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What, then, is a seminary?: Examining the History and Legacy of Columbia Seminary with Hilary N. Green, Mitzi J. Smith, and John White

It is an odd experience to write about the history of the seminary where you teach. I am presently grading final papers from my students, marveling at their resilience in completing a semester in which we made an abrupt transition to remote learning because of a pandemic, and participating in virtual office hours with several students who are preparing to graduate. After I concluded my last virtual conversation for the day, I felt the “fullness of joy” that accompanies the glad heart and rejoicing soul in Psalm 16:9-11. I am grateful to fulfill my call to ordained Presbyterian ministry as a theological educator at Columbia Seminary.

At the same time, I am horrified by my seminary’s past on slavery. Professor Hilary N. Green’s rich and robust response places James Henley Thornwell and Columbia Seminary in the larger context of higher education across the southern states to draw connections explaining how and why “an active cohort of southern intellectuals teaching at antebellum institutions,” such as Basil Manly at the University of Alabama, defended and perpetuated the unjust practices of slaveholding in the United States.[1] I also appreciate Green’s scholarship on the more recent history of how some of the same southern institutions have implemented a transitional justice framework to pursue processes of reform, reparation, and reconciliation to address past histories and ongoing legacies.

Green engages the work of Jennifer Oast to illustrate how southern institutions like Columbia Seminary economically benefited from enslaved labor. Oast’s history of slaveholding congregations and colleges in Virginia includes a confession from a white Presbyterian pastor whose salary was paid through his congregation’s ownership of enslaved African Americans. Each year, the congregation held an auction to lease the services of their human property to the highest bidders. This pastor therefore surmised his congregation practiced “the worst kind of slavery.”[2]

Professor Mitzi J. Smith’s illuminating and incisive response demonstrates how Thornwell and Columbia Seminary propagated the worst kind of pro-slavery advocacy. Whereas other white intellectuals leaned on their economic, legal, philosophical, and political expertise, Thornwell insisted his defense of slavery came from the Scriptures. Thornwell presented his slavery apologetics in such a way that to disagree with him was to disagree with God. Smith meticulously challenges the folly and harm in Thornwell’s approach to biblical interpretation. Smith draws on the slave narrative of Linda Brent aka Harriet Jacobs to contend that white Christian slaveholders did not, and could not, enact commitments to “neighbor-love” with fellow human beings they treated and mistreated as their property.

One sees an attempt to reconcile the call to neighbor-love with the unjust practice of slavery in Thornwell’s 1850 sermon on “the rights and the duties of masters.” Thornwell defined the rights of the slaveholder as confined to the labor of their slaves and did not encompass ownership over an enslaved person’s body and soul.[3] Smith helps us see Thornwell’s moral contention that enslaved persons retained their essential human rights, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, emerged from a refusal to interpret the Bible and engage in ethical reflection that considered “the voices and perspectives of the enslaved Africans” and a “claim to access the Scriptures as if self-interpreting” to maintain the world as he (and other white southern Presbyterians) knew it.[4]

Dean John White’s sharp and searing criticism of the middle way approach to slavery at Columbia Seminary highlights “the arrogance and elitism of scholars within the realm of theological education” who believed they understood God’s plans and purposes more than enslaved and free African Americans. White delineates how Princeton Seminary recently conducted an historical audit of their institutional involvement with slavery, which includes slaveholding founders and substantial support of a movement to send free African Americans to Liberia through the American Colonization Society, and shares one conclusion stating that their founding leaders had a “lack of theological imagination” for failing to envision the possibility of black and white Americans living together as children of the new covenant.[5]

I do not believe a lack of theological imagination contributed to the active perpetuation of racial injustice at Columbia Seminary. It would be more accurate to conclude there was a lack of faithfulness and righteousness. It was not a lack of moral courage because courage suggests Thornwell and other leaders at Columbia Seminary knew that enslaving millions of African Americans was wrong but were too afraid to convey their convictions. In 1845, Thornwell wrote his spouse, Nancy Witherspoon Thornwell, from his denomination’s General Assembly in Cincinnati to share about his crucial work staving off the implementation of a firmer position against slavery: “The question of slavery has been before the house, and referred to a committee of seven. Though not a member of the committee, I have been consulted on the subject, and have drawn up a paper, which I think the committee will substantially adopt; and if they do, abolitionism will be killed in the Presbyterian Church, at least for the present.” Thornwell also observed the significance of defeating abolitionist efforts in a city he called “the stronghold of abolition” because of the formidable presence of anti-slavery activism there.[6] Fifteen years later, Thornwell returned to the seminary from his summer travel in Europe and shared privately with a colleague that the “gradual emancipation” of enslaved persons was “the only measure that would give peace to the country.”[7] It is unclear whether Thornwell was divulging a reluctant notion or a resolute conviction in 1860. But I do not find any subsequent actions from either Thornwell or Columbia Seminary on gradual emancipation.

I am grateful to Green, Smith, and White for their responses to my essay, in which we all addressed Thornwell’s question, “What, then, is the Church?” Green, Smith, and White also offer worthy principles and prescriptions for Columbia Seminary moving forward. It is haunting and humbling to consider how Thornwell and others at Columbia Seminary perpetuated racial injustice. They did not have whips in their hands, but they inflicted immense and terrible pain through their defense of slavery in classrooms, chapels, and committee meetings with lectures, sermons, and papers. Slavery is no longer with us, but the consequences of slavery abound in the experiences of police brutality, residential segregation, unequal access to banking and loans, the deleterious and disproportionate impact of the novel coronavirus in African American communities, and other racial inequities. I therefore conclude with another question: What, then, is a seminary? Like our predecessors, we must decide what path to follow in confronting our past and moving forward into our future. The middle way continues to loom large as a well-trodden path. But the Gospel of John does not recount Jesus declaring “I am the middle way.” We also find in Presbyterian history, and the broader Christian tradition, the witness of faithful women and men, such as black and white abolitionists, who paved a different way for the sake of racial justice and repair. Many were reviled in their day for disrupting orderly patterns of society and some were accused of blasphemy for challenging familiar methods of biblical interpretation. But their practices of truth telling and their efforts to construct a more racially just world demand our attention. Maybe there is another way for Columbia Seminary.


[1] Hilary N. Green, “‘What, then, is the Church?’: A Path Forward for Columbia Seminary and its Slave Past”

[2] Jennifer Oast, Institutional Slavery: Slaveholding Churches, Schools, Colleges, and Businesses in Virginia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 88.

[3] James Henley Thornwell, The Rights and the Duties of Masters: A Sermon Preached at the Dedication of a Church, Erected in Charleston, S.C., for the Benefit and Instruction of the Colored Population (Charleston: Walker & James, 1850), 24-25 and Erskine Clarke, To Count Our Days: A History of Columbia Theological Seminary (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2019), 55-56.

[4] Mitzi J. Smith, “‘What, then, is the Church?’: A Womanist Biblical Scholar’s Response”

[5] John White, “A Case Study on the Road to Repair: Princeton Theological Seminary”

[6] Benjamin Morgan Palmer, The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell (Richmond: Whitter & Shepperson, 1875), 286.

[7] Clarke, 65.