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A Complicated Witness: James Henley Thornwell

Druid Hills Presbyterian Church has a stunning collection of stained glass windows, designed by Willet Hauser Architectural Glass, Philadelphia, PA, and erected as part of building the sanctuary in 1940. For a full history of the windows, click here.

In April 2015, a community leader contacted Rev. Shelli Latham in regards to the James Henley Thornwell Window (for reference, see p. 91 of the above link), which is located in the right stairwell of the narthex, leading to the basement. Thornwell was a prominent Presbyterian leader during the Civil War, a renowned theologian, former president of South Carolina College (now University of South Carolina), and Columbia Seminary faculty member. The previously noted community leader expressed a desire for the window to be removed due to Thornwell’s defense of slavery.

“Most Christians today would struggle to reconcile Thornwell’s learned orthodoxy with his defense of slavery. Thornwell found no explicit condemnation of slavery in Scripture, only rules governing the behavior of slaves and masters, and he argued that Christians should go no further than Scripture in mandating moral codes. Thornwell was one of the chief advocates of the benevolent qualities of southern slaveowning, contrasting it with the brutal, chaotic northern factory system, in which owners had no responsibility whatsoever to workers. For Thornwell, slaves were part of the Christian master’s “household,” which entailed great responsibilities to provide for the slaves’ physical, educational, and spiritual needs. Unfortunately, this ideology of slaveowning “paternalism” created “fatal self-deceptions” among its proponents, according to the late historians Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Thornwell and others crafted a romanticized version of idyllic Christian plantations that papered over the ugly, exploitative realities of antebellum chattel slavery.” – Thomas Kidd (The “Regulated Freedom” of James Henley Thornwell, Antebellum Southern Presbyterian)

 In response to the request, the Property and Administration (P&A) Ministry Team began to research, with our original stained glass provider, the cost of removing Thornwell’s name from the window or replacing the window altogether. However, before moving forward with any action regarding the alteration of or replacement to the window, P&A and the Session believe that members of the congregation need to thoughtfully engage what it means for our sanctuary to house a memorial to a man with an imperfect history. A task force has been formed to involve the congregation and community in conversation regarding the window, prior to determining what the church’s decision will be in regards to its presence in our building. This team includes members of the Worship, Property, Education and Mission Ministry Teams. Please be attentive to opportunities for the following, which will be promoted here, as information becomes available.

  • Education Session – Gather to learn about the life of James Henley Thornwell, as we will contemplate why Thornwell, out of all possible Presbyterian figures, was chosen for a window, as well as furthering our understanding of his theology and teachings.
  • Conversation with Ministry Partners – We cannot ignore that while Druid Hills Presbyterian Church is blessed to have members across a socio-economic and racial spectrum, our membership is predominantly Caucasian. Decisions about race should not occur in a vacuum, so we will invite black voices, from our partner ministries, to help us learn how the Thornwell window impacts our neighbors and our witness to the Gospel, as well as ideas for resolution we may not have considered.
  • Conversation about Financial Priorities – Altering the window or removing it is expensive and impacts our ministry inside and outside the church walls. As such, we must thoughtfully discuss how to most faithfully live into God’s call to reconciliation and peace, while holding in tension that we have limited resources.

If you have a particular interest in helping to shape the dialogue and learning opportunities around the Thornwell window, please contact Pastor Shelli. This is a unique and timely opportunity for us to consider how we contribute to and inhibit reconciliation and community. It will take lots of thoughtful people and intentional conversation to shape our path forward.