Meditating on Human Depravity
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
On July 30, 2019, I discovered in the archives of Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) what I believed was the document that would “change everything.” My research sought to discover why and how Dallas Theological Seminary desegregated in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. I was convinced that the school, which stressed dispensational eschatology and viewed the new heavens to include people of every nation, had decided to admit minorities based on such a multicultural vision. My remaining task then was to convince my dissertation committee of this historical reality. Ultimately, I had to show that white administrators motioned to admit black students to the previously all-white school motivated by the end times.
The letter in question was one in a series of correspondence between Stephen E. Slocum, Jr. and Howard C. Miller. Slocum had held various leadership positions with Dallas Theological Seminary from 1972–1977. Miller, on the other hand, operated a clock company named after himself in Zeeland, Michigan. In a letter dated March 9, 1973, Slocum thanked Miller for financially supporting black students at the seminary. The seminary administrator had previously written to Miller expressing the financial plight of black students at the seminary and the need to raise funds for minority students. Upon this discovery, Slocum had now emerged as the luminary that would shed some light in the dark vestiges of American race relations. Over the next few weeks, however, I discovered a disheartening reality in Slocum’s motivations.
To my dismay, Slocum repeatedly situated black theological training in the context of ministry exclusively for the black church. His letters were littered with the following: “Black community,” “Christian leadership in the Black community,” “Christian leadership in the Black churches.”1 The black students who received training at DTS were envisioned to feed into black churches. Despite the school’s stress on a multilingual, multitribal, and multinational view of the new heavens, nowhere did I find hints toward integration that reflected the future heavens. Instead, it became apparent that the seminary contributed to Martin Luther King Jr.’s description of Sunday morning as “one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours in Christian America.” Although there was much to celebrate, there were also reasons to mourn. Needless to say, my narrative shifted after this discovery.2
The discipline of history aims to treat the paradox of good and evil in historical figures with balance. On the one hand, historians avoid the semblance of hagiography, yet, on the other, refrain from criticism that accompanies presentism. Thus, in historical thinking, Slocum consequently descends from “luminary” to an advocate for black students while simultaneously reflecting the signs of the time.
To treat the subject as Christians, however, underscores the notion of depravity. While it is tempting to laud historical heroes (even when hints at depravity do not appear in primary sources), the bible reminds us that humans are broken and even Christians remain to be fully redeemed. The redeemed are only on the path to total redemption, exhibiting at once both the life of Christ and the death of Adam. In biblical thinking then, Slocum should be recognized as yet another depraved human being, despite having gone to great lengths to admit and support black seminary students.
Our tendency to valorize heroes is only amplified by our current moment with the rise of celebrities and social media influencers. These developments remind us that culture gravitates towards idolizing beauty, prosperity, and a large following which all work together to suppress the reality of human depravity.
Yet, we are annually reminded in the Lenten season of our frailty. We remember that despite the blessing we can be to our neighbor, we are still “prone to wander.” Therefore, when confronted with this reality, we welcome the yearning for redemption. Although the first fruits of the new created order appeared beginning with the resurrection, the culmination is still being worked out in the process of time. That is, even as we have been given a foretaste, we still await its fullness.
Lord, govern us by Your Word and Spirit, that we may submit ourselves unto You always more and more; preserve, increase, and unite Your church; destroy the works of the devil, every power that exalts itself against You, and all wicked devices formed against Your holy Word, until the full coming of Your kingdom, wherein You shall be all in all. (Adapted from Q&A #40, The Heidelberg Catechism)
Shawn Varghese is a Full-Time Temporary Lecturer at Baylor University and holds a Ph.D. in the Humanities with a focus on the History of Ideas. He is currently working on a book that addresses the desegregation of southern seminaries and their role in shaping African American Evangelicalism.
 Letter, Stephen E. Slocum Jr. to Howard C. Miller, June 21, 1974, Walvoord Papers, Box 8, Slocum (1974).
 Martin Luther King Jr., “Meet the Press” NBC, April 17, 1960.