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Don’t deny our fallenness

Renaming Wheaton’s Buswell Library fails to tell the gospel story

The Wheaton College campus in Wheaton, Ill. Wikimedia Commons

Don’t deny our fallenness

What does the gospel have to say about the names on buildings in Christian communities?

The Biblical gospel holds at the center the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who died for our sins, rose from the dead, reigns in heaven, and is coming again to judge and to dwell with His redeemed saints forever. How can a name on a building possibly show forth the beauty of these gospel truths?

The question becomes complicated when we deal with buildings named after sinful saints—that is, true followers of Christ who led in a significant way but who were imperfect. That would be all of them. How can we honor significant leaders who were sinful saints? There are two options: First, we could refuse to name any building after any person, for in honoring the person, we would be honoring the sin he or she surely committed. We would then need to “un-name” all the buildings of our Christian institutions. We would need to cancel all the honorary chairs of departments and lectureships named after beloved figures who have gone before; they were sinners, too. Even we who make these judgments are sinners. We should just all be quiet.

The other option is to honor sinful saints of the past by thanking God for their leadership while telling their stories truly and thereby honoring the God who saved us by His grace through His Son. We can honor godly leaders by putting their names on a building because their names point to lives redeemed by God and used by him even in their imperfection. To honor sinful saints honors the sinless Savior; He is the only righteous One.

Wheaton College in Illinois recently expunged the name of its third president, James Oliver Buswell Jr., from its campus library. President Buswell was my grandfather, whom I knew and loved. He died in 1977 when I was a senior at Wheaton. I acknowledge with sorrow that my grandfather sinned by refusing admission to a black applicant to the college back in 1939. A few letters from the college archives show that he caved to the pressures and prevailing thinking of his day as he listened to voices urging him to deny admission to this young woman. Though he stated that he harbored no “race prejudice” in his heart, he tried to keep peace on campus and with his board of trustees by supporting a policy of segregation and discrimination for a time; he later changed his position.

The recent expunging of the name “Buswell Memorial Library” came as the main concrete outcome of a lengthy committee study of the history of race relations at Wheaton College, commissioned and then approved by President Philip Ryken and the board of trustees. The study itself was a worthy enterprise, revealing many dark spots as well as bright ones. History is important. The Wheaton community should indeed look back and lament the institution’s previous sins, including the ones committed by my grandfather. We should learn from the stories of our past, decry racism and every other shortcoming, and aim always to do better as we live out the gospel of grace together in Christian community.

We should not, however, refuse to honor a godly leader from the past because of his or her sin. To cancel such a leader is a denial of our fallenness: We inevitably become like that self-righteous Pharisee in the temple who loudly thanked God that he was not like other men. We too often engage in what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” assuming we are better than previous generations.

We should not refuse to honor a godly leader from the past because of our desire to show repentance. We should tell the stories truly and lament and learn.

Our God, throughout history, has used redeemed sinners who are flawed, sinful, and imperfect and who yet live by faith in His promises and serve his purposes on earth. In the Scriptures, we read that King David was not scrubbed, but rather called a “man after God’s own heart,” and—wonder of wonders—Jesus, the perfect Son of God, did not reject but embraced the name “Son of David.” In Hebrews 11, we find a great celebration of faith—with a cast of flawed and sinful characters. A cynical wiping from history of the flawed but faithful saints of God is the exact opposite of what we receive from God in his inspired and inerrant Word. This is good news for poor sinners like us, now. We can celebrate and learn from the past saints’ triumphs and failures even as we honor them and praise and worship the only perfect Savior: Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.

We should not refuse to honor a godly leader from the past because of certain sins. The Buswell example is pertinent, as many institutions today, both Christian and non-Christian, have chosen the evil of racism as the one that cancels a person. We can be tempted to conflate the world’s priority with Christ’s call—ironically perpetuating the wrong of caving to the culture that contributed to racism in centuries past. Yes, the world is correct in its revulsion against racism, but human beings have a past (and a present) filled with all kinds of sin. Yet we have singled out this one as grounds for cancellation.

We need to watch the meaning of our words. If we listen carefully, we Christians can sometimes hear ourselves talking as if the gospel saves us from racism only. According to the Scriptures, the gospel saves us from death, which our sin deserves; repentance is turning from our sin, which is a pervasive falling short of God’s glory in every area of life. Racial reconciliation among ourselves is not the final outcome of knowing Christ; our shared reconciliation with God is the final outcome. Our Christian hope is not simply that of tribes and nations coming together in harmony around heaven’s throne; our hope is the glory of Christ reflected in the perfect unity of the tribes and nations He redeemed.

We should not refuse to honor a godly leader from the past because of our desire to show repentance. We should tell the stories truly and lament and learn. We should confess and change the sinful bent of our hearts and our ways as the Spirit works within us. But is changing the name of a building the stuff of repentance? Changing the name of a building sounds more like trying to atone (publicly) for the sins of the past—which we cannot do. Those sins have been atoned for on the cross; we cannot pay for them. We cannot pay. Trying to do so through such an action is denying the grace that long ago saved and strengthened that named godly leader. Some might call it “performative righteousness.” We should instead thank God for His grace in that leader’s life and aim to follow even more righteously in his wake.

My family and I are grateful for Grandpa B’s legacy of faith, imperfect as it was. He was a godly man used by God to grow and strengthen Wheaton College and other Christian institutions. He fought for the Scriptures at a time when many basic tenets of the faith were being rejected, especially in universities and mainline denominations. He loved and served the Lord Jesus, to the end, in his family and the church throughout the world. When the leaders of Wheaton College canceled his name, they dishonored a sinful saint and denied God’s gracious blessing on their heritage of faith—and they taught a whole community of young people that it is good and right to do so.

But my grandfather is not the point of this article. No name on a building is the point. The buildings will all crumble. The point is the gospel and how the gospel of Jesus Christ can and must be central in all we do. The point is the righteousness of Christ alone and the grace through which his righteousness dresses us fully and beautifully, so that we can be His bride, the church, made up of tribes and nations from all the world He made and rules.

A building’s name can point briefly to a saint or two, among this great cloud of witnesses. It can remind us of God’s gospel work in and through that saint. And that is good. When we honor the godly saints of generations past, we honor the God who redeemed them through His Son.

Kathleen Buswell Nielson

Kathleen Buswell Nielson is an author and speaker who loves working with women in studying the Scriptures. She has taught literature (Ph.D., Vanderbilt University), directed women’s Bible studies in local churches, and served as director of The Gospel Coalition’s Women’s Initiatives from 2010-2017. She and her husband Niel make their home partly in Wheaton, Ill., and partly in Jakarta, Indonesia, where Niel helps lead a network of Christian schools and universities. They have three sons, three daughters-in-law, and nine grandchildren.

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