[SLIDESHOW=50514]ONTARIO, Calif. (BP) — Seventy-five years ago, Southern Baptists’ seminary to the West was born during a prayer meeting, the dream of a visionary man.
Gateway Seminary celebrated the anniversary of that occasion Thursday (March 14) during a Founder’s Day event that culminated in a 10-hour prayer vigil by faculty, staff and students.
“Isn’t it appropriate that we begin our celebration with prayer, just as the school began?” President Jeff Iorg asked the seminary audience gathered in the chapel. “We will be hosting other events during the year to commemorate our 75th anniversary.
“But as we celebrate this significant achievement,” he noted, “it’s important to remember aspects of our founding that have marked our history and, I hope, will mark our future.”
Iorg said the seminary was the dream of a man from Arkansas named Isam Hodges.
Hodges, his wife and five children moved to Berkeley, Calif., in 1935, one year before the first Southern Baptist church was founded in the state. He graduated with a master of arts degree from Berkeley Baptist Divinity School in May 1937 and accepted the call to serve as pastor of Golden Gate Baptist Church the next month. The church cooperated with the Northern Baptist Convention.
“Missions-minded as he was, he began gathering facts about surrounding communities that needed churches,” Iorg said, recounting the story from former President Harold Graves’ book “Into the Wind.” “He began agitating for an aggressive program of evangelism and missions, but there was no ready response from fellow pastors.”
He said that Hodges’ frustration with the slow response of fellow pastors did not keep him from opening his heart to his own people. His sermons were filled with Baptist history and missionary information. He challenged them with the descriptions of sacrifice by those who had spread the Gospel in other areas. He sought in every way he could to spur their evangelistic concern.
“As Southern Baptist churches began to be organized nearby, Hodges and his people became aware of their work and growth,” Iorg noted. “He suggested to his Northern Baptist brethren this was the kind of work they should be doing. This only antagonized them. They saw only the danger of a Southern Baptist invasion of their territory. He finally came to the conclusion that the only way to get an effective expansion program going was to join Southern Baptists.”
On Nov. 17, 1943, the Golden Gate Baptist Church voted 36 to 6 to begin partnering with the Southern Baptist Convention. Hodges had been their pastor for more than six years. Although he did not join that fellowship to turn it toward Southern Baptist alignment, the six years of evangelistic and missionary promotion made a difference in the life of the congregation.
“The church had been using some Southern Baptist Sunday School materials and had already been cooperating with many Southern Baptist activities,” Iorg said. “Hodges had established sufficient reputation among Southern Baptists to be elected president of their state convention. This happened only two weeks before his church officially sought Southern Baptist affiliation.”
As Hodges looked about him in early 1944, he knew that only a great network of churches in every city, town, and village could accomplish what God would do in the West, Iorg said. New missions and churches had to be started. For this to happen, many more pastors and other church leaders would need to be trained. Hodges prayed more about his lifelong dream and willingness to work toward creating the school he felt was needed.
“Isam Hodges and his wife invited the six deacons of their church and their wives to their home for fellowship and prayer on Thursday evening, March 23, 1944,” Iorg recounted. “One of those attending, caught up in the spirit of the meeting, said, ‘This will go down in history as a great prayer meeting.’ A key feature of the prayer meeting was asking God about starting a new seminary in the West.”
Hodges knew it was time to begin the school he had envisioned before moving to California.
The morning after the prayer meeting, he sat down at his typewriter and wrote these words: “God has given us a vision of a Western Baptist theological seminary. There shall be a theological seminary here in the Bay Area which shall be called the Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.”
Hodges was not a trained educator, but God was laying on him the responsibility to begin a school. And there was this question: How could there be more missions and churches without preachers?
One of his friends, though, did have more school experience and theological training — Dallas Faulkner, pastor of the First Southern Baptist Church in San Francisco. Like Hodges, Faulkner was a native of Arkansas and a graduate of Ouachita Baptist College and Southwestern Seminary. He had continued his studies and earned the doctor of theology degree from Southern Seminary. He came to California in the 1930s, first settling in the Bakersfield area, before ultimately moving to San Francisco. Because of his background, Hodges decided to enlist his friend’s help.
The two talked, prayed, planned and took definite steps to organize the Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. The next morning, March 26, 1944, at the morning worship hour in the Golden Gate Baptist Church, Hodges asked that the six ordained deacons be recognized as a committee from the church to meet with a like committee from the First Southern Baptist Church of San Francisco to begin establishing a seminary. The church unanimously adopted this recommendation, and these deacons, along with Hodges, met with the committee from the First Southern Baptist Church, San Francisco, on March 31, 1944. It was at that meeting the vote was taken to legally organize Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.
Iorg said that members of the first board of trustees for Golden Gate Seminary were laymen, six each from the two churches. Hodges and Faulkner set about organizing the seminary immediately following the action creating the board of trustees.
“A charter from the state was applied for on July 12, 1944 and obtained, bearing the date July 24, 1944,” Iorg said.
“And this summer on that date,” he added, “we will have a birthday party to celebrate that occasion. The official name on the charter was Golden Gate Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, although ‘Southern’ was later dropped from the name.”
The seminary maintained the name Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary through locations in Berkeley and Mill Valley until 2016, when the institution moved to Ontario, Calif., and changed its name to Gateway Seminary. The institution now also offers degrees on four regional campuses, in addition to all its master’s degrees being offered online.
“This is the story of our founding,” Iorg said. “A visionary pastor, a friend who partnered with him and 12 Baptist laymen put their lives on the line to create what has become one of the largest seminaries in the world — a beacon of biblical scholarship with missional intentionality shaping leaders who expand God’s kingdom globally. Our genesis point was a prayer meeting, six deacons and their wives sitting or kneeling in a circle calling out to God for His direction and blessing. Thank God for our courageous, prayerful forefathers and foremothers. We are commemorating their visionary leadership and this significant prayer meeting with this day of prayer on Founder’s Day.”
A prayer journey began immediately following the Founder’s Day service, with participants engaging in one-hour sessions as they moved through the building.
In addition to the birthday party in July that will mark the issuance of the seminary’s charter, other celebrations will be held during the fall and spring trustee meetings.
The 75th anniversary celebration will conclude in April 2020 with a final observance at the Ontario Convention Center.