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The Sins of Our Fathers

Lenny was absolutely convinced there was some ontological difference between humans with pale pigmentation and those with dark.

Published on:
October 23, 2019
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6 min.
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N****** aren’t like us,” my dad, Lenny, said. “If you have to work with them, that’s fine. Just be sure that when the whistle blows, you go your separate ways.” Lenny was a hard worker, a union man who worked at a factory for as long as I can remember. He also worked hard to make sure I understood that the races shouldn’t mix—work being the only exception—but I went to school with the daughter of one of my dad’s coworkers. She was one of only three black kids in my elementary school, and one of only three black people I would know for the first decade of my life. We became friends, and that friendship with Cherie was the first crack in the racism my dad worked so hard to instill in me.

Lenny was far from being a Christian. He refused to go to church on moral grounds. But his view of the world wasn’t all that different from the view of Southern Baptist leaders just a few generations past.

I spent my early years in the only integrated Southern Baptist church in my hometown. The pastor sometimes told stories from the pulpit about the rebukes he endured from area pastors and the occasional death threat for “allowing” black people in the congregation. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that my dad and these Christian people in my community shared a somewhat common heritage, or at least an ideology birthed by the same midwife. 

Lenny grew up on an impoverished farm in rural Oklahoma. For him, a poor white man from a no-name family in a no-name state, black people were his only recourse to being better in his own eyes. Lenny was able to convince himself—despite his objectively low standing in society—that he wasn’t the worst and his family wasn’t the worst. After all, they weren’t like “those” people, the others, who worked land not theirs and attended a different school and weren’t even good enough to urinate in the same stall as him. “At least I’m not a n******.”

Lenny was far from being a Christian. He refused to go to church on moral grounds. But his view of the world wasn’t all that different from the view of Southern Baptist leaders just a few generations past. They likewise thought black people weren’t like us. And they worked hard to ensure that the races were kept separate. In times when the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) should have been leading the charge to recognize the image of God in all humans, we were breaking faith with northern Baptist because we wanted to own slaves, and later during the Civil Rights Movement we lagged far behind in supporting our brothers and sisters of color. 

This is our original sin.

The Cooperative Program is the SBC’s distinguishing feature. It’s basically a giant pot into which SBC churches pitch a certain percentage of their annual tithes and offerings. The money is used to fund ministries foreign and domestic. This cooperation in funding mission work is ostensibly the reason for the founding of the SBC. But there’s a darker history that I didn’t learn about until I was in college, a history that explains the denigration my childhood pastor received when he welcomed African Americans into the congregation. The early Southern Baptists separated from northern Baptists over “honor, self-respect, and efficiency in cooperative missionary operations.”[1] But it wasn’t really about cooperation in missions or taking the gospel to the nations, though that certainly was a part. The dividing issue was slavery, and white Baptists in the southern United States “vindicated their separation from northern Baptists on the premise that slaveholding was morally legitimate.”[2] Baptists in the south, consistent with their cultural climate—and particularly their economic interests—by and large supported slavery, and therefore they formed a convention that would likewise support slavery. To put it plainly: a group of white, professing Christians broke fellowship with other Christians because they wanted to crush underfoot other human beings and derive economic benefit from them. This is our original sin.

Early Southern Baptists mounted now-familiar arguments to support their stance on slavery. A particularly popular view was that the curse of Ham indicated that God intended people of African descent to be enslaved for all time. Basil Manly, Jr., one of Southern Seminary’s four founders, stated that “Efforts have been made at different periods to civilize [Africans and people of African descent],” but these efforts had all failed, because “we cannot alter . . . the providence of God.”[3] The argument goes like this:

  1. God is sovereign.
  2. God declared, through Noah, regarding Canaan (Ham’s father), “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
  3. African people have “in all times, in all countries” been enslaved.[4]
  4. Therefore, African people are the descendants of Ham, through Canaan.
  5. Therefore,
    a. slavery of African Americans is God’s providential will, and
    b. working against that providential will would be inane and       sinful.

Thus white southern Baptists used the Bible to justify the enslavement of people made in God’s very own image. Other arguments were less straightforwardly tied to the biblical text, citing instead the societal good that slavery brings. For example, Patrick Mell, the SBC president and a trustee at Southern Seminary during and after the Civil War stated that slavery is “essential to the existence of civil society” and “advantageous both to the white and the colored race.”[5] Iveson L. Brooks, an early trustee at Southern seminary, argued, “Slavery, especially Negro Slavery, is an institution of heaven and intended for the mutual benefit of master and slave, as proved by the Bible and exemplified in the condition of the Society and the prosperity of the Southern States.”[6]

To put it plainly: a group of white, professing Christians broke fellowship with other Christians because they wanted to crush underfoot other human beings and derive economic benefit from them. This is our original sin.

Most troubling, early Southern Baptists had no gumption about preaching to slaves. For these Southern Baptists, slaves were person enough to be liberated from sin and ultimate death, but they were not person enough to liberated from the literal bondage their white slave masters held them in. This concern for the souls of enslaved African Americans in some ways parallels current anti-social justice sentiments, in which “just preach the gospel” has become shorthand for denying the this-life impact of sin on humans. Just as early Southern Baptists tried to wash their bloody hands with the waters of baptism, so many evangelicals today run the risk of neglecting justice and righteousness while patting ourselves on the back for saving souls.

Lenny was absolutely convinced there was some ontological difference between humans with pale pigmentation and those with dark. It was his lifeline to the hope that he wasn’t actually just a poor, no-count farm boy from the middle of Oklahoma. This is the ideology he tried to pass on to me, his youngest son. I don’t think early Southern Baptists would formulate their view of African Americans in the same crude terms my dad used, but they would ultimately agree with him nonetheless. And that is at least part of the heritage they’ve passed on to Southern Baptists in the twenty-first century. 

Hunting for Holdovers from Our Heritage

So where do we go from here? I don’t think it will do simply to throw out all that Southern Baptist founders said and did. We can’t whitewash our history that way. And we can’t whitewash it the other way either, as if they were simply men of their times. After all, they deliberately broke fellowship with abolitionists because they didn’t want to rub shoulders with women and men who told them the truth about enslaving fellow image bearers. 

Once we can identify those tumors of heteropraxy and heterodoxy, we need to begin the surgical process of cutting out the cancer.

Perhaps the best way forward is first to acknowledge the great harm done in the name of the Bible and God’s sovereignty, which Southern Baptists have done in the form of passing resolutions at various annual conventions and which Southern Seminary has done in publishing its report on the role slavery played in that institution. 

Second, though, we need to carefully examine both our current theological systems for any holdovers from our heritage as slaveholders. Where are we denying God’s image in all humans? Where are we using the Bible for our own economic gains? Where are we elevating institutions or theological systems or power over human beings created in God’s image? 

Third, once we can identify those tumors of heteropraxy and heterodoxy, we need to begin the surgical process of cutting out the cancer. And finally, that surgery must be done in spaces created alongside image bearers from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. If we are going to effect any real change in how we view all human beings, it has to happen apart from an all-white space or, for that matter, an all-male space. After all it was Cherie, the daughter of my dad’s African American coworker, who made it possible for me to take off the white-colored glasses I’d gotten from my dad.

Russell Meek
Russell L. Meek (PhD, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a writer, editor, and lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew at Ohio Theological Institute. When he isn’t working, you’ll find him with his (much) better half, Brittany, and their three sons. You can follow him on Twitter at @russ_meek.

[1] The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, “Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary,” 2018, 9, https://sbts-wordpress-uploads.s3.amazonaws.com/sbts/uploads/2018/12/Racism-and-the-Legacy-of-Slavery-Report-v4.pdf.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 13–14.

[4] Ibid., 13.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] Ibid.

Cover image by Annie Spratt.

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