As Monuments Come Tumbling Down

As Monuments Come Tumbling Down

The Black Lives Matter movement has reminded me of some ghosts in the Baptist history closet that need addressing.

Our denominational tradition has some reckoning or at least revisionism to deal with as we come to terms with present realities.

As I have written in the February 2020 edition of Review and Expositor, the Baptist narrative reflects a decidedly white supremacist perspective.

We have been defined as historically a white, English-speaking religious movement that proliferated in North America and by missionary propagation spread to every corner of the world.

Our ideals are solidly located within the English Enlightenment, our theology is post-Reformation Protestant, our ethics reflect an amazing array of positions defined by every independent congregation and numerous associations.

The reality is we are now a racially diverse denomination. Our first racial diversification, the black Baptist traditions, are a major, old and rich part of our story. But one might not know that from reading our published histories.

Baptists are as triumphalist as any other group that emerged from 17th century English nonconformity. Those who still hold tenaciously onto 17th and 18th century confessions and treatises, but even more so.

We are convinced our identity is biblically rooted and evangelical. Our interpretation of the Christian faith is inspired and validated by our demographics.

But sometimes we are at cross-purposes within ourselves.

Our libertarian rhetoric argues in favor of religious liberty, (“vive le” Thomas Helwys and Adoniram Judson!), but we have a long history of tolerating and profiting from oppression and racism.

Consider some embarrassing moments of recent discovery.

The benefactor of our earliest educational enterprise, the Englishman Edward Terrill (1634-1685), has been rediscovered to have made his fortunes in part from sugar plantations in Barbados.

If there had been a statue in Bristol, England, to Terrill, like his neighbor Edward Colston, who was recently toppled, it likely would have been targeted for removal as well.

What does survive is the Edward Terrill Trust, part of the ancient endowment of our oldest Baptist college.

Another recent discovery is the involvement of William Kiffen (1616-1701) in London who assisted in many Calvinistic, later Particular Baptist, projects and was engaged in commodities trading involving slave trafficking.

Yet another example in colonial Rhode Island was the Nicholas Brown family, which actually engaged unsuccessfully in the slave trade with Africa in the 1730s and 1750s. Later, the Browns were instrumental in abolishing the trade.

Then there is the American slavery experience.

Here I do not wish to revisit the old pro-slavery arguments of southern and western Baptists.

But the fact remains the argument was based on a superficial interpretation of slavery as it existed in the New Testament. It was extolled as a consistently literal interpretation.

More to the point, Baptist biblical hermeneutics of this kind is an example of white supremacist biblical interpretation.

Theologically speaking, we have a foundational problem in Baptist identity, which needs to be corrected by the learnings of liberation theology and postcolonial biblical interpretations.

One of the leading ghosts we have to contend with is how we have written our narrative.

We have written of the glories of our evangelical and missionary past with little to no recognition of Black engagement and propagation of Baptist principles.

The historiography of Baptists reveals four stages of the recognition of the Black experience.

First came the evangelical experience: mostly separate. Next came a self-help ethics that enabled Black institutions to develop.

Then came the separate but equal rendition. And finally, a few separate narratives of the Black Baptist experience have come forth.

Among the “statues” we should be prepared to replace are the major narratives, up to the present, of our history.

From David Benedict through Thomas Armitage to a contemporary group that includes icons of our craft, we need to go beyond their efforts.

Black Baptist scholarship owns its place of priority among the leading accounts of American and African religious histories and independent social analyses as well.

Why is this important? It is sensitive to the current cry in our streets.

How might we respond?

First of all, as historians, we want to get the facts right. No present work is successful here.

Second, as much as humanly possible, we want to be freed of prejudices. This is an act of humility and confession.

Third, we want to teach reality to the next generations of students training for ministry and those engaged in new membership classes.

And finally, we should hope to embrace a better understanding of Baptist tradition that is characterized by mutuality, forgiveness, reconciliation and respect for diversity.

The time is now.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week on racial justice. The other article in the series is:

Your Church Can’t Separate Faith, Anti-Racism Work | Aurelia Davila Pratt

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