“Bethlehem College & Seminary, Ethnic Harmony, and Doug Wilson”

In March 2019 I submitted two reports to the leadership of Bethlehem College & Seminary: “Bethlehem College & Seminary and Ethnic Harmony: A Minority Report,” and “Bethlehem College & Seminary, Ethnic Harmony, and Doug Wilson” (note: “ethnic harmony” is Bethlehem’s language for issues related to racial reconciliation). I was the Director of Admissions and was responsible for recruiting and admitting students to all programs, including the college and the seminary. We had been struggling to recruit Black students the seminary for several years, and I had recently heard concerns that “BCS is not a good place for minority students” from some current students, former students, and fellow Bethlehem Baptist Church members. Since this was my job, I followed up and took a representative survey of some students, alumni, faculty, board members, and friends of the school, out which came these two reports. 

Recently, I have heard from multiple attempts to downplay or minimize the relationship between Bethlehem and Douglas Wilson, and I would like to document the fact that (1) there is a substantial connection and (2) BCS leadership has been directly confronted with this question for several years. (note: I am not sharing the first report, as it contains direct feedback from people whom I have not received permission to share from).

(Note: this report is specifically focused on issues of race, and thus does not discuss Wilson’s views on women, sexual abuse victims, or any other number of issues that could each receive their own focused treatment.)

I had four goals in the report, reflected in the main headings:

I. Document the affiliation between Bethlehem College & Seminary, DesiringGod, and Doug Wilson.

II. Show why Black and Tan is so offensive and historically inaccurate.

III. Reflect on the past six years (now 8) since the Doug Wilson / Thabiti Anyabwile exchange in 2013.

IV. Suggest some areas we might consider taking action on.

I had intended to share the report with all faculty in order to discuss it at one of the monthly “Faculty Forum” meetings, but was encouraged to share it with the President’s Cabinet first. 

It was not well received.

First, I was immediately told that I was not permitted to share these findings with anyone. Not with faculty, not with pastors, not with board members — no one. I asked specifically if I could share it with Jason Meyer, who was then on the board of trustees, was the Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church, and professor of preaching at the seminary, and was told “no.” I asked to share with Sam Crabtree, chair of the BCS board — “no.” Of course, sharing with other faculty was out of the question, but the leadership decided to share it with Joe Rigney.

I was told that my reports were “incendiary,” as in “highly flammable,” and that they had the potential to damage the school’s reputation. This seemed to me to be a case of misdirection. It is Doug Wilson who is incendiary. It was our affiliation with him that I though could get us burned. It seemed strange to blame the person saying “Look! There’s a fire!” when the fire was started by someone else.

A number of meetings followed, some of which were very intense. At one meeting, I was admonished for “aggressively” pushing an “agenda” for racial justice. Whether I realized it or not, I was espousing “Critical Race Theory,” which, in 2019, was just starting to come on the evangelical radar. My social media posts were being observed and commented on, and apparently some of our faculty had expressed concern to school leadership regarding my statements, though no one had ever spoken to me directly about any of it. 

There was fear that the issues of racial justice had the potential to divide our faculty deeply, which was surprising to me, and if true, seemed to be a sign of brittleness. American slavery came up, including that sentiment that “the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery” so how can we condemn Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding and call it “sin”?

The report on Doug Wilson was dismissed as “Desiring God’s problem,” ignoring the specific affiliations that the school itself had (and continues to have).

Later that summer, I again raised concern about our affiliation with Wilson at the time of the annual Association of Christian Classical Schools conference “Repairing the Ruins.” I expressed that my conscience was troubling me, and “I feel compelled to raise again the issue of our affiliation with Doug Wilson, an issue that has not been addressed at all since my raising it nearly 3 months ago.” Much of what I expressed is contained in this post: “Doug Wilson and the Association of Christian Classical Schools.” I concluded with this:

I think that our affiliation with Doug Wilson, including ACCS, is a big mistake. I am asking you to reconsider whether this is really in the best interest of our school.

Specifically, I would be served to have clarity on the following questions:

—What exactly is our position on Doug Wilson?

—In the absence of any clear direction, are all faculty and staff free to make their own determinations on how to relate to Doug Wilson and his associated organizations? I.e., if Joe is free to associate in public and prominent ways with Doug, NSA, and ACCS, are others of us free to offer criticism in equally public ways? If not, what is the specific standard or policy to which we will be held on this issue? 

—Why do we feel the need to affiliate with ACCS? There are other classical education organizations that we could pursue like the Society for Classical Learning. Can someone articulate the difference between the two and offer an argument in support of the ACCS?

The school sent another representative to this conference, and ultimately it was determined that nothing public would be said clarifying Bethlehem’s connections to Doug Wilson. 

Finally, in October 2019, our annual renewal to ACCS came up and I once again raised concern about our official affiliation with Wilson and the ACCS. On October 31, 2019, I was told that I was no longer permitted to “advocate for institutional change” regarding our various connections with Doug Wilson.

I closed my report with 8 suggestions, intended to prompt discussion among the faculty. Here was the eighth suggestion:

There may be other things that Bethlehem might consider in order to clarify what has appeared to be confusing and ambiguous messaging regarding ethnic harmony in general and Doug Wilson in particular. With a faculty and staff of such creative minds, I’m sure there will be even better ideas than the ones suggested here.

Ultimately, the school, chose option #9:

But Bethlehem College & Seminary might decide that the price is too high to pay, and say and do nothing at all. I’m praying that that will not be the case. I love this school, and I pray that we will submit to our King, Jesus, whatever he might ask of us.

I continued working as Director of Admissions for another year and a half, and stopped advocating for “institutional change” regarding Doug Wilson. In February 2021, I resigned from my position and in July 2021 I left Bethlehem Baptist Church.

(Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash)


Why I Spoke with Julie Roys about leaving Bethlehem

I spoke with Julie Roys on July 21 about my time at Bethlehem College & Seminary and Bethlehem Baptist Church. With the recent resignations of Jason Meyer and two other pastors, many people have been wondering “what happened?” Julie has been investigating this question and has released three articles so far:

I am briefly quoted in the most recent article, and may be quoted more extensively in future articles as well. I am anticipating a wide variety of responses and questions: some people will be very upset with me for speaking with her; some will feel betrayed; some will be deeply grateful that I spoke with her; others will be confused; others may genuinely want to understand. This post is an effort to answer the question at the top: why did I speak with Julie Roys about my time at Bethlehem?

How long were you at Bethlehem?

I moved to Minneapolis in 2014 to attend Bethlehem College, and then stayed for four more years of seminary, where I also worked full-time as the director of admissions. We attended Bethlehem Baptist Church’s downtown campus that entire time and over the years served in nursery, Sunday school, kitchen ministry, led small groups, played on the worship team, and served on the Ethnic Harmony Task Force. I resigned from my position with the school in February 2021, and we submitted our letter requesting membership removal in June 2021, which was made official in July.

Were you planning all along to “go public” and were just waiting for the opportune time?

No. I had no plans to talk publicly about my time at Bethlehem. I never considered my story to be of particular importance, and in leaving Bethlehem I really wanted to just move on and let other people deal with the mess. I have had to try to reach a point where I could have peace even if the problems going on at Bethlehem never reached a resolution. When Julie posted a public  request for sources, I didn’t respond. I didn’t want to. I was afraid (and still am!) of the reaction people would have. What will former professors, pastors, co-workers, and friends think? What will John Piper think? What will be said about me, what will happen to my reputation? I didn’t want to do it, it felt easier not to speak. But I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling: I don’t want to speak with her; but should I? 

Did this feel like a crystal clear choice to make?

No. I went back and forth, back and forth. I was reminded of Proverbs 26:4–5:

“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.

Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

So many decisions are like this, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. “Do not speak publicly about what happened, lest more harm be done to the cause of Christ. Speak publicly about what happened, lest lest more harm be done to the cause of Christ.” When should we speak, when should we stay silent? It isn’t always crystal clear, it feels like a judgment call that requires wisdom. Some people, like me, have spoken or will speak; others will remain silent. Let each be fully convinced in their own mind.

Did anything in particular influence your decision?

Yes: the concluding chapter in Wade Mullen’s book Something’s Not Right is called “What Now?” and includes a section titled “Building a Safe Community.” Here’s a link to my copy of this section [which I will pull if Wade asks me to!]:

Here are a few of the quotes that influenced me:

“Abuse is not someone else’s personal and private matter that we can ignore out of a concern for minding our own business, nor is it a matter to be only attended to by a select few in leadership positions. Abuse is a community concern. Therefore, the question must be asked of each of us: In what ways am I perpetuating an abusive culture through my silence or tacit endorsement of those who are in the wrong?” (178).

“What can we expect, beyond words, that can assure us of the sincerity of the community’s newfound resolve to end abuse? One action might surpass them all. And it is this: to open all the windows of the darkened house until every nook and cranny is covered in light so that all the damage can be seen. It is to surrender to that light, even if it means there will be no possibility of retaining or regaining legitimacy” (179).

“People often defend their silence by saying, “I don’t want to take sides.” More often than not, that is simply an excuse for not pursuing truth. Who do we usually hear that from? The leadership attempting to maintain order. And even after the truth has been established, those who chose not to pursue the truth often want to remain neutral. But there is no remaining neutral. Bystanders must take sides, either to be arrive supporters of the wounded or to actively turn their backs. There is only deception and truth. People who choose to remain neutral are giving safe passage to lies. Elie Wiesel powerfully said, ‘I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented.’” (180).

“A safe community gives people the freedom to say, “Something’s not right.” A safe community searches for understanding until what doesn’t seem right is clearly identified, named, and described. A safe community addresses what isn’t right, even if it means putting their own reputation on the line. And if the system itself isn’t right, then a safe community will consider whether its presence is part of the problem. A safe community gives no room for the language of abuse to spread, because it keeps the lights on. In that light, truth moves freely. People do not keep their stories to themselves for fear of how others will respond” (184).

Again, while I did not consider my own story something worth sharing publicly, I do believe that I have been a bystander, a witness to things that others have experienced, and this was what tipped the scales for me in the direction of sharing publicly.

Is this your attempt to “#LeaveLoud”?

No. “#LeaveLoud” is a term coined by a group of Black Christians over at The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, and on their podcast Pass the Mic (both of which I highly recommend). Tyler Burns very helpfully noted the Black origins of this phrase for when minorities leave predominantly white institutions and then tell their stories (“What is #LeaveLOUD?“). I don’t need to appropriate that language to describe what I’m doing here.

Why did you speak with Julie?

Again, I was not actively seeking someone to speak with. I didn’t respond to Julie’s open call for sources. It wasn’t until multiple people reached out to me asking “would you be willing to speak with Julie? I really think it would help,” and then when Julie herself actually reached out to me, that I decided to go ahead with it.

Why did you speak “on the record” with her?

Julie gave me the option of speaking “off the record” and I think that if I had, I could have spared myself some of the inevitable reactions. This was tempting, but the feeling that I could talk to her in secret and thus avoid the consequences of doing so felt disingenuous to me. Because of this I felt strongly that if I was going to speak to her, my name should be on the record, and to let the consequences come what may. I wish to be able to say with Paul “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (1 Cor 4:2). In a situation where there is so much hiding, so many secrets, so much prevarication, equivocation, and impression management, speaking on the record was a way of actively resisting this for my own self. Obviously not everyone has to come to the same conclusion, and others can speak off the record with completely clean consciences, but for me, this was important.

Why would you speak to a journalist about these things?

For some people, the idea that you would speak on the record with a journalist is inherently suspect. People love to hate journalists, and especially when something controversial is coming out, those with an interest in keeping things under wraps will turn to a critique of journalists as part of the overall communication strategy. Casting doubt on the integrity and truth of journalists can be a tactic to maintain uncertainty, and perhaps keep some loyal followers who might otherwise have been affected. We witnessed this on a national scale when former president Trump repeatedly attacked the press, and sought to discredit them. I feel very differently — I love the “freedom of the press” that we enjoy in this country. I believe that journalists play a vital role in holding powerful institutions and individuals accountable. Are journalists perfect? No. Do they have biases? Yes. Do sometimes the investigative reporters need to be investigated and reported on? Yes! But in general, I hold journalists in high esteem and am deeply grateful for their work.

Have you shared this information with anyone else?

Yes. Along the way I have repeatedly said “I am happy to follow up with anyone about any these things, and nothing I share needs to be confidential. Put my name on it, and send people to me if they want to follow up. I am not hiding anything.” When a classmate reached out and said, “would you be willing to share over the phone some of those things with me? If you don’t really want to share, there’s no pressure on my end.” I said “I’m happy to talk about any of it.” And we did. When pastors or professors have reached out and asked to meet, I’ve met with them. When church members ask to meet, I meet with them. I tried very hard to preserve confidentiality while many of these things were in process, because I wanted the process have its best chance at working. However, these events have broken into public, in public church Q&A’s, in public church meetings, and now in public news stories. I would have been making an exception in this case to do otherwise (“No Julie, I won’t speak with you about this”).

Isn’t it unbiblical to talk about these things in public?

When I read through the Bible, I see names. When Peter and Barnabas compromised the gospel in Galatia, Paul named names. When Demas deserted Paul, he named names. In particular, look at what John does in 3 John concerning Diotrephes:

“I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church”

3 John 9–10

I call attention to this only to note that it is not just blatant heretics who are called out by name; it is not just adulterers or sexual abusers who are called out by name; it is not just those who extort or embezzle money who are called out by name: Diotrephes is called out for pride (“loving the preeminence”), for “malicious words,” and for pushing people out of the church. Sometimes, these kinds of situations warrant speaking in public, and the Bible gives us warrant and example for doing so.

What do you stand to gain from this?

Honestly, on one hand it feels like “absolutely nothing.” What I feel right now is a deep sense of loss, not gain. Loss of friendships, loss of relationships, loss of trust, loss of opportunities, loss of “positive references,” loss of respect. And when I resigned from my job, loss of money, loss of a clear “career track.” The three core ministries of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Desiring God, and Bethlehem College & Seminary brought in over $20,000,000 in charitable donations last year (BBC: $10.2M; DG: $7.5M; BCS: $2.5M). They have money, influence, and lawyers(!). This is to say nothing of their affiliated institutions (Treasuring Christ Together Network, Training Leaders International, Themelios journal), connections with other national evangelical organizations (T4G, The Gospel Coalition, 9Marks, Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), seminaries (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, John MacArthur / The Masters Seminary), the Christian publishing industry (Justin Taylor / Crossway Publishing), missionary agencies, and more. Getting on the wrong side of Bethlehem puts one on the wrong side of a lot of folks in the evangelical world.

I’ve also felt the loss of identity, loss of community, and at times the loss of faith, or at least the form of faith that I once had. I am still fighting to hold on to faith in Jesus, but witnessing what I have has caused deep questions in my soul. What do I gain, though, by speaking? Honestly, I feel like I gain the satisfaction of knowing that I did what I believed was right, even when — especially when — it was deeply costly to me. I can look myself in the mirror and say “I didn’t shrink back because of fear; I stood with the hurting; I told the truth.” That in itself is worth it to me.

Doesn’t speaking about the church’s problems in public dishonor the name of Christ?

Sometimes speaking publicly about the church’s problems can dishonor Christ. There is a time for love to cover a multitude of sins, to bury things in the past, and move on. But not always. In fact, I believe that sometimes not speaking does more dishonor to the name of Christ than speaking would do. I do not believe that Christ is honored by secrecy, by hiding, or by deceit. He is not honored when people hurt others in his name. And he is not honored when other people remain silent in the face of those actions. Churches and ministries are being exposed left and right these days for various forms of abuse: sexual abuse, financial abuse, and spiritual abuse. The American church’s “credibility” is already in question, and one could argue has always been in question, especially when you consider the long history of compromise and complicity with grotesque evil in this country.

I also believe that the impulse to equate “the cause of Christ” with any particular church or institution is part of the problem. When this impulse produces hesitancy to hold people accountable and tell the truth, there seems to be an inflated sense of one’s own importance. The “cause of Christ” is so much bigger than any one person, church, or institution; it has continued for millennia, and will continue for millennia more, and does not hinge upon the reputation of any one expression of it.

To the contrary, I believe that truth-telling and confession actually honors Christ. It is a demonstration of faith. It is an act of hope in the resurrection. On the last day, everything will be revealed in the piercing light of truth. There will be no secrets on that day. In my understanding of the “already/not yet” shape of history, the act of confession is an opportunity to experience the healing grace of light now before the last day when it burns with the regret of lost opportunities for repentance. Confession enacts in the present the reality of the truth of the last day. 

Are you sure you made the right choice?

No. I went back and forth before speaking with Julie, and I’ve gone back and forth since. The whole thing feels yucky. I have second guessed myself, doubted myself, and have been bracing myself for the reactions. Who can know their own heart? Have my motives been perfectly pure at every point?

Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:23–24

I’m imperfect and I have made imperfect choices in the past, and perhaps this was another of them. All I can say is I sought the Lord, I begged for wisdom, I considered my principles, and I made the best choice I could. The results are in His hands now.

What do you hope to accomplish?

At this point, honestly, I’m not hoping to “accomplish” anything, other than telling the truth, and defending it if I have the opportunity. I’m not a member of this church anymore, and have thus given up my right to advocate for specific outcomes. Whatever those remaining at BBC and BCS will choose to do as more and more comes to light is up to them.

Am I seeking to destroy Bethlehem College & Seminary or Bethlehem Baptist Church? By no means. I love Bethlehem Baptist Church. This church was founded 150 years ago by Swedish Baptist immigrants (as “First Swedish Baptist Church”), and has a great history. I would love for that story to continue. Do I wish to see Bethlehem College & Seminary fail? I do not. There are good men and women who teach and study at BCS, and as much as I may disagree deeply with some positions of key leaders (see, for example, “Some guys need to learn how to take a punch”), I do not wish their demise. Paul did not demand the demise of Barnabas’s ministry when they parted ways in Acts 15.

However, I am deeply concerned that the operations of both institutions has been characterized by a deep lack of integrity, honesty, and transparency, the result of which has been deep harm to people that I love. I do deeply desire that both institutions would experience a refining by the power of God’s Holy Spirit that would result in honest confession, humble repentance, loving repair, and only then the start of a new chapter. I am praying that leaders with integrity will have the wisdom, courage, humility, and faith to do what is right in these days.

What do you think a healthier church might look like?

I am not the Lord, and I am not the determiner of Bethlehem’s future, but in my opinion, a healthier church and a healthier church based seminary would have a lot less of the “global reputation” and “brand” which may also mean less of the money and the power and influence that comes with that brand. My dream for those who remain at Bethlehem would probably look like a smaller church, with a renewed local focus, genuine outreach into the neighborhoods of Minneapolis, genuine face to face community, and perhaps some kind of leadership program that grows up organically out of that kind of ministry activity. Perhaps the formal College & Seminary can continue with support of Bethlehem’s network of churches (Treasuring Christ Together), but the messy complications and conflicts of interest created by having a formal accredited institution “under the authority of the elders” has exposed weaknesses that reached a breaking point this year.

Whether that’s where God takes Bethlehem from here remains to be seen and is up to others to decide. Whatever the case, my prayer is that God will grant everyone there faith to embrace an eternal perspective, to embrace the upside-down values of the Kingdom of God, to embrace the truth that “He must increase! I must decrease,” and to believe that loss can actually be the truest gain.

Please pray for Bethlehem.

“Some guys need to learn how to take a punch”

There’s a lot of discussion right now regarding classroom incidents at Bethlehem College & Seminary. Some students allege “spiritual abuse”; others say those students are being overly sensitive and need to develop “thicker skin.” I’m a graduate of Bethlehem’s MDiv program (2020) and a former full-time employee, and in a discussion I had about this with a professor and leader in the school, he made this statement: 

“Some guys need to learn how to take a punch.”

That is a fascinating, powerful, and illuminating statement, for so many things, including educational philosophy and pedagogy, character formation, leadership, “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,” and even more fundamentally, epistemology and the nature of truth itself.

If that’s true…

First, for arguments sake, let’s grant that the statement is true (we’ll return to this later). Let’s say that as part of your pastoral training program, part of what you are going to do is “teach guys to take a punch.” If that is going to be part of your methodology and pedagogy, that would need to be very clearly spelled out on the front end, or people are going to get hurt. When a punch is thrown in the ring at the boxing gym, we can legitimately call that “training”; but when that same punch is thrown in the hallway, we would call that “assault,” and clearly understanding the context you are in makes all the difference. If you are in a classroom, and you are not thinking to yourself “I’m in the boxing gym; I need to be prepared,” and someone throws a punch at you, it may blindside you and leave you dazed and bruised; it may feel like an attack; it may have dramatic effects on the rest of your experiences there; it may even leave lasting wounds.

In my experience as a student, I don’t ever recall hearing, “expect to get punched, brothers.” Nor, in my experience, when punches were thrown, even if it was more akin to the “boxing gym,” I don’t recall adequate follow up by the “coaches” and “trainers.” Some students thrived in this environment, and I was one of them. I gave as good as I got with just about everyone including the most direct and forceful professors; I was praised by them for the way I “fought.” But I’m left with deep reservations and questions about my own formation and leadership as a result.

Other students, it seems clear, didn’t know that this was what they were getting into, and when the punches came, they were left with bruises and wounds. If “some guys need to learn how to take a punch,” is an unwritten part of the pedagogy, then that needs to be advertised up front so students know what they are getting into.

But is it true?

I actually agree that part of a leadership training program, like a seminary, should include developing endurance and resiliency. Imagine a pastor trying to counsel someone through an abusive situation: how will they develop the resiliency required to face an aggressive abuser, and protect the abused? He may even have to face some “punches” in that scenario. “How to best train pastors and leaders for these kinds of situations?” is actually an important pedagogical question, I think.

And to be fair, the “boxing gym” analogy is not the only analogy I experienced in seminary; I also experienced the “lab room” analogy, analyzing texts under a microscope; the “marathon” analogy, reading thousands and thousands of pages (and sometimes collapsing near the finish line); the “cultural heritage center” analogy, examining authors from other cultures and time periods, and cultivating a curiosity and appreciation for them; and there were other analogies, too.

But I think if “some guys need to learn how to take a punch” is even part of a seminary program, it needs to be rigorously evaluated in light of texts describing pastoral ministry, like this one:

“And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel (μάχεσθαι) but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition” 

2 Timothy 2:24–25

The verb μαχομαι and the noun μαχη get translated “fight” or “strive,” as well as “quarrel.” One could argue that the “boxing gym” mode of training actually does more to train “fighters” and “strivers,” and neglects the deeper, and more important character formation required to produce leaders who are “gentle,” “patient,” “humble” teachers.

Or consider, among the qualifications of an elder:

“not quarrelsome [or “violent”] but gentle.

1 Timothy 3:3

This connects with how we understand what it means to be a “Biblical Leader.” When we were assigned Edwin Friedman’s book in an undergraduate “Leadership” course at Bethlehem, I wrote a very critical review because I felt that it inculcated a “survival of the fittest” and “strong vs. weak” approach to leadership, which is anti-Christian in my opinion, but which fits perfectly with the sentiment that “some guys need to learn to take a punch” (see my “Review: A Failure of Nerve”).

“Taking a punch” connects to our understanding of “Biblical Manhood.” When “Biblical Manhood” is understood primarily in a martial frame, as “courageous warriors” “fighting for truth,” then this becomes an important part of their formation. But if “warfare” isn’t the primary mode of understanding “masculinity,” then this kind of formation becomes deficient as it neglects other important aspects. Anyone wishing to explore the “warfare” mentality in American Evangelicalism can consult any number of books published recently, not least Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne.

Finally, “some guys need to learn to take a punch” actually connects to our fundamental understanding of “truth” and the process of learning and discovering truth. Is “truth” and “knowledge” something that is primarily gained via the combative process of “debate”?

Or is humility and love a crucial part of knowing? And I say this as someone who deeply appreciates the “free market of ideas,” and the idea that the “truth has nothing to fear.” I love debate and argumentation and facts and reason, writing this post itself is a participation in these processes. But there is much more to knowledge than debate, and there is a kind of “debate-mentality” that actually hinders the true gaining of knowledge. Those interested can track down whole reams of philosophy and theology on this (one place to start is with Esther Meeks “covenant epistemology” in Longing to Know and  Loving to Know, and others who have built on her work).

And I can imagine someone affirming all the above, who would wish to affirm both “take a punch” and “humility and love” hypothetically. But which parts of the philosophy are operational in the system? If you think to yourself “we want to form humble and loving leaders” but your methodology consistently forms fighters who go on to bruise others, then the methodology needs to be re-examined.

And I should add here, that in my own time at Bethlehem Seminary, I believe I did also learn how to listen humbly, love patiently, and care gently, and I learned it most in my counseling classes, two of which were co-taught by Bryan Pickering. Looking back, it is not surprising that Bryan resigned his teaching position after Fall 2020, and resigned from his pastoral role in 2021 over issues directly related to these things.

At the end of the day, some are just convinced that “some guys need to learn to take a punch,” and wholeheartedly embrace the entire package of ideas that undergird that statement and the methodologies that enact it. Some students will hear this and think “that’s exactly what I need, what our churches need, and what our culture needs right now.” 

I, though, am no longer convinced and am trying to rethink and re-form this in my own life and leadership.

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash 

“Race and Religion on the American Continent” (1882)

When considering Baptists and race in the nineteenth century, it’s easy to give Northern Baptists a pass, or at least assume they got it mostly right. After all, Northern Baptists ardently supported the Civil War (see, for example, “Massachusetts Baptists and The Civil War“), and after the war many Northern Baptists went South to help found schools and colleges for the newly freed people through the American Baptist Home Mission Society (see ““Missionaries or Presidents”? Newton Theological Institution’s contribution to the founding of HBCUs). However, even with all of this benevolent work, Northern Baptists had deep racialized views that mingled with their good intentions. This post analyzes one striking example of this.

On November 15, 1882, Ezekiel Gilman Robinson delivered an address before the first Baptist Autumnal Conference, held in Brooklyn, NY, entitled “Race and Religion on the American Continent.” The Baptist Autumnal Conference was attended by some of the biggest Baptist names at the time, including Augustus Hopkins Strong, president of Rochester Theological Seminary, Henry Weston, president of Crozer Theological Seminary, and Ezekiel Robinson, president of Brown University, and former president of Rochester himself. (see “Historical Sketch of the Conference,” in Proceedings of the Second Annual Baptist Autumnal Conference for the Discussion of Current Questions (Boston: Baptist Missionary Rooms, 1883): 100–101). They were there to present papers on a variety of subjects which were then open for discussion. 

“It is to be remembered everywhere, and by all, that the central idea of this conference is, that individuals may submit their views, tentative or final, on divers subjects of cur­rent interest, without being understood in the least to compromise the conference itself or the denomi­nation, and without prejudice to themselves in any direction. The Executive Committee seek to secure the presentation of subjects from different stand­ points, but cannot anticipate the specific views, or be held responsible for the utterances of any speaker. Hence it is not to be presumed that offi­cers of the conference, or members of the com­mittees, any more than casual members of the congregation assembled, either approve or disap­prove the sentiments expressed by the writers or speakers who participate in the discussion of top­ics presented.”

Nevertheless, Robinson’s address on race was deemed significant enough to reprint in its entirety, first in the American Baptist Home Mission Society’s magazine the Home Mission Monthly (available here), which advertised it thus: 

“By the kindness of Prof. Norman Fox, Secre­tary, we are permitted to give our readers, in this issue of the Monthly, Pres. Robinson’s able address before the Baptist Autumnal Conference, on “Race and Religion on the American Con­tinent.” A volume containing all the addresses at the meeting is soon to be published. The wise and weighty utterances of Pres. Robinson are worthy of a wide perusal”

(Home Mission Monthly 5.3 (March 1883), 57)

The address was also published as a standalone pamphlet and available at no charge other than the postage (57).

Ezekiel Gilman Robinson (1815–1894)

Ezekiel Robinson was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts in 1815. He graduated from Brown University in 1838, and Newton Theological Institution in 1842, having studied theology under Barnas Sears. He then taught theology at the Western Baptist Theological Institution in Covington, KY (1846–50), and was professor of theology at Rochester Theological Seminary for nearly twenty years (1853–72). Robinson was an influential theologian, and as Matt Shrader notes, he was among three theology professors (along with Alvah Hovey at Newton Theological Institution, and Ebenezer Dodge at Hamilton Theological Seminary), who “collectively taught theology to all Northern Baptist theology professors through the end of the nineteenth century). In 1872 he became the president and professor of philosophy at Brown University (1872–89), where he was when he delivered the Autumnal Conference address (see Newton Theological Institution General Catalogue, 50). (A bibliography of his published works can be found in Robinson’s Autobiography: “Published Writings”).

All this is to say that the sentiments expressed here were mainstream Northern Baptist views, presented by an influential Northern Baptist figure, and reprinted and distributed widely in the Northern Baptist press.

What was in this address? Well, you can read all five pages of text for yourself here: “Race and Religion on the American Continent.” Here are a few highlights from the speech with commentary. The speech begins thus:

Mr . President : The American Continent is peopled by many races. That portion of it covered by the United States contains the representatives of con­siderably the largest number. Towards these different representatives, the United States Government has been most dilligently [sic] urged within a very recent period to assume widely differing attitudes.

The United States had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act just six months earlier, in May 1882, and Robinson alluded to this:

Towards one of these races, a narrow minded political economy and a one- eyed statesmanship have proposed a defin­itely and a decidedly hostile policy. They purpose to drive them from our shores.

Robinson disagreed with the Chinese Exclusion Act, but in doing so he starts to betray his racialized understanding of the Chinese and their “place” in the United States:

Whether it be a violation of moral obliga­tion on our part, or of personal rights on the part of Chinamen, to refuse them the privi­lege of flocking to our shores and of doing our menial services, is a question of the re­lation of Ethics to Ethnics which we need not here discuss; or whether to refuse them be not a very shallow political economy and a very foolish statesmanship are questions we may well leave to the Economists and Politi­cians. But we are sure that the Christian re­ligion, knows no reason for not giving them a hearty welcome. It sees in their coming a sure opportunity of doing them good.

Robinson then articulates what appears to be a typical color-blind view, emphasizing the universality of the Christian message (he will prove later to be anything but “color-blind”):

Christianity on the other hand knows no distinctions among races. Its attitudes and its promises and its gifts are the same to all peoples and throughout all generations. Its one great aim is to bring all men into such relations with the ‘Father of the spirits of all flesh,’ as shall secure in them the fulfillment of his will, the discharge of all obligations, the realization of the highest ideal being of which humanity is capable.

And again:

the spirit of our holy religion is as broad and comprehensive in its charity as the world is wide. Like the infinite beneficence of God, who sends his rain upon the thankful and the unthankful, and gives harvests alike to all, it will bestow its blessings on all man­kind. It believes that “ God hath made of one blood all nations for to dwell on the face of the earth,” and it accordingly recognizes in every one having the human form, a child of the universal Father and one for whom Christ has died. Such is the attitude of the Christian religion to all races now on this con­tinent or ever to be on it.

Next, Robinson begins to articulate his understanding of the “races,” the superiority of the “English” race, and the common belief that the “commingling” of different races would produce stronger ones (versus “inbreeding”). Notice the way his understanding of Christianity is woven through this account of race:

But it is a noticeable fact that Christianity has always taken the strongest hold and wrought its best and most important result, amongst the sturdiest races. On which of all the races, now on earth, has it wrought more effectually than on the English ? Where, let me ask, will you find a finer type of character and of true manhood than in the truly Christian Englishman ? Insular it may be in habit of thought, he nevertheless is cosmopolitan in spirit, and his race is doing more than any other to-day, to determine the future destiny of mankind on this globe. Of him we are accustomed to say, that there runs in his veins, in commingled currents, the best blood of Europe. But out of English veins come the best blood of America—the blood that has made the United States all that they now are. Our free institutions are only the modi­fied institutions of England. What Christian­ity has done for England is open to the eyes of all the world. What it has accomplished and is now accomplishing in America, who­ ever will can see and understand. If on the English stock Christianity has been grafted and borne such fruit as it has, who shall say what it may not do for the American of the future.

However, Robinson makes very clear the limited scope of this “commingling,” namely, white people: Yankees, Virginians, the Mynheer [Dutch], and now a whole host of other European immigrants:

It was the commingling of bloods, it is said, that gave sturdiness and richness to the Anglican stock. But who shall venture to say what shall be the product of the amalga­mation of bloods in the future American ? That it will differ from any type now among us, or from any that was known to our fathers, no one can doubt. Typical Ameri­cans of a century ago are fast disappearing, if they are not already utterly gone. Even the typical Yankee, remembered by living men, now has only a ghostly existence; the original Virginian, survives only as a shadow; the Mynheer of New York, has utterly vanished; instead of them all there is slowly rising into view, but only in dimmest and undefinable outlines, the coming American. What his exact type will be, five hundred years from now, the omniscient God alone can foresee. This only is plain to us, he is to be the amalgam of many races and of races now in the van of the worlds progress; an amal­gam compounded of a greater variety of bloods than ever flowed together in the veins of any nation yet known to history.

Here, Robinson begins to express what Derek Chang calls the “evangelical nationalism” of the Northern Baptists of the nineteenth century, a mix of “piety and patriotism” and a sense that God providentially intended for them to help spread Christianity and civilization to their country (for more on this see Derek Chang, Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race in the Nineteenth Century; and Chang, “‘Marked in Body, Mind, and Spirit’: Home Missionaries and the Remaking of Race and Nation,” in Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas):

To the complete Christianizing of these commingling races, the providence of God now calls us, with a voice which we cannot, without guilt, decline to hear… The government, too, under which we live, is wholly in our favor. Under it the word of God cannot be bound. Whosoever will may preach the gospel and live accord­ ing to its requirements. And all around us are flowing in the representatives of races, for whom the gospel is yet to do its complete work. Was there ever a nation or a period, since our Lord’s ascension, in which his fol­lowers were summoned, as they now are, as by trumpet calls from heaven, to arise and do his bidding ? or a nation or period in which it was easier to do his bidding ? or a nation or period in which failure to do his bidding could show greater recreancy and guilt ?

It is here, though, that Robinson reveals that when he spoke of the “commingling” of “races” in order to create a stronger “American,” he did not mean the “African” nor the “Mongol”:

But it is not alone to the races out of which the amalgam of the future American is to be formed, that the providence of God now plainly calls us to render service. There are races among us that will never contribute their share to make up the typical American. They yet are our brethren and we are their debtors. No man thoroughly in his senses, can expect that the African will lose his iden­tity by mingling with other races; and there is little or no better prospect, that the Mon­gol will ever be permitted to contribute to the general fusion of bloods. But they can be Christianized and civilized and fitted for that great and incomprehensible part, which the providence of God undoubtedly intends them to play in the future of our world.

Robinson appealed to “providence” in understanding slavery, wondering whether “the Christian religion and American institutions” were given to the formerly enslaved as “compensation” for their sufferings under slavery. Robinson also expresses the typical paternalistic notions of “uplift” present in the Northern Baptists at the time:

To the African, after all the great and cruel wrongs which the greed and injustice of man have heaped on him, the Christian re­ligion and American institutions have given blessings, which the infinite mercy of God may have intended as some compensation for his terrible sufferings. But whatever God may have intended, we have not paid him all that we owe him. Our debts to him should all the more be scrupulously paid, because of his past wrongs and his present weakness and danger. It is our duty to give him educa­tion ; to give him Christian civilization; to give him equality before the law and all his civil rights under the constitution; to give him industry and self-respect, and whatever else may be needed to lift him into true man­ hood. All these we should give him, what­ ever is to be his future on the American Con­tinent.

Robinson could not imagine a future for Black people in America, and believed that their only hope was to “go back to Africa”:

But for one, I cannot believe that the highest and brightest future for the African, is to be that of the career of a distinct race on this continent. Marked and separated as he is from the rest of his fellow citizens, the victim of prejudice and a thousand indignities from the mean and vulgar, can he be expected to look for no better estate elsewhere? Believe who may, that he is to crouch beneath his burdens and indignities, resting forever content with his hard lot, I cannot. If I have read history aright, two races separated, as are the black and white, can never dwell together without one becoming the superior and the other the inferior; and it requires no prophet to foretell which of the two would here succumb. And so also, if I have not read history amiss, no inferior and oppressed people with an open road to a bettered condi­tion, and with evident and abundant induce­ments to walk in it, will long delay to rise up and go. There is a universal law, a law as- unvarying as that of gravitation, and a law never more manifest than in this nineteenth century, that every people will emigrate, whenever by emigration it can improve its condition.

The concluding paragraph in Robinson’s address plays on racialized stereotypes for both the Chinaman and the African, and their respective “natures” and how that interacts with religion:

Let us understand our opportunity ; let us try the power of the gospel on the Chinaman, as divine Providence offers him to our hands. Let us continue our work with redoubled zeal on the half Christianized African of the South. The fruits of the gospel in these races will have its own distinguishing marks. The Mongol, with his Confucian ethics, will make, of the gospel, religion rather than piety, while the African, with his emotional nature, will make, of the same gospel, piety rather than religion; just as our white brothers of the south surpass us, of the north, in piety, while we exceed them in religion. May the Divine Master rule over and work in us all, that, whether northerner or southerner, African, Mongol, or Indian, He may give to us all alike both piety and religion.

Given the nature of the Autumnal Conference, after Robinson was finished “the Hon. George Williams, of Ohio” spoke next, and he “did not believe the negro would go out of the country. The negro was here and he was going to stay.” (“Questions Discussed by Baptists and Unitarians,” New York Times, November 16, 1882.). Whatever else Williams thought, or whether he pushed back on any of the other racialized notions is unknown. Nevertheless, it was Robinson’s views that were published and endorsed.

There is much to appreciate in the theology and practice of the Northern Baptists, not least their work in the south among the freed slaves. But those who would draw on their example and appreciate what is good in it must also face squarely the racism and superiority that often tinged those benevolent acts with paternalism. Ezekiel Gilman Robinson gives us a clear occasion for doing so. As Derek Chang notes “His [Robinson’s] was a compelling vision. But it ultimately succumbed to the specter of racial difference. Even as they declared the possibility of blacks and Chinese belonging to the nation, a principle premised on the equality of souls, American Baptist evangelicals underscored the cultural and historical roots of difference that made such inclusions unlikely” (Citizens of a Christian Nation, 5). Indeed, anyone looking to dig deeply into this dichotomy in Northern Baptists should start with Chang’s work, as well as digging deeply into the original sources for themselves.

Bibliography of Biographical works on Ezekiel Robinson

Anderson, Thomas D. “Ezekiel Gilman Robinson.” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 30 (1894): 572–79. (free on Google Books)

Boutwell, Walter Stacey. “The Moral Matrix of God and Man: The Shape and Shaping of Ezekiel Gilman Robinson’s Theology.” PhD Diss., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1998.

Bronson, Walter Cochrane. The History of Brown University, 1714-1914. Providence, RI: The University, 1914. (free on Google Books)

“Robinson, Ezekiel Gilman, D.D.” in William Cathcart, editor The Baptist Encyclopaedia (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1883): 994–95. (free on Google Books)

Chang, Derek. Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race in the Nineteenth Century. Philadelphia: University Of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

———. “‘Marked in Body, Mind, and Spirit’: Home Missionaries and the Remaking of Race and Nation.” Pages 133–56 in Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas. Oxford, 2004.

Metcalf, Houghton, “Ezekiel Gilman Robinson: 1872–1889,” The Brunonian, (1904): 269–73. (free on Google Books)

Robinson, Ezekiel Gilman. Ezekiel Gilman Robinson: An Autobiography with a Supplement. Silver, Burdett, 1896. (free on Google Books)

Shrader, Matthew C. “Hidden Bridges? Progressive Tendencies among Non- Progressive 19th-Century Northern Baptists” (2021). (on Academia.edu)

Wilkinson, William Cleaver. “Ezekiel Gilman Robinson,” in Modern Masters of Pulpit Discourse. Funk & Wagnalls, 1905: 433–440. (free on Google Books)

———. “Ezekiel Gilman Robinson: The Man, the Preacher, the Teacher,” The Homiletic Review, (1895): 281–85. (free on Google Books)