A few days ago, Al Mohler announced the publication of the “Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.” I was a greatly impressed by his cover letter, and have subsequently appreciated the in-depth report provided by the committee. I am equally saddened by the unfortunate detraction from certain quarters, notably Douglas Wilson. I will address both aspects in this article.
First, I would prefer to get far more attention to the report than to its detractor(s), though the amount of space here may be reversed. If you have limited time, just go read the report and skip my comments below. The report is more important than the fact that someone naysaid it. Likewise, the fact that such a report has naysayers is more important than any particular thing Wilson has said against it. What he has said, however, is generally representative of the arguments pro-confederate-types have been using since before the war, and ever since. It is therefore worth beholding as an example of an obstinate and far too common tradition.
The report itself, however, and Dr. Mohler’s cover letter especially, are examples of things by which racial healing can and will actually take place within the crucial corners of the conservative Christian world.
I say all of this, too, as someone who has been an open critic of Dr. Mohler on certain issues in the past, and still would be. I have been open and direct in criticizing him, perhaps even more harshly than preferred. But I stand by the logic of those criticisms still. That said, I am at the polar opposite side of criticism on this project.
What I am seeing here is a model of how Christians, particularly white conservative Christians, need to think, act, speak, and believe on this issue. I am highly impressed, highly thankful, and I pray the model of candid acknowledgment, open confession, and vulnerability in this report will be emulated by others, and that it will spur the next steps in the progress of unity among brethren.
As I have said from my beginning in this issue, one of the most sorely needed aspects in this process is the education of many people on the actual facts of the history and the complicity of our heritage in it. This report serves exactly that purpose. It is a beginning, and it is the right beginning.
I will not rehearse every part of this report. You can read it for yourself, and I encourage you to do so. If not, at least read Dr. Mohler’s introductory letter and then the summary of findings on the first few pages.
Let’s be clear: this is not a manifesto. There are no calls to action, no appeals to the masses. It is merely a report of findings. It is merely the first steps of soul searching, taking inventory, acknowledging the facts. There is not the slightest thing “leftist” or “cultural Marxist” about this. There are certainly no appeals for “reparations” or even “reconciliation.” It is just candid history.
Some passages of Mohler’s letter are worth noting. First, the purpose of it all. While the Southern Baptist Convention already in 1995 had confessed its role in slavery, racism, segregation, etc., Mohler noted that the Seminary, which was a foundational institution in the SBC, a position of leadership and thought all throughout that time, and dramatically involved in all the sins discussed, had not spoken for itself, and it needed to. Second, the 1995 declaration was a good start, but it was not meant to be a mere token used conveniently then to ignore it all, “put it behind us,” and bury it. Mohler gets both these sentiments together:
At that time, I think it is safe to say that most Southern Baptists, having made this painful acknowledgment and lamenting this history, hoped to dwell no longer on the painful aspects of our legacy.
That is not possible, nor is it right. It is past time that The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—the first and oldest institution of the Southern Baptist Convention—must face a reckoning of our own. Since our founding in 1859, at no moment has the history of this school been separated, by even the slightest degree, from the history of the denomination. . . .
Hold on to both of these thoughts, because they will become important when we review the document’s detractor.
Mohler expands on his comment, “nor is it right,” in what is one of the more touchingly candid parts:
We cannot escape the fact that the honest lament of the SBC should have been accompanied by the honest lament of her first school, first seminary, and first institution. We knew ourselves to be fully included in the spirit and substance of that resolution in 1995, but the moral burden of history requires a more direct and far more candid acknowledgment of the legacy of this school in the horrifying realities of American slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racism, and even the avowal of white racial supremacy. The fact that these horrors of history are shared with the region, the nation, and with so many prominent institutions does not excuse our failure to expose our own history, our own story, our own cherished heroes, to an honest accounting—to ourselves and to the watching world.
We have been guilty of a sinful absence of historical curiosity. We knew, and we could not fail to know, that slavery and deep racism were in the story. We comforted ourselves that we could know this, but since these events were so far behind us, we could move on without awkward and embarrassing investigations and conversations.
SBTS is not shying away from the fact that they should have done this public review earlier, they should have confessed all this heritage earlier, they knew their complicity all along, even back then. They knew the moral burden was not merely for a generalized, abstract acknowledgment, but a detailed confession of specific sins. They knew it involved not only slavery, 150 years ago, but everything since then, right through the Civil Rights Movement, though 1964, and in some ways lasting up until today. They know that everyone else doing it was no excuse for neglecting this duty.
They openly admit that the neglect even to review the history is in itself sinful. Further, they used the justification of long passage of time to “comfort themselves” in their willful negligence.
All of these things are reasons to read this document, and other documents like it, and for every institution to engage in some kind of similar review.
Two more points of the general opening are important. Mohler goes on to acknowledge we cannot repent for the dead, but that this also is no excuse for inaction. He also notes, however, that moving forward means embracing the New Humanity in Christ in real-life action. In short, being justified in Christ requires moving on in real sanctification, with good works, positive change, working for change, in history, in our behavior and relations.
With that foundation, the report itself goes on to outline 13 specific areas in which the history of the seminary was intertwined with, supported, and was dependent upon slavery, racism, segregation, Jim Crow—the whole bit—with key faculty, founders, trustees, board members, and donors all fully behind it each step of the way.
The legacy is hard to read. Includes everything from direct support for slavery before the War, to dreams for the return of it afterward. It includes the support of racist ideology, in part justified upon biblical ideas, used to impose all of the offensive measures up to the 1960s (still echoed by some). It includes the use of convict slave labor by large Baptist-owned corporations that donated millions of dollars (in today’s money) to the seminary well after the War.
It also includes the full adoption of, and participation in, the rewriting of Southern history, the creation of the Lost Cause mythology, in which it is alleged that 1) slavery was a benign institution, 2) cruelty was rare, 3) slaves were actually happier under slavery, 4) whites are superior, and 5) blacks have no capacity to govern themselves.
Each of the 13 points covered is elucidated upon for several paragraphs. The total spans 72 pages. Again, it is not a manifesto. It ends with a very brief and unassuming note on how the SBST and SBC have come to embrace diversity, noting the embarrassing (my word) route taken to get there. The final notes are these: we have not yet fully overcome our problems, but we are committed to doing so. And, quoting a previous article of Mohler’s: “Diversity is not an accident or a problem—it’s a sign of God’s providence and promise. If the church gets this wrong, it’s not just getting race and ethnic difference wrong. It’s getting the gospel wrong.”
These two points are crucial, and they are linked. The cure for racism is the Gospel, and the true Gospel truly believed must move on into commitment to sanctified change. These points are not only right, but crucial to understanding the failings of certain detractors who have popped up.
Shortly after Mohler’s presentation, Douglas Wilson provided a response that not only found very little if any good in it, but condemned it as a false gospel. Knowing Wilson’s past involvement in the embarrassing pamphlet Southern Slavery As It Was, and the backtracking but still unfortunate Black and Tan, I was not shocked, but still saddened to see the persistent stubbornness on this issue, yet, just like the Old Southern theologians, in the name of preserving biblical inerrancy and Christian worldview.
It is sad, that is, to see what Mohler euphemistically calls “a sinful absence of historical curiosity.” After repeated attempts, corrections, “clarifications,” and now this, it is not so much a passive absence as it is a willful refusal. It is one thing not to know; it is another to cover our ears from hearing it, or to turn the head from the printed pages. It is still another to hear at least some facts, but dismiss them as propaganda, while countenancing what is provably propaganda for the Old pro-slavery side, written by proslavery men like R. L. Dabney themselves. It is yet an even worse thing not only to find comfort and shelter in what is virtually criminal propaganda, but to then turn and attempt to build a theological justification for remaining in the fouled nest. Yet this is exactly the position in which Douglas, and those like him, find themselves.
Wilson’s main argument against Mohler’s letter and the project in general is that it is void of the Gospel. Instead of preaching the Gospel and bringing the instant declaration of the absolution of sins in Jesus Christ (with no further obligation), Mohler’s letter substitutes never-ending apologies:
The gospel kills this snake—and this is the crucial point—with one blow of the shovel. The snake is not constantly irritated by the repeated poking of a wooden stick.
But I am afraid this letter from Al Mohler is just more stick jabbing. It is law, substituted in as though it were gospel. To have the law prepare the way for gospel is right and proper. To have law try to offer any kind of solution is simply to have law relegate people to damnation. And what is damnation? Damnation is the curse of no forgiveness possible.
Douglas then argues that the “woke” Gospel will never be satisfied with any amount of repentance. Witness the fact that, as Mohler states, the SBC apologized in 1995. But that wasn’t enough was it? No! Just look, here is Mohler having to bend and grovel once again. And it will never end, according to Doug: “with regard to this original sin of American slavery, under no conceivable scenario will Al Mohler ever be allowed to stand before the students of Southern Seminary and declare to them that their sins are entirely and completely forgiven.”
This is the very reverse of “free grace,” Doug says.
Of course all of this is nonsense, if for nothing else than the utter neglect of what is supposed to follow from the heart that has been regenerated in that free grace. It is utterly incomprehensible that Douglas would focus only on definitive justification here (the full and immediate salvation of the soul), and utterly ignore the law as a pattern of sanctification. Mohler is a Christian talking to Christians in the legacy of a Christian institution. He is talking about how saved people behave once they are saved. This is not about justification but about sanctification—good works flowing from a heart changed by free grace.
Wilson says the “woke” religion trades the gospel of free grace for a religion of endless works that can never be repaid. But what he has written is not really the perspective of free grace, but of cheap grace. It speaks of a confessed repentance with no self-examination, no humility, no fruit, no restitution. It is justification followed by no sanctification. It requires no good works to follow from its faith.
Further, it refuses to get specific about its sins, how those sins may have hurt people, or how the repeated denial of those sins or sinful legacies, the blame shifting, gaslighting, deflection, distraction, and rewriting of history, i.e. lies, continue to inflict pain and hurt. Yet it demands a fresh and full forgiveness from everyone else, on the spot, and full acceptance as fully justified, without spot or blemish. It wants the blessings of salvation without the responsibilities of the saved.
Be clear: I am not saying Doug Wilson does not believe the doctrine of sanctification. In fact, he does; but that’s what makes it even more unacceptable. He has to know for a fact that just because our sins are definitely forgiven at the cross does not mean we have overcome them in our person, or institutions, in history. None of us believe in sinless perfectionism, or that we are fully sanctified in this life. There will always be a need for hearing the word, assessment, confession, repentance, and change.
Douglas knows all of this. In his own published notes on the Westminster Confession, the section on Sanctification, he writes,
Practical sanctification begins with regeneration . . . . but the process of sanctification does not cease at this point. Through the virtue of the death and resurrection of Christ (i.e. the gospel), the individual believer is continually sanctified on a real and personal basis. . . . The result is true holiness, lived out in the world—which, if not lived out, shows a complete lack of saving faith [emphases added].
Indeed, Wilson’s point here is that is we do not go on to show the kind of “real, “personal,” “lived out” sanctification that is being exhibited by Mohler and the Committee here, then we are not even saved!
Be clear, reader: this means that you could stand up in front of those students and declare their sins entirely and utterly forgiven all you want, but if the confession, repentance, reconciliation, and other obvious and appropriate things we are called to “live out” are continually ignored or rebuffed, you can pretty much guarantee that proclamation is fraudulent.
Douglas would further do well to revisit the 95 Theses of Martin Luther. The very first one says this: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Indeed, the Christian life is to be a life of repentance, not just a once-off declaration that you are forgiven, and then you are entitled to overlook your failures, ignore history and society around you, shrug at offenses, and yet demand your status as forgiven from others.
Douglas knows this, too. In his notes on the WCF on repentance, he comments: “Ministers of Christ are not just to preach faith in Christ; they must also preach repentance unto life. . . .” If the sinner were to receive God’s grace, “[H]e would grieve for his sins and hate them, and turn away from them to God. If brought to this state of repentance, he would turn to God with the full intent of walking with Him through all his days, following all His laws.”
This is how the progression is supposed to work (abbreviated): free grace, regeneration, repentance, obedience to God’s laws. This is not substituting law for grace. God forbid! It is good works flowing from true faith.
Douglas knows this. So, he ought to discern that what Mohler is talking about here is part of the process of sanctification / obedience—the ongoing process in history. Reconciliation, love, and unity in history require this process. If Douglas cannot discern this, he ought at least to give the benefit of the doubt before plowing ahead into calling something a false gospel of works.
Persistent mythologizing and victimization
The sad fact is that there is not much of what Douglas uses to rebut the effort which does not also appear in the openly racist, proslavery Baptists who are detailed in the report. I am not saying he holds all their views, obviously (for example, open white supremacy, the curse of Ham-black degradation, etc.); I am saying that some of what he does still offer was generated by the same people in the same intellectual factory as part of the same Lost Cause.
Douglas objects that historical reviews like this report are like endless works, like offering sacrifices over and over. He seems to think the 1995 general, abstract confession is enough. Moving on to this type of historical inventory is to feed the leftist woke machine of endless white guilt.
Yet in his notes on repentance he says, “it is important for a man to name particular sins as he comes in repentance to God,” and, “Repentance for sin ought to be as public as the sin was, or in some measure commensurate with it.” So, what is wrong with an institution acknowledging what has long gone unacknowledged, to the unnecessary pain of many, and doing so by naming specific sins in a public manner? According to Douglas himself, that is what saved people should do!
I find Douglas’ offering here unacceptable on many levels, but probably more than any because of the terrible example it sets for young believers. Instead of having the mind of Christ (Phil. 2), bearing burdens, fulfilling the law of Christ (Gal. 6), not pleasing ourselves, but pleasing our neighbors (Rom. 15), doing that which is profitable and not what is strictly lawful for us (1 Cor.6:12; 10:23-24). Instead of these basic elements of Christian sanctification which would help us greatly in racial reconciliation, Douglas only makes it worse by retrenching in the worst of deflections one can find in the world of lost cause mythology:
For example, there are still so many people today wielding the rewritten history of the Lost Cause. These not only neglect confession, but openly deny even the old sins in many ways. Many persist in thinking the sins of slavery and racism are exaggerations made up by leftists. These denials persist today, admit it or not. Here are a few of them:
If slavery had been as bad as the abolitionists maintained that it was, and as we have been reminded countless times on supposedly good authority, then why were there not thousands of rabid abolitionists demanding an end to the evil? . . .
Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity. Because of its dominantly patriarchal character, it was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence. There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world. . . .
[I]t is not surprising that most southern blacks (both free and slave) supported the Southern war effort. . . . [M]any Southern blacks supported the South because of long established bonds of affection and trust that had been forged over generations with their white masters and friends. They gladly supported the war effort with food, labor, and sometimes fighting. . . .
The fact that there were very few slave uprisings in the South further confirms the fact that slaves were well-treated and often had a deep loyalty to, and affection for, their masters. . . .
Slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the War or since. . . .
Many of the old slaves express[ed] a wistful desire to be back at the plantation. Slave life was to them a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care.
Every one of these unbelievably inaccurate (but typical of many Southern apologists) statements was co-penned by Douglas Wilson himself. These are all taken from Southern Slavery As It Was. There is no possible way to continue this discussion in a Christian way as long as such falsehoods and myths lies at the root of one side’s understanding. And Douglas Wilson not only has that but has been forthright in helping to spread that Lost Cause mythology.
Further, the mythology is not only assumed true, but then used as a basis for crying persecution. Indeed, there was nothing more pitiful than segregationists calling appeals for equality an attack on whites. That’s right, whites were the victims, if they were to be believed. White civilization was under attack. Deny that and you’re a Marxist. And this is similar to how the game turns now for Douglas. The vast bulk of scholarship, facts, and history is dismissed as leftist propaganda, and Douglas is next evoking the specters of “white privilege,” “white boy,” “sin of being white,” “no gospel for white people,” “white guilt,” etc.
Indeed, when something like Mohler’s effort here, which is nothing short of the very least kindness that could be shown to interested blacks, if not an effort that will reach the hearts of a few people and inculcate some seed of peace, is literally characterized as “no gospel for white people,” you know the writer is in some twisted defense mode. One wonders at the emotional fragility that must create such huge rhetorical disconnects, twisted meanings, and entrenched self-victimization of a class of people.
But then imagine going from this level to having the hubris to tell the very people rightly offended by such historical falsehoods, your falsehoods, that their real problem is with their own people back in Africa. Again, this is classic Lost Cause black-shaming: you people cannot even govern yourselves! Unfit for government! Just look at Haiti! Just look at Africa! And that is Doug’s next move: “when you had Africa all to yourselves—bullied, and oppressed, and sold into slavery, and crushed, and triumphed, and stole, and murdered, and raped, and you did it for centuries. What shall be done about that? There is not a single thing that whites have done to you that you have not routinely done to one another.”
Aside from the obvious anti-black racism routinely codified by law in our nation, this is very much like a robber in a jail cell demanding to be freed because another robber yet walked free on the other side of the world. At what point do our fallacies become so obvious that we stop using them to deflect? One thing Douglas at least would have been wise to stop to consider here is that which he so often boasts everywhere else: the impact of the Gospel and Christendom. The difference between the cruel slavery and slave trafficking here and across the ocean was conducted by allegedly culturally-superior Christians. Our side had the Gospel. The Muslim slave traders did not. If your argument holds, we are far more to be blamed, especially because at several points our Book told us to stop doing it, and we didn’t. Instead, our ancestors created racist laws to justify what they did, and subsequently pointed to Muslims and Pagans to taunt their black captives.
And we didn’t stop the racism after slavery, and we didn’t stop it during Jim Crow, and we didn’t stop it during segregation, or mass incarceration, or profiling, etc., etc.
Dear reader, can you spot the problem with people vaunting how great the Christianity of the Christian Old South was, but then pointing to the sins of Muslim and Pagan Africa to distract from the same sins of the Christian South? It’s worse than a fallacy.
Now, Doug may respond that I have neglected to relate how he clearly said, after all, that slavery was bad, there were atrocities, that racism is unbiblical, etc., etc. And Joel has for some reason chosen not to acknowledge all of these clear exonerations. Further, in focusing on all these things, I have probably missed the broader point of what he was really saying—not sure how since it was so clear, etc.—and that point will be something like, “We’re all sinners, white or black, and the only hope for any of us is the gospel.”
Agreed. And my point will be that faith without works is dead, and a free grace that costs you nothing is the kind of cheap grace that costs everything. And Paleo-Confederate nonsense is still nonsense.
Of course you can’t repent for other people’s sins; but you can acknowledge them, and you can acknowledge the effects of those sins. And when the effects of those sins are social, while you may not be accountable for those sins, you are responsible for some of the effects of them in your society. When you are part of, or especially the leadership of, an institution or body that was complicit in those social sins and effects, that responsibility is greatly enhanced.
You may not be the sinner, but when you’re left in charge of driving the boat that sin has headed toward the waterfall, “Jesus take the wheel” won’t cut it. You have to take responsibility.
To watch leadership, therefore, not only flounder, but actively deny and combat their responsibility is worse than a shipwreck. It is to love men more than Christ. It is to love the falsified memory of an idol, the Old South, more than the truth in Christ. It is to place one’s idol before both Christ and their neighbor. It is a huge, public, abject failure.
The “never ending repentance” line is a straw man of Mohler’s true position. It is the very strawman used so often to dismiss the problem, to avoid hearing the specifics, to shut down the conversation.
Playing up “white guilt” in this case is shameful. There was real guilt back then, and we cannot repent for that. But we can acknowledge it for our maligned or hurt neighbor, and we can repent of our own guilt of delaying—out of fear or hate or ignorance, what does it matter?—for so long, or worse, denying, dismissing, or downplaying it in any way. Doug actually admits this, too. He should have spent the balance of his paper developing that point.
I don’t think Doug Wilson himself is a closet racist, but his theological allegiances make shelter for them. The stance he takes reminds me of the comments Martin Luther King, Jr. had regarding the 1964 Republican National Convention:
On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represented a philosophy that was morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand.
There are a tremendous number of young people influenced by personalities and voices like Wilson’s, and they need to hear all the facts. This report is big on facts. They also need to know their theology calls them to something more than using theological concepts to build walls and insulate their hearts from vulnerability and compassion. They deserve better. The deserve a true, heroic, Christian manliness that is not afraid to look deeply at the facts, to confess, to acknowledge, to make oneself vulnerable for the sake of another.
To their great, great credit, Mohler and the committee, and all else who are behind it, have exemplified this step. It is a great beginning, and I hope the discussions that flow from it are just as sanctified and sanctifying.
Joel McDurmon, Ph.D., is the President of The American Vision, and the author of The Problem of Slavery in Christian America.