Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Southern Baptists Admit Proslavery Origins

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Southern Baptists Admit Proslavery Origins

Article excerpt

A century and a half after its founding in Augusta, Ga., the Southern Baptist Convention appears ready to mark its sesquicentennial with a historic -- and controversial -- admission: The denomination was founded on proslavery sentiments in the turbulent period leading up to the Civil War.

Three separate resolutions will be delivered to the SBC's annual meeting in Atlanta, beginning June 20, that acknowledge that Northern and Southern Baptists split in 1845 because Southerners allowed missionaries to own slaves, a practice Northerners repudiated.

Also at the meeting, Southern Baptist leaders are expected to repent of modern-day racism and ask forgiveness of African-Americans.

"We felt that it is just totally inappropriate for us to come to Atlanta to celebrate our heritage and our past without dealing with this dirty linen in the closet," Richard Land, executive director of the denomination's Christian Life Commission, said of the move to repudiate the SBC's proslavery history.

"If we want to celebrate our past with a clear conscience, we need to deal with the negative aspects of our past in a proactive and a redemptive way," added Land, who helped draft one of the resolutions.

The SBC's efforts reflect a broader trend among religious groups. More and more, denominations are seeking to atone for historical sins, from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America repudiating the anti-Semitism of Lutheranism's martin Luther, to a broad range of churches disavowing the subjugation of American Indians by European explorers.

Luther Copeland, an author who considers Southern Baptists' defense of slavery an "original sin," believes passage of a statement at the 1995 convention would mark the first time the mostly white denomination moved beyond discussions of racism to include slavery.

"Southern Baptists are Southerners -- at least predominantly they are -- and I think the South has been very reluctant to face up to the really profound issues of racism," he said.

Few Southern Baptists continue to support the denomination's ties to slavery. But the Rev. Jere Allen, descendant of a North Carolina slave owner and coauthor of one of the proposed resolutions, said he received a call from a Southern Baptist who expressed pride that his grandfather had owned slaves.

The man told Allen that the SBC's efforts to address slavery were "splitting our church right down the middle."

Others have questioned why the denomination needs to address the slavery issue when it has progressed in race relations.

Despite such sentiments, Allen, executive director of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, thinks a version of a statement concerning slavery will pass. …

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