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.
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.