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Black Southern Baptists urge removal of names of slaveholders from seminary

Black Southern Baptists urge removal of names of slaveholders from seminary

In this undated file photo, the Rev. Dwight McKissic of Arlington speaks in chapel at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary . | (Photo: SWBTS / Margie Dolch, File)

Prominent black Southern Baptist pastor Dwight McKissic and others are calling for the removal of the names of former slaveholders from buildings at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Just registered with me, that the college at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky, Dr Al Mohler, President, is named after a slave master, and a man who’d spoken with great disregard for people of African dissent. Integrity demands that SBTS change the name,” McKissic, who leads Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, wrote in a tweet on Juneteeth when many people generally celebrate the anniversary of the day the last group of slaves in the United States were told of their freedom on June 19, 1865.

McKissic’s initial call to rename Boyce College, the private college located at SBTS, comes amid a general cry from activists across the country for the removal of statues of slaveholders from public spaces as well as their names from buildings.

Boyce College, according to the school’s website, derives its name from James P. Boyce, founder and first president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is remembered as a Southern Baptist statesman, who sought to innovate the world of theological education by making it more convictional, rigorous, and accessible.

In the Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, it was noted that the seminary’s founding faculty — Boyce, John A. Broadus, Basil Manly Jr., and William Williams — all owned slaves. Together, they owned more than 50 persons and invested capital in slaves who could earn for their owners an annual cash return. The seminary’s early faculty and trustees also defended the righteousness of slaveholding.

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Current SBTS President Albert Mohler previously noted in June 2015 that he had no intention to remove the names of any of the founders from the school’s buildings.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler Jr. gives a speech at the Centennial Institute's Western Conservative Summit, held at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, Colorado, on July 12-13, 2019. | YouTube/Centennial Institute

“I intend to keep those names on our buildings and to stand without apology with the founders and their affirmation of Baptist orthodoxy. But those names on our buildings and college and professorial chairs and endowed scholarships do not represent unmixed pride. They also represent the burden of history and the urgency of repentance. We the living cannot repent on behalf of those who are dead, but we can repent for the legacy that we would otherwise perpetuate and extend by silence,” Mohler said.

McKissic’s Juneteenth call on Twitter quickly drew the attention of scholar James White, director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, in Phoenix, Arizona, who has been branded by some critics as racist.

“Dwight, a quick question: Is the college named Boyce because of his theological work, or his stance on slavery? Oh, and, since he died in 1888, isn't he a perfect saint today? Did he not possess the imputed righteousness of Christ?” White asked.

“It doesn’t matter. You can’t with a clear conscience endorse, honor & celebrate, one with such callous disregard for the second commandment, of which Boyce was a passionate violator/defender. You can’t separate his theology from his practicology. Creation is regurtating racism,” McKissic shot back.

White insisted that Boyce was honored for his contribution to the seminary and theology and not for slavery.

“You cannot compartmentalize between his theology & lifestyle. His lifestyle represented his theology related to anthropology. I leave judgement on his eternal destiny to God. It’s not within my power to pronounce ‘perfection’ on him. The slaves wouldn’t have labeled him perfect,” McKissic argued.

Noah Wright, a former Boyce student, said he and others had previously started a petition to change the name of the college but they were denied.

“We started a petition to change the name after a brave Baptist History professor (who’s no longer there) showed us some of Boyce’s letters where he described himself as ‘ultra-pro slavery.’ We were denied,” Wright wrote.

Celucien Joseph, English professor at Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, Florida, noted: “Not only the College, Southern Seminary's library is also named after James Boyce. It's called ‘James P. Boyce Centennial Library.’ Also, some of the ‘Halls’ at the Seminary are named after some of the most racists and segregationists in the SBC.”

In a blog post on Saturday, Joseph highlighted several reasons why be believes the names of the SBTS founders should be removed from the institution’s buildings. The “most pressing,” he said, relates to the message the seminary is sending to its increasingly diverse community.

“The most pressing cause I am requesting the removal of the names of the four founders from Southern seminary’s halls, library, undergraduate college, chapel, and elsewhere on campus is that they do not belong to today’s multiethnic, multiracial, and multicultural Southern Baptist Convention and SBTS,” Joseph wrote.

“The names of these four gentlemen bring too much pain and suffering to African Americans, Black Christians, SBTS Black seminarians and alumni, and the numerous African American and ethnic churches affiliated with the SBC. Also, their names on the Seminary’s halls, library, chapel, and undergraduate college remind us of the long-held tradition of suppressing the freedoms and rights of Blacks and people of color in this country and in the Convention, concurrently. To continue to honor these figures at Southern Seminary and the SBC is to express racial insensibility and to undermine the dignity and humanity of Blacks and African American people, and people of color.” 

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