A slogan one sometimes sees in Dixie goes: “American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God.” The Southern Baptist Convention, it would appear, no longer agrees with this sentiment, as many of its leaders are dropping the “Southern” part of their name, calling it a “potentially painful reminder of the convention’s historic role in support of slavery,” according to a September 15 Washington Post article. Let this be a warning to the American gas and electric utility holding corporation, The Southern Company, although I hear “The Company” is already taken.
Of course, there is truth to the claim that the history of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is inextricably tied up in American slavery. In 1845, following decades of debates with their Northern brethren, Baptists in the South split over the issue of slavery, declaring the formation of a new denomination at a meeting in Augusta, Georgia. William Bullein Johnson, speaking at the SBC’s inaugural meeting, declared the denomination’s intention to promote chattel slavery “in a Christian spirit and manner,” and accused anti-slavery Northerners of failing to prove that “slavery is, in all circumstances, sinful.”
Nor were the Baptists necessarily unique in this regard. American Presbyterians divided over this same issue in 1838. So did the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844. In every case, Protestants of the same denominational persuasion, largely defined by geography, failed to resolve their disagreement over the morality of slavery. This leads one to wonder, doesn’t it?
One might first wonder about adhering to a religious organization once wedded to racist principles. Yes, certainly, I presume the vast majority of Southern Baptists today eschew racism, and that one would be hard pressed to identify any SBC members who still believe chattel slavery as it was practiced in the American South was morally acceptable. But still. The SBC was created because its members believed it was licit to enslave black persons, based on its theological leaders claiming that blacks, as cursed “Sons of Ham,” were under divine penalty.
One might also wonder about the theological principles undergirding this peculiar nineteenth-century debate in the first place. As evangelical historian Mark Noll explains in his excellent book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, American Protestants were all reading the same Bible, and even operating in similar, if not identical, interpretive paradigms. They all believed in sola scriptura—that Scripture alone is the infallible, authoritative source of divine revelation. And they all subscribed to perspicuity, also known as clarity, the belief that Scripture is clear enough for any Christian to read and interpret correctly.
And yet they came to diametrically opposed interpretations of how to understand the Bible’s teaching on race and slavery. Abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher believed Scripture to be unequivocal in its condemnation of slavery. James Henley Thornwell, “the South’s most respected minister,” by contrast, told his Presbyterian congregation in Columbia, South Carolina, that slavery was “good and merciful” and a method of organization of labor given by “Providence.” Reverend Henry Van Dyke of Brooklyn’s First Presbyterian Church in turn called Abolitionism evil, “root and branch, flower and leaf, and fruit,” and that it was “nourished by an utter rejection of the Scriptures.”
The supposedly clear Bible alone was simply incapable of resolving these disputes, and thus not only denominations divided, but ultimately the Union itself. In the end, what forced a change of mind among Southern Protestants wasn’t nuanced biblical debate. Rather, it was the Union Army moving through the Confederacy and enforcing Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. So much for the doctrine of clarity! And then it took another century for white Southern Protestants slowly to dispense with the racist theology that segregated their churches, seminaries, and ministries. This is not exactly a theological and ecclesial legacy to be proud of.
I thus have another suggestion for well-meaning Southern Baptists who want to further distance their Christian faith from a racist past. Don’t drop the “Southern.” (As a Southerner, I think I have to say that.) Drop the “Baptist.” Baptists, and all Protestants for that matter, live, worship, and read their Bibles in an individualistic paradigm lacking any unifying principle. All they have is a book—albeit a very Good Book—whose interpretation not everyone agrees with. That’s the valuable lesson to be learned from antebellum theological disagreements over slavery and race.
Contemporary inter-denominational and inter-Protestant debates over faith and morals stem from the same bad principles. The United Methodist Church announced plans this year to separate over irresolvable disagreements relating to sexual morality, including homosexuality and transgenderism. The Episcopal Church in recent years has hemorrhaged “biblically conservative” churches that adhere to historic, orthodox teaching on sexuality. Speaking as a former evangelical seminarian, there will be more of this in the years to come. Trust me.
The Catholic Church, by contrast, has a unifying principle. It’s called the Magisterium. Though, sadly, some Catholics don’t listen to it or obey it, its teachings have binding authority on Church members. It has never given doctrinal approbation for racism or chattel slavery. Indeed, the Catholic Church offered some of the earliest condemnations of slavery in Africa and the New World. Eugene IV’s papal bull Sicut Dudum (1435) condemned the enslavement of the black natives in the Canary Islands. Paul III in Sublimis Deus (1537) censured the enslavement of indigenous peoples in the Americas. While nineteenth-century American Protestants were debating slavery’s biblical warrant, Gregory XVI’s In Supremo (1839) firmly rejected it.
The Southern Baptist faith is a weird animal. In response to my recent article for Catholic World Report criticizing Baptist theology for its question-begging, proof-texting arguments that presume Protestant principles like sola scriptura and perspicuity, one Baptist commenter demanded to know what biblical proof-texts I could cite to substantiate this criticism. I’m not sure that explaining that the knowledge of reality and truth develops before a person can read and interpret a text (like the Bible) and make logical judgments about it would have helped the conversation.
I hope, instead, that recent developments in America’s largest Protestant denomination might provoke some reflection on the part of its members. The denomination once believed blacks to be inferior. It took a war and another hundred years of contemplation and conflict to persuade the SBC otherwise. Dropping “Southern” from their brand remedies that past, but fails to confront the underlying problem. Drop the “Baptist” and come home to Rome.