News Articles

Historian: Southern Baptist Theo. Seminary has recaptured founder’s vision

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–After straying from the vision of James Petigru Boyce for most of the 20th century, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is “once again Boyce’s seminary” 150 years after it began, historian Gregory A. Wills writes in a new history of the seminary.

In an interview with the Florida Baptist Witness on the SBTS campus in Louisville, Ky., in March, Wills discussed the book assignment, highlighted developments in the seminary’s history surveyed in the 592-page volume, and noted the continuing relevance of its history to present-day issues in Southern Baptist life.

Wills has served since 1997 as professor of church history at Southern Seminary, where he also is associate dean of the theology and tradition division in the school of theology and director of the Center for the Study of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009,” commissioned by the school’s board of trustees in 2005 to help commemorate its sesquicentennial anniversary this year, is in many ways a history of the Southern Baptist Convention, since the institution was founded only 14 years after the SBC, Wills noted.

The health of the seminary was a “bellwether — it’s the canary in the coal mine” of the SBC’s well-being; for many years, it was the “centerpiece” of the denomination’s leadership, Wills said.

Boyce’s founding of the seminary for the “preservation and defense of the orthodox Christian faith had profound and enduring significance” for both the seminary and the SBC, Wills told the Witness. Boyce’s vision created a “restraining influence” on the 20th-century liberalism of the seminary as well as “inspired the conservative opposition” that would later overturn its liberalism.

Alarmed with the growth of liberalism in the denomination in the latter half of the 20th century and Southern Seminary’s role in that movement, Southern Baptists changed the denomination’s direction, ultimately resulting in the 1993 election of R. Albert Mohler Jr., the school’s ninth president.

With Mohler’s election and leadership, a restoration of Boyce’s vision began, Wills recounted.

“I think Boyce’s vision of this school as a preserver and defender of orthodoxy has been recaptured, in a sense repristinated, by Mohler’s leadership. He shares the vision. In real sense we have come full-circle. There are obviously some differences, but in terms of the heart of that vision I think it’s been rejuvenated, re-established,” Wills said of the parallels between the first and current seminary presidents.

The seminary was one of the key flashpoints of the Southern Baptist Convention controversy over the nature of the Bible that raged from the 1960s to the early 1990s. Wills’ history traces the evolution of the school from defender of orthodoxy to advocate of liberalism during the 20th century and its recent return to conservatism.


In recognition of the denomination’s grassroots theological conservatism, professors engaged in a strategy Wills calls “conspiracy of circumspection” in which they “self-censored” their liberal views, especially when preaching in the churches. With few exceptions, faculty employed this strategy in first half of the century.

However, increasingly frustrated by the inability to openly advocate their liberal views — like those concerning the inspiration and historicity of the Bible — faculty began to more openly advocate progressive positions beginning in the 1960s, helping to ignite the SBC’s “Conservative Resurgence” with the 1979 election of Memphis pastor Adrian Rogers.

Wills marks a 1941 controversy at the seminary as a significant “tipping point” in the slow shift on the faculty away from the “conspiracy of circumspection” strategy.

Having been taught liberal positions by some faculty, student Das Kelley Barnett gave the commencement address calling on Southern Baptists to “relinquish their old theology for the new modern theology,” Wills writes, citing as an example Barnett’s position that the “Bible was not itself a revelation at all, but a ‘record’ of God’s revelation, especially a historical record of Jesus Christ, who revealed God to humanity most fully.”

Wills notes that seminary President John R. Sampey “expressly disavowed” to the commencement audience Barnett’s speech. In spite of the president’s renunciation, professor W.O. Carver later published an article by Barnett in the seminary’s academic journal asserting similar views.

Although Sampey at first thought the commencement speaking invitation and journal article was an innocent mistake, later he came to believe Carver actually “sympathized with Barnett’s ideas,” Wills told the Witness.


Wills acknowledges he is not an impartial observer of the school that employs him. “Perspective inescapably affects interpretation, but I have attempted to avoid partisan judgments. It ill serves history and the present to recolor the past to suit the historian’s predilections or institutional reputation,” he writes in the preface.

Wills told the Witness he was given complete freedom to write the history without the influence of seminary administrators, including Mohler and his colleagues.

“One of the dangers of an institutional history is that the author will show undue deference to the institution in its current administration and leadership,” he said, adding that Mohler showed “perfect respect” for his editorial freedom.

“Dr. Mohler has been exemplary in not interfering, not even asking me questions. He has left me to write the history as I saw fit,” Wills said, even though the president has “profound interest in” and extensive knowledge of the seminary’s history.

Further, he said Mohler gave him “complete access to all the presidential files,” estimating he reviewed as many as 1 million pages of primary source material to write the history.

Mohler did not see the manuscript before it was submitted to the publisher and only after that point he only saw the last chapter covering his presidency, Wills said.

Wills said his choice of Oxford University Press to publish the book allowed a scholarly, peer review process and eliminated possible taint of bias posed by the use of possible Baptist publishers.


The seminary’s history is relevant today for theological education, humility and faithfulness, Wills told the Witness.

“The history of the seminary helps us understand the character of faithful ministerial education and its importance to the church. By attending carefully to the seminary’s history, we gain a clearer vision by delineating how things went right and how they went wrong,” he said.

The history of the seminary also can serve to keep Southern Baptists humble, recognizing God’s grace in the restoration of the seminary and denomination through leaders like Adrian Rogers, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, Wills said.

“The history of the seminary demonstrates like nothing else how close our denomination came to being led into a rejection of the truthfulness and authority of God’s Word and into all the heresies that follow such rejection. It was the grace of God that raised up courageous and wise leaders … and it was the grace of God that moved Southern Baptists to stand for the complete inspiration and truth of the Bible through years of difficult controversy. We ought to be humbled before such grace, and in gratitude cooperate for Gospel proclamation, discipleship and theological education,” Wills said.

“The history of the seminary demonstrates how readily errors in doctrine, morals and church practices can enter our institutions and churches,” he said. “But it is also demonstrates how errors may be resisted and overcome.”

A Baptist minister as well as a historian, Wills added, “So let us labor with all our might, in utter dependence on the grace and mercy of God, and in utter devotion to Christ, to maintain the truth of the Gospel and holiness of life in our churches, lest we again stumble from the paths of truth.”
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of Florida Baptist Witness (www.floridabaptistwitness.com), newsjournal of the Florida Baptist State Convention. Smith is a member of the board of trustees of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and formerly was director of public relations of the school.

    About the Author

  • James A. Smith
  • James A. Smith, Sr.
  • Sr.