An interview from Vantage magazine with
Erskine Clarke, Professor Emeritus of American Religious History
about his new book on the history of Columbia Theological Seminary
Columbia Theological Seminary’s rich history provides a window into the social and intellectual life of the American South.
Founded in 1828 as a Presbyterian seminary for the preparation of well-educated, mannerly ministers, it was located during its first one hundred years in Columbia, South Carolina. During the antebellum period, it was known for its affluent and intellectually sophisticated board, faculty, and students. Its leaders sought to follow a middle way on the great intellectual and social issues of the day, including slavery.
Columbia’s leaders, Unionists until the election of Lincoln, became ardent supporters of the Confederacy. While the seminary survived the burning of the city in 1865, it was left impoverished and poorly situated to meet the challenges of the modern world. Nevertheless, the seminary entered a serious debate about Darwinism. Professor James Woodrow, uncle of Woodrow Wilson, advocated a modest Darwinism, but reactionary forces led the seminary into a growing provincialism and intellectual isolation. In 1928 the seminary moved to metropolitan Atlanta signifying a transition from the Old South toward the New (mercantile) South.
The seminary brought to its handsome new campus the theological commitments and racist assumptions
that had long marked it. Under the leadership of James McDowell Richards, Columbia struggled against its poverty, provincialism, and deeply embedded racism. By the final decade of the twentieth century, Columbia had become one of the most highly endowed seminaries in the country, had internationally recognized faculty, and had students from all over the world and many Christian denominations. By the early years of the twenty-first century, Columbia had embraced a broad diversity in faculty and students. Columbia’s evolution has challenged assumptions about what it means to be Presbyterian, Southern, and American, as the seminary continues its primary mission of providing the church a learned ministry.
Vantage: Tell us how you first discovered your interest in history.
I grew up in South Carolina and in a neighborhood in Columbia where history was in the air. Ancestors and their stories helped to shape our little world, told us who we were, and provided guidance for how we were to live in that white South Carolina world. When I was a teenager, I discovered to my great surprise that all South Carolinians were not white and that these black South Carolinians—who had been moving all around me in my little world—had their own ancestors and stories. Their ancestors and stories challenged the ancestors and stories that I knew, and they began to challenge my little world and my understanding of my place in it. Two things slowly began to dawn on me—this white world and this black world were deeply intertwined, that each world could not be understood apart from its relationship to the other. And second, I began to realize that I knew almost nothing about this black world that was so fundamental to my own self-knowledge. So early on I began what has been the focus of my work as a historian—probing the relationship between these two Southern worlds and trying to squint hard and look across the great distances that separate me from black Southerners and to catch glimpses in their eyes of the world as they see it and have experienced it. To Count Our Days reflects this life-long endeavor as it focuses on the history of the seminary which has been in many ways a large part of my heart’s home.
Vantage: You have previously led tours of the “Low Country” visiting various sites. What have you observed about how participants respond to history?
I believe that despite the deep divisions of today and the general amnesia of our individualistic society, there is a genuine and widespread interest in hearing these competing stories of the South—and consequently of the “American Experience.” We are as a nation struggling to know ourselves better, to tell our stories more honestly, and to acknowledge the profound ambiguities that rumble through our lives and our history.
Vantage: Given that you knew much about the history of Columbia Seminary before starting the book, what stood out to you during this project?
I had long admired J. McDowell Richards as one of the great figures in Columbia’s history. I knew of his support of the Civil Rights Movement, but I did not realize the radical stance he had taken years earlier against the racism that permeated the South and the nation. While always identifying himself as a child of the white South (from a very distinguished family), and calling for the church to repent of its participation in the injustices of the nation, he did not hesitate, for example, to denounce in a widely distributed sermon the racism pouring forth from Governor Gene Talmadge. He called attention to police brutality that went unpunished, to exploitation of black workers, and to shameful economic interests that consigned blacks to wretched housing and meager schools. I did not realize that a cross had been burned on the front lawn of the president’s home and that for years his family received vile and threatening phone calls because of his advocacy for racial justice. He was always modest regarding his actions and consistently called for personal repentance on the part of white Christians.
Vantage: Can you share something from the book with us?
The second chapter discusses the enslaved African Americans whose labors and very bodies provided the economic resources of the seminary during the Antebellum years. George Howe was a New Englander who is generally considered the founder of the seminary. He married in the 1830s a Georgia widow who brought with her into the marriage a Lowcountry plantation and some sixty slaves, persons with names, histories, and various strategies of resistance. The paragraph is intended as a little glimpse into the entangled lives of blacks and whites throughout the seminary’s history:
“Tony was the carpenter on the Howe plantation, and he had responsibility for maintaining the slave cabins and building a barn when necessary and for making the trunks and gates that regulated the flow of water into rice fields. He was also rented out to neighboring planters when they needed a carpenter and were willing to pay for his work. Most of Tony’s wages were sent to Columbia to support the Howe household. But because of their importance to the operations of the plantation, Howe allowed Caesar [the head man] and Tony to begin to accumulate some property of their own—chickens, pigs, cows and even horses. In time Caesar would own his own buggy and a wagon and would be considered wealthy by the standards of Lowcountry slaves. But like most of Tony’s wages, the profits of the plantation flowed from Liberty County to Columbia. Caesar’s work and the work of all those who did their daily tasks on a Lowcountry plantation went to support the Howe household in Columbia and to supplement Howe’s salary from the seminary.”
Thank you, Dr. Clarke, for sharing your insights here and all of the work you have done to
preserve these histories.
Erskine Clarke won the prestigious Bancroft Prize given by Columbia University for a work “of exceptional merit” for his book, “Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic” (2005), a compelling narrative history of four generations of a Georgia plantation’s inhabitants, white and black. Clarke has written several important books about religion and slavery in the American South. Just retired from teaching duties, he is Professor Emeritus of American Religious History at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, where he taught for many years. Thomas Erskine Clarke was born May 29, 1941 in Columbia, SC. He grew up in South Carolina and received his BA in History at the University of South Carolina in 1963. He earned a Master of Divinity degree in 1966 from Columbia Theological Seminary, did graduate work at the University of Basel in Switzerland 1966-67 and received his Ph.D. in 1970 from Union Theological Seminary, and joined their faculty soon after that. He has since lectured and served as consultant at a number of institutions including Yale University, the University of London, the University of Virginia, Wesley Theological Seminary; Nanjing Theological Seminary in China, and the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. He is publisher and editor of the Journal for Preachers, a quarterly journal of homiletics.