The Stumbling Blocks Whom You Should Read for Edification

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?

11 thoughts on “The Stumbling Blocks Whom You Should Read for Edification

  1. Hebrews chapter 11 (and verse 1 of chapter 12) is a helpful passage related to this. The rag tag group is commended, called a great cloud of witnesses, and are looked to as examples even though their lives were filled with some pretty awful actions.

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  2. A great many Christians–even acute Bible students such as Mr. Thomas–do not, deep down, believe that God uses REAL sinners, only sinners-light such as themselves. Or, if they know this, they are reluctant to say it out loud. Luther once said that everybody confesses himself to be a miserable sinner, but hardly anyone wants to be a REAL sinner. Because, he said, bad things happen to and are deserved by real sinners.

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  3. Excellent post, Darryl.

    I’ll just add that no one in the wider culture was avoiding First Pres Columbia because the names Thornwell or Palmer were on the buildings. The only people who know these names are conservative Presbyterians. And they’re already in church.

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  4. I wonder though if Thornwell and Palmer are a little different than the run of the mill defenders of slavery. After all, Thornwell wrote the “Address” that publicly and definitely defended slavery in 1861. Palmer preached in November 1860 that preserving domestic slavery is the God-ordained cause of the South. Thornwell and Palmer were not merely conflicted souls, like Edwards or Hodge, wrestling with the propriety of the institution. They were full-throated defenders of race-based slavery. I, for one, am glad that FPC Columbia is removing their names from public prominence and allowing them to find a place in the stories that historians will continue to tell.

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  5. Sean,

    I think part of the problem is how selective this is. Why aren’t we tearing down Martin Luther for his anti-Semitic remarks? We can still embrace the spirituality of the church that Thornwell advocated, can’t we? Why, then, do we have to take his name off of a building because he believed other things that were wrong? If we can celebrate Luther every October 31, why can’t we memorialize Thornwell?

    I say this as one who has no particular affection to Thornwell and who is quite befuddled at times by the very Southern nature of parts of the PCA.

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  6. You guys are acting like the Left, including those among the NAPARC, have a legitimate argument. They are just exercising their will to power. They aren’t playing by any rules, guys.

    #JusticeForMachen

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  7. Some notes:

    1. We could put together a list to describe the cause or act of canceling (shaming/manipulation of sphere of authority/public pressure/moral indignation/exercise of power/appeal to people that includes an appeal to fear/implicit attack/purity culture …)

    Even though there is a mutually reinforcing component, I would characterize this sort of act of contrition as more of a consequence/result rather than as an acts/cause of cancel culture.

    We could think of this as the active/passive difference between “acting actor” and “acted on/against.” To illustrate this, imagine if, at the end of his letter, Thomas had suggested a list of other churches that should take some particular names off of THEIR buildings. Now that would be more like cancel culture.

    2. I really like this question about how Thomas can recommend theologians whom he also finds to be stumbling blocks. But this was a recommendation from the “Community Relations Committee.” I don’t have any basis to comment on what that could be, maybe just another name for their Missions or Evangelism or Outreach.

    3. Unfortunately the church website’s map page is down so we can’t see what the buildings are called now.

    4. Thomas seems to suggest the Community Relations Committee’s difficult work is only beginning. Is his prayer request at the end a bit ominous?

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  8. How about returning to Biblical examples of “giving offense” vs. “taking offense.” We get preached to a lot nowadays about the avoiding the former as good Christian witness, but hear little about the latter.

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  9. Another commenter mentioned the ‘heroes’ in Hebrews 11- heroes, by faith –
    v6 mentioning “without faith it is impossible to please Him”. In 1 Cor 10 we’re told of God’s use of all as examples “with most of them God was not well-pleased” v5). We’re told that we can “show ourselves examples of those who believe” (1 Tim 4:2).
    There are such good teaching times now for our children. We have to search the whole bible about all this, but a basic thing is knowing God more and more, because then when we ask if this or that particular deed, word, or thought pleases God, the answer starts to become clearer, as does His conviction. No one can do any good stuff apart from faith.
    And speaking of knowing God, I’m reminded upon J.I. Packer’s death, how great his Knowing God book was.

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  10. Sean, how do you feel about recommending Thornwell’s theology, though?

    And isn’t the congregation in question for only now — almost 120 years later — seeing the error? Where were they since 1963?

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