MEMPHIS, Tenn. (BP) — Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gaines is among about a dozen Southern Baptist signatories of a letter requesting that a Memphis statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest be moved from a public park “to a more historically appropriate site.”
In all, 169 clergy members representing 95 congregations and other institutions signed a Sept. 13 letter to the Tennessee Historical Commission in support of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s request to move the statue.
The Historical Commission could vote on Strickland’s request in October, according to media reports.
Gaines, pastor of Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., told Baptist Press he supports relocating both the Forrest statue in Memphis Health Sciences Park and a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Memphis Park.
Both monuments “are a source of offense to many citizens of Memphis due to Forrest’s and Davis’ support of the enslavement of African Americans,” Gaines said in written comments. “Fair-minded Americans acknowledge that slavery was cruel and unchristian. Indeed, slavery stands as one of the darkest blights of our nation’s history. Thus, these statutes should be relocated to less prominent, more appropriate settings.”
Forrest, in addition to his service in the Confederate army, was a slave trader and an early member of the Ku Klux Klan, with some historians arguing he was the KKK’s Grand Wizard. Forrest was accused of war crimes surrounding the alleged massacre of black Union troops at Tennessee’s Battle of Fort Pillow in 1864.
The Memphis clergy letter — signed by an ethnically and theologically diverse array of Christian and Jewish leaders — stated, “By no means are we seeking to erase history. It is imperative that we understand history; the foundations of our society, of our country, and our faith traditions are built on that. But it is also important that we understand historical figures and events in their full context. It was not until 1905 — half a century after the Civil War and in the throes of the implementation of Jim Crow laws across the South — that the statue of Forrest was placed in a public square. This monument to Forrest belongs elsewhere, not in the center of our city’s hub. Beyond the historical inaccuracy and geographic irrelevancy of his monument, it does not represent who we are as people of faith.
“Memphis is a wonderful place made even better by our diversity,” the letter stated. “Many have voiced concerns that this statue does not convey the complete story of our city’s rich history and could better serve the pursuit of understanding and educating the public as well as future generations in a more historically appropriate site.”
Stephen Cook, pastor of Memphis’s Second Baptist Church, coauthored an op-ed piece in the city’s Commercial Appeal newspaper explaining why he signed the letter. His coauthor Sean Lucas is senior minister at Independent Presbyterian Church in Memphis as well as a former instructor and librarian at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“We both signed because of our common commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ,” Cook and Lucas wrote. “He is the one, after all, who taught us to walk in the way of love. He offers this straightforward rule in his Sermon on the Mount: ‘In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets’ (Matt 7:12).
“Surely as Christians compelled by the love of God in Christ, we should listen to those for whom the Forrest statue brings back memories of Jim Crow and the divisive, painful past. We should be willing to go the extra mile for our neighbors because Christ in his love has done so for us,” Cook and Lucas wrote.
In 2016, the SBC adopted a resolution “on sensitivity and unity regarding the Confederate battle flag.” The resolution called “our brothers and sisters in Christ to discontinue the display of the Confederate battle flag as a sign of solidarity of the whole Body of Christ, including our African American brothers and sisters.”
The resolution urged “fellow Christians to exercise sensitivity so that nothing brings division or hinders the unity of the Body of Christ to be a bold witness to the transforming power of Jesus.”
James Merritt, a former SBC president who spoke from the convention floor in 2016 urging messengers to renounce display of the Confederate battle flag, told the SBC this Week podcast he supports the legal removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces.
Christians “have the responsibility to do everything we can to break down any barrier that we possibly can to the Gospel,” Merritt, pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga., said on a Sept. 1 podcast.
“On the one hand, I don’t think we ought to take the law into our own hands and just tear monuments down without any approval,” said Merritt, who has two great-great-grandfathers that served in the Confederate army. “I do believe that we ought to seriously consider moving these monuments. And anybody that wants to go see them … let them go see them. But from a Christian perspective, anything that I can do to take any stumbling block, any barrier — anything I can do to be a minister of reconciliation and bring racial healing to this country — I believe I ought to do it.”
The Forrest statue in Memphis is distinct from a statue of the Confederate general at the Tennessee state capitol in Nashville. The state’s Capitol Commission denied a request Sept. 1 to remove Forrest’s likeness from the capitol.