The Ethics of Tainted Legacies: Human Flourishing After Traumatic Pasts

By Karen Guth, Cambridge Press, 2022, 300 pages

Reviewed by Stephen Fox

In March of 2000, Jim Guth, Furman political science professor published an article in the Christian Century coming to the defense of Bob Jones University (BJU), five miles across the north side of town from Furman, in Greenville S.C. George W. Bush was running for president and made national news that spotlighted BJU history as racially exclusive. Now, his daughter Karen (FU 2001), who first came to national attention with her essay “Claims on Bonhoeffer,” in the Century, is gaining further notoriety with the publication of her book, The Ethics of Tainted Legacies. Karen was active in Greenville’s First Baptist Church, a key congregation in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, where her parents remain active member

For purposes of this review, I want to focus on the pages in Tainted Legacy dealing with Guth’s spotlight on Furman’s past association with slavery and its time with the South Carolina Southern Baptist Convention.

In the mid-20th century, 50 percent of Furman’s students were Southern Baptists and products of the textile culture of the Piedmont Carolinas and North Georgia. Roger Milliken was deeply involved in the politics of Goldwater, Nixon and Strom Thurmond. It was Mr. Charles Daniel, a South Carolina industrialist and Democratic U.S. senator, succeeded by Strom Thurmond, for whom the chapel and dining hall at Furman are named, who introduced Milliken to Strom Thurmond in 1956. In 2015, Politico published a major article, “The Man Who Launched the GOP’s Civil War: How a Textile Magnate Turned the Party of Lincoln into the Party of Trump.”

Milliken was Nixon’s largest financial backer in America in 1972. Nixon spent the night in the Daniel mansion which was later designated as the Furman president’s residence.

About 25 years ago, Furman professor, Dr. Jim Guth confided in me that about two years after Guth joined the Furman faculty, Milliken tried to place Gary North on the Furman faculty. North was a right-wing Christian reconstructionist and key member of the Council for National Policy, a secretive organization which included the two main architects of the fundamentalists’ takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson. North was to teach economics and politics. North came to campus and was interviewed by several faculty who dismissed him as unsuitable for the faculty. To my knowledge, Millken was satisfied by the decision and continued to make donations to Furman in scholarships and other ways.

Milliken’s son, Roger, Jr. and I, were great friends the summer of 1970, working at the Gaffney Peach Shed. Public reports claim Roger Jr. donated a quarter million dollars to Obama in 2012.

The recently deceased chaplain of Furman, Jim Pitts, was engaged with Furman for a half-century. He shared his reservations with me about the focus on Joseph Vaughn, the first person of color to enroll and graduate from Furman, by erecting a statue of Vaughn to honor him. Pitts knew Vaughn and said Joe would not have sought this attention.

Furman religion professors, Helen Lee Turner and Sam Britt, joined to offer tributes to Pitts in the collection, Walk with Me, published in Pitts’ honor in late 2021.

Furman long ago changed from being an institution whose main purpose was to train future Baptist preachers; but not everyone conceded that priority and have rewritten the university’s history. Quoting:

“We have picked over our predecessors in a manner that is not only impious, but also hypocritical. We have reimagined an origin story that has emphasized the failures of Furman’s founders and overlooked even their meager virtues. But the longevity of any community requires learning how to live with the dead, which include those flawed souls who erred, but who, by the grace of God, still fashioned a place of learning, a place wherein we all remain both saints and sinners.”

Furman’s Seeking Abraham Initiative is an examination of the slave holding history of Furman’s founders; but it says nothing about the climate of Furman during the latter part of the time of Jim Crow. In 1956, Southern Baptists’ firebrand pastor, W. A. Criswell of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, spoke to the pastor’s conference in Columbia, S.C., and said such things as “I wouldn’t let my daughter within two city blocks of a big black buck; and you wouldn’t call a chigger a ‘chiggrow,’ now would ya?”

The next day Strom Thurmond had him speak to a joint session of the South Carolina legislature. Just 10 years later, Gordon Blackwell became the president of Furman with a mandate to integrate the university. That first black student was Joe Vaughn, admitted in 1964, against the wishes of the S.C. SBC.

Pitts, Turner and Britt offered some strong reservations regarding the efforts to acknowledge the role of Baptists in remembrances of Furman regarding race. However, Scotty Bryan, as editor of the Furman Paladin, the student newspaper, had a parting thought. She reported that there is a framed headline in the Paladin office, “Furman vows to fight Baptists,” dating from the early 1990s that shared the voices of Furman students from a campus populated by students much different from mid-20th century students. She wrote that history is ingrained in the campus and worthy of being revisited by each class of Furman students.

And as late as 1972, the movie Gone with the Wind was shown annually to a packed house of students and Greenvillians at Furman’s McCallister Auditorium.

I have come to disagree in part with Pitts regarding the statue and its annual commemoration.  I participated in the annual march from the chapel to the library in honor of Vaughn and the statue. Seeing for the first time the report of Seeking Abraham, Furman’s concerted effort to deal with the slaveholder founder and apologist Richard Furman, and others, I now see the whole matter in the bigger picture. Furman historian Courtney Tollison Hartness’ 20-page piece on Furman and S.C. Baptists, from her University of South Carolina dissertation titled Seeking Excellence, makes it clear without Vaughn’s admission to Furman, pivotal ’60s President Gordon Blackwell would never have become the president.

Vaughn’s arrival as a Furman student was a key moment in Furman’s history. The integration of the university, against the wishes of the South Carolina SBC, presaged the national fundamentalist takeover of the SBC to follow in the 1980s.

For Furman’s trustees, the racial animus of Southern Baptists was too much for Furman to be bothered with and ties with the SBC were severed in 1992.

The fall 2023 edition of the Furman Alumni Magazine gives Guth and her book a short promotional blurb saying this: “Constructing a typology of responses to compromised thinkers, traditions and institutions, she demonstrates the relevance of age-old debates in Christian theology for those who confront legacies tarnished by the traumas of slavery, racism and sexual violence.”

While she mentions her alma mater, Furman, in passing regarding institutions’ tainted legacies, her institutional focus is on the Catholic church, especially Georgetown University and its history with slavery. Her individual explorations focus on Bill Cosby and Howard Yoder. In a footnote, she compares Yoder to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., about whom she says she is often asked. Guth’s response: “…the sexual violations of over 100 women (Yoder) and consensual sex outside marriage are different types of violation. Some legacies are more tainted than others”

At a hundred dollars, Tainted Legacies is a little pricey for individuals. However, I think it should be a part of every progressive congregational church library worth its name.


— Stephen M. Fox is a 1975 graduate of Furman. A longer version of this review and a likely sequel bringing the righteous indignation of Seeking Abraham up to Furman’s present is at Fox’s blog; or google search for asfoxseesit.


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