Old Columbia Seminary And Slavery


David B. Calhoun’s “Our Southern Zion”: Old Columbia Seminary (1828-1927) (Carlisle, PA and Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2012) is a welcome addition to Calhoun’s earlier two-volume history of Princeton Seminary. Less protracted and glorious than Princeton’s history, the story of Columbia Seminary is nevertheless worth recording, and repays reading for those interested in the history of American Presbyterianism.

One lesser known fact, and one Princeton cannot compete with, is the justice Columbia sought to do to the doctrine of adoption. This was largely due to the Seminary’s preference for Calvin’s Institutes over Turretin’s. The doctrine figured in the theology of James Henley Thornwell, John L. Girardeau, Robert A. Webb (who took Columbia theology to Louisville Seminary), and Thornton Whaling (who followed Webb at Louisville). All this Calhoun notes, although we also know of Benjamin Morgan Palmer’s view that no other word sums up more the entire system of grace than the word adoption.

Understandably, given the historic neglect of the doctrine on the one hand and the trauma of slavery and the Civil War on the other, Columbia Seminary is known more for its connection to the Southern support for slavery than for its contribution to the theological history of adoption. Some may think that Calhoun should have made more of the dark affiliations of Columbia’s history, but he could have made more of other matters too. The book is rather general in feel.

On Martin Luther King Jr weekend it is worth noting a number of comments germane to the issue of slavery and segregation. First, there’s the comment of Douglas F. Kelly in the Foreword:

David Calhoun’s scholarly integrity shows itself as he honestly evaluates a tradition he loves . . . He does not attempt to hide the ugliness and sin of significant aspects of the Southern experience: particularly slavery and then racial segregation. He gives that so many evangelical Christian leaders, of whom the world could have expected a higher standard, failed to rise above the self-serving, sinful assumptions of their own time ~ notably on racial issues.

Let’s hear Dr Calhoun himself. He notes how John Leighton Wilson, South Carolina missionary, deplored slavery and the impact of it on 100,000 human beings on American soil (ibid., 35). Calhoun quotes Charles Colcock Jones to the effect that the more Jones considered slavery the more the enormity of it as an inhuman abuse of power dawned on him: “Slavery is ‘a violation of all the laws of God and man at once.'” (ibid,44). While Calhoun seeks to explain the position of the likes of Thornwell along the lines of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church (the business of the church being spiritual not political), he does not condone its application. Citing John Leith to the effect that Thornwell’s theology was “a development of the Reformed tradition . . . in the context . . . of Southern culture,” Calhoun remarks that the context had deep problems, not least slavery” (ibid., 132). Perhaps this is why many in the South were relieved when Emancipation Day came on January 1, 1863 (ibid., 185).

With hindsight, Columbia Seminary was ready to admit that while the Presbyterian Church had not done her duty to “the colored people”, in the likes of Charles C. Jones, John Adger, and John L. Girardeau, the Seminary had not been as negligent as other Presbyterian institutions: “the road to her professorial chairs was an apprenticeship of spiritual service for the slave brother” (ibid., 234).

Doubtless, some will think Calhoun could have said more about the beneficence of Christian treatment of the slave brother and will argue the biblical justification of slavery, and others more about the evil and impact of the system and how the Bible paved the way for the end of it. My point is not to hash that out, at least not here. It is to draw some general reminders from the striking remarks of scholar Eugene Genovese whom the author quotes:”Nothing is more disheartening  . . . than to see firmly orthodox Christians in the post-reconstruction era, who ‘turned to the Bible for guidance on every subject, plunge into arguments from sheer prejudice that hardly pretended to be scripturally based'” (ibid., xvii). And again:

In the contest between abhorrence of race mixing and their fidelity to the Bible, the Bible lost (ibid., xviii).

Genovese’s observations raise two matters.

The first takes the form of a question: will future generations say that I/we have done any better? The Southern experience teaches us that a high view of Scripture is not enough. It must be accompanied by a high use of it, and a high application as well (and above all to self).

Secondly, there’s a comment. Perhaps Genovese helps us weigh today’s equation of rights “for the slave brother” and gay rights. While we argue not for the victimization of the Gay community (although we do not wish to be victimized either), is not the difference between the two scenarios that in the former the Bible wins and in the latter the Bible loses? In the former slaves are set free, in the latter slaves are left enchained? To equate the two rights, it seems to me, is to confuse ontological equality (equality of being) with moral relativism. The confusion should not only offend all those touched by the institution of slavery, it should cause us to cry out to God for the genuine freedom of Gays and Lesbians. May they not be like the slaves of old who, when offered freedom, hung around their masters. That freedom, let it be known and proclaimed, is offered to all through Christ Jesus.