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Flagship S.C. Church Makes Statement of Contrition on Slavery and Race

Church will also remove names of former pro-slavery pastors from buildings

Earlier this month, one of South Carolina’s flagship churches published a statement of contrition regarding its past over the issues of slavery and race.

In the statement, First Presbyterian Church Columbia Senior Pastor Derek Thomas condemns the views of past leaders who condoned slavery and affirms that “all people are made in the image of God.” He also said the church Session—a group of 40 elders—unanimously agreed to remove the names of two Confederate, pro-slavery ministers from their buildings.

“In June of 2016, after a searching study of the history of race relations in our churches, our denomination made the following statement of contrition: ‘We, the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, do confess the sinful failings of our church in the past in regard to slavery and racism.’ First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, fully and without reservation affirms that contrition,” it reads.

The statement comes on the heels of a July 1 feature by National Public Radio detailing the pro-slavery views of one of the church’s former pastors, James Henley Thornwell. In his 1861 inaugural address to the Confederate Presbyterian Church, Thornwell delivered what he considered a biblical, racial and natural law defense for slavery.

Without the “real and effective discipline” of slavery, Thornwell said, “we are profoundly persuaded that the African race in the midst of us can never be elevated in the scale of being. As long as that race, in its comparative degradation, co-exists side by side with the white, bondage is its normal condition.”

In response to NPR’s report, the church said, “First Presbyterian Church regards [Thornwell’s] positions on race and slavery as directly contrary to Biblical teaching. Indeed, these erroneous positions and variations of them have acted as an impediment to the Christian message and to the preaching of the Gospel.”

The statement continues: “Quoting further from the 2016 statement, ‘We reaffirm that all people are made in the image of God. We also reaffirm our historic stance that the Gospel should be offered freely to all sinners regardless of race or ethnicity through preaching and teaching of God’s holy, inerrant, and infallible Word.’ At First Presbyterian Church, all people are welcome regardless of race or ethnicity to the fellowship of this congregation, and we pledge ourselves to Christ in the building of his church which he ransomed ‘from every tribe and language and people and nation’ (Rev. 5:9).”

The Session also voted unanimously to remove the names of Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer from “church buildings, the summer lecture series, and church publications.”

Palmer was a teacher and theologian who pastored First Presbyterian Columbia from 1843 to 1855 before taking an appointment in New Orleans. He was an ardent defender of slavery and loud voice calling for secession of the Southern states from the Union during the Civil War era.

First Presbyterian Church Columbia, founded in 1795, is the oldest church in Columbia, and one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the country.  The church and its accompanying graveyard are both on The Historic Register. The tombstones memorialize “ministers, physicians, judges, merchants, legislators, government officials and university presidents, as well as soldiers of the Revolution, the Mexican War and the Civil War.” Martha Thomas Fitzgerald, the first woman elected in a general election to the South Carolina House of Representatives, is buried there, as well as the parents of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

“The decisions were made because they are the right thing to do in order to enable the church to do its primary task — preach the gospel and make disciples from every tribe and nation,” Thomas concluded in the church statement. “I urge you to be in prayer for the peace and unity of the congregation in the days ahead and for the Community Relations Committee as it continues to work to address further issues.”

Christina Darnell

Christina Darnell is a freelance writer who has contributed to WORLD, The Charlotte Observer, and other publications.