Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

The Trials of Robert Ryland

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

The Trials of Robert Ryland

Article excerpt

Fred Anderson and his colleagues have done a remarkable job envisioning, and then fulfilling that vision, of this conference.

I'm proud that the University is able to collaborate with our longtime friends and allies in the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and at Virginia Union. Our histories ate intertwined, and this is a fitting way for us to remember and honor our shared legacies. I hope all of you will find opportunities to attend the other terrific programs planned for this event.

I am flattered that Fred trusted me to give this address, but I struggled, frankly, about the best way to live up to this opportunity. It finally came to me when I realized that over the last four years, during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and Emancipation, I have found myself speaking before religious organizations more than any other groups. I have visited with Baptist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches, rural and urban, eager to consider their roles in slavery, war, and segregation, and I have visited Beth Ahabah as well as the Islamic Cultural Center.

As I have spoken at many other places over the last four years, I have found religious congregations to be especially honest with themselves and especially thoughtful about the meanings of the history whose consequences we live with every day. Much of the leadership of our community's struggles with that history, for the last twenty years, has been led by people from many religious faiths and religious communities, from which they have drawn the strength to confront what others would prefer to avoid. Clearly, faith, freedom, and forgiveness are in fact deeply related.

This evening I want to puzzle with you about something appropriate to this occasion, something that I think goes to the heart of what we are talking about over the next two days. And that is the story of a predecessor of mine in the presidency of the University of Richmond, Robert Ryland.

Robert Ryland tried to behave in a generous Christian way with the African-American people among whom he lived all his life even as he presided over what he recognized was a compromised form of the church. He faced skepticism and criticism from all sides, and experienced considerable doubt, but he pressed on.

We are not exactly sure what to do with such a person. To live as a white person in the slave South was to be, unavoidably, implicated in slavery, to benefit from slavery. And Ryland himself owned at least seven slaves. To give all you had to the Confederacy was to be implicated in its cause of creating an autonomous slaveholding nation, one self-consciously and proudly Christian, as profoundly contradictory as that seems to us. And Ryland did that, too.

But Ryland did more than those things; he worked alongside his black fellow Baptists, trying to sustain the marrow of his faith and of theirs even as he paid Caesar what Caesar demanded.

His story holds up a mirror to our own time and to ourselves. How will we, whatever our background and whatever our skin color, be judged by those who follow us? Are we, too, complicit in the great and growing inequality and injustice all around us? Are we, too, giving away too much by aligning ourselves with the institutions and values of our own time and place?

I am not profound on these issues. I am neither a theologian nor a philosopher. I tell stories. Sometimes, though, even stories can help us see ourselves more clearly. For the stories to be useful, they need to refrain from too quickly judging the people of the past. Judging them is easy, of course, because they are dead and cannot fight back. For that same reason, winning an argument with them is empty. Rather, it is better to try to understand why they did the things they did. The decisions they should have made seem obvious to us in retrospect and yet they, at least as human and perhaps as humane as we are, did not.

Far more than most people, Rev. …

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