“The Southern Baptist Convention was begun over missions!”“Delegates gathered in 1845 in Augusta, Georgia to organize around missions!”
I have heard this my whole life. You have too. It is a partial truth that continues to be uttered over and over again, usually by seminary leaders seeking to rally more Cooperative Program giving. It is something that we need to stop saying.
We all know that it isn’t really true. Not really – not in the way it sounds. Yes, missions was technically the reason that the SBC was started. But, it was over a conflict with the Triennial Convention who refused to appoint slaveholders as missionaries that the SBC was begun. This fact is usually mentioned in our Baptist history classes in seminary as something of an aside, and then we move on to the glorious missions legacy of the SBC. And, yes, there are good things – great things about it. But, getting the initial story wrong over and over and over again – even when we know the real story (and everyone else knows the real story, too) is kind of like Brian Williams mis-remembering which helicopter he was on in 2003.
It isn’t even a useful story. Do SBC leaders really think that getting us to believe that the SBC started over missions will motivate us today to give our lives to missions? Southern Baptists bled, fought, and died over a lot of things in the mid 19th century. I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to give my life to those things.
Recently, Jason Keith Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, gave an address where he stated that SBC seminaries were in a golden age of theological education. Fair enough. But, it was this statement that caught my eye:
Since the SBC’s founding in 1845, the convention’s primary—and most unifying—effort has been collaborative missionary efforts. That was our raison d’etre in 1845, and it remains so today.
I like Dr. Allen. I met him once at the Executive Committee trustee meeting in Nashville last September. He seemed nice, and by all accounts is doing a great job at MBTS. But, why promote that missions was the reason for existence of the SBC in 1845? I am sure that he did so unthinkingly as that is what we have said for 170 years. And, sure, there were problems with Triennial Convention related to organization, associations, missionary appointments, etc. I know that story. But, without slavery and sectional divisions over slavery, would those problems have arisen to the point of division? Methodists and Presbyterians also split from their Northern brethren in 1844-45 over sectional differences related to slavery. John C. Calhoun, the Senator from South Carolina, in the floor debate for the Missouri Compromise in 1850, referred to the breakup of the Evangelical denominations over the issue of slavery and said that their division prophesied the division of the nation if we could not work the problems out. He was right.
Not only did Southern Baptists form over the issue of slavery, but that formation helped lead to the division of the country with the resulting death of over 600,000 people and the devastation of the South. Saying that the SBC began over missions places the division into a contextual vacuum that did not exist. If it was a big enough deal for Calhoun to mention during the Senate floor debate on the Missouri Compromise 5 years later, then it definitely did not happen in some type of missional vacuum. We wanted to appoint slaveholders to the mission field. Northern Baptists thought that was ludicrous and would not appoint them, so we pulled up stakes and left their fellowship. Yes, I know the arguments that will be trotted out against what I said. I have read them. They are unconvincing to me.
Why does this matter? Because telling the partial story removes the context of why we split. It makes us seem as though we were people led by Scripture, when in reality, we were led more by culture and cultural conformity that caused us to side with the oppression of millions. It overlooks the fact that many of the SBC founders were slave owners or pastored churches who had slave owners in them and they were motivated to protect their position. It ignores the fact that by 1849, an estimated half of the 400,000 Southern Baptists were black, meaning that half of those in our churches in the first five years of our founding were slaves and that a good portion of the other half were slave owners (Second Annual Report, Proceedings of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1849).
In 1849, there was an essay contest among Alabama Baptist pastors for the best defense of slavery from the Bible. The prize was $200. I have an original copy in my office. The contest was called “Duties of Christian Masters to their Servants.” $200 was A LOT of money in 1849. According to inflation calculators, it would be $6,060 in today’s money. The book of essays was printed in Charleston by the Southern Baptist Publication Society in 1850. For those critical of Lifeway, it seems that its predecessor published questionable material a very long time ago. This calls into question the incessant call that we hear from many for a “return” to the days when the SBC was biblical and held to the pristine theology of our Founders.
Scholars are finally beginning to address this issue from within the traditions of white evangelicalism. Over the past week, Justin Taylor has been running a series on Southern Evangelicals, Jim Crow, and Racism. He has been interviewing scholars from different streams of Southern Evangelicalism about our difficult history. It has been an excellent series and I highly recommend it.
When I was researching my book, When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus (NewSouth, 2014) from 2008-2013, it was difficult to find anyone talking about this history from within the tradition of white Southern Evangelicalism. There were a few books written years ago in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, but very little from within Southern Evangelicalism. Most of what was written was by those that SBC leaders would have considered moderates. When I asked SBC leaders and theologians about our painful history during my research, there was little interest in discussing it. Most thought that it was something that was in the past that we dealt with in 1995 with our apology. But, commentary was scant with little written to tease out what it meant. In my research, I had to piece together a few papers and journal essays from SBC leaders to get any kind of current perspective beyond, “we aren’t like that anymore – let’s move on.” The rest of the research had to come from secular historical writings or from those considered moderates. Conservative white Southern Evangelicals have not told our own story very well. My guess is because it does not seem to paint a pretty picture. However, the answer to how we should position our churches and Christian witness in America in 2015 and beyond can be found from exploring the past and giving witness to the Jesus who redeems. Our witness is not one of our getting it right, but of the Jesus who is right even when we are wrong. That is a humbling story to tell, though.
Russell Moore, to his credit, wrote about this in 2004 in an essay that is now offline entitled “Crucifying Jim Crow.” You can’t find it now, but it was pretty good. I am very excited that he is leading the ERLC to host a Leadership Summit on the Gospel and Racial Reconciliation (March 26-27, 2015). My prayer is that this summit will reseed our imaginations with how the gospel and the Cross makes people from different backgrounds into one new man that finds their identity in and gives witness to Christ.
This issue is moving to the forefront of our national discussion more and more. With President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast and the reaction to it, the movie Selma, the events surrounding Ferguson, MO and police actions, a study released just yesterday showing that lynchings in the South were far more prevalent than we previously believed (check Rod Dreher’s piece on this from yesterday: When ISIS Ran the American South), and America about to enter full-fledged war with ISIS over their atrocities, Southern Baptists have to get our history right. All of this history happened with Southern Baptist churches everywhere all over the South. We had cultural ascendency then and we did little to rectify the situation in opposition to racism in the culture. America is talking about this history now. Us saying that we should just “move on” and “let it go” solves nothing. Actually, it makes things worse. We should be the most humble people on the planet and all claims to triumphalism should be laid at the foot of the Cross where we live daily in thanks for the grace of God. People know that we were the denomination that started over slavery. We should stop saying otherwise.
The good news is that all of this discussion provides us with an opportunity in a nation that increasingly believes us to be irrelevant. We get to speak to the grace of God and the forgiveness that flows from the Cross. We get to identify with the Biblical story of the people of God confessing their past sins and being restored by God’s grace. We get to identify with the Cross of Christ, where all oppression ceases and where life flows out of death. The WHOLE Bible is full of stories of redemption and God rectifying the past idolatries and sins of Israel. This is a great moment to point to Jesus as the reforming Person who can change anyone’s heart and can even change religious organizations that get His teachings wrong. How do other religions reform? How do other groups? We keep reforming because Jesus stands towering over us as the Crucified King and the Suffering Servant. As white Christians, we get to have new and fresh opportunities for real reconciliation with African American Christians as the nation wonders, “Where were white Evangelical Christians during the times of Selma and Jim Crow and Slavery?” Because, at the end of the day, we are not witnessing to ourselves or our wondrous history. Or, we aren’t supposed to. We are to witness to Jesus Christ, our Savior, who saves us in and out of our history and our present and our future and who makes all things new. If Southern Baptists are going to tell any story, let it be the story that “I once was lost, but now am found. I was blind but now I see.”
Next week, as far as I know, the SBC Executive Committee will release a report from its trustee meeting on the progress made by Southern Baptists on racial diversity in the 20 years since the apology. Look for it. It will be national news. A report card is coming. We have made great progress in some areas and very little progress in other areas. But, we get to talk about what Jesus really says about reconciliation and peace in a world tearing itself apart at the seams. The SBC might not have actually gotten started over missions, but we have a chance to witness to Christ in pretty dramatic ways in a world still broken over racial and ethnic division.
Let’s stop saying that we started over missions. Let’s be honest about our beginnings and make every effort to humbly lead in bringing healing to our communities and our nation in the area of racial division by lowering ourselves and taking the nature of a servant as the Cross works on us. Let’s do this in our hearts and in our local churches and allow the gospel to work real humility in us as we seek to serve our communities in sacrificial ways. Let’s tell a better story than the one we have told in the past.