The Georgia Historical Society is erecting a new historical marker this fall about the Columbia Theological Seminary, with a series of blog and social media posts scheduled for the week of September 12, 2020. I asked Columbia’s own Erskine Clarke to talk about the Seminary and its history, along with his own history and his thoughts about some of the issues in contemporary America.
Erskine Clarke is Professor Emeritus of American Religious History at Columbia Theological Seminary, where he taught from 1973 to 2008. He graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1963, received a Master of Divinity from Columbia Theological Seminary in 1966, and a PhD from Union Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1970. Erskine is the author of several books on southern religious history, including Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic (Yale University Press, 2005), which won the prestigious Bancroft Prize from Columbia University, as well as GHS’s Bell Award for the best book in Georgia history; By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey (Basic Books, 2013), and To Count Our Days: A History of Columbia Theological Seminary (University of South Carolina Press, 2019).
Tell us a little about your background.
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.
You have written several books about religion and slavery in the South. What about this topic piqued your interest?
As I began to explore these two overlapping worlds of white and black southerners, it became clear that religion played a huge role in both worlds. And that was particularly true in regard to slavery–the fundamental and foundational experience for both worlds. To understand something of the white southern world in all its complexity and contradictions, I thought it important to probe the ways the religious life of whites was both shaped by and helped to shape slavery. Slavery helped to shape the ways southern whites read the Bible, thought about God, and organized church life. But the religious life of southern whites also helped to shape the ways they struggled with slavery and sought to find some innocence and some relief from the burden of white southern guilt.
At the same time, the religious life of African-American southerners played a large role in their struggles against the deep oppression of their enslavement. Their religious life, in all of its own complexity, reminded them that they were a somebody, not a nobody; that the present social order was not eternal but passing; and that God had a command for white slaveowners—“let my people go!” Once again, the white world and the African-American world overlapped, even as they kept their distinctiveness. And in that overlapping they influenced one another, perhaps especially in congregational life where whites and blacks often worshipped together in surprisingly large numbers.
Similarly, what inspired you to write a book on Columbia Theological Seminary?
Most obviously because I had been professor of US Religious History at Columbia for many years and the seminary had a pressing need for a history that explored in some depth its complicated story. I had long resisted writing such a history because, as I wrote in its Preface, institutional histories can invite a yawn. They are important for specialists and for those with a personal interest in a specific institution, but as a category of historical writing they do not evoke an image of a page-turning narrative. What I found, however, was a story that increasingly fascinated me with Columbia’s distinctive and peculiar character, with the personalities of the major players and their eccentricities, and with the ways its history tells a larger story of the American South and of religion in the United States.
And once again, I was intrigued by the overlapping of a white southern world and an African-American southern world. The second chapter, for example, tells the story of enslaved African Americans whose labors and sorrows and very bodies provided the wealth that made possible an institution of significant influence in the Antebellum South. These enslaved people were not nameless, but men and women with their own histories, their own distinct personalities, and with their own various strategies for resisting the deep oppression of slavery. The way the two worlds overlapped to tell a southern and American story is a major theme through the book.
Why do you think the seminary was first located in Lexington?
The Rev. Thomas Goulding had moved to Oglethorpe County in 1822 to escape from the “miasmas” of the Georgia lowcountry which were believed to cause malaria, or “country fever” as they often called it. The county was being rapidly filled with settlers as a new cotton kingdom was pushing westward, bringing not only whites eager for land and profits but also massive numbers of enslaved people being uprooted from seaboard areas to do the clearing and plowing of land and chopping of cotton. It was a period when theological schools were being established as a Second Great Awakening was sweeping the country and people were joining churches in unprecedented numbers. Theological seminaries—new graduate professional institutions with a full-time faculty, capital funds and a campus, a library, a resident student body, and a three-year curriculum–were the means by which some denominations began to provide churches with an educated clergy. The requirement of a college degree for admission was intended to ensure that theological students had both the philosophical and linguistic background provided by a collegiate education and—not incidentally—the general culture and manners taught in the colleges. Goulding had the necessary Christian experience, educational background, and social graces needed to teach young men wishing to enter the ministry. The Presbyterian Synod of South Carolina and Georgia called him to begin the work of establishing a theological seminary. Five students gathered in the manse in Lexington, and in this way the foundation was laid for the seminary.
Lexington, however, as little more than a village, was not the location needed for what was envisioned. The synod consequently moved the seminary to Columbia, SC, to be near the South Carolina College with its large library and distinguished faculty. A handsome mansion was purchased in Columbia, across the street from the mansion of Wade Hampton, the largest slaveowner in the South, and to it came students from the major colleges and universities in the nation. By the time of the Civil War, it had one of the largest theological libraries in the country. In 1928 the seminary moved to Decatur as a move out of the Old South toward the New Commercial South of a booming Atlanta.
You reference that Columbia Theological Seminary’s leaders sought to follow a middle way on the great intellectual and social issues of the day, including slavery. How did Columbia Theological Seminary stay on a “middle way” while also benefiting from a plantation economy?
Columbia leaders believed that wisdom was found in moderation and prudence, that extremes led to trouble and heresy, and that a middle way was the way of Christian faithfulness and discipleship. They sought a middle way in regard to knowledge, between rationalists and romantics; a middle way in regard to ethics—asking not what does my conscience demand in regard to slavery, but what is my present allotted sphere and task as a white southerner born in the midst of a system of slavery; and a middle way in politics, between those on one extreme or the other, between radical pro-slavery people who said slavery was a positive good, and abolitionists who called for the immediate abolition of an evil system. These “extremists,” these “radicals,” Columbia faculty, students, and board members said, would divide the Union if not checked. What was needed were prudent compromises and a kind and paternalistic attitude toward enslaved African Americans. Slaves should be taught to read and their marriages and families honored and kept together. Columbia’s most famous professor, James Henley Thornwell, even insisted that “it is no part of the essence of Slavery” that the “rights of the slave should be left to the caprice or to the interest of the master.” In this he was challenging the fundamental assumption of the slave-holding South—that masters, and masters alone, had full dominion over the whole body and soul and will of the slave; that masters and masters alone had the right to decide if a slave was to be sold and a family divided; and that masters and masters alone had the right to decide if their slaves could attend religious services.
What Columbia folk never fully acknowledged was the way their moderation and prudence were self-serving. They envisioned a humane, well-ordered, class-stratified society where whites were in charge—especially respectable, well-educated whites—and where blacks stayed in their place of obedient servitude. What they discovered when Lincoln was elected was that they could not stay in a comfortable middle—they had to decide for one side or the other, for slavery or for freedom. They chose the side of slavery and gave themselves, their sons, and much of their wealth to the cause of a slaveholding Confederacy.
Could you elaborate on Columbia Theological Seminary’s impacts on popular debates such as the “Scopes Monkey Trial”?
In 1859 Judge John Perkins of Mississippi, owner of several large plantations and hundreds of slaves, gave Columbia a large endowment for the establishment of the Perkins Professorship of Natural Science in Connection with Revelation. The seminary board and faculty were enthusiastic about the new professorship because they believed reason and revelation, science and the Bible, corroborated one another. The board called Dr. James Woodrow to the professorship. He had received his scientific training and PhD summa cum laude from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and was an expert in analytical and synthetic chemistry. He was later to be elected to major scientific societies in Europe and to membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The same year Woodrow came as a professor to Columbia, Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species.
Forty years before the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, an intellectually rigorous debate broke out on the Columbia campus in the 1880s over Woodrow’s teaching in regard to evolution and over the concept of development not only in biology but also in human culture—including religion. What was at stake, however, was not only questions of religion and science. Those who attacked Woodrow were trying to defend a remembered southern white culture and society. A literal interpretation of the Bible had long been used to try and keep black southerners “in their place.” To call that biblical interpretation into question appeared to call into question the foundations of white southern society. Woodrow was eventually forced out of the seminary—he went down the street to become president of the University of South Carolina. But he was later honored by the church and made moderator of the synod. And he was remembered for his struggle for academic freedom. In 1961 Clement Eaton, in his presidential address before the Southern Historical Society, reviewed the Woodrow controversy. He ended his address: “In the attainment of the large measure of freedom of teaching which we enjoy, the subject of my paper, James Woodrow, played a significant and triumphant role.” Eaton saluted Woodrow’s memory and, thinking no doubt of the controversies and pressures swirling around the Civil Rights Movement, he hoped that any professor in those tumultuous times who faced a similar crisis of academic freedom would display Woodrow’s “great moral courage.”
If you had to narrow it down to one fact about the history of Columbia Theological Seminary, what would you like your readers to come away with?
The story of Columbia Seminary is like a line running through the history of the South since the 1830s and in many ways through the larger story of US society. Slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the New Commercial South, the Civil Rights Movement, the growing affluence and international character of Atlanta, and a new demographic and cultural diversity—all are reflected in the story of Columbia. And what the Columbia story also tells is how people of Christian faith interpreted this larger southern and national story and acted within it. Columbia’s story has been a struggle to know the truth and to do what was right and just. Deep within that story are reminders of how good intentions can so often go astray. But also deep within that story is a community’s confession and belief that God is not through with them yet and that out of even a flawed and troubled history, by God’s grace, good can come.
What are your thoughts on the contemporary efforts for our society to come to terms with racism in America? Specifically, what do you think Columbia Theological Seminary should do, if anything, to come to terms with its own history of racism?
The Columbia story is one in which it becomes clear how deeply racist assumptions are embedded in the larger story of the nation. Even people of good intentions, people of a genuine spirituality and a desire to do what is right, even they as white Americans have supported and been a part of white America’s determined effort to keep “blacks in their place.” The realization about the depth and systemic character of the harsh racism in American has come as a shock to most of us who are white. We are having to ask ourselves, “Whom, what, do I see when I see an African American—perhaps especially a young black male?” And that hard question invites serious introspection and honest confession. It is in many ways a profoundly religious question and a question that can lead to conversion, to a struggle to see the world in new ways and to act in new ways that support the building of what Martin Luther King called “the beloved community.”
Columbia Seminary has been struggling to name and address the racism in its history and in its long-standing character. Along with intentional and focused discussions of racism and racist assumptions on the campus, the seminary has taken some concrete steps lead by African Americans who are now in key leadership roles at Columbia—including the Vice President for Academic Affairs, the Dean of Students, and the Dean of Advanced Studies. This year a new building was named in honor of the first tenured African-American professor. And perhaps most significantly, the seminary now offers free tuition to all of its African-American students as Columbia remembers and attempts to repay at least in part the many African Americans whose labors and sorrows provided the wealth that established and sustained the institution.
Any thoughts on the historical marker placed in Lexington?
I am, of course, delighted that the Georgia Historical Society has placed the historical marker in Lexington. Many in that community have worked hard to make a handsome museum of the old manse where Thomas Goulding held the first classes for the seminary. Like other historical markers around the state, this one will encourage those passing by to stop and to read and to wonder about those who had once called this place home.