Last August, I stood in the pulpit of the church I attend and announced that four of the congregation’s first seven pastors were slaveholders.
Audible gasps filled the air. And that’s when I realized just how much we needed an honest airing of our past.
In a July 13 column, the always challenging and insightful Wendell Griffen rightly criticized Baylor University for ignoring the issue of biblical reparations in creating a Commission on Historical Campus Representations to study and act in response to the school’s historic ties to slavery and the Confederacy.
Griffen is right that removing a few statues or building names – or even changing the name of the whole school – isn’t enough.
But Griffen overstated his case when he said, “Baylor does not need a commission to know its racist history.”
Although he correctly noted the big picture that Baylor knows – that early leaders were enslavers – it’s likely Baylor doesn’t know much of the actual details.
We worked hard in white institutions and churches to not just whitewash our slavery legacy but even forget it.
Several members of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Missouri, asked me afterward how I had thought even to check if early pastors were enslavers.
Although the church hadn’t printed the details before, I looked because I knew I would find that legacy.
But even though I knew I would find slavery ties, the details matter. It’s not enough to say our historically Southern Baptist (though, no longer) church spent most of its life in a denomination literally birthed to defend slavery.
It’s not enough to say our church had some enslavers amid early leaders.
So, before we could hold a service of lament last August for the 400th anniversary of Black enslavement in the U.S. colonies, we needed first to overcome our institutional dementia about our role in the evil practice.
Before we follow the example of Zacchaeus and pay reparations, we must check the ledger to see the extent of our debt.
Zacchaeus couldn’t pay back “four times the amount” he cheated unless he knew what he stole.
Because of the research conducted last year, First Baptist now knows that four of the first seven pastors were enslavers and three served in the Confederacy.
And we know that eight of the 11 white charter members were enslavers. And we know the church sits on land donated by an enslaver.
And that means we know those 17 early leaders enslaved at least 54 persons – and we’d surely find even more among the membership of the congregation.
And we know the church received reparations from the U.S. government for damage by Union soldiers to the church’s previous building, which the congregation sold to the Black Baptist congregation formed by First Baptist’s formerly enslaved members.
We now know our debt more clearly. It’s not abstract or generic. It’s quantified with numbers, along with ages and sexes of those enslaved, along with a few names found.
Before we can say their names, we must (re)member them. And that’s why during that service last August, I didn’t name any of the enslavers but instead honored those enslaved by calling out their names in the holy space.
Jenny. Adams. General. Milly. Phillis. Louis.
Like First Baptist, other white churches and institutions that have studied their slavery past quickly learned it’s worse than anyone there realized.
Generations of self-induced amnesia had left us seeing our sin darkly through a glass if at all.
If Baylor’s commission studies the school’s past well, they will unearth many details about the school’s slavery support, slavery wealth and slavery theology currently hidden by cognitive – and spiritual – impairment.
If Baylor’s Commission is honest, they’ll document many more details than what they or others currently know about the school’s original sins.
And once they do that, then Griffen’s critique will be right – like Zacchaeus, they’ll need to follow the teachings on reparations found in multiple biblical books.
But unlike Zacchaeus, who kept his books in order, Baylor doesn’t know their debt. And neither do most white churches.
Any white Christian church or institution that started before the Civil War desperately needs to study their past. (And probably we should draw the line at closer to 1900 since a 60-something founding pastor or deacon then could’ve been a 20-something enslaver or Confederate in 1860.)
If we can’t be trusted to tell the truth about the past, how can we be trusted to speak justly today?
Reparations? Yes. But first, we should study our racist history to document our debt.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way and associate director of Churchnet.