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Book tells seminary’s comeback story

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–In late 1879, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was as good as dead.

A post-Civil War financial panic left the seminary’s donor base unable — and in some cases unwilling — to pay off pledges to fund the fledgling institution’s endowment.

To prop up the school, President James Petigru Boyce had bled dry his own financial resources and had maxed out willing creditors in borrowing money to pay faculty salaries.

Southern moved to Louisville from Greensville, S.C., in hopes that a fresh start would change things. It made them worse.

Boyce and fellow founder John Albert Broadus, who would become the seminary’s second president, began to pray that God would provide a single donor whose means and generosity would set the school immediately on solvent ground.

God raised up one such man in Joseph E. Brown, a former Georgia governor, railroad president and U.S. senator; his $50,000 donation toward the endowment saved the seminary and gave it a solid financial footing for years to come.

Southern Seminary’s 150-year history is a story of God’s sustaining grace in the face of adversity, one which Gregory A. Wills details in the newly released “Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: 1859-2009” (Oxford University Press).

Wills, professor of church history at Southern and director of its Center for the Study of the Southern Baptist Convention, mined a sea of primary sources in developing a 566-page volume that is both readable and captivating — the first full-length history of Southern Seminary since William A. Mueller’s “A History of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary,” published in 1959 to commemorate the seminary’s 100th anniversary.

Wills shows how the seminary stayed afloat during the difficult years following the Civil War largely through the indefatigable leadership of Boyce. The seminary survived financial controversy, but also overcame theological controversy in the 1879 resignation/firing of professor C.H. Toy who embraced and began to teach theological liberalism.

Southern’s battle for theological fidelity was just beginning.

After the founders valiantly fought it, the seminary succumbed to theological liberalism in the early 19th century during the years of E.Y. Mullins’ presidency. Liberalism held the institution captive for much of the 20th century, as Wills shows in detail, but found liberation and rediscovered its confessional heritage in the early 1990s following the election of current President R. Albert Mohler Jr.

“One thing I hope [readers will] appreciate is the critical importance of theological education to a denomination and conjointly the critical importance of the soundness of theological seminaries,” Wills said.

“I certainly hope they will recognize the heroic character of the founding faculty’s labors and sacrifices and identify with them in such a way that they will be similarly ambitious for Kingdom work and Kingdom institutions,” he added.

As he completed the work, Wills says he began to realize that Southern has, throughout its history, exercised a profound influence on its parent denomination. This influence helped preserve theological orthodoxy in the Southern Baptist Convention particularly during the denomination’s nascent years.

“I was surprised by just how important the seminary has been to the Southern Baptist Convention,” Wills said. “I knew that it was important, but I came away convinced that it had a deeper, more wide-reaching influence than I expected to find.

“I am convinced that one of the basic reasons that our denomination remained as conservative as it did was that Boyce and the other SBC leaders who established the school established it for the preservation of orthodoxy and erected a standard of sound biblical teaching which became a cornerstone against which subsequent theological developments were measured.”
Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Staff writer David Roach contributed to this story. A full interview of Gregory Wills is available at Southern Seminary’s news website, www.news.sbts.edu.

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  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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