When the Past Meets the Present

By William Dwight McKissic, Sr.

 “Sitting in Broadus Chapel waiting for my Christian Preaching Class to begin. Oddly enough the man who this chapel is named after would have likely observed me as an individual that he just had to deal with or even in his own words, ‘one who belongs to a very low grade of humanity.’ As I’ve walked across the campus today, I realize that an unfortunate reality is that the attitude and heart of John A. Broadus still exists. Nevertheless, I know who I am. I know what I am. I know who I belong to. I know what I’ve been called to do and I’m thankful to be learning under the teaching of Dr. York.” (Deryk Hayes)

The reason I am so passionate about addressing the topic slaveholders’ names being prominently embedded in the life of Southern Seminary, can be illustrated by this Facebook Post of a current SBTS student, Deryk Hayes, having to reckon with the words of John A. Broadus, the namesake of Broadus Chapel, speaking of his assessment of African descendants: “one who belongs to every low grade of humanity.”

The past and the present shook hands as Deryk Hayes began his seminary journey at SBTS. Those in the undergraduate school at SBTS, Boyce College, must wrestle and reckon with an equally racist posture of their namesake, Dr. James P. Boyce. No student of any race should have to begin the first day of class having to process an unwelcoming posture, advocated by prominent historical personalities in the school’s history.

The late Dr. T. Vaughn Walker was a well-known, highly respected preacher, professor, and pastor who, if I am not mistaken, was the first Black tenured professor in SBC seminary history. He predates Al Mohler at SBTS. My congregation recently donated $5000 to a scholarship fund in honor of Dr. Walker, that we are now requesting be given to Deryk Hayes.

My friend, Dr. Tom Nettles, recently responded to my letter to Dr. Al Mohler, wherein I requested the name of Dr. James P. Boyce no longer be given the place of honor it has been given at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He specifically called me to task by arguing that the removal of the name of Boyce would require the removal of the school’s commitment to engage in theological education at the undergraduate level and at the doctoral level. Moreover, he implied that to deny Boyce the place of a hero at Southern Seminary would cast into doubt the need for the school’s Abstract of Principles, and for the truths it upholds, such as biblical hermeneutics and Baptist polity.

While I have not responded to Dr. Nettles at length before now, please allow me the privilege of addressing certain questions about Boyce and the racist slave legacy which hinders the future prosperity of our Louisville seminary. I will not defend my previous arguments, since there is nothing within Dr. Nettles’ presentation which undermines the fundamentals of what I previously said. (I do appreciate Dr. Nettles affirming that we should seek freedom if possible, according to 1 Corinthians 7:21. I hope he will one day see that the whole message of the Bible is for human freedom, in body and soul.) Here, I only want to engage with Dr. Nettles about Boyce in particular. Dr. Nettles has written a large biography full of appreciation for Boyce, among other books and articles detailing his professional passion for the early Southern Baptists.

Please remember I am fully supportive of the educational mission of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as it has been authorized by our Southern Baptist Convention of churches. I am merely arguing for the removal from their current place of honor the names of Boyce and others who bought, sold, or continued to hold kidnapped human beings precisely. I am arguing for this so that Southern’s mission can be maintained with integrity. As long as our seminary makes heroes of those who were “menstealers,” she elevates those who taught “contrary to the sound teaching” (1 Timothy 1:10).

Southern Seminary wants to be “trusted for truth,” but if it continues to elevate Boyce, it contradicts the truth given to the Apostle Paul, which he said was “committed to my trust” (1 Timothy 1:12). I want to help Southern Seminary be trusted fully among those who love God and believe his inerrant Word but who do not, like Nettles, see Boyce as a hero. Many of us see him as a problematic person with a checkered legacy, who does not deserve the status of hero that he has been given.

Second, I disagree with Nettles’ contention that to remove these names somehow undermines the educational mission and theological integrity of the seminary. He argued in flowery language that maintaining respect for persons like Boyce is necessary for maintaining respect for the principles of the seminary. He said Boyce and other slaveholders constructed, or even are “immovable pillars, made in denominational identity and theological perpetuity in the establishing of the institution itself.” Nettles seems to believe that persons and principles are so bound together that if you disagree with a person then you must reject everything he said. I certainly do not believe this. As we preachers used to say, “God can make straight licks with crooked sticks.” But the sticks must still be seen as crooked.

Nettles’ way of thoroughly integrating truths with persons, making the truth itself dependent upon the messenger of truth, is what encourages the “cancel culture” he says he dislikes. Nettles’ method feeds into “cancel culture” because it encourages “hero-worship” toward fallible men. One of us exalts Boyce as a hero; the other reminds us of his moral failure. Dr. Jonathan Arnold, one of Nettles’ own former colleagues at Southern Seminary, says in a recent podcast we must be careful to avoid the opposite errors of “hero-worship” and “cancel culture.” I agree. Let’s remove the hero-worship and, in this way, avoid the cancel culture. Let’s keep Boyce in our studies. But let’s not exalt him as a hero. Let’s treat him as a real person with real faults who gloriously confessed Jesus as Lord but then went on to say some true things and some false things.

Third, let’s talk about Boyce for a moment. Perhaps Nettles wants us to treat Boyce as if he actually repented of his support of slavery. Nettles cites one letter, written immediately before the Civil War, in a number of different places. In that letter, Boyce said, “I believe I see in all this the end of slavery. I believe we are cutting its throat, curtailing its domain.” Boyce then conceded, “Yet I bow to what God will do. I feel that our sins as to this institution have cursed us.” Such a concession almost sounds like repentance for the institution of race-based chattel slavery itself. But this most certainly is not repentance. For, in the sentence between his prophecy of slavery’s demise and his concession to divine providence, he states unequivocally, “And I have been, and am, an ultra pro-slavery man.” The letter itself was written in defense of secession from the United States and for the establishment of the Confederacy.

What is going on with Boyce? Why did he say these things? John Lee Eighmy, a highly respected historian who taught at Oklahoma Baptist University disclosed in his book, Churches in Cultural Captivity: A History of the Social Attitudes of Southern Baptists, that such sentiments were part of the southern apology for white supremacy and slavery. Southern Baptist slaveowners developed a strategy for supporting slavery, by expounding first, “on the fanaticism of abolitionism,” second, “the scriptural support of slavery,” and third, “the need for humane treatment and religious instruction of slaves.” Boyce wasn’t arguing against slavery but against inhumane practices within slavery, all while failing to recognize his racist chattel slavery is not biblical and not humane.

Eighmy also says the Southern Baptist slavery apologists argued for the institution as a means of reaching the heathen: “justification of slavery ultimately rested on the opportunity the system provided for the African’s salvation from heathenism.” Nettles himself buys into this same argument for the institution of race-based chattel slavery. In Teaching Truths, Training Hearts, Nettles writes, “Dagg’s vision of the evangelistic advantages of the providence of slavery is not wholly indefensible.” I appreciate the founders’ concern for the souls of my ancestors, but there was a better way to bring them the gospel than by kidnapping them, chaining them, abusing them, selling them, buying them, and holding them as property. Evangelism is very, very important, but the human beings we evangelize are important, too. The founders could have followed Jesus’ Great Commission by “going” to my ancestors with the biblical message of freedom rather than by forcing them to come in chains to the “masters” who bought them like things.

Whatever Boyce’s daughter said about his treatment of his own slaves, before or after the war, I am not aware that Boyce ever actually repented of his own actions and support for an institution established for the stealing of precious human beings made in the image of God. Conceding to providential judgment is not the same thing as repenting of “man-stealing.” This is why, with all due respect to Dr. Nettles, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary should bring down their names from the place of heroes so that we can remember that they were but men. Southern’s first president was a man, who could be saved by grace through faith in the abused Son of God, just like any of us can be. But Boyce was also an “ultra pro-slavery man” and not a hero. Jesus Christ, who never owned a man but bought us freedom with his own blood, is our true hero. 

NOTE: Due to the demands of two seminary classes, three outside speaking engagements, and regular pastoral responsibilities, my time for commenting and responding to comments, will be very limited.