As we finish celebrating Black History Month, we hope it is not the end of perpetual celebrations of the many accomplishments and four-hundred-year legacy of African Americans to the enduring experiment we call the United States of America. Nowhere does the importance of the African American influence to the larger national narrative show itself than in the Black Church. This story is profoundly retold by Dr. Henry Gates, Jr, in his book and the recent PBS documentary The Black Church:This is Our Story, This is Our Song. Of course, scholars, like our very own BST Church History professor, Dr. Ronald Burris, remind us that the very shape of Christianity was developed in and spread throughout parts of Africa long before Western and colonial Christianity came to dominate much of the known world. Indeed, some of the enslaved Africans brought to America’s shores could trace their religious roots to a Christian faith that preceded their colonial enslavers.
Meanwhile, in the 1840s, while California was still a part of Mexico, the Baptist Home Missions Society (BHMS) of the American Baptist Church sent its first mission-workers to the Bay Area with the specific mandate to inaugurate educational institutions. Those early dreams were waylaid until 1863, when the first educational convention of the new Baptist association was held in San Francisco. Out of this innovative and pioneering spirit, Berkeley School of Theology was born 150 years ago.
BST traces its roots to that time when American Baptist educational institutions were being created for Native and African American men and women, especially those newly freed from slavery, who had no other options. Colleges and universities like Morehouse, Spelman, Ottawa, Bacone, Virginia Union University, University of Chicago and others, along with Berkeley School of Theology, were all established, first as American Baptist seminaries, in the spirit of liberty and justice for all. Indeed, an early president of Berkeley School of Theology was one of four ministers to preach at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral, while another Baptist educator would soon become the eighth president of UC Berkeley just down the road.
Today, BST remains at the center of baptist and ecumenical theological education. BST is never more faithful to its calling than in its makeup at all levels of the institution (students, board, faculty, staff, administrators) as one of the ten most diverse seminaries in the nation, whose legacy continues to be profoundly shaped and influenced by the Black Church. This is our story. This is our song.