If we want to understand better white Baptists of the South on race, we need to remember a forgotten figure – A.C. Miller – and a slice of history – the 1954 Southern Baptist Convention.
Never heard of Miller?
Most Baptists have not. One might dare say that no current student or recent graduate of any of the moderate seminaries has. Only a few graybeards could speak knowingly about Miller.
Miller was Acker C. Miller.
Born in Coke County, Texas, converted at age 15, educated at Southern Seminary, served in Oklahoma and Texas churches, Miller joined the staff of the Baptist General Convention of Texas in 1941 to do “soldier work” and later “interracial cooperation.”
In 1951, his work on race and Christian living would be housed under the name “Christian Life Commission.”
The Christian Life Commission replaced the SBC’s Social Service Commission in 1952 with a new emphasis – Scripture over sociology – and a new leader – Miller.
[The Christian Life Commission was renamed Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in 1997 with a new emphasis – partisan activism over religious education.]
Miller knew that if he was to convince Southern Baptists of the importance of social responsibility, he had to reassure them of his commitment to personal regeneration.
“In the teaching of Jesus, personal regeneration is the root from which social righteousness is the fruit. The one does not exist without the other,” Miller wrote.
While Miller sought to assure Baptists of his theological credentials, he sought to stretch them on race.
Those without a sense of the history of race relations contend that the nation – and the church – have made little to no progress on race relations.
At a recent SBC race summit, some sounded like Southern Baptists committed to racial reconciliation were new to the issue.
The truth is that a wing within the SBC has long addressed the issue.
In the 1940s and 1950s, half of the Baptist hospitals did not admit blacks. Only two hospitals trained black nurses. Black ministerial students were not allowed in seminary classes until 1950.
A speaker who dared to call for integration in 1946 at a national Baptist student week was never invited to speak again. Of course, public schools were segregated. The Dixiecrat party thrived.
When the SBC met in 1954, 13 days after the Supreme Court ruled against segregated schools, Miller, with the help of Southern Seminary professor Jesse B. Weatherspoon, presented a report that supported the court’s decision.
A Kentucky pastor spoke against the report. He said he believed in emancipation and equality.
“But I do not believe the Bible teaches and I do not believe that God approves amalgamation of the races,” William Nevins said.
Others spoke for and against the report.
A motion to strike the report’s section on race failed. The convention passed the report with only 50 negative votes.
It was a shining moment for the SBC on race.
Miller continuously addressed the issue, believing that the best approach was religious education through tracts, reports and conferences – always rooting what he did in the Bible.
One biblical myth that he sought to dispel was the “curse of Ham,” a source of justification for segregation.
“The ‘curse of Ham myth’ is simply a hoax. No reference to it is found anywhere in the Bible,” Miller wrote. “Noah put his curse on one of the four sons of Ham whose name was Canaan (Genesis 9:25-27). Canaan and his descendants lived in Palestine and not Africa (Genesis10:15-20).”
Remembering Miller and the 1954 SBC provide an important touchstone for a better understanding of the tradition among white Baptists that has long addressed constructively the issue of race.
If we want to live honestly in the present, we need to recall the cloud of witnesses that have toiled for justice. Such memory protects us from our own self-righteousness about our moral superiority over our ancestors.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.
Editor’s note: The editorial is based on Parham’s article “A.C. Miller: The Bible Speaks on Race,” Baptist History and Heritage (January 1992), for which he received the Norman W. Cox Award for the Best Article Published by the Historical Commission of the SBC in 1992.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.