hero default image

“What, then is the Church?”: A Path Forward for Columbia Seminary and Its Slave Past

In response to late twentieth and twenty-first century conflicts, South Africa, Northern Ireland and other societies demonstrated the “restorative power of truth telling” in order to move toward sustainable peace following painful pasts. Scholars and activists subsequently developed a transitional justice framework and useful toolkits for communities attempting to “rebuild public trust and social justice” through reconciliation and healing.[1] Truth telling is the important first step before any institutional reform, reparation and reconciliation can occur. Recognizing that local circumstances requires local solutions, universities and colleges have adapted the transitional justice framework and begun the hard work of reconciling their respective racial past with slavery and its complex legacy.[2]

All reconciliation efforts must begin by establishing a truthful account. After the abolition of slavery, post-emancipation reflection did not induce the necessary soul-searching that might result in repair at Columbia Seminary and other institutions of higher education. Only recently have these institutions begun this difficult work. Thus, William Yoo’s essay exploring James Henley Thornwell’s theological justification of slavery and the platform afforded him at Columbia Seminary is an essential first step to meaningful reconciliation. By focusing on one Presbyterian academic, Yoo offers a compelling institutional genealogy and provides a possible path forward for reform, repair and reconciliation.[3]

Thornwell is representative of educated southern clergy who taught at antebellum institutions of higher education. Their training prepared them for developing and advancing pro-slavery defenses. As faculty, their institutional support and livelihoods rested on the perpetuation of slavery. To do otherwise, as argued by Al Brophy and Jennifer Oast, would have been professional, ideological and personal suicide.[4] Indeed, Thornwell is quite in step with Basil Manly, who stepped down as president at the University of Alabama the year before Thornwell’s appointment to the Columbia Seminary faculty. Manly had been instrumental to the founding and early years of present-day Furman University in South Carolina as well as the Alabama flagship institution. In these prominent positions, Manly and other southern religious-leaning academics advanced pro-slavery intellectual thought that influenced seats of government, pulpits and the judiciary. As such, Thornwell’s letters of correspondence, sermons and lectures aligned with an active cohort of southern intellectuals teaching at antebellum institutions. The notion of slavery as not being inconsistent with Christian principles became imprinted at Columbia Seminary and beyond.[5]

Like other antebellum institutions, Columbia Seminary benefited from the cotton bale per slave hand per acre calculations made throughout the cotton kingdom.  Tuition dollars came from the profits of elite families’ use of enslaved labor. Their sons and occasionally their daughters had the time to pursue educational pursuits and develop the necessary training for replicating the family wealth in the management and protection of the regional investment in slavery, economically, socially, and politically. In short, enslaved labor guaranteed the enrollment of the targeted student body, institutional prestige, and Thornwell’s employment at Columbia Seminary.[6]

Throughout the compelling essay, Yoo shows how regional realities facilitated ideological factionalism over slavery. Thornwell and other southern theologians did not share the same concerns over the magnitude of slavery as did Albert Barnes and Alexander McLeod. Thus, the American Colonization Society (ACS) and other ameliorating solutions proposed were met with fierce resistance from free African Americans and tone-deaf ears by Thornwell. Refusing to assuage white theological guilt, African Americans saw themselves as Americans who built the nation and had every right to access the democratic claims outlined in the U.S. Constitution. Thornwell, on the other hand, did not share the same unease as his northern Presbyterian abolitionists or the concerns of African Americans. The biblical treatment of slavery in a “’cool, dispassioned, [and] didactic’ language,” according to Yoo, undergirded Thornwell’s understanding of slavery as a biblically sanctioned hierarchal relationship. As “part of the curse which sin has introduced into the world,” slavery would “persist until the eschaton.” The ACS proposed major structural reform. As a proponent of individualism, Thornwell rejected such activism. Rather, he and other southern theologians promoted humane treatment and access to religious instruction that did not disrupt existing hierarchies.[7]

At Columbia Seminary, Thornwell fine-tuned his Christian defense of slavery. He, for instance, found minor disagreement with Charles Hodge. Educated at the most southern of the Ivy League schools, the Princeton graduate agreed with his pro-slavery biblical defense but quibbled over the “Church’s exclusive identity as a ‘spiritual organization.” He honed his arguments through such interactions. Given his moderate approach to the issue of slavery, Thornwell often confined his criticism to private correspondence. Among a trusted circle, he expressed his frustration and disappointment. He, however, firmly understood the regional, intellectual and personal costs if such expressions were made public.[8]

It is telling that Thornwell’s defense remained silent on the problem posed by the physical and sexual abuse of enslaved people. These dimensions of the violent institution proved indefensible. His cherry-picking of topics and noticeable silences reveal the limits of his moderate defense. Such discussions would have immediately rendered his proposed humane treatment of enslaved people, Christian reading of the institution, and training of seminary students, moot. His silences, however, made post-emancipation repair impossible. In the present, many see the task of meaningful repair and reconciliation insurmountable. How does one discuss the legacy of slavery and subsequent post-emancipation racial injustice when even a moderate pro-slavery defender could not?

Here, Yoo’s suggestion of considering Thornwell’s question – “What, then is the Church?” is a necessary first step. If one considers the Church as the people and not a physical structure, Thornwell’s rhetorical question opens up the possibility of a radical, inclusive, and community-based solution that addresses the intellectual genealogy presented.  The diversity of the “people” comprising the Church and even academic institutions requires the seeking of and listening to the various constituencies and descendant communities. Efforts should include the naming of the eighteen enslaved individuals sold for shoring up the Columbia Seminary endowment, locating any living descendants, and involving them in the process of repair and reconciliation. Therefore, multifaceted approaches, time, and if possible, undefined budget commitments are a must. Thornwell’s own words provides an opening for such work.[9]

Following a transitional justice framework, apologies and the addition of memorials, markers and other new stuff acknowledging the slave past, enslaved people’s experiences and the post-abolition legacies are necessary. These measures, however, are only short-term remedies. These measures alone do not change hearts and minds or encourage empathy. If these measures are not followed up by substantive measures and long-term commitments to sustainable justice, however, efforts toward meaningful reform, repair and reconciliation cannot only become stalled but retrenchment may occur. The process might have to begin anew.[10]

The University of Alabama is example of a reinvigorated process. Spearheaded by law professor Al Brophy, a coalition of faculty, students and concerned individuals began the truth-telling process, secured a 2004 institutional apology, and an erected a slavery apology marker in 2006. Yet, the lack of sustained efforts and a well-connected vocal opposition allowed for the reemergence of collective forgetting regarding the institutional slave past. As a result, the initial campus coalition failed to secure repair and reconciliation.[11] Beginning in 2014, a new group of concerned faculty members restarted the process. They pushed for the implementation of 2004 promised official commission, secured a new Faculty Senate resolution, and a university committee has been formed. Headed by the Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the University is again moving in the direction of repair and reconciliation. The committee’s work and final outcomes remains unclear.[12]

In 2020, can we continue to forget the enslaved laborers and their descendants affected by Thornwell and others at Columbia Seminary? I agree with Yoo. They should be at heart of everything that we do. Therefore, “What, then is the Church?” is the perfect starting point for moving forward.

[1] Martha Minow, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), 2-6; Eilish Rooney, Transitional Justice Grassroots Toolkit – User Guide (Belfast: Ashton Community Trust, 2014), 23-26.

[2] Leslie Harris, “Higher Education’s Reckoning with Slavery,” Academe 106 (Winter 2020), https://www.aaup.org/article/higher-education’s-reckoning-slavery#.Xq9cSS-z06U.

[3] William Yoo, “What, then, is the Church?”: The Perpetuation of Racial Injustice and the Failure of Repair at Columbia Seminary in the Antebellum United States.”

[4]Brophy and Oast have expanded on Craig Steven Wilder’s classic text, Ebony and Ivy, and have shown more precisely the role of antebellum institutions in advancing pro-slavery defenses and the widespread consequences on southern society. See Alfred L. Brophy, University, Court and Slave: Pro-Slavery Thought in Southern Colleges and Courts and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Jennifer Oast, Institutional Slavery: Slaveholding Churches, Schools, Colleges and Businesses in Virginia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[5] A. James Fuller, “I Whipped Him a Second Time: Basil Manly, Honor, and Slavery at the University of Alabama,” in Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies, ed. Leslie M. Harris, James T. Campbell, and Alfred L. Brophy (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019), 119-128; Brophy, University, Court and Slave, 48-96.

[6] Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 153-154; Brophy, University, Court and Slave, 97-130.

[7] Yoo, “What, then, is the Church?”.

[8] Lolita Buckner, The Princeton Fugitive Slave: The Trials of James Collins Johnson (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019), 46; Yoo, “What, then, is the Church?”.

[9] Yoo, “What, then, is the Church?”.

[10] Rooney, Transitional Justice Grassroots Toolkit, 9; Max Clarke and Gary Alan Fine, “‘A’ for Apology: Slavery and the Collegiate Discourses of Remembrances–the Cases of Brown University and the University of Alabama,” History and Memory 22 (Spring/Summer 2010): 83.

[11] Alfred L. Brophy, “The University and the Slaves: Apology and Its Meaning,” in The Age of Apology: Facing Up to the Past, ed. Mark Gibney, Rhoad E. Howard-Hassmann, Jean-Marc Coicaud, and Niklaus Steiner (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2009), 118-119; Clarke and Fine, “‘A’ for Apology,” 96-103; Ellen Griffith Spears and James C. Hall, “Engaging the Racial Landscape at the University of Alabama,” in Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies, ed. Leslie M. Harris, James T. Campbell, and Alfred L. Brophy (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019), 299. 304-305.

[12] Ruben Tarajano, “Our University must further its recognition of the history of slavery,” The Crimson White, February 19, 2018, https://cw.ua.edu/42828/opinion/our-university-must-further-its-recognition-of-the-history-of-slavery/; Faculty Senate, “Proposal to establish a Commission on Race, Slavery, and Civil Rights at The University of Alabama, October 16, 2018,” http://facultysenate.ua.edu/news/proposal-to-establish-a-commission-on-race-slavery-and-civil-rights-at-the-university-of-alabama/; Faculty Senate, Minutes, November 13, 2018, http://facultysenate.ua.edu/the-senate-2018-19/meetings/.