“We Hold This Trust From God”

“When will Southern Baptists become outraged enough over the oppression taking place in [the United States] that they will correct this thing which has now become an actual hindrance to the work of the Lord around the world?”                  Sydney Pierce, missionary to Kenya, 1963


How could a person who was a leader in a mission organization hold views like those expressed by the woman I met in the hotel in Switzerland that summer of 1974? That question has come to mind repeatedly over the years since my encounter with her. I suppose you could say it was one of those unsettled and unsettling stories of my past.

Several months ago, when I was reading Conroy’s novel, his character Tom made these statements that raised that question in my mind and heart once again: ” ‘Why is it that there are times in history when it’s all right to hate Jews or Americans or blacks or gypsies. There’s always a group deserving of contempt in every generation. You’re even suspect if you don’t hate them. I was taught to hate Communists when I was growing up. I never sighted one, but I hated the sons of bitches. I hated blacks when I was growing up because it was a religious belief in my part of the world to consider them inferior to whites. It’s been interesting to come to New York…, and to be hated because I am a white southerner. It’s rather bracing and refreshing, but odd.’”[1]

Conroy’s words struck me: through his character Tom, he described considering blacks as inferior to whites “a religious belief” where he had grown up, in the South. I knew from the story that when Conroy said religious belief, what he actually meant was Christian belief. I thought about my experiences, the experiences of others I knew, and wondered: is this true? If so, why? That message is so inconsistent with, so far removed from the teachings of Christ; could what he said be true, and if so, could this be a reason why racism has been so persistent? I made a decision: it was time to find answers to my questions. I suppose you could say the time had come for me to look backwards and understand, and in the process, to come to a better understanding of the present. I started digging, and found what I was looking for. Walk with me now, and I will tell you a story, one we all need to hear and to understand, one that should cause us all to raise our voices “for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice,” and to raise them with knowledge, in a manner that can make a difference.

I would like to be able to say what Conroy wrote was wrong, but I can’t. I have traced the extensive research of historians, have read the words of leaders who wrote from the time of slavery through the 1970s, and have learned he was right. I can’t say I’m surprised, but I am saddened—no, I think grieved more accurately expresses my response. I’ll not take you through all I have read (that would take a book—maybe several—and isn’t the story I’m telling here), but I do want to show you a little so you can get an idea of the conflict, the struggle that has gone on, a struggle that had its beginnings long before there was a South, a struggle that continues even now.

From the beginning, slavery was an accepted part of early colonial life. The writings of that time show that since slavery was believed to be sanctioned by scripture, ordained and approved by God, its existence went virtually unchallenged. The first printed challenge to slavery as Christian came from a Massachusetts judge by the name of Samuel Sewall. Judge Sewall was noted for the part he played in the Salem witchcraft trials, and for his courage in being the only judge from those trials to admit guilt for his actions. At that time in history, debates and arguments were commonplace (as they are now); ideas were put before the public in the form of pamphlets, and as you can imagine, that took time, and a lot of thought—totally unlike the mindless Twitter and text and Facebook wars we have today in which people shoot-with-a-click and never think.

In 1700, Judge Sewall shocked the public by publishing a pamphlet titled “The Selling of Joseph.” In this publication Sewall both condemned slavery and refuted the arguments that scripture supported and endorsed it. People were outraged; that Sewall would dare to question the morality of slavery was unthinkable. In their minds, to do so was to deny the authority and inspiration of scripture, and was the equivalent of blasphemy. A year later, in 1701, Sewall’s challenge was answered by a response in the form of another pamphlet from another judge, John Saffin. So began the pamphlet debate in Boston on the subject, “Is Slavery Christian?”, a debate that lasted from 1700-1706.[2] In the end, for the most part, Sewall’s arguments fell on deaf ears. There was no question in the minds of the vast majority of people that slavery was indeed Christian.

Challenges to that belief became stronger and more frequent over the next hundred years or so. Many in the North were being persuaded that slavery was not consistent with the Christian message, and some in the South were beginning to question as well. But progress in the South was slowed, then halted, greatly impacted by preachers who proclaimed loudly that to refuse to accept slavery was to deny the authority and inerrancy of the Bible. Doing away with slavery would lead to the breakdown of morality, and ultimately, the destruction of society, they shouted. People became afraid. “By the 1830s, especially after Nat Turner’s uprising in 1831, white evangelicals who previously had questioned slavery were defending it as a divinely sanctioned social order. By the 1850s such a view reigned as a virtually unchallenged orthodoxy among white southern evangelicals, be they elite divines or folk exhorters.”[3]

On November 29, 1860, a Thanksgiving sermon was preached by Rev. Dr. Benjamin Morgan Palmer, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, a sermon that would be reprinted in pamphlets and published in newspapers across the South. As a noted preacher, Dr. Palmer’s words had a powerful impact on those who read them. A fellow minister is recorded to have described Palmer’s sermon as having “…confirmed and strengthened those who were in doubt; it gave directness and energy to public sentiment—so that perhaps no other public utterance during that trying period of anxiety and hesitancy did so much to bring New Orleans and the entire state of Louisiana squarely and fully to the side of secession and the Confederacy.” I’ve included a link to entire text of the sermon below, but I think it’s important to call attention to what he considers the duty of Christians (us):

“It is just this impertinence of human legislation, setting bounds to what God alone can regulate, that the South is called this day to resent and resist. The country is convulsed simply because ‘the throne of iniquity frameth mischief by a law.’ Without, therefore, determining the question of duty for future generations, I simply say, that for us, as now situated, the duty is plain of conserving and transmitting the system of slavery, with the freest scope for its natural development and extension. Let us, my brethren, look our duty in the face. With this institution assigned to our keeping, what reply shall we make to those who say that its days are numbered? My own conviction is, that we should at once lift ourselves, intelligently, to the highest moral ground and proclaim to all the world that we hold this trust from God, and in its occupancy we are prepared to stand or fall as God may appoint. If the critical moment has arrived at which the great issue is joined, let us say that, in the sight of all perils, we will stand by our trust; and God be with the right!”[4]

I do not doubt Dr. Palmer’s sincerity in speaking these words. But, in light of what I know about the Gospel and the life and teachings of Jesus, I do not doubt that he was sincerely wrong. His words proved to be persuasive, as would be expected. Just a few months later the country would be at war. And we know how that story played out. Slavery as a system in our country was ended. But sadly, the belief that God’s created order relegated the Negro race to a “place” of subordination did not. The arguments shifted from the legitimacy of slavery to the necessity of “separate but equal,” also considered “God-ordained.” Justifications of this belief took many forms; most common continued to be the Son of Ham stories which involved twisting the scriptures to “prove” Noah had condemned the sons of Ham to servitude (Genesis 9:18-27). As in the time of slavery, these arguments continued to be the “stock weapons” used in publications.

There’s much I could say here, but I won’t. If you’re interested in learning more about this teaching, Stephen R. Haynes, Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, is the man to read.[5] Be ready to go deep! For now I need to move on in the story to answer my original questions: how could “the WMU woman” believe what she did, and where did that idea come from? More importantly, is it still around today? So far, we haven’t found the source of the “no souls” teaching. Let’s move on for now, to the second World War.

Many consider World War II to have been a watershed event in the history of race relations. Seeing the effects of Naziism and eugenics, learning of the reality of the systematic murder of millions of Jews brought racism to the front of social consciousness. While segregation of the races had been and continued to be the predominant belief in southern churches, post-war the thinking of missionaries began to change. This was especially true of those in leadership. They realized they had work to do since “…many southern Christians felt that God had mandated segregation and that integration went against God’s plan. Progressive Baptists and missionaries, however, spoke through one of the South’s most influential cultural institutions and announced, quite to the contrary, that God’s plan was one of racial unity. Segregation and racism were the sins. Unwilling to be silenced, progressive Baptists, missionaries, and mission organization leaders questioned the grounds upon which the southern racial system rested. Animated by their belief that racism undermined their mission efforts, they demonstrated that segregation, white supremacy, and racial discrimination were unchristian. In doing so, Southern Baptist progressives presented a forceful argument against racism and contributed to real change in the South.”[6]

Knowing the opposition they would face, leaders of the mission organizations formed a plan: they would use the printed word in the form of their mission publications. Beginning in 1945, they wrote, and wrote, and wrote; letters and articles promoting racial unity filled the pages of the mission magazines sent to Southern Baptist churches. They made their voices heard. “Had Baptist leaders and missionaries discussed their progressive views in private but not expressed them publicly, their history would be one more, perhaps tragic, example of moderate southerners being silenced by the culture of segregation. Instead, progressive Baptists refused to be silent. They put their thoughts in print for anyone to read, debate, and even refute.”

Missionaries’ refusal to be silent proved effective, and by the 1970s, their persistence had brought change. Race virtually disappeared as an open topic of debate in churches. Many still believed in biblically mandated segregation, but they went silent, with many confused as to how what had been proclaimed for hundreds of years as sanctioned by scripture was now being denounced as against scripture, since scripture itself had not changed. Their best course of action seemed to be silence. In practice, churches went on as usual for the most part, but the rhetoric changed.

Now we know that “the WMU woman” was completely out-of-step at that time with the organization she represented—that’s a relief! But her belief that “blacks don’t have souls”—where did that come from? The Son of Ham stories were used to justify a God-ordained hierarchy of humans based on race. Contending that an entire race of people does not have souls is essentially saying they are not human. This is something entirely different from saying they are inferior as humans. As I said before, this wasn’t the first time I had heard this kind of teaching.

Telling the next part of the story will be challenging for me, but it must be told, because this kind of thinking is still around. So I’ll face the issue of family loyalty and break the silence. As I said, it won’t be easy to tell, since the first time I heard this idea, I had been a young teenager, and the words had come from my father.



[1] The Prince of Tides: A Novel; Pat Conroy (Open Road Integrated Media, 2010)

[2] “Is Slavery Christian? A pamphlet debate in Boston, 1700-1706.” http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/becomingamer/ideas/text3/slaverychristian.pdf

[3] “Race, Culture, and Religion in the American South”; Paul Harvey. Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Online Publication Date: Mar 2015 http://religion.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.001.0001/acrefore-9780199340378-e-7

[4] “Thanksgiving Sermon”, Benjamin Morgan Palmer, November 29, 1860 http://civilwarcauses.org/palmer.htm

[5] “Original Dishonor: Noah’s Curse and the Southern Defense of Slavery”, Stephen R. Haynes. Journal of Southern Religion. http://jsr.fsu.edu/honor.htm

Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery, Stephen R. Haynes (Oxford University Press, 2002).

[6] All According To God’s Plan: Southern Baptist Missions and Race, 1945-1970, Alan Scot Willis (The University Press of Kentucky, 2005).