Why Are Some Christian Institutions So Bad at Remembering Their Racial History?
An examination of one seminary's whitewashed retelling of its own origin story.
I think telling the truth about our racial history is foundational to moving toward repentance and repair today. Will you help me in this effort by becoming a subscriber?
When I began seminary in 2011, the staff gave everyone in the incoming class a copy of a short book detailing the history of the school to commemorate its fortieth anniversary.
Mind you, the anniversary was back in 2006, and five years later they were still handing out free copies, but whatever.
I honestly never did more than flip through a couple of pages when I first received the book. Then it ended up on a shelf for the next five years of grad school. Then it ended up in a box for another six years after we moved.
On a recent Saturday, I was cleaning the closet and I stumbled across the book. I didn’t really want to keep cleaning, so I decided to take a closer look at this examination of the first 40 years of the seminary.
What I read was a shockingly whitewashed history that reminded me how bad some Christian institutions are at remembering the past and why we have to take responsibility for our own historical knowledge.
I went to Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. It is a nondenominational institution, but it has strong ties with southern Presbyterianism. What makes it “southern” Presbyterian is the defense of slavery and, after the Civil War, the ways its leaders clung to the Jim Crow racial hierarchy.
In a section entitled “Southern Presbyterian Decline,” the author, John Muether, a professor of church history and dean of libraries at the school, details the divergence between northern and southern Presbyterians.
To fully understand the rationale for the founding of Reformed Theological Seminary, one needs to go back over 100 years. With the outbreak of the War Between the States in 1861, American Presbyterians divided along the Mason-Dixon line, when Presbyterians in the South formed the Presbyterian Church of Confederate States of America.
If you’re waiting for some mention of slavery or how southern Presbyterians split from their northern counterparts in defense of the “peculiar institution” don’t bother. There is no mention of race, white supremacy, or chattel slavery in the book.
In fact, Muether doesn’t even mention the Civil War. He calls it the “War Between the States.” I don’t know if this was his own decision or that of the editors, but the choice has significant implications.
This term has found various usage since the 19th century, but it was especially championed by southerners who wanted the war to be remembered as a conflict between two equal and sovereign nations rather than a seditious rebellion of the slaveholding class against their own government. (Maybe we should use the term Frederick Douglass used for the Civil War—the “Slaveholders’ Rebellion.”)
Muether goes on to explain why Presbyterians remained divided along regional lines. “In the North, there was a strong impulse toward progressivism—the idea that Presbyterianism must continually evolve to meet the challenges of the modern age.” He mentions the bugaboos of Darwinism and higher biblical criticism as examples of northern progressivism.
By contrast, “In the South, there was a tendency toward the preservation of the past.” The author does not even hint that the past many southern Presbyterians wanted to preserve was one of slaveholding and, later, Jim Crow segregation and exclusion.
Far from repudiating the racist roots of southern Presbyterianism, he uplifts notorious proslavery theologians as exemplars of the tradition.
Southern Presbyterians were steeped in the tradition of old-school giants such as James Thornwell, John Girardeau, [Benjamin Morgan] Palmer, and Robert Lewis Dabney…
These “giants”—especially Thornwell, Palmer, and Dabney—championed white supremacy and believed the rightful place of Black people was in subordination to white men.
I remember sitting in my seminary classes and hearing about these southern Presbyterian theologians with no mention of their support for the Confederacy or their white supremacist views.
They were lauded as adroit bible scholars whose example we should follow. It was the theological equivalent of holding up Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis as models of piety and patriotism.
This section of the book concludes with a description of growing theological differences between northern and southern Presbyterians—essentially doctrinal conservatism vs. modernism and neo-orthodoxy. Surely these were important differences, but what is missing?
As white Christians in the United States often do, their historical examinations often focus on intricate matters of doctrinal difference. There is relatively little analysis of relevant historical figures acted in light of Christian ethics regarding love of neighbor and honoring the image of God.
Reading the histories of many Christian institutions is like reading a systematic theology textbook. There is a heavy emphasis on doctrinal beliefs without corresponding attention given to how the institution and its leaders actually lived out the faith.
This lack of attention to the ethical choices of white Christians is how you get an institutional history that lauds its southern roots without mentioning its support of slavery, racism, and white supremacy.
On the occasion of a southern seminary’s fortieth anniversary, a more helpful book would have been one recounting the many failings of its founders to address issues of racism and inequality(especially in Jackson, Mississippi!).
No one would begrudge a Christian institution thanking God for its longevity and chronicling its own history, but it does not honor God to pretend as if one of the most glaring shortcomings of the institution simply does not exist.
Yet I would not have even known how bad this institutional history was if I had not taken ownership of my own historical knowledge—a task we must all undertake.
As a young seminary student with only passing knowledge of U.S. racial history, I might have missed the bright red flags that this institutional history presents. I might not have known the coded language often used to present a more favorable retelling of events than the facts afford. I might have been blinded by the glare of a whitewashed past.
What is the history of your own institution? Who wrote it? What was their purpose? How candid is it? Have they downplayed issues of racism and injustice or even skipped over them altogether?
Just as no person has a perfect past, neither does any institution. This should not be a reason to avoid historic shortcomings, but to tell the truth about them and commit to positive change.
If we fail to tell the unvarnished truth about racism in any institution, then we consign ourselves to a future that will contain dreadful echoes of the past.