Racist Ghosts in Evangelicalism

Jarvis Williams

The execution of 9 African-Americans at a Wednesday bible study in Charleston, S.C. over the summer sent shockwaves throughout the U.S. Once it became clear that white supremacist thinking was the reason for this terrorist attack, many Americans from different races cried out against white supremacy and its residue.

This outcry was exacerbated when images of the shooter draped in a Confederate Flag circulated on social media. And debate immediately arose over whether the Confederate Flag should continue to fly over the grounds of the state capitol in South Carolina, because of the racial hatred that it represents to many.

I argued in a piece shortly after this terrorist attack against the Immanuel 9 that the Confederate Flag should be taken down from the state capitol, for it reminded many African-Americans and whites in this country of white supremacist terror. The state capitol should have symbols that represent a government for all people and liberty and justice for all people.

In my view, since the Confederate Flag reminds many African-Americans of white terrorism against black people and those who advocated civil rights for all people, it had no place on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol. Thankfully, the flag was eventually taken down.

While South Carolinians and Americans vigorously debated whether the flag should be taken down in South Carolina, another controversial debate was simultaneously occurring about other Confederate icons visible in public spaces throughout the South.

Several Americans from different racial backgrounds called for the removal of all images of the confederacy. They demanded that the government change street names, demolish statues, and change the names on the buildings, erected in honor of white supremacists, on public property and on college, university, and seminary campuses. Critics, however, suggested that these demands were an attempt to erase history.

As an African-American Christian, I completely understand the strong desire of many Americans to remove all Confederate iconography. White supremacy is evil and continues to have enduring, traumatic effects on American culture and evangelical churches. However, as an African-American Southern Baptist scholar with a multi-ethnic heritage teaching New Testament at the flagship Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—a school that was founded in 1859 in part because of slavery—I think there are benefits in letting the names of the racist ghosts from our racist past remain on the endowments of our Southern Baptist and evangelical institutions, and on the top of our Southern Baptist and evangelical buildings for everyone to see.

The world, as well as evangelicals and Southern Baptists, desperately need to be constantly reminded of the dark past of racism in American life, in Southern Baptist life, and in evangelicalism so that we can highlight more clearly the beauty and power of the gospel.

However, a problem that some have with the racist iconography in evangelical and Southern Baptist spaces is that too often we (Southern Baptists in general and evangelicals in particular) tell only part of our miraculous story.

In Southern Baptist life, we praise the Southern Baptist convention’s founders’ commitment to missions, evangelism, and the gospel, but at times we leave out the bit about white supremacy and slavery. We love to talk about the piety and the big God theology of many of our spiritual ancestors such as Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, or James P. Boyce. Yet, we often fail to critique Luther’s antisemitism or Edwards’ and Boyce’s enslavement of black people. As one of my colleagues at Southern Seminary often says, racial progress in evangelicalism and in Southern Baptist life requires historical truth-telling instead of romantic lies.

We as evangelicals in general and Southern Baptists in particular prefer to tell a romantic story about our evangelical ancestors’ faithfulness to God, their piety, and their commitment to the gospel without even mentioning the very important point that many of evangelicalism’s (and Southern Baptists’) theological heroes are tainted with the stain of racism and white supremacy proven by their belief in black inferiority and their support of the enslavement of black bodies.

Romantic lies about evangelicalism frustrate those groups affected the most by the racism of our evangelical ancestors, and often deepen the chasm between minorities and whites in evangelical spaces.

Nevertheless, as a black Southern Baptist New Testament scholar, I do not think we should change the name of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (my school), or remove the racist names either off our buildings or our endowments.
Instead, we should let these racist ghosts remain in their historical places and continue to haunt us. But we should be quick to praise their virtues and correct their racist vices with the gospel as we work, strive, and labor toward gospel reconciliation.

I am reminded weekly of the redemptive power of the gospel in Southern Baptist life because of our racist past as the ghosts of Southern Seminary continue to haunt me (a black professor at Southern Seminary) and our beloved campus. James P. Boyce, the first president of Southern Seminary, loved Jesus but he also believed in black inferiority and owned slaves.

But I have an undergraduate degree from the James P. Boyce College, a Master of Divinity, a Master of Theology, and a Doctorate of Philosophy from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—Boyce’s seminary. To my knowledge, I (an African-American) am the first and only four time graduate of the institution.

In various buildings, I regularly see portraits of some dead, white, and racist Southern Baptists whose images tell the story of both our troubled past and glorious history, as their images whisper (and at times scream in the ears of those who know our Southern Baptist story) throughout the halls and the campus of Southern Seminary, reminding me and others of the redemption that our denomination has received from overt de jure white supremacist thinking.

As I teach many students from different tongues, tribes, peoples, and nations and when I recruit students to our beloved school, I tell them the whole story of our Southern Baptist heritage. As I do so, I honor the virtues of Southern Seminary’s past, talk about the miraculous influence that we presently have throughout the world, but I also correct and rebuke the sins of our racist Southern Baptist ancestors with the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.

Romanticism will not create an environment for reconciliation in evangelical spaces or in Southern Baptist churches and institutions. But good ole fashion truth-telling coupled with a robust biblical and theological understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ and reconciliation will take evangelicals closer to the promised land of reconciliation. This is the kind of truth-telling that allows us to honor our heroes’ virtues, constantly grieve our racist past, confront it and correct it with the gospel, rejoice in our present progress, and take comfort in the future hope of new creation because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

There will be many who will disagree with me, but I think that evangelicals and Southern Baptists should listen to, learn from, and correct certain racist ghosts from our past. The names of white supremacists on evangelical buildings and endowments should remain and serve as a reminder of both how far and from where we’ve come, and remind us of some of the sins from which Jesus has redeemed evangelicals and Southern Baptists as we work for gospel reconciliation.


Photo credit: HelenBushe via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

3 thoughts on “Racist Ghosts in Evangelicalism

  1. Kennon Wigley

    Thank you , Dr Williams. I appreciate your passion for reconciliation.

  2. Matthew Hughes

    What a great article. I agree with it wholeheartedly. We as Southern Baptist and more importantly as Christians need be realistic about our past and learn from it. And as Bro. Leonhart stated that we can look to at these men from our past as examples of how God used them for His glory and the Kingdom despite their sin. And as we move closer to the “promised land of reconciliation” let us always be centered on the Gospel. Thank you Dr. Williams for this article.

  3. William F. Leonhart III

    Great article! I agree with every word. We need not romanticize historical figures in order to learn from them. The Bible does not gloss over the sins of David or anyone else in Bible times. Rather, we look to fallen men, we see how God used them even in their sin, we learn from their sins, and we glorify God for His enduring goodness.

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