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The Seductiveness of The Familiar

I am honored by the faculty’s invitation to deliver this Opening Convocation address. It is an important occasion in the institution’s life and the service helps to set the tone for the early days of the term. So I am genuinely grateful for the invitation.

I am aware, however, from long experience—very long experience—that when the faculty invites a colleague to deliver such an address it is a way of saying kindly: “Retirement looms! Prepare to abandon faculty meetings!” This Opening Address is consequently given with gratitude, with an awareness of this gentle reminder of my looming retirement, and with an awareness of the focus of this Convocation—your preparation for ministry.

Now for those of you who are entering the 1st year class or who are beginning your studies at Columbia , you have most likely heard some stories about the peculiarities of different professors. They are abundant—both the stories and the peculiarities. One peculiarity—which you may have already encountered—is the persistent habit of professors to always turn a conversation to that professor’s academic interest. This is particularly true of faculty members just back from a sabbatical. So if you were to ask Professor Yoder, “well what do you think of the way the press treats Paris Hilton?” She is likely to say, “Well, let me tell you about Hosea and Gomer!”

I must admit that I am no better than my colleagues. Whatever the subject, I will try to turn the conversation to the 19th century and the American south. And to not just any part of the South, but to the and South Carolina lowcountry.

So on this occasion, this is exactly what I am going to do. As we think about the challenges before you as seminarians, I want to turn, not to Hosea and Gomer, but to two white young seminarians in the 1830s, both of whom were intimately connected to Columbia seminary. What commitments did they make as seminarians and what moral vision informed their entry into ministry? And how did their social and cultural context help to shape the ways their commitment and vision played out in their lives and ministry? I will be drawing some materials from the marvelous Montreat collection whose arrival at CTS we will celebrate today.

After briefly telling the stories of these two 19th century seminarians, I will concluded with some reflections on 21st century seminarians and the seductive power of the familiar.

My colleagues will not be surprised that the first seminarian is Charles Colcock Jones—indeed, they would be shock were it otherwise! His seminary years were spent at Andover and Princeton, but he was soon deeply involved in the Columbia community as a board member and for a while as a professor. He came from the lowcountry of and from a wealthy slave owning family. Early in his life he became convinced of the evils of slavery. From Princeton, he wrote his cousin, soon to be his wife: You know, he reminded her, “that I have always been deeply interested” for the slave population in the . “How it has long been a doubt in my mind whether I ought to return to Georgia and endeavor to do what I can for them there, and also where as God shall give me opportunity, or devote myself at once to them, in some special efforts in connection with the Colonization Society, or in some other manner.” I do not know, he said, “which way the scale will turn,” and he prayed “for light from on high to shine and make the path of duty plain before my face.” One thing he was certain of–it was “high time that our country was taking some measures of some sort whose ultimate tendency shall be the emancipation of nearly three million of men, women, and children who are held in the grossest bondage, and with the highest injustice.” He asked Mary to pray for him that God would give him clarity about the direction he should go in his life and ministry. And then he added:

I am, moreover, undecided whether I ought to continue to hold slaves. As to the principle of slavery, it is wrong! It is unjust, contrary to nature and religion to hold men enslaved. But the question is, in my present circumstances, with evil on my hands entailed from my father, would the general interests of the slaves and community at large, with reference to the slaves, be promoted best, by emancipation? Could I do more for the ultimate good of the slave population by holding or emancipating what I own.

Charles knew deep in his bones that his comforts were drawn from labors and sorrows of slaves. “How often do I think,” he wrote, “of the number of hands employed to furnish me with those conveniences of life of which they are in consequence deprived–how many intellects, how many souls perhaps, withered and blasted forever for this very purpose!” As he struggled with his decision, he visited with a number of leading abolitionists in the North and talk long and hard about his looming decision.

And so Charles Jones, the young seminarian, made his decision. He would return to and seek to be both a minister to the slaves and their strong advocate, working for the humane treatment of slaves. In time, he would become known among whites as the “Apostles to the Negro Slave,” and no Southern white would be more vigorous in calling for the humane treatment of slaves—good houses, good food, marriages and families kept together, time on Saturdays for their own gardens, and Sabbath rest.

A generation ago, a distinguished historian wrote of Jones: “This exordinary man,…was a rich planter, a gentleman of liberal education, and a Presbyterian clergyman of radiant Christian character, aptly described by his son-in-law [a CTS graduate] as ‘one of the nobles men God ever made.'”

And yet as one studies his life and ministry a chilling development slowly unfolds. We see that he never really challenged the system of slavery. And equally chilling, because he loved good things—that is noble things: his family and a particular part of God’s good creation, the lowcountry—his early vision began to fade. Family and love of place began to blunt his moral vision and began slowly to lead him to a support of slavery.

When Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she was accused of slandering the white South. Many in both the North and South said slavery was not as cruel as she had portrayed it. So Stowe wrote a Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which she quoted Southerners themselves about the horrors of slavery. And one whom she quoted frequently was Charles Jones. She wrote this about Jones:

“The Rev. Charles C. Jones” is, she wrote, “a man of the finest feelings of humanity, and for many years an assiduous laborer for the benefit of the slave….” She called him an “earnest laborer for the good of the slave,” and she thought his book Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United States“manifests a spirit of sincere and earnest benevolence, and of devotedness to the cause he has undertaken, which cannot be too highly appreciated.” Yet for Mrs. Stowe, Charles’s sincerity and benevolent spirit made his support of slavery all the more deplorable. After declaring that he possessed a “sublime spirit,” a “mind capable of the very highest impulses,” she lamented: “And yet, if we look over his whole writings, we shall see painfully how the moral sense of the finest mind may be perverted by constant familiarity with such a system.”

So there we have it. The high moral convictions of the young seminarian had been gradually eroded over time by his love of family and place and by his constant familiarity with the system. It was his daily living within the system of slavery that slowly seduced him and gradually eroded his abhorrence of a brutal system.

The second young seminarian was John Leighton Wilson, a member of the first graduating class of CTS. He and his wife, Jane Bayard Wilson, also inherited a number of slaves. They too faced a decision of what they would do. They too found slavery abhorrent. But their decision was to free their slaves and take them with them to West Africa, to the young colony of , where they helped them to become established as newly freed people. The Wilsons went on to become great pioneer missionaries. He wrote a history of West Africa still used today by anthropologists and historians, for he had great respect for the ancient civilizations of West Africa and looked upon the Africans whom he encountered with an appreciation and respect which stands in contrast to almost all other contemporary accounts by Europeans and European Americans. He resisted French imperialism in , taking the side of the Gabonese people, and played a role in getting the British parliament to strengthen its fleet in the fight against the international slave trade. A recent French historian has called Wilson “a remarkable man” and has said that in comparison to other American and European travelers and commentators in one “admires his work, his activism, his moderation, and the generosity and justice of his judgments.”

After those years, the Wilsons returned to the United States, where Leighton Wilson served in New York as head of the Foreign Mission Board of the Presbyterian Church. Yet when the Civil War came, in spite of all of their early commitments and their experiences in Africa, the magnetic pull of home and family drew the Wilsons back to South Carolina where their cast their lot on the side of slavery. Wilson became the first head of the Southern Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions and the single most influential leader in the southern church after the war. He took a radical stance, for a white southerner in 1866, in advocating the voting rights of the freedmen. But so complex was his relationship with his southern homeland, that he was unable to extricate himself from the morass of southern history.

So we have two young seminarians from the 19th century. We watch their lives with respect as they struggle to decide the path of duty, of Christian discipleship, in the face of the great crushing evil of human bondage. They both thought, as their theology taught them, that they could make a decision free from the contingencies of their lives, free from the social and cultural and familial forces that shaped their hearts and their worlds. Yet the American South was a social and moral universe for them that they could not escape in spite of wide travel . For them history, locality, and self were tightly interwoven. And the result of this interweaving was precisely the familiar, the ordinariness of daily life lived and remembered, that drew them away from the moral vision of their youth and made of them white Southerners who supported the Confederacy and its system of slavery.

I made no claims about the inevitability of such a course for these two young seminarians. I simply want to point to them as people of the highest character and deepest Christian piety, whose good intentions went badly astray. They serve for us, I think, especially for you seminarians, as warnings voices from the past about the seductive power of the familiar and about how easily good intentions can go astray, about the pressures that shape our choices, our lives, and our ministries.

So in conclusion, I want to reflect very briefly about the contemporary cultural and social world of which we are a part and one of the challenges of such a world. There are many ways, of course to describe contemporary North American culture. For the literary minded, we could speak of Post-Modernism, although some are now saying that Post Modernism is history, that we are living After Post-Modernism. What ever.

If we take the commitments and choices that many of you have already made, however, we would see your own struggles against a consumer society as you seek to follow Jesus Christ. Many of you have come to seminary committed to simplify your lives and have made significant financial sacrifices, especially those of you with families. You have known and named the emptiness of constant consumption and you are committed to breaking its hold on you just as Jones and Wilson were committed to breaking the hold of slavery on their own lives.

Let the stories of these two 19th century seminarians and this new archive remind you that the warfare is long and the enticements to abandon your vision are great. You are studying at a theological seminary marked by significant criticism of the consumer society. Yet it is also a community struggling daily in the midst of good and amazingly generous gifts given Columbia over the generations, gifts that have made Columbia now stronger than ever before, able to serve the church in remarkable new ways. But our growing strength also makes us vulnerable to the enticements of a consumer society. What does it mean for us as a community, for Columbia as an institution of the church, to live faithfully in a society that says more is never enough? This is the world we live in–it is the familiar world of consumption. And Columbia as a community and an institution has to struggle against its seductions. Be warned.

Be warned also by the example of those of us on the faculty who have struggled long over these enticements. Go beyond what we boldly say to look at our homes, especially the homes of those of us who are tenured and have been around for awhile, look at our places of familiarity, with all of their indications of consumption, and know that the warfare is long and that the seductions of a familiar consumer society have been at work on us. Be warned.

And be warned as well as you look around at today’s student expectations and how those expectations reflect the influence of a consumer society. Look at student expectations in regard to comforts and know that the warfare is long and the enticements to abandon your vision are great.

The consumer society provides for us all, in other words, a social and moral universe that is familiar and that makes up the ordinary character of our daily lives and is therefore powerfully seductive to a moral vision that sees the emptiness of constant consumption.

Neely McCarter, who taught Christian Education at Columbia and was later President of the Pacific School of Religion, used to say that in the face of such dangers we were to gird up our loins with the breastplates of righteousness. That always sounded like good but awkward advice even as it indicated the seriousness of the struggles of Christian discipleship.

In the midst of such warnings, we do well to end this Address by listening again to the writer of the letter to the Hebrews in the scripture lesson read this morning. After pointing to those who had gone before, to those who had known faithfulness and failures, to those who like David had known in their lives deep moral ambiguity, he said:

Let us therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the of the throne of God.

And so you seminarians, you too are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, of those whose lives are marked by faith and failures, and by deep moral ambiguity. Included in that cloud of witnesses are Charles Jones and Leighton Wilson and others who have been a part of this CTS community in the past—Ludwig DeWitz and Will Ormond; Lucy Rose and Shirley Guthrie; John Bulow Campbell, Claude Clopton and Mac Richards; Ann Titshaw, Elsie Urie and Bonneau Dickson. There they are, all around you, cheering you on as you take from them the baton to run with perseverance the race that is set before you. And they are pointing you, as you begin this race, to Jesus, the pioneer and the perfecter of our faith, the perfecter of your faith, who goes before you. Dear seminarians, as you face the challenges of the familiar, may you know courage, wisdom, perseverance, and joy as you follow him who is the perfecter of your faith.