Racism and the SBC: Does the Legacy Continue?
Each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Ken Fentress’ thoughts often turn toward the Bible, the church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the history of racial issues. All these things are critically linked together in a history that is, at least for him, both encouraging and challenging at the same time.
When Fentress was a senior at Dunbar High School in Fort Worth, Texas, few would have imagined that he would attend classes at The Criswell College in Dallas. Though an impassioned African-American young man whose love for the Bible and theology was well known by many who had observed him over the years, Fentress’ future as a student at the college bearing W.A. Criswell’s name always seemed to some as a bit out of place, given Criswell’s public comments about desegregation and race relations in America.
Wallie Amos Criswell went on record against desegregation and came close to an outright endorsement of racism through his use of radicalized epithets spoken before his fellow Southern Baptists at an evangelism conference on Feb. 21, 1956 in Columbia, S.C. Then the pastor of the largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention (Dallas’ First Church), he held an almost celebrity status among many pastors and leaders of the Convention because of his preaching ability and track record for his public stand on the inerrancy of Holy Scripture. News reports of his sermon reveal an impassioned statement against those supporting integration in public schools as “infidels, dying from the neck up.”
Criswell was so angry with those who were challenging Southern Baptists on their view of integration that he decried them as “good-for-nothing fellows who are trying to upset all of the things that we love as good old Southern people and as good old Southern Baptists.”
Word quickly spread across the nation regarding his statements on race. The very next day, Billy Graham, a member of the Dallas congregation, distanced himself from Criswell’s remarks by stating, “my pastor and I have never seen eye-to-eye on the race question.”
Looking back, there is little on record to carefully pinpoint Criswell’s views on race prior to his appointment as pastor of Dallas, First. While serving as the pastor of Chickasha, First or Muskogee, First, neither his sermons, nor his writings, gave evidence of his views on race. Sermons on key biblical passages where race plays a factor in their interpretation, such as Gen. 9:20-27, John 4:22 and Titus 1:12, were not approached racially in any way. His vocal opposition to racial integration seemed to blossom into full flower only after his arrival in Dallas.
Criswell’s reputation on race was well known in the city of Dallas.“We basically had to look beyond the weakness of Dr. Criswell on these issues because what he thought about race was very well known,” Fentress said. “When some heard that I was going to Criswell College, they wondered how I could do so in good conscience with the reputation of the school’s founder.”
Yet, Fentress found the school helpful to his theological training, and went on to graduate in 1992. He sought further theological training at The Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky. During his years at Southern Seminary, the seeds were sown for an abiding interest in the context and culture of the Old Testament. Soon after graduation from seminary, he made his way to Maryland, where he had been accepted into one of the most prestigious universities in the world—The Johns Hopkins University. Fentress went on to graduate with a Ph.D. in near Eastern studies.
Now the Senior Pastor of the Montrose Church in Rockville, Md. (a congregation with about 40 different nationalities), he no longer ponders the race issue the same way he did while a student at Criswell College.
“The world is no longer black and white,” he says. “The issue of race has grown to incorporate more than just white America and black America.” Fentress believes it is now “multi-colored” and growing more so with each passing year.
Yet, within the borders of the Southern Baptist Convention, he is quick to state that more work must be done when it comes to applying the Gospel to the issue of race. Like many African-Americans, he is appreciative of the resolution passed by the Convention on June 20, 1995 when the messengers offered an apology for the insensitivity and pain perpetrated by many within the SBC on matters of race. Although radical racism could be traced back to the founding of the SBC, and the history of many of the churches of the denomination was stained with a legacy of racial profiling and protests against equality, Fentress appreciated their courage and commitment to change.
Fentress notes that, historically, many African-Americans have been alienated by many of the conservatives and their views about race.“It was a predicament many African-Americans faced which was not of their own making,” he said.
Those identified as conservatives—holding to confessional standards and an evangelical worldview grounded on the doctrine of inerrancy—were often the very ones who were wrong on race.
“Moderates, while not holding to a strong view of the Bible and evangelical theology, concerned themselves more with the plight and issues of life in the black community,” Fentress said. “The perception was that the conservatives were on the wrong side of the issue, and the irony of this was so very strange to me because of the reconciliation that the Gospel embodies in the Word of God.”
Russell D. Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Seminary, agrees.
“Most SBC conservatives of the Jim Crow-era were wrong, and sinfully wrong, on the issue of civil rights, as they were wrong on the issue of human slavery,” Moore said. “SBC liberals were right, and heroically right, on the issue of civil rights.”
Moore has done extensive research on the seeming disconnect between conservatives and their view of race.
He states that “the reason SBC progressives, and the larger civil rights movement, were persuasive was because of the mode of their argument.”
He believes social progressives appealed directly to biblical orthodoxy and missionary zeal in their arguments and not simply to “the arc of historical progress.”
“SBC civil rights advocates—from Foy Valentine to T.B. Maston to Henlee Barnette—argued from decidedly conservative biblical concepts,” he said in an interview on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 18.
“How can white supremacy be true, they would argue, if humanity is made from “one blood” in the creation of Adam? How can one segregate evangelistic crusades if the cross of Christ atones for all people, both white and black? If God personally regenerates repentant sinners, both white and black, how can we see people in terms of “race” rather than in terms of the person? If we send missionaries across the seas to evangelize Africa, how is it not hypocrisy not to admit African-Americans into church membership?”
Still, Fentress notices that 15 years after the racial reconciliation resolution, few (if any) African-Americans are senior pastors of prominent SBC pulpits of predominantly white congregations. There still has not been an African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“It just isn’t in the thinking of most churches,” Fentress says. “Most predominantly white Southern Baptist congregations would not even think about calling an African-American pastor because it just is not in their cultural orbit.”
He also points out that many African-Americans may not have an interest in serving as SBC president because they do not believe that it is a priority for the Convention.
“Other issues dominate the Convention at the moment—issues which are important and valuable—but promoting an African-American as president of the SBC does not appear to be among them,” Fentress said.
He thinks there is still work to be done before the issue of racism can be adequately addressed in ways which promote a healthy understanding and respect for the integration of a biblical theology of race throughout the churches of the SBC.
“Authentic Christians heard the voice of Jesus in the prophetic call of civil rights,” Moore said. “It matched up with the claims of Scripture. As they listened to the cultural claims of white supremacy, the old voice of Satan could be heard.”
Criswell later publicly repented of his earlier views, and preached a famous sermon—“The Church of the Open Door”—where he asked the church to amend its bylaws to make it possible for African-Americans to join the church. When contemplating his progression of thought about race, Criswell said, “never had I been so blind.”
Fentress continues to pray that the power of the Gospel will still change those hardened by the sin of racism.