Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania could do a better job of teaching the public about the significance of historical monuments, the reasons behind them, and how to sort through the defects and achievements of figures that past generations esteemed.
The church has a different and better tool kit. Unfortunately, First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina, did not use it. The officers there have decided to remove the names of James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer, two southern Presbyterian theologians who defended slavery, from lecture series, walls, and publications. In the pastoral letter sent to congregation members, Dr. Derek Thomas wrote the following:
Some, seeing the wanton destruction meted out by mobs elsewhere in our society, may worry that we, too, are effacing our history. I do not think that is the case. There is much more to learn from Thornwell and Palmer in
their writings. Thornwell’s four-volume Collected Writings is still available in our church library and for purchase on the internet. His works on the nature of God, creation, the Scriptures, and justification will continue to be taught and read, whatever the names of our buildings may be. The same is true of Palmer’s works, in particular his superb The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell. In any case, I doubt very much whether either man would wish his name assigned to a church building.
I have been an admirer of both James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer ever since I was introduced to their writings at seminary in mid-1970’s. To mention but one issue, Thornwell’s contribution to the understanding of the office of ruling elder shaped my direction into Presbyterian convictions (I was a Baptist) and continues to be important. Palmer’s The Broken Home and Theology of Prayer are two very fine works. I fully intend to read them again.
For years, I believed that we could honor the good while conceding to the bad. But their views on slavery and race were not just bad and wrong, they are fundamentally at odds with Scripture. I recall a black preacher, some forty years ago at a Banner of Truth conference in England, saying, “I love Thornwell on this issue, but he was horribly wrong on race and slavery.” That narrative does not work anymore. The names now are a “stumbling block” to our ability to witness to our African-American brothers and sisters. They are an impediment to enable us to witness on college campuses. And they are hurtful to our African-American members.
I can only imagine the pressure a congregation like this one senses in the current climate and do not intend to pile on from one side when they are likely receiving lots of pressure from the other. But I still have trouble understanding how you recommend Thornwell and Palmer as theologians while also declaring they are stumbling blocks. Who will pick up their works now? Even more, who is better situated to defend the value of their theology despite their objectionable political views and the doctrine they used to support them? If not officers and members at congregations at First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, don’t expect the folks at Redeemer New York City or Christ Presbyterian Nashville.
Another puzzle is the timing. The names of Thornwell and Palmer are objectionable now? They haven’t been since the Civil Rights’ movement? Or since 2016 when the ARP General Synod confessed “the sinful failings of our church in the past in regard to slavery and racism”? As in the case of Princeton and Penn, the action of removing a name or a statue does not make up for the years that your institution was content to live with those names and figures. Simply admitting your fault does not create a new institution with new officers and staff. It’s the same people today making apologies who yesterday were unmindful of anything wrong.
The thing is, the defense of good theologians who got social institutions wrong is not all tricky since it involves the very word of God. Christians who read their Old Testament, maybe not as large as they once were, know that Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was not necessarily the man most fathers desire as a spouse for their daughters. He deceived his own father to acquire Esau’s birthright, and later deceived his father-in-law about livestock (for starters). He played favorites with his sons and should have exerted more control in the unseemly retribution for Shechem’s sexual infidelity with Jacob’s daughter Dinah (Gen. 34). The patriarch was no saint as some communions evaluate sanctity.
And yet, the Old Testament authors did not cancel Jacob. His name occurs over and over again throughout the Hebrew Scriptures — thirty-four times in the Psalter alone.
If any Old Testament figure qualified as a stumbling block, it was Jacob, not to mention that if you were looking for parts of the Bible over which to stumble, the Old Testament has to be considered.
All of which is to say that Christianity, even the very Word of God, has lots of challenging material for contemporary believers. In our time of safe spaces, certainly the likes of Thornwell and Palmer have little appeal. But if you start to jettison figures long regarded for their insights and contributions, how do you protect the Bible itself?