Bishops … to clearly make some statements and take a different perspective on LGBTQ rights. We don’t think our sponsoring organization accurately reflects the institutions of higher education.”

This tug-of-war “finally came to a head four or five years ago,” he said. “A number of institutions said, ‘The bottom line is we don’t share the perspective of the church on LGBTQ issues. Students will not go to institutions that are part of an organization that appears to discriminate.”

The association he leads — called NAAMSCU for short — seeks to keep all the historically Methodist schools working together, despite whatever the denomination does.

There were 117 institutions classified as Methodist schools serving K-2 through seminary. That number is down to closer to 100 now, and 15 to 20 of the remaining schools “have hit the pause button” on decisions, Miller said, pending the outcome of the already delayed UMC General Conference.

“A number of institutions are just saying … we don’t want to abandon our founding denomination but at the same time we don’t want to (be bound by) discrimination,” he said.

NAAMSCU itself is working to become free of denominational support. It currently is considered part of the UMC’s General Board of Higher Education. “It is our hope in the next six or eight months that NAAMSCU will become independent from the church — meaning we would have a relationship but that our governance would be independent.”

Being an affiliated institution with the UMC is a complicated process that requires a study and review every 10 years. Virginia Wesleyan most recently went through this reaffirmation process in 2016.

In return, the school initially received about $168,000 of unrestricted money from the denomination but this year is getting only $21,000. That’s against a total revenue flow of $46 million needed to run the university — which is 0.00046% of the school’s revenue.

“We all love the group that founded us. … But how much governance influence should the church have at an institution it is not giving financial support?”

“We all love the group that founded us,” Miller said. “We respect and appreciate the role they’ve played in our funding and history. But how much governance influence should the church have at an institution it is not giving financial support?”

One of the requirements of UMC affiliation is for schools to employ a chaplain. Yet many of the schools receive so little denominational funding that it does not even cover the cost of the chaplain’s position.

Often, Methodist schools were founded or have historical ties to district or regional Methodist bodies rather than the UMC itself. And some schools receive financial support from those bodies as well.

“The most I’ve heard that any of our affiliated schools are receiving from the denomination is a little bit more than $1 million a year,” Miller reported.

Unlike so many Baptist schools, most Methodist schools have self-perpetuating boards. In Miller’s case, for example, Virginia Wesleyan is required to have two Methodist clergy on the board plus the bishop and district superintendent. The annual conference of the church votes on trustees, but that is largely a formality, he said. Virginia Wesleyan has maintained a stipulation that 40% of its board must be Methodists.

Methodists and property disputes

Some Methodist colleges have a stipulation from their founding that if the school goes out of business their property reverts to the church. An example is Hiawassee College in Tennessee, which closed abruptly last year and this month its property was sold. The asking price was $8.6 million. That money reportedly went to the church.

SMU campus in Dallas

In Dallas, a legal battle is ongoing since Southern Methodist University late last year changed its articles of incorporation to “make it clear that SMU is solely maintained and controlled by its board of trustees as the ultimate authority for the university,” according to a university statement.

That included deleting language from governing documents that said the school was “forever owned, maintained and controlled by the South Central Jurisdictional Conference of The United Methodist Church.”

The SMU campus is located on 237 acres in one of Dallas’ most expensive neighborhoods.

In response to SMU’s action, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference filed a civil lawsuit in Dallas County.

The jurisdiction claims it is “the founder, owner, controller and manager of SMU.” Its suit called the change to the articles of incorporation “unauthorized” and in “violation of SCJC’s rights and interests in relationship between SMU and SCJC that has existed for more than a century.”

In an echo of the Baylor trustee action from 1990, the Methodist jurisdiction claims SMU’s governing documents give the jurisdiction the right to authorize and approve any amendment before it is made.

Again, these matters are not new to Methodists any more than to Baptists.

For the first 40 years of its existence, Vanderbilt University was “under the auspices of” the Methodist Episcopal Church, South — a denominational body predating the United Methodist Church. Vanderbilt trustees severed ties with the church in June 1914 “as a result of a dispute with the bishops over who would appoint university trustees,” the university website reports.

This the first Historically Black College or University to acquire an institution that is not an HBCU.

Another interesting twist in Methodist higher education happened this summer when Wesley College, a Methodist school in Dover, Del., agreed to merge with Delaware State University, a historically Black university. According to a report in Inside Higher Education, this is the first Historically Black College or University to acquire an institution that is not an HBCU.

Wesley already was a minority-serving institution, with 40% of its students Black, 37% white and 7% Hispanic. Delaware State’s student body is three-fourths Black.

About HBCUs

Historically Black Colleges and Universities have followed a somewhat different path. Today, there are 101 public and private HBCUs in the United States, most dating to a period from the abolition of slavery in 1865 to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Like predominantly white institutions, a majority of HBCUs got their start through churches and religious groups.

Samuel C. Tolbert, Jr.

However, the Historically Black Churches in America have not had the same financial resources or accumulated wealth of white denominations in America, noted Samuel Tolbert, president of the National Baptist Convention of America and board chairman at Simmons College of Kentucky, an HBCU in Louisville.

“Even though the denominations were supporting historically Black colleges, they couldn’t compete with other schools. They didn’t have the assets,” he explained.

A recent report on the website Moguldum explained this context. “HBCUs tend not to take in as much in donations as predominantly white schools. Their endowments are on average 70% smaller than those of other schools.”

There are outliers to this situation, however. Howard University, one of the best-known HBCUs in America, has an endowment reported to be $693 million. Howard is a non-sectarian school without denominational ties that has a deep alumni donor base and is able to court donors from all sectors.

That is not the case for the majority of HBCUs, especially the faith-based ones.

Archival photo from Simmons College of Kentucky

Since passage of the Civil Rights Act, the federal government has at times offered special funding for HBCUs. And that cause was a shared point of discussion among most all the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. As a candidate, Joe Biden pledged $70 billion in funding for HBCUs as part of a larger plan for strengthening higher education.

Last year, the Trump administration expanded a federal program that loans money for campus improvements to include 40 faith-based HBCUs previously excluded because of church-state separation issues.

Government funding has presented both a help and a problem, Tolbert said. “In the infancy of a lot of these denominationally based HBCUs, there was a dependence on denominations and churches. That’s how they were founded. With increased government funding, there became somewhat of a gap between the historically Black colleges and the historically Black church. In recent times, they’ve had to turn back to the churches because they weren’t getting as much support as they needed.”

Simmons College of Kentucky

One example is Simmons College of Kentucky, which in 2016 created a partnership with the National Baptist Convention of America. That came with a financial commitment from the denomination to the school.

“Our goal now is that 7.9% of our budget would go to Simmons. We voted on it and were unanimous to do it,” Tolbert said. “The challenge has been that COVID hit right after we left that meeting, and we’ve only been promoting our entire finance plan online. We’ve got to get enough participants from churches and associations to make it work.”

When fully realized, this commitment could move NBCA’s financial contributions to Simmons up from less than 1% of the school’s budget to 6%, Tolbert predicted. “That’s monies that would come directly from a National Baptist Convention account. It does not take into account monies that would come from churches and individuals.”

Taken together, individual contributions and denominational contributions will have a “significant impact” on the school’s funding, he said.

NBCA has eight slots on Simmons’ 26-member board of trustees.

Tolbert sees his personal relationship with Simmons and his denomination’s relationship with the HBCU as an incentive to raise support for the school. “That really puts some pressure on me and the convention to be financially supportive of this school.”

Another way for Presbyterians

Among mainline Protestant churches, the Presbyterian Church in America has one of the loosest affiliations with its colleges and universities.

Jeff Arnold

Jeff Arnold serves as executive director of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities, a voluntary partnership of 54 schools with historic ties to the PCUSA.

“Within the Presbyterian world, we have, depending on who you’re counting, 68 schools that were founded by various entities of the church. About a dozen of those no longer want to affiliate with the church. The national church has never had any governance over any of these schools nor any funding.”

All Presbyterian schools — including the likes of Princeton — were “founded at the local level,” he explained. “They have survived throughout history by the input from those areas. In some areas of the country where presbyteries have endowments, there is more involvement. … The vast majority will sink or swim on their own.”

The denomination, and especially its foundation, does maintain endowed scholarship funds for schools, for both undergraduates and seminarians.

Few of the schools have governing relationships with denominational bodies, he added. “In almost every case, there are no requirements of faculty or trustees.”

Princeton, the original flagship school for Presbyterians in America, ceased formal ties with the church in the 1920s. Its most significant church identification today is through Princeton Seminary.

The website for the seminary explains: “Affiliated from the beginning with the Presbyterian Church and the wider Reformed tradition, Princeton Theological Seminary is a denominational school with an ecumenical, interdenominational, and worldwide constituency.”

Student recruitment challenges

In the modern world, almost as important as funding to colleges and universities is student recruitment. Empty classrooms and dormitories do not pay for themselves.

Historically, denominationally affiliated schools benefitted from a ready supply of prospective students from the churches within their denominations. For many years, for example, Baptists would have been the majority among Baylor and Mercer’s student bodies. That no longer is true. One indicator of this shift is that the Baylor Catholic Blog reported in fall 2019 that 16% of the student body now is Catholic and that Catholics are the fastest-growing segment of the student body.

Yet maintaining denominational affiliation remains important in marketing schools to prospective students and their parents.

“Within the last decade, we’ve seen what I call the Liberty Effect,” said Crouch, the former Georgetown College president. Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell and his Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., has become one of the largest Christian universities in America.

“They were no longer a Baptist college, they were a Christian college.”

“They were no longer a Baptist college, they were a Christian college,” Crouch explained. “If you love Jesus, come here.”

This Liberty Effect gave modern iteration to a phenomenon of the early 20th century with the rise of nondenominational schools such as Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, Bob Jones University and Biola University. All these schools sought to undercut denominational schools. Liberty’s novelty was its leveraging of online education.

Baptist schools have struggled and continue to struggle with the pros and cons of being “Baptist” schools, Crouch said. “I don’t think there was ever a trustee meeting in my 20 years at Georgetown College where there wasn’t a discussion about whether being Baptist helps or hurt us. It was always on the table in conversations.”

Baptist historian and professor Bill Leonard agrees this is a major issue for denominationally affiliated schools. He cites “declining Baptist networks” as a concern.

“The old church, college, seminary networks are significantly impacted by the rise of the ‘nones’ and the distancing of families from church and church related networks, especially schools,” he said. “Add to that the demographic declines, particularly among white families, and you have a demographic reality that schools across the geographic, theological and historical map are experiencing.”

Samford University cornerstone laying when the school moved to its suburban Birmingham, Ala., location in 1957.

On top of that, schools face a daunting demographic reality, Crouch added. “Over the next 10 years, there’s going to be fewer college students coming in. Baby Boomers had babies and sent them to college, but now the population of college-age students is declining.”

Add to that the coronavirus pandemic, which has upended everything about higher education and advanced online learning, and a push for the incoming Biden administration to advance making community college free nationwide.

In his current work as a fundraising consultant, Crouch interacts with many denominational groups, and he finds a consistent trend on these enrollment issues. Like the Liberty Effect, he sees a changing perspective among Methodist schools. “They talk not so much about being a Methodist school as a faith-based institution.”

The simple reality, he noted, is that “denominational connections are not nearly as strong or as important as before. The critics always say it’s a slippery slope to become completely secular. I haven’t seen that. I have seen these schools maintain that their faith base is very important in distinction from the secular universities. A lot of families want their kids to go to places that have chapel.”

Again, this is true beyond the Baptist world.

Dorner, the Lutheran administrator, explained denominations “began to peak in membership around 1970. At the same time most of the universities have continued to grow. They’ve grown in enrollment, grown in programs. Most people would look at them being rather successful. But they attract far fewer students from the denomination than ever.”

And that brings the conversation back to money.

“Students today have much higher expectations,” Dorner said. “There’s been a bit of a facilities arms race among schools.”

That also translates to a question of location, added Miller, the Methodist leader.

“Most Methodist institutions were located in rural areas, the idea being there was no internet, no television, and when churches were founded in rural areas, you wanted small residential campuses where there would be little distractions,” he said. “What’s happened down through the years … is that a major drawback is students today expect there to be a gas station, a restaurant, a bar, … and students don’t want to go to schools in rural isolated areas. Part of the decline is caused by what students are looking for.”

This all works together to feed the crisis related to funding and governance, he added. “A combination of less money, fewer presidents who are members of the denomination, the rural location, lead to challenges that cause the institutions to look more independent.”

Lessons from Grand Canyon

Faced with the kind of financial and student recruitment crisis that has been common to many smaller faith-based colleges and universities, an Arizona Baptist school took an entirely different approach.

Grand Canyon College, founded in 1949 by the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention, became Grand Canyon University in 1984. At the same time, the Phoenix-based school moved from being governed by the state Baptist convention to being self-owned by the board of trustees. The state convention continued to elect university trustees until 2000.

During this same period, the Arizona Baptist Foundation was embroiled in a scandal that became the largest collapse of a religious financial institution in U.S. history. University trustees sought to steer clear of association with that problem, which reportedly informed some of their decisions.

Still, the university struggled financially and faced the possibility of bankruptcy.

That led to a novel approach in 2004, when the university’s trustees sold the school to a for-profit company, California-based Significant Education. This made Grand Canyon the first for-profit Christian college in the United States. It also became the first for-profit university to participate in NCAA Division I athletics.

The university’s website describes the transition this way: “A small group of investors acquired the university and refocused on online education for working adults. With an improving financial structure, the university recruited a new leadership team in 2008 to envision a future that centered around a hybrid campus strategy — combining traditional students with nontraditional students (primarily working adults studying at the graduate level). The university completed an initial public offering in 2008 to generate the capital necessary to improve its online infrastructure and expand its campus.”

Grand Canyon University arena today

By the university’s own accounting, more than $1 billion has been invested in the school, which now is the largest Christian university in the world. Under the new ownership, enrollment blossomed from fewer than 1,000 students to about 80,000 students — with about 19,000 students attending classes on campus and another 60,000 attending virtual classes from around the world.

The university reports that more than 47% of its online student body is studying at the graduate level.

In 2018, the university attempted to return to nonprofit status, with mixed results. The plan was to separate functions of the university into for-profit and nonprofit units. A publicly traded corporation, Grand Canyon Education Inc., provides certain services for the university. The university president, Brian Mueller, also serves as the CEO of Grand Canyon Education.

A regional accrediting agency and the IRS approved the return to nonprofit status for the university but the U.S. Department of Education has not. Critics of the move have charged that the reason the university sought to return to nonprofit status is to avoid paying more than $9 million annually in property taxes.

What’s next?

Although markedly different from the path most faith-based colleges and universities have taken or will take, Grand Canyon’s success illustrates the combined pressure of market forces on higher education today.

Two years ago, Barna Research produced an extensive study titled “What’s Next for Christian Higher Education? How Christian Colleges and Universities Can Prepare for the Future.”

Belmont University hosted one of this year’s U.S. presidential debates.

Its findings were summarized in an article published by Christianity Today: “The 18-month study showed that students at Christian colleges and universities are increasingly choosing secular careers such as business administration and teaching over careers in youth ministry or church administration. And, like students attending secular colleges and universities, they place spiritual growth low on their list of priorities when making their college plans.”

This shift in student interest was accelerated by the Great Recession of 2008, Barna found.

Barna’s research pointed out that “the big driver of motivation to go to college, in general, in North America is economic security,” said Ralph Enlow, former president of the American Association for Biblical Higher Education, which commissioned the Barna study. “That’s been the dominant theme at least since the Great Recession for the American public in terms of what they think the purpose of higher education is,” he told Christianity Today.

William Tibbetts, dean of the college of business and technology at North Central University in Minneapolis, told the magazine that his recent study of small, private liberal arts colleges, most of which are faith-based, found a growth in enrollment during the 10-year period after the recession.

“In the ’90s, universities were about investing in underground bowling allies, multiple Olympic-size pools, and student unions that would give the Taj Mahal a run for its money. It was all about appealing to the student experience,” he said. “Then the recession hit. Whereas before, the assessment of one’s college choices was about amenities and then, eventually, pricing, it came to be all about post-graduation life. In other words: job placement.”

With nearly a year of COVID restrictions, higher education is being reshaped again.

And now, with nearly a year of COVID restrictions, higher education is being reshaped again. As with nearly every other area of life, trends that already were in place have been accelerated by the pandemic. Among those is distance learning through online courses.

The race to build better buildings and create more community on campus has turned to a survival of the fittest based on an entirely different criteria — the ability to innovate on short notice and adapt to technology in a way founders of most faith-based colleges never could have imagined at the turn of the 20th century.

The church has a role to play in implementing COVID vaccine

With a vaccine for COVID-19 presumably coming sooner than later, the question of who will and who won’t choose to get the vaccine is looming large. And along with that are questions about the role of the church on matters of public health and safety.

The potential answers may be influenced by skepticism about the safety of a vaccine as well as politicization of every response to the pandemic — from social distancing to masks to lockdowns.

In a Gallup poll conducted Oct. 19-Nov. 1, before the announcement of vaccine progress by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, 42% of U.S. adults said they would not get a vaccine, down from 50% in September. Meanwhile, the number of respondents saying they would get a vaccine has drifted from 66% in July down to 50% in September and back up to 58% in the most recent poll.

The results are “indicative of significant challenges ahead for public health and government officials in achieving mass public compliance with vaccine recommendations,” Gallup noted.

As for what is driving some to resist a much-anticipated resolution to the pandemic, 37% say they are concerned about the “rushed” timeline, 26% want to confirm it is safe, 12% don’t trust vaccines generally, 10% want to wait to see how effective it is, and 15% cite “other” reasons.

While poll responses are broken down by gender, political party, education, age and race/ethnicity, there is no breakdown for religious affiliation. Regardless, there is substantial interest in the religious community regarding what churches and church people can, will and should do.

A Christian ethics perspective

http://www.davidpgushee.com/in-the-newsDavid Gushee, distinguished professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, said it is understandable that there is and will be some hesitancy in the general population to take the vaccine.

“I think that all of us, really people all around the world, are going to want to know with confidence that the vaccine shows every sign, according to scientific evidence, of being safe and effective,” he said. “The fact that it has moved so quickly relative to other vaccines naturally will lead to perhaps a little hesitancy.”

Still, it is in that space of hesitancy and concern where the church has a significant role to play, Gushee said.

“We have a chance to finally help make a dent in this awful disease and to, in the end, demonstrate love for our neighbors.”

“It may be that the church should first think about speaking of the virtue of courage in terms of some of our members feeling called and inspired to be among the early adopters of the vaccine,” he said. “I also think the call to love our neighbors would be an appropriate place for pastors to emphasize that as Christians take the vaccine perhaps on the front end of the process by showing some courage, we have a chance to finally help make a dent in this awful disease and to, in the end, demonstrate love for our neighbors.”

Gushee said a broader issue at hand is the fact that a certain percentage of the American population distrusts science and scientists, and a lot of the people in that camp are Christians. The trend dates back centuries, it worsened with the teachings of Darwin on evolution, and it really has never gone away.

“The new iteration of it is a kind of anti-elite, anti-science, anti-empirical kind of universe that I think the right wing in America is inhabiting,” he said. “While taking a vaccine shouldn’t be political in any way, if it is a political statement to trust science and scientists when it comes to something like a vaccine, then it’s a statement we’ll have to make for the well-being of the whole. It’s individualism versus concern for the common good, and I think Christians are called to concern for the common good.”

Gushee said the shuttering of churches along with everything else during the pandemic has limited the church’s ability to make much of a public contribution as it otherwise would.

A chance for the church to lead

“One of the things about the impact of COVID on the church is I think it has contributed to a deepening of our invisibility in the public arena in American life. And a good way to re-emerge, in my opinion, would be to encourage a skeptical public to just go ahead and be vaccinated if the evidence warrants it,” he said.

That encouragement could span the spectrum from Sunday morning sermons to providing space for vaccination events.

“I don’t know if it would even be possible to do vaccinations in churches, but leading by example could mean actually hosting vaccinations,” Gushee suggested.

David King

David King, director of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, said the church definitely has a role to play because there is no other form of nonprofit as pervasive in the United States as church congregations.

“Congregations have to be a resource for instilling confidence in vaccines and promoting social trust.”

“Congregations have such a strong and trusted track record in providing social services, disaster relief and other forms of help,” King said. “They can’t not be part of the solution in getting the vaccine out. Congregations have to be a resource for instilling confidence in vaccines and promoting social trust. But I think as a provider, we’ll also see a lot of partnerships with congregations in helping to deliver a vaccine.”

Anticipate resistance

Still, there will be hesitance, and getting people to take the vaccine may provoke the same kind of pushback as getting people to wear masks, said Emily Smith, assistant professor of epidemiology at Baylor University.

Emily Smith

“It seems like at the beginning of the pandemic everybody had solidarity and we understood, and then somehow it became political, and masks became equated with losing freedom and living in fear,” she said. “It seemed like the Christian community divided on masks — either you’re living in fear or you’re wearing it to protect your neighbor.”

Exacerbating the divided opinions on a vaccine are wild conspiracy theories — including that the vaccine contains a microchip for tracking or has byproducts from aborted fetuses — and simple distrust in the process, Smith said.

“The anti-vaxxer community is loud, but if Dr. (Anthony) Fauci or one of those experts says its safe, then they’ve done due diligence to make sure it’s safe,” she said.

The anti-COVID vaccine group is new and includes Christians who are skeptical of science.

Smith said some in the anti-childhood vaccine crowd will jump on board and reject the COVID vaccine as well, but the anti-COVID vaccine group is new and includes Christians who are skeptical of science and agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control.

“I think it’s a new wave of, ‘I will get the childhood vaccines for my kids, but I won’t get this because it looks too fast-tracked,’” she said.

Smith said another factor adding to the debate is the merging of religion and science.

“I think we’ve done a bad job in the faith community merging science, and on the other side of that, the science community seeing that there could be a faith motivation,” she said. “I do both. My science is motivated by my faith, but they don’t merge. And I think in the pandemic we’re seeing it merge and it makes both sides uncomfortable.”

Vaccine as a way to love your neighbor

Smith, a scientist and the wife of a Baptist pastor, said she looks to Galatians 5:13 when thinking about how Christians should respond to the vaccine.

“I think this is a way we can use our freedom to protect our neighbors. I just think it’s loving our neighbors; I think it’s the second commandment,” she said. “And it also is the best way to protect people around us. The more of us that get vaccines, that protection becomes bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Smith said she would love to see the Christian community be the first in line to say “yes” to the vaccine as a way of modeling love for one’s neighbors.

“We’ve done a terrible job with masks and losing our witness on that, but maybe vaccines can be a way to redeem it.”

“We’ve done a terrible job with masks and losing our witness on that, but maybe vaccines can be a way to redeem it,” she said.

On the scientific side, Smith cautions that whenever the vaccine is ready, it still will not be an immediate fix. It will require 80% of the population getting the vaccine before other precautions like masks and social distancing can be set aside. But a vaccine still is the best answer.

“Our ticket out of this is a vaccine,” she said. “It’s not herd immunity through just opening up the floodgates and letting everybody go for it in terms of no precautions. But this time next year it will be much better than what it is right now.”

Smith also warns that while hope is on the horizon, there still are difficult days ahead.

“Getting the vaccine when it is available will be crucial because I don’t think people understand the magnitude of this next surge that we’re going through,” she said. “We’re all hearing this is going to be a dark winter, and I don’t know how to emphasize how dark that’s going to be because I don’t want to scare people, but it’s so bad. So, there is an urgency there to get the vaccine when it does become available.”

Pastors can’t prescribe but can lead

Gaynor Yancey, professor of social work and director of the Center for Church and Community Impact at Baylor, said the hesitance of people to trust and take the vaccine provides an opportunity for the church and pastors especially to continue the work of encouraging people to follow the leadership of the Lord, but they can’t be “prescriptive.”

Gaynor Yancey

“In my heart of hearts, I’d love for everyone to have the vaccine and it work for everyone,” she said. “But on the other side of the coin is knowing that we give people freedom to make their choices. So I think pastors will have to be very careful in what they do, and we might have some who would say, ‘Yes, everybody get a vaccine,’ but they can’t demand that. And yet they can encourage people to continuously seek to do what they’re comfortable to do under the leadership of the Lord.”

Yancey said religious leaders need to be cognizant that some people may have other conditions that would prevent them from getting a vaccine.

“There are all these mitigating circumstances that people have to consider, and that pastors don’t know and leaders of churches don’t know,” she said.

“The common good perspective would tell us clearly that when you are here to work alongside each other, you are to care for each other in every way possible.”

On the other hand, Yancey said, “If people say, ‘I don’t have to worry about it,’ well the common good perspective is that we do have to worry about it. The common good perspective would tell us clearly that when you are here to work alongside each other, you are to care for each other in every way possible.”

She continued: “When you look at the backlash against wearing masks, you think, wow, to go to a vaccine is even harder for some people in what they would consider to be against their rights. I think it would be harder for a pastor to legislate that, but to encourage it and to have people seek their own actions around that I think is very appropriate.”

Yancey said it’s important to trust that people are going to do what God calls them to do and respect their decision when they’ve thought about it and prayed about it. Then give them time and space to change their decision with the help of God.

“Knowing that God is in control of everything — and I truly believe that — and how God works in our hearts, I would hope that we would be continuing to encourage our folks,” she said.

There is no arguing or debate about the fact that this has been an eye-opening time for everyone in every regard, Yancey concluded.

“What I think the church has been called to in this — and what we’ve all been called to which is closing up everything — has been a very different picture than we might have realized,” she said. “We’re learning a lot about ourselves as a country and individually: what we can handle and what we can’t handle.”

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Q&A with Richard Wilson on applying Ebola lessons to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t Richard Wilson’s first go-around with a deadly virus outbreak.

He’s the Columbus Roberts Professor of Christian Theology and chairman of the religion department at Mercer University. He also served as president of the Liberian Baptist Theological Seminary from 2014 to 2016 — a tenure nearly coinciding with the West African nation’s Ebola outbreak.

“It came fast and furious and killed a lot of people,” he said.

Ebola’s spread sparked global headlines as it killed 11,310 in Liberia and in neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea over two and a half years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

So far, Liberia’s 4.8-million population has suffered about 1,300 COVID-19 cases and just over 80 fatalities, the World Health Organization reports. But Wilson knows from being in the U.S. that those numbers can change quickly. “I keep telling my Liberian friends that COVID is more contagious than Ebola and that they need to be careful.”

The two outbreaks have a lot in common, including school closures, drastically altered social lives and negative economic impacts. But one of the major differences between Ebola in Liberia and the coronavirus in the U.S. is in leadership. It was, he said, much better in West Africa.

“I miss the strong leadership from the head of the government that trickled down even into the rural communities. I wish we had that kind of leadership, but we don’t. Liberia was the first of the three countries to be declared Ebola-free, and it was because of the rapid response of the government, which was very bold.”

Wilson spoke with Baptist News Global about the role of government, faith and culture in the midst of an epidemic or pandemic.

What’s it like to experience two deadly virus outbreaks?

That’s a really good question. Since we came under the coronavirus pandemic, my level of correspondence with Liberians has gone up significantly. The Liberians who were involved in our Ebola relief efforts are very empathetic about what’s going on in the United States. Daily I get encouraging messages from some of my former students and colleagues in Liberia.

When and how did you first learn Ebola was coming to Liberia?

It was in early 2014. I had just arrived in Liberia. In early February, Olu Menjay and I made the long journey to the place where Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia converge. Olu is one of my former students at Mercer who was principal and chief administrative officer at The Ricks Institute in Liberia. As we listened to the radio on that long drive, we heard the first report of Ebola in Guinea. We were concerned. People in Africa knew about Ebola because of the devastation it carries. When we arrived at our destination, we were very cautious because we were within three miles of Guinea and a couple miles from Sierra Leone. Ebola was part of our conversation from then on.

On our way back to Monrovia we kept hearing about Ebola on the radio, but the driver said it wouldn’t matter until it came to Monrovia — that’s when we will take it seriously. He turned out to be quite the prognosticator. Because when it arrived in Monrovia, it exploded.

How did the churches in Liberia react when that happened?

The saddest thing was that the Pentecostal influence made a lot of people emboldened to ignore precautions. They would make announcements to just pray and the Holy Spirit will bring us healing. But the ministry of health was making very explicit announcements about how dangerous Ebola was.

One of the things the government said was no handshaking and no hugging and do not touch a sick person. And all of those things flew in the face of Liberian culture. Liberia is a hugging and handshaking culture. When someone gets sick in Liberia, all the relatives come and stay in the house until that person gets better. The ministry of health was saying don’t do it.

But there were those who thought the power of prayer would deliver them, and they would hold healing services. Someone who was sick would be brought into the middle of the congregation, and people would lay hands on them. Some of the highest death rates were in churches during the pandemic.

“The religious component was a detriment in many places, much as some of it has been a detriment in our response to COVID here in the United States.”

The religious component was a detriment in many places, much as some of it has been a detriment in our response to COVID here in the United States. These crazy people who make false claims about divine protection don’t understand the words of Jesus in the desert: “Do not tempt the Lord your God.” I sense that Ebola and COVID are very similar in that regard.

Did you ever see faith as a positive force during the Ebola breakout?

I saw God at work in the empathy and compassion of the common people in Liberia. That would be manifested in places like the local market, where a merchant selling fruits and vegetables under an umbrella would have a handwashing station with a bleach-and-water mixture in a bucket with a spigot, and the merchant would make that station available to anyone. Ebola is transmitted through bodily fluids, and so people knew about the need for sanitation.

At the seminary, when we opened in 2015, we had sanitation stations in front of every classroom and in front of the chapel. And people generally avoided physical contact. The handshakes and the hugs pretty much disappeared. I was impressed at the eagerness of Liberians to teach each other what had to be done.

And that was happening in the churches, too. In 2015, I was in the pulpit of a different church each Sunday. From the largest urban church to the smallest rural church, everyone had those sanitation systems.

Were the seminary and other schools able to engage in distance learning during the closures?

After the government banned educational institutions from gathering in late 2014, there was no opportunity for distance learning. They didn’t have the broadband, for one thing.

It sounds like a lot of people complied with restrictions.

Yes. The cab drivers were an example of that. A third of Liberia lives in Monrovia, and most people do not drive, so the city is full of cabs. And during that time the cab drivers agreed to reduce the occupancy of their vehicles so passengers wouldn’t contact each other. It really is quite remarkable how almost everyone pulled together.

President (Ellen) Johnson closed everything and put all government workers on even-odd work days, reducing the population of office buildings by 50%. She couldn’t demand that of private businesses, but she modeled the safe practice and many businesses followed it.

“The United States is the most individualistic place on the planet, and at times we are obnoxious about our personal freedoms and ignore our corporate responsibilities.”

What can Americans learn from the Liberian experience with Ebola?

I think we in the United States have a lot to learn from people of West Africa who understand the importance and solidarity of community. The United States is the most individualistic place on the planet, and at times we are obnoxious about our personal freedoms and ignore our corporate responsibilities. I think that is a lesson we in the United States need to learn.

What do you hear about the Liberian response to COVID-19?

The pastor of my home church in Liberia, the James R. Davis Memorial Baptist Church, in Monrovia, called me when Liberia first got COVID, and he expressed a need to launch a feeding program. He has adapted the feeding program we used during Ebola for COVID. Most of it has been Liberians helping Liberians. The church has distributed 2.5 tons of rice to Liberians who are over the age of 65. This enables people to stay home instead of going into markets where they can be exposed to COVID. I find it encouraging. My friend learned something from the Ebola experience, and he applied it in the middle of the COVID pandemic.


Baptist universities making big changes to reopen this week

As students of all ages stream back to school — whether virtually or in person — Baptist universities are among the institutions implementing new strategies due to COVID-19.

Mercer University in Macon, Ga., invested about $750,000 to create an on-campus COVID-19 testing lab capable of processing about 800 coronavirus tests per eight-hour shift, said Larry Brumley, senior vice president for marketing communications and chief of staff.

A hand sanitizer station at Mercer University.

The testing began around July 27 when students started arriving at Mercer’s residential campus in Macon for orientation, athletics and band. They had the choice of being tested by Mercer or at outside labs of their choosing. About half were tested by the school.

“Most test results have been returned within 24 hours,” and results will be publicly released in a matter of days, he said. “All this testing will give us a baseline to know what the level of spread is among the university community at the beginning of the fall semester.”

In-person classes at Mercer began Aug. 18.

In cases of positive COVID-19 tests, students may return home or isolate in accommodations provided by Mercer. That protocol, together with the lab and face mask and social distancing requirements, is designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus during the term.

“We’ll be doing surveillance testing throughout the fall semester as part of our plan to stay on top of the virus” Brumley said.

At Simmons College of Kentucky — a historically Black college — the dangers of coronavirus have been all too real because the virus has proved more dangerous and deadly among people of color.

“The leadership of the college has continued to monitor the status of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has worsened and continues to hit Black communities hard, due to America’s patterns of economic injustice,” President Kevin Crosby said in a July 31 letter to faculty, staff and students.

Simmons College of Kentucky has moved to an all-online instruction format for now.

As a result, courses at Simmons will be offered remotely while in-person support opportunities will be provided as much as safely possible, Crosby said.

According to a recent National Urban League report, the Black community is three times more likely to contract the virus, and twice as likely to die, than whites.

“When we looked at the numbers to decide on fall plans, we knew we had to double whatever the local data showed because COVID has hit Black communities doubly hard,” said Chris Caldwell, Simmons’ vice president for academic affairs.

However, the decision to go remote poses its own challenges for many of the students at the Louisville college, he added. “Many of our students are parents of public school students, and within that group many are single parents, so they’re juggling jobs, our coursework and their kids’ coursework.”

In Waco, Texas, one of the nation’s largest private faith-based universities has ramped up with elaborate plans for learning in the time of coronavirus. “It’s a little bit wild right now,” said Jason Cook, vice president for marketing and communications and chief marketing officer.

Baylor University students receive bags of COVID-related supplies as they arrive on campus.

Baylor recently sent out 18,000 COVID-19 tests, requiring every student, faculty and staff member to test negative before being allowed onto campus for the fall term, which begins Aug. 24.

“And how we handle positive tests has been a major focus for us the past couple of weeks,” Cook said, adding that less than 1% of the tests have been positive as of Aug. 19.

During the semester, 10% of students will be randomly tested in addition to any who are showing symptoms. Quarantine and isolation facilities will be provided on and off campus for students who have either been in contact with someone who is sick or test positive themselves.

Baylor anticipates 5,000 students living on campus this fall, mostly assigned to two-person dorm rooms, and another 18,000 off-campus — the usual numbers, Cook explained.

Move-in day at Baylor University looks a lot like every year, except for the masks everywhere.

Pandemic-inspired differences this semester include the availability of hybrid and online classes together with in-person learning, a lengthened class day and 16 large tents erected on campus to provide an additional 45,000 square feet of dining, study, musical performance and student group meeting spaces. Students also are being issued kits with sanitizer, masks, thermometers and other items.

Baylor football currently is scheduled to play an abbreviated schedule with its stadium at a quarter of its 45,000-seat capacity.

Whether these and other measures prove effective will be determined by the compliance of each member of the Baylor community, Cook said. “It’s going to depend on the behaviors and actions of individual people wearing face masks, washing their hands and maintaining social distance.”

Virtual General Assembly evokes memories of CBF’s foundation, formative role

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will offer its plenary sessions and workshops during its virtual 2020 General Assembly Thursday and Friday, June 25-26.

General Assembly 1992. (Photo/CBF)

But the pandemic-induced move to online spaces – marking the first time since 1992 the assembly will not convene in-person – cannot replace the family reunion function that so many love about the annual event.

“It is pretty much a huge bummer,” said Lauren McDuffie, 31, associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Morehead, Kentucky.

Harold Phillips, former moderator of CBF Heartland and recently retired, has been to every assembly and agreed it hurts to miss making those connections.

“Part of it is networking – that’s huge for me,” Phillips said. “And there is the reunion component – meeting up with people you went to seminary with or went on mission trips with.”

‘First big proof all this was real’

The impact is described poignantly by those who, like Phillips, were present both at the 1991 “Convocation of The Baptist Fellowship,” when CBF was formally organized, and the first General Assembly in 1992. The gathering was for many a much-needed rest after years of theological battles in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Walter “Buddy” Shurden

“I still remember the emotions,” said Walter “Buddy” Shurden, 83, author, minister at large, retired chair of the department of Christianity at Mercer University and a leader in the emerging movement that became CBF.

It was a time of apprehension and hope, he said. As the migration from the SBC occurred, no one really knew where the movement was going or if it would succeed. But its courage was on full display during that first gathering.

Bill Leonard

Bill Leonard

“I remember the camaraderie – the sense of being identified with people I respected.”

For Baptist historian Bill Leonard, that first assembly, held in Fort Worth, Texas, “was a revival.”

It was restorative to those exhausted by the SBC battles, said Leonard, Dunn Professor of baptist studies emeritus at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

“We were all terribly emotional about it. General Assembly was the first big proof that all of this was real.”

Harold Phillips

Phillips recalled that era as mysterious and exciting. General Assembly brought it all together.

There was also a pioneering feeling in the air, partly because many attended on their own dime.

“Nobody had expense accounts,” said Phillips. “You had four guys sharing a room. No one had any money.”

And none of that was considered a negative.

“It was freeing.”

‘Great to hear different perspectives’

Since then, General Assembly has become has come to shape a Baptist identity as much as celebrate it, said Emily Holladay, the pastor of Village Baptist Church in Bowie, Maryland.

Emily Holladay

Holladay previously worked as a Passport camp counselor and later as an intern for CBF. The relationships begun in those roles have grown through random encounters in hallways and lobbies during assembly.

“You’re in this hotel or conference center and every other person you see is someone you know,” she said. “I would hate to say how many workshops I have missed because of those conversations.”

General Assembly has become a core component of CBF’s outreach to young adults, she added.

John DeWitt

“In the past five or six years I have heard a lot of people talk about how many strollers they see and the evolving makeup of the population in terms of age.”

John DeWitt, 22, has two assemblies under his belt, the first in 2018.

“Last year was extremely useful,” DeWitt, children and youth pastor at Mount Hermon Baptist Church in Durham, said of the focus on racial justice at the 2019 gathering in Birmingham, Alabama. “It was really great to hear different perspectives that I had not heard growing up in white churches.”

DeWitt said his assembly experiences have helped shape his Baptist identity as he prepares to attend Campbell University Divinity School this fall.

“You want to act out on what you learn after you leave” the gatherings.

‘Rubber chicken luncheons’

For McDuffie, the annual get-togethers have been instrumental in helping her explore her calling.

Lauren McDuffie

“It was in some of the slightly smaller settings that I began to think through what kinds of work I wanted to do,” she said.

McDuffie added she is disappointed the pandemic led to the cancellation of assembly because it, in turn, wiped out the final in-person meeting of her two-year CBF Fellows cohort.

“We are lamenting not having time to wrap that up in person.”

George Mason

George Mason

In an e-mail to Baptist News Global, George Mason offered a tongue-in-cheek take on what missing an in-person assembly will mean to him.

“I am going to miss the scintillating business meetings, the long inclusive-language prayers and the pastiche worship that tries to accommodate everyone,” mused Mason, senior pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.

Also missed will be “the rubber chicken luncheons” and conversations in hallways “because they are interrupted by six people walking past saying hello,” he said.

“And maybe most of all, I will miss the late-night unofficial conclaves of friends that grow in number as the night wears on and makes us feel like little revolutionaries planning the next incursion of the reign of God.”