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Solid History and Porous Memories: A Lecture Ignites a Debate on Ethics


One of the most common requests Spectrum gets is to publish pro/con debate articles. Unfortunately, they are very hard to produce, in part due to the difficulty in matching topics, qualifications, and convivial combatants. Thanks to the help of the Southern Adventist University history faculty, and the graciousness of the McArthur family, here Spectrum presents a debate in five parts. Part I is a student report on a lecture by historian Eric Anderson written by Theodore Rogers. Part II provides two voices of critique by historians Kevin Burton and Phillip Warfield. Part III is a general rebuttal by Anderson. Part IV is the text of Anderson’s lecture. Part V is the recent Adventist Pilgrimage podcast discussion on this topic. Spectrum hopes that this approach honors the legacy of Ben McArthur, in whose memory the lecture was given, and provides the wider Adventist community an opportunity to constructively reflect and act on the important issues raised below. —Alexander Carpenter

Part 1: “Smashing Icons” Lecture at Southern Surprises Historians and Honors Students, by Theodore Rogers.

The audience at Southern Adventist University’s inaugural McArthur Lecture received a surprise when Eric Anderson, PhD, gave a passionate critique against tearing down statues and renaming institutions named after slave owners such as Thomas Jefferson.

Last month, Southern Adventist University hosted the triennial conference of the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians. On Thursday, April 13, the historians joined with the Southern Scholars, the university’s honors program, for hors d'oeuvres and German chocolate cake (Ben McArthur’s favorite). Then they assembled in the Ackerman Auditorium for the first in a new annual Southern Scholars lecture series named after the late Benjamin McArthur, who taught in Southern’s History and Political Studies Department for almost 40 years. He served as department dean and published three books and numerous articles, including in Spectrum. The Southern Scholars honors program was cofounded by McArthur and focuses on topics that were important to him. The Adventist historians’ conference also featured other lectures and events, including a lecture on Southern’s own history by Mills McArthur, the son of Benjamin McArthur.

Before the McArthur lecture began, Lisa Diller, one of McArthur’s coworkers and friends, gave a moving introduction about McArthur and Mark Peach, who suddenly passed away last year. Diller explained how the lecture honors McArthur, for whom it was named, and Peach, who organized it.

The keynote speaker selected was Eric Anderson, a celebrated historian, and friend of Benjamin McArthur. The lecture was titled “Smashing Icons: Reflections on Thomas Jefferson and Others.” Anderson took a strong stance against the destruction of statues and voiced his opinion that we can honor controversial historical figures for their positive traits, despite their immense flaws. Anderson encouraged his audience to engage with the material in the “McArthur Way.” “Ben,” he said “was a scholar first, not an activist, and he took the trouble to be fair to arguments he rejected.”

Anderson continued criticism of the removal of statues and renaming of institutions. He discussed efforts to remove monuments to Lincoln, Columbus, John Marshall, Paul Revere, Daniel Webster, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Gandhi, and even a statue of Sacagawea. Finally, he came to the defense of Jefferson himself. He commended Jefferson’s principles while acknowledging that Jefferson was a slave owner himself. In an aside, Anderson cast doubt on Jefferson’s sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. He also defended controversial figures like John Muir and Robert E. Lee. He criticized what he called an “all history hitherto” approach, meaning that people take every person before modern times as unpraisable because of their sexism and racism. He challenged this view by hearkening back to the Old Testament, which features figures like King David, who committed horrible actions but can still be admired.

Finally, Anderson addressed the names of buildings on Southern’s campus that honor those who supported segregation at Southern. He suggested the next building be named after LeRoy Leiske, whose heroism was integral in ending segregation at Southern and who lost his job for it. He asked his audience not to rename buildings but to continue to honor the men they were named after for their good instead of focusing on their flaws.

After the lecture, several students asked questions and passionately disagreed with Anderson. Phillip Warfield, an alumnus pursuing a PhD in history at Howard University, expressed disagreement (see below). Kevin Burton, who taught in the Southern’s history department, said he was “deeply troubled” by Anderson’s stance (see below).

Anderson must have known this was a tough crowd for this speech. What is more impressive is that the history department and honors program invited him to speak. Lisa Diller, who gave the opening remarks, has herself petitioned to remove Confederate statues from public spaces but was willing to welcome Anderson in kindness and encourage conversation with him.

Eric Anderson is a close friend of the McArthur family. He has a doctorate in history from the University of Chicago and has been a teacher and administrator in Adventist education for many decades. A Fulbright Scholar in Greece and a program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities, Anderson has written on a variety of historical topics, including a chapter in Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, published by Oxford University Press.

—Theodore Rogers grew up in Placerville, California. He and his wife live in Collegedale, Tennessee, where he is a pre-law student at Southern Adventist University, studying communications with a minor in History.

Part II: Critique by Kevin Burton and Phillip Warfield.

Kevin Burton, director of the Center for Adventist Research and assistant professor of church history in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University shares the following written critique:

Anderson’s presentation was an unnuanced plea for nuance in the writing of (white) history. Throughout his presentation, he ignored atrocities done to BIPOC history (such as the banning of anti-racist books), mocked “wokeness” (which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as “the quality of being alert to and concerned about social injustice and discrimination”), and defended white supremacists while excusing their racism as unproblematic. He cast doubt on the fact that Thomas Jefferson sired at least six children with his slave, Sally Hemings (a fact that even the Thomas Jefferson Foundation affirms) and portrayed him as “anti-slavery” even though he never emancipated his 600 slaves. He dismissed criticisms of John James Audubon for owning slaves and opposing abolitionists, denounced the removal of the Charlottesville statue that depicted Sacagawea as cowering behind the mighty Lewis and Clark, and stated that the Sierra Club did not need to apologize for John Muir’s racist comments (such as calling American Indians “savages” and Black people lazy “Sambos”). From Anderson’s perspective, public apologies for slavery and racism, the removal of statues honoring treasonous Confederates who rebelled to defend slavery, and critical histories written of white men were not only unfounded—they were characterized as a sacrilege that endangered (white) history and (white) civilization. In sum, Anderson pled for “nuance” in presentations of history, by which he meant that the legacy of Great White Men must be uncritically preserved and unabashedly defended.

 Phillip Warfield, a doctoral student at Howard University researching American history, is a former student association president at Southern Adventist University and founder of the Southern Project. He writes:

Eric Anderson seems to have understood a history that conveniently omits the histories of marginalized groups. In his address, he did not fully consider the voices of African Americans, women, or others and instead wrote off this historiography by simply recasting their scholarship as part of the bigger "woke culture." While talking up the "remarkable power of ideas" by white founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson, Anderson failed to consider the enslaved people who were forced to contend with slavery amid a society that claimed that all men are created equal. Anderson, in claiming that by renaming buildings and streets we won't have any heroes to celebrate, is simultaneously defending white supremacists and whiteness, even going so far as to say that we should honor LeRoy Leiske (the man who pushed for Southern's desegregation), but fails to think about honoring the Black students who bravely desegregated Adventist institutions and actually suffered the discrimination and prejudice that would make that enterprise extremely difficult.

Among other problems, Anderson claimed Lincoln was an antislavery president (while ignoring the efforts of Frederick Douglass, who worked on convincing Lincoln for years), propped up Martin Luther King Jr.'s promissory note comment in "I Have A Dream" without addressing the broader implications of reparations for descendants of American slavery, said that Confederate soldiers fought with valor (though the majority of these monuments were propped up by an organization that sought to recast and commemorate the Confederacy and promote pseudohistorical Lost Cause ideology), and claimed that the evidence of Thomas Jefferson having enslaved children was inconclusive (although historians have proven over the last 25 years, with DNA evidence, oral tradition, and legal records, that Jefferson did in fact have enslaved children with Sally Hemmings and those descendants are still with us today).

History is a discipline of revision—we are constantly producing scholarship based on material that may have not been available to previous scholars. There must be room for us to cut away and further contextualize that which does not represent our highest ideals. While Anderson believes that "wokeism" is burning the bridges to different communities, I believe that the historical scholarship produced by African Americans, women, and their allies over the last 70 years completely eviscerates this idea. A closer study of the trends in historiography since the social movements of the mid-20th century would have benefited Anderson's address and his listeners' understanding of what community stakeholders can do to address Adventist higher education's own problematic history. Building the bridge, then, means more fully understanding the foundation on which it sits instead of potentially walking across rotted material that isn't helpful for its users today.

As Kevin Burton noted, the ways that marginalized people are depicted next to white people in statues matters, and who we put on elevated pedestals matters. Let's celebrate the individuals who have always mattered in these stories but have been omitted and de-emphasized from the historical record.

Southern is an institution born of the racial nadir that chose to enforce segregation for 70 years before the federal government prompted them to desegregate in 1965. In the first 70 years of the institution's existence, Southern prominently held events that celebrated the Lost Cause and minstrel shows that dehumanized African Americans. Since then, it has touted diversity numbers without fully understanding the implications of fully empowering students of color and the next multiracial generation of students.

As Southern boasts its diversity numbers as a top diverse institution ranked by U.S. News and World Report as well as its status as Tennessee's sole Hispanic-serving institution, the institution must go beyond numbers and into action. If the student body is no longer majority white, then the institution should adjust to be more inclusive for its future, acknowledge its problematic past, and fully consider the implications of a desegregated Adventist institution: this means hiring more nonwhite faculty and staff; supporting and empowering the efforts of cultural clubs to help the institution educate a diverse student body; fully empowering a vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion as was promised in 2018; naming new scholarships for disadvantaged students and students of color; and creating a task force that would study the implications of its complicated past and the possibilities of reconciliation through commemoration.

There are buildings on Southern's campus dedicated to those who enforced segregation and those who claimed that "let it be known that the Black man is not equal to the white man." While the man who made the aforementioned statement contributed mightily to Adventist work in the South, it is ironic that the social work building on the campus is named after someone who was not looking to help uplift the downtrodden community suffering under the oppression of Jim Crow. Perhaps a renaming, a hyphenated name (for someone like Lewis C. Sheafe, for example), or further contextualization through an informative plaque would benefit the current racial climate on campus.

There is a street at the back of the campus that was recently dedicated to the man who, while establishing the school with his own funding, also asked the first Black student to take courses privately, beginning the trend against accepting Black students. Simultaneously, there is nothing dedicated to the memory of the first Black student he barred from a quality education, who went on to have one of the most storied careers as a nurse, educator, and missionary across the world.

Renaming and adding further context would benefit a university looking to go beyond diversity numbers and embrace an empowered multiracial future. Over the last two decades, Southern students have become more and more diverse, but the institution still resembles that of a historically white institution. From the columns that, in the American South, resemble a bygone plantation society to a silent archive that is not empowered to explore the hidden histories of the trailblazers who worked to hold Southern to the highest ideals of the Adventist Church, students enter a world that does not make space for their stories or struggles but reinforces a sense of unbelonging. In a collective quest for further context, it is my belief that students and recent alumni can see themselves as a part of a story that emphasizes women, marginalized groups, and their allies as they help Southern empower the next generation of leaders.

Part III: Invited by Spectrum, Eric Anderson adds an addendum.

I hope that readers of this report will take the time to read my McArthur Lecture in its entirety. Judging from a few comments on the night of the lecture (and later), there are important differences between what I actually said and what some people heard. My lecture was not primarily about Confederate monuments or even race in American history. My main point was to warn against the weaponization of history (as described by Edmund Burke, Milan Kundera, and George Orwell.) My chief example of the misuse of history was recent debunking of Thomas Jefferson, who is now being dismissed in some quarters as a man unworthy of honor. I argued that accurate history must recognize both Jefferson’s powerful principles as well as his imperfect practice. (I also defended naturalist John Muir, theologian William Porcher DuBose, and the founders of Southern Adventist University from similar ill-informed attacks.)

I noted the danger of holding past leaders to the standards of today: “The extremism that objects to a statue of Winston Churchill will eventually object to honoring Mahatma Gandhi. In the end, neither Martin Luther nor Martin Luther King is safe from the demand for flawless heroes. (I won’t even mention the challenge of understanding such Old Testament heroes as Jacob or David.)”

The key question for me is “Can we learn from the imperfect dead?” My lecture was written for a group of honors students and was an affirmation of faith: “Across the chasm of time and custom and change, we have the audacity to believe that we can be taught by Plato or Augustine or Confucius or Jefferson.” I held up Ben McArthur as the model of a teacher who studied the past without being immobilized by shame or fury.

Part IV: “Smashing Icons: Reflections on Thomas Jefferson and Others,” by Eric Anderson (embedded below).

Part V: “A Monumental Discussion” by the Adventist Pilgrimage history podcast (embedded below).

Michael Campbell attended the Association of Seventh-day Adventist Historians (ASDAH) meeting at Southern Adventist University to sit down with fellow historians Joan Francis, Phillip Warfield, and Kevin Burton to react to a lecture they were all present at by Eric Anderson.


Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum.

Title image: Do-Ho Suh, Public Figures. 1998.

Do-Ho Suh (b.1962, Seoul, South Korea), questioning the role of memorials and statues dedicated to illustrious individuals, turns the traditional monument upside down in his Public Figures. Instead of a single figure perched on her or his pedestal, Suh creates a pedestal supported by hundreds of miniature, anonymous male and female figures, refocusing the viewer’s attention from the individual to the masses. Challenging the established notion of the common citizen revering a monument to an important figure, Suh emphasizes the power of the individual and repositions the citizen within public space. The “public figures” supporting his stone pedestal, Suh says, “represent the multiple, the diverse, the anonymous mass . . . supporting and resisting the stone.” Suh’s work is informed by his personal experience of making the cultural shift from South Korea to the United States, and focuses on the individual’s ability to claim both private and public space.

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