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Repenting of Institutional History
A Powerful Webcast and the Wheaton Report
I’m currently a third of the way through Robert P. Jones’ The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future. Robbie’s book — now a New York Times bestseller! — explores the lasting impact of the Doctrine of Discovery. That official Church teaching underscores the Christian duty and right of White Europeans to take possession of land and people in the New World. Embrace of the Doctrine justifies the exclusion of Native Americans from their lands as well as their decimation. It supports the livelihoods of White Settlers in the South who required and then legitimized the use of chattel slavery to make that economy work. It empowered Jim Crow laws and the kinds of disparate treatment that resulted in stories like the murder of Emmett Till. The book is divided into treatment of three areas: Mississippi, Minnesota, and Oklahoma1. I’ve made it through the Mississippi section so far.
Not surprisingly, Robbie is on a whirlwind book tour. It not only takes him to interviews on cable news but to a raft of podcasts and webinars. Just this week, he was talking to Andrew Whitehead and to David Gushee, both people I follow closely. But the interview that I decided I just had to watch was yesterday’s conversation with Anthea Butler, professor of religious studies at Penn2. Anthea is the author of White Evangelical Racism published two years ago.
Given the overlap of their books, it was the excellent conversation I expected. They unpacked the impact of the Doctrine of Discovery and the ways that has influenced religion and attitudes of religious Americans. They touched on the linkage to Christian Nationalism and distrust of pluralism.
My ears perked up at the end of the Q&A. Someone asked how Christian Higher Education had perpetuated these religious attitudes. Robbie responded that, growing up in Mississippi, he was in college before he ever heard of Emmett Till and in seminary before he knew why Southern Baptists were Southern.
Since I am working on a book about rethinking Christian Higher Education (and just wrote on here on Monday that it is possible for Christian Universities to deal proactively with issues of race) that question made my heart happy. Even more of a connection came yesterday afternoon as well.
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Just before I started the Butler-Jones webinar, I saw a tweet from Joey Cochran at Wheaton about the release of a major report on Wheaton’s history. Dan Silliman and Kate Shellnutt had a story in Christianity Today last night about the report3. So I spent time this morning reading the summary and various pieces of the history. While it doesn’t deal directly with the Doctrine of Discovery, it does speak directly to the challenges Wheaton had in trying to reconcile their religious visions with the impacts of internal and external racial assumptions and commitments.
Three years ago, the Wheaton Board of Trustees authorized a task force to do a deep dive on the ethnic relations history4 of Wheaton from 1860 to 20005. I was a little disappointed in the time frame. It might have been nice to deal with events leading up to the election of Barak Obama, Black Lives Matter, and (internally) the Larycia Hawkins saga. Still, it provides an honest retelling of the challenges of addressing race on Wheaton’s campus.
While the early leaders of Wheaton were staunch abolitionists, they were more concerned with ending slavery than promoting integration. Once the emancipation amendments were in place, their concerns moved elsewhere (secret societies were a bid deal!).
Like most Christian Universities (and universities in general), Wheaton was hampered by the attitudes of the surrounding community and its constituency. So when a handful of Black students enrolled at Wheaton in the mid-20th century, a big concern arose around interracial dating. Steps were taken to require students to have permission to get engaged, permission usually denied in an interracial relationship.
A highlight of the report for me was an initiative taken by the department of Anthropology and Sociology in the 1950s. The faculty undertook a deep study of the racial issues at Wheaton, the cultural dynamics experienced by students of color, and the need to model community to the larger society. This included the elimination of the marriage policy. In what will be a surprise to no sociologist anywhere, the report was quashed by the administration.
Wheaton allowed a student chapter of the NAACP (after checking with the DOJ and HUAC6 to make sure the organization wasn’t communist) but it only lasted three years. Similar false starts happened with early entry programs and offices of multicultural studies (the latter hampered by frequent turnover due to lack of perceived institutional support). Minority scholarships were set up after making sure they were allowed by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
The impacts of these struggles can be seen in enrollment figures throughout the report. Where in the first half of the 20th century, new Black students in the freshmen class could be measured with one or two hands, the end of the century saw that number at around 50 (although with a growing student population, the percentage hit a high of 10% in 1995 before falling back to a little over 8% in 2020).
To be fair to Wheaton, the patterns described in their report can be seen in just about any Christian college over the same period. I dare say that many didn’t do as well as Wheaton.
They deserve credit for doing this analysis (but I really want to see the 2000-2020 version!). Of special note is the way that the are attempting to offer institutional repentance for their past failings. It’s worth quoting this language directly.
Therefore as the Board of Trustees representing the College, we repent of all forms of racism and favoritism in our institutional history, whether conscious or unconscious. We are sorry for the way our institutional transgressions have harmed African American, Asian American, Latino, and indigenous groups. We also repent of the indifference and complacency that led us to miss opportunities to enact, bold, courageous changes in institutional policies, programs, and practices related to community members of color. These sins constituted a failure of Christian love; denied the dignity of people made in the image of God; created deep and painful barriers between Christian brothers and sisters; tarnished our witness to the gospel; and prevented us from displaying more fully the beautiful diversity of God’s kingdom. Regardless of how these transgressions are defined, they fall short of what the gospel demands of a Christ-centered community where all members are recognized, loved, and equally respected.
True repentance requires more than merely issuing an apology, however. It also means correcting our course. This has begun in many ways, but there is more to be done. The commitments you read about in what follows include changes to the way we tell our school story, a review of naming policies and practices related to campus facilities, including the library, ongoing review of the resources we provide for the flourishing of every member of our community, and continued dialogue with Native American leaders from the tribes that originally claimed the land that now constitutes our campuses.
This is a remarkable step, emblematic of what I’ve called a Fearless Christian University. It is an attempt to acknowledge past reality and to begin to unwind a past that, as Anthea and Robbie suggested in the webinar, seems to have a White default setting.
While it’s a step that should encourage other schools to do the same, this may well be a fraught time for Wheaton and its leadership. The report provides a link to share responses (email HRTF@wheaton.edu). I wish I was more optimistic about responses I think the Christian community will make to this report. But I’ve seen to much data to think that would be the case. Too many people worry about the imagined “Woke Mind Virus”.
And so I encourage those reading this to send your own email to the task force. We need to overwhelm the critics.
The Wheaton report doesn’t solve the issues that Robbie and Anthea address in their books. But it a beginning step down that road and for that we should be grateful.
He discusses all three in his introduction. This was particularly interesting to me because the Minnesota section deals with the war against the Dakota in the 1860s. My great-great grandfather Charles Roos was the sheriff of New Ulm, Minnesota at the time (and later mayor) and was part of these battles.
The webinar was recorded and is worth the watch.
The CT story has a link to a PDF of the full report.
The report also addressed the establishment of a geological study center in Wisconsin on former Lakota land.
Back in the halcyon days of 2021, such reflection wasn’t considered “woke”.
House Committee on UnAmerican Activities