The recent conference marking the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has sparked many conversations across the SBC about race and racism. Sermons by Matt Chandler, Russell Moore, and David Platt and other in and out of SBC life have all been called simply products of current social justice trends, or meant to please men and not God. Discussions online and in person have been heated as people discuss how much churches and the SBC should push for racial reconciliation today.
One of the most common responses to those calling for racial reconciliation is that we just need to focus on the gospel, and that the rest will take care of itself. The application of the gospel in the area of racial reconciliation has been called cultural marxism, social justice, or obscuring the gospel.
This article will share a short history of racial reconciliation in the SBC, sharing people and institutions who have worked to do more than just acknowledge and repent of the legacy of the SBC, but have pushed for racial equality on the basis of the gospel. The goal is to show that those who speak for racial reconciliation today are continuing a long line of baptist leaders who have stood for the same things.
This is not meant in any way to make light of the past of the SBC, which has been well documented elsewhere. We need to acknowledge the past of the SBC and repent of it. But repentance is not enough. Al Mohler writes clearly on this topic.
“The Southern Baptist Convention was not only founded by slaveholders; it was founded by men who held to an ideology of racial superiority and who bathed that ideology in scandalous theological argument. … We bear the burden of that history to this day. …It is not enough to repent of slavery. We must repent and seek to confront and remove every strain of racial superiority that remains and seek with all our strength to be the kind of churches of which Jesus would be proud — the kind of churches that will look like the marriage supper of the Lamb.”
As segregation and Jim Crow loomed large in America in the first half of the 20th century, Southern Baptists did little to stop it. The majority of SBC members and leaders were at the least complicit in racism, and others led out in it freely. Of those who spoke against it, Dr. TB Maston was the most vocal. As early as 1927 he challenged the racial prejudices of the South. Using the biblical premise that “God is no respecter of persons” Maston urged Southern Baptist’s to accept all races as equal. Maston’s book “The Bible and Race” takes eight different passages from the Bible and considers the impact these passages should have on our understanding of race. Maston dispels such heretical views as the “Curse of Ham.” A professor at SWBTS, he wrote many books that touched on the subject of race, but The Bible and Race was his most influential book.
In 1949 EW Perry was the first African American to address the Southern Baptist Convention at it’s annual meeting. When the convention met in Oklahoma City that year Perry was pastor of Oklahoma City’s historic Tabernacle Baptist Church, where he served from 1915 to 1969. At the time of his address he was serving as President of the National Baptist Convention and was called a brother in Christ by SBC President RG Lee.
The Home Mission Board made concerted efforts to reach out to Black Baptists in America, and hired Emmanuel McCall as the first African American employee at the Home Mission Board in 1968. Other SBC leaders worked to promote a biblical view of race as well, like Henlee Barnette, who invited Martin Luther King Jr to preach at SBTS in 1961. Foy Valentine at the Christian Life Commission worked to give the SBC a biblical understanding of race, often too much pushback from members and churches in the SBC.
As time passed SBC individual and entities continued to buck against racism in the SBC.
Some of the earliest racial barrier breaking occurred in the six SBC seminaries. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, began teaching black students on its campus in 1942 in a “Negro Extension Department.” Initially, they received instruction from professors and graduate students in vacant faculty offices since a Kentucky law prohibited educational institutions from teaching both white and African American students as pupils.
Garland Offutt earned the number of credits necessary for the master of theology, and the faculty granted him a degree in 1944, making him the first black graduate of any Southern Baptist seminary. During the mid-1940s, Southern began allowing black students to sit in classrooms with white students in violation of state law. The seminary officially admitted black students in 1951.
As president Duke McCall explained, “We decided to ignore the law. We thought we had moral ground—and probably the legal ground as well—to ignore it.”
Theology professor Wayne Ward recalled an incident when a police officer arrived at his class to issue a warning about violating the law. When the officer showed some hesitation to enter the class, Ward told him God would punish him if he arrested anyone.
Similar activities took place at SWBTS, which enrolled black preachers in 1942. The other SBC seminaries integrated long before was required by law. In 1968 Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California, claimed it had more black students than any other seminary on the west coast and more foreign students than all other west coast seminaries combined.
It was not all good news though. Southern Baptists remained bitterly divided on how to approach the issue of racial reconciliation. Racism still abounded in the SBC. It was the official or unofficial policy of many churches to deny membership to African Americans. Foy Valentine and the CLC wanted to put an end to that practice.
During the 1964 annual meeting in Atlantic City, the Christian Life Commission put forward a resolution that recommended that the SBC approve an open door policy for churches, regardless of race, and pledge to support laws designed to guarantee the legal rights of African Americans. The resolution also urged Southern Baptist to “give themselves to the decisive defeat of racism.” The resolution was defeated in a close vote. In response, a 90 year old retired pastor put forward a resolution, sent to committee, that called forced integration of schools unbiblical and only got more racist after that. At that same meeting the SBC refused to be part of a joint committee of various national baptist groups, in part because of their unwillingness to join hands with black churches.
That years outgoing President K Owen White said that the SBC had made strides in race relations, but that baptist ecclesiology did not allow the SBC to institute reform on it’s churches.
“We are making progress–good progress–but by the very nature of our democratic, New Testament way of life we shall do more by proceeding prayerfully, lovingly, and courageously upon the local level than by making great, sweeping pronouncements.” (5/20/64 BP)
In 1965 the Home Mission Board and the Christian Life Commission sponsored “Race Relations Sunday” across the SBC. Baptist Press reported that “Some said “Praise the Lord” but others regarded it as evil when the Southern Baptist Convention observed its first Race Relations Sunday,” showing that there was still great tension among churches over the issue. (2/24/65 BP)
Later in 1965, Baptist Press reported that
Thirteen of the 29 state conventions affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention either adopted resolutions on race relations, accepted African American churches into the convention fellowship, or commended the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission for its leadership in the area of race relations (11/24/65) BP
At the Sunday School Board in Nashville, Executive Secretary-Treasurer James Sullivan worked hard to bring about racial equality. In 1953 Sullivan integrated the cafeteria at the SSB making it the first integrated company cafeteria in Nashville. In 1967 the SSB helped organize a group of businesses to promote job equality for women and minorities. In that article from BP Sullivan stated that “Since 1953 the board has made no distinction in its salary structure between men and women, Caucasian and non-Caucasian. Fringe benefits and other such matters have been the same. Employees are paid by job description regardless of sex or ethnic background.” (10/17/67 BP)
Through the years the SBC passed various resolutions against individual and systemic forms of racism and urging members to follow the teachings of Christ regarding the value of all mankind.
The 1978 “Resolution on Racism” noted that racism existed “in both individuals and the structure of society” (emphasis added) and that “racism continues to deprive minority persons of practical means of advancement.”
In 1989 in Las Vegas the “Resolution on Racism” urged “That our agencies and institutions seek diligently to bring about greater racial and ethnic representation at every level of Southern Baptist institutional life.” http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/897/resolution-on-racism
Among these resolutions, the 1995 “Resolution On Racial Reconciliation On The 150th Anniversary Of The Southern Baptist Convention” stands out the most. In it the SBC apologized for it’s role in perpetuating slavery in the past, and opposition to secure civil rights for all. This resolution was a landmark decision in the SBC, but was preceded by other calls for racial healing. In 1993, Southern Baptist spokesman Richard Land, director of the Christian Life Commission, called for white Christians to initiate racial reconciliation. (4/29/93 BP)
The SBC has continued to speak for racial reconciliation. In 1996 they spoke against the recent rash of arson at African American churches. In 2009 they voiced joy at “our nation’s pride in our continuing progress toward racial reconciliation signaled by the election of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America.” In 2007 they spoke against the Dredd Scott decision on it’s 150th Anniversary, in 2015 they urged SBC churches to “increase racial and ethnic diversity in church staff roles, leadership positions, and church membership.“ Most recently, they passed resolutions against the use of the Confederate flag in 2016 and against the Alt-Right in 2017.
The recent calls for racial reconciliation are only the latest in a long line of voices within the SBC calling for repentance for the past, and positive steps for the future. Those who spoke up in the past did so at great risk. Sadly, those who speak up today face some of the same obstacles. The SBC has not always made the right decisions regarding race and slavery, and has apologized for those decisions. But as Mohler, points out, “repentance is not enough” in our day and age. We must seek to remove every strain and thought of racial superiority in the SBC. Racism still exists in America and it is our duty as citizens of another kingdom to speak against it. The history of racial reconciliation shows that while the SBC has a tainted past, there is also have a long line of leaders who have pointed us towards the gospel and towards reconciliation.