SBC Life Articles

Holding Firm to a Legacy of Evangelism and Missions

For the past one hundred years, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has experienced many challenges and victories, but through it all a pervasive heart for spreading the Gospel has remained central and propels the seminary into its next century of service. This zeal for evangelism is demonstrated in each of the seminary's eight presidents, who then challenged faculty and students to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

When Southwestern was founded in 1908 by B.H. Carroll, his passion for evangelism compelled him to create the first-ever chair of evangelism in a seminary, and he had one person in mind for the position: Lee Rutland (L.R.) Scarborough, a fiery evangelist and pastor of First Baptist Church in Abilene, Texas. When Carroll's health began to fail him, Scarborough assumed administrative responsibilities of the seminary and became the school's second president upon Carroll's death in 1914.

From Scarborough's early days as an unknown West Texas preacher to his years as a prominent Baptist figurehead, the flames of evangelism burned deep within Scarborough's soul. He authored fourteen books throughout his lifetime, nine of them on evangelism. He believed that evangelism coupled with education would produce a God-honoring seminary. "It is found that so long as the heart of an institution burns hot with the fires of soul-winning, it is not likely to drift in its theology from the fundamentals of New Testament faith," he said.

Scarborough saw evangelism as twofold: calling lost souls to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, and urging Christians to surrender to God's call on their lives. In Recruits for World Conquests, he said, "In almost every church where the fires of evangelism burn at all, and where God's Gospel truths have been faithfully preached, God is calling some young man to preach, or young woman to be a missionary." Because many resisted God's call on their lives, as did Scarborough in his early years, he believed it was necessary to call out those who were called.

As Scarborough traveled, he heard one universal cry from the churches: "Give us more and better preachers." He took these pleas seriously and set out to amass an army of faithful Christ-followers to carry out the task of the Great Commission. In a Baptist Standard article, he outlined what the seminary had to offer Southern Baptists. He promised that the institution would provide "a trained leadership to our churches which is thoroughly loyal and co-operant with all the work of our ongoing, progressive, militant churches."

Scarborough added, "It can give soul-winners to every line and phase of the denominational task. We propose to give evangelists, evangelistic pastors, evangelistic Gospel singers, soul-winning teachers, and spiritual leaders in all the lines of Christian service. If the Southwestern Seminary has any phase of its work which is unique, if it gives special emphasis to anything, probably it is in the line of fervent evangelism. The entire administration and teaching force, the whole life of the institution, is set to the high notes of soul-winning."

Scarborough's claims were not merely lip service. He required all members of Southwestern's faculty to hold at least two evangelistic meetings per year. In a five-year period, from 1920 to 1924, the seminary reported conducting 4,166 revival meetings, which resulted in an unprecedented 55,861 professions of faith, 70,391 additions to Baptist churches, and 5,567 volunteers for service.

The seminary's third president, E.D. Head, exemplified an evangelistic heart from his youth. At the age of fourteen, on the streets of his hometown, this passion was aimed at an unbeliever who always mingled and joked with passersby. With the man's permission, Head began preaching to him each Sunday in the loft of a cotton gin, with a box for his pulpit. His pulpit later became a tree stump in nearby woods, and Head continued to preach to this man until the man was saved and joined the local church.

As president of Southwestern, Head lifted up Scarborough, who occupied the seminary's "Chair of Fire," as exemplifying compassionate, soul-filled scholarship. He succeeded Scarborough in filling the "Chair of Fire." He wrote books on evangelism, such as Evangelism in Acts and Revivals in the Bible.

Head also revised Scarborough's book, With Christ After the Lost, which he often used for his evangelism classes at both Baylor and Southwestern Seminary. In his preface, he recorded his hopes for the new edition of this book: "It is our earnest prayer that as this book goes forth in its present form, it may continue to kindle fires on heart altars, to the end that multitudes may be won from sin to salvation, from darkness to light, from futile gnawing on the bread that perishes to accepting him who is the Bread of life."

J. Howard Williams, Southwestern's fourth president, was an extraordinary model of personal evangelism and a spontaneous witness, looking for opportunities to share the Gospel with everyone he met. He cared about everyone and often asked, "How are you getting along, neighbor?" It was said of him, "Who can estimate how many cab drivers, waitresses, and people in every job that serves the public warmed to that question and heard it followed by another one about Jesus and their need for him?"

Williams' life was tragically cut short by a heart attack just five years after becoming president. The Sunday before J. Howard Williams died was Easter Sunday. He preached on the resurrection of Christ, as he had so many times before. After the service, he began talking to two teenagers, and after an extended discussion, each of them made professions of faith. His final days demonstrated his faithfulness to his Master's work until the end.

The seminary's fifth president, Robert Naylor, portrayed his zeal for evangelism during his inaugural address on November 25, 1958. He tied the life of the seminary — past, present, and future — to one word: "Gospel."

In 1976, two years before his retirement, he recounted Southwestern's heritage in evangelism: "Evangelism is to be the main business of the Kingdom of God. To the degree that this seminary is based in evangelism, bathed in evangelism, committed to evangelism, rooted in evangelism, the institution is a quickening flame and an all-embracing arm of love around the whole world."

Russell Dilday, the sixth president of Southwestern, contemplated how Carroll would feel if he walked the campus during Dilday's presidency. "Expecting to find here the same spirit of evangelism and missions which marked his day, it would be no surprise (to Carroll) that over 30 percent of our students are mission volunteers," he wrote. Dilday carried on the seminary's evangelistic and scholarly pursuits, and he often recalled Carroll's mandate to lash the seminary to the cross of Christ.

Alongside an increase in enrollment, Dilday promised there would be "more emphasis on missions and evangelism, as well as the ultimate purpose of training for the ministry." Southwestern continued its great focus on evangelism with professors such as Roy Fish, who held the "Chair of Fire," leading the way. Fish, who would go on to teach evangelism at Southwestern for more than forty years, would so embody evangelism that when the institution created a school for evangelism and missions in 2005, the school was named after him.

In 1980, Dilday led in the founding of a missions center to be directed by Cal Guy, professor of missions at the seminary. The seminary proposed six objectives for the center, which included the creation of "Missions-Evangelism Concentrations" in Southwestern's three schools and the study of the philosophy and practice of missions.

Like his predecessors, Dilday understood that evangelism and missions lay at the center of Southwestern's purpose, as he explained in a 1982 edition of the Southwestern News: "The ultimate purpose of evangelizing the world is behind every decision and action — from maintaining the grounds to planning mission days in chapel, from planning buildings to planning curricula."

Ken Hemphill, Southwestern's seventh president, continued this evangelistic legacy. A background in church growth ministry impacted Hemphill's vision for the school. "When I talk about church growth," he said, "I'm talking about a supernatural encounter, leading people to Christ, planting churches, and reaching the world. Southwestern has always had a focus on these areas, and I think the seminary will be strengthened as it continues that focus."

He hoped to educate both the head and the heart of Southwestern students by training "men and women who come out of our seminaries with an absolute passion for Christ, a passion for the church, a passion for the world, and a passion for reaching lost people."

When Paige Patterson became Southwestern's eighth president in 2003, he committed to emphasize the heart of the seminary's founder and maintain the seminary's zeal for evangelism. Patterson's brand of theological education pushes scholars to be evangelists and the evangelists to become scholars. He said, "Every student and every professor will be expected to be involved in a mission effort to plant a church somewhere in a country overseas at least once every three years…everyone on campus will be expected to be a consistent witness and a soul-winner for Christ."

He went on to say that "World missions and evangelism will be thematic for the entire seminary." Patterson stands behind his commitment not to send any student anywhere he has not been himself, as he has ministered in over 125 countries and shared the Gospel with six heads of state in various countries.

In his vision for the future, Patterson said, "Southwestern Seminary makes evangelism a priority for every student. Whether it is door-to-door evangelism, on a plane, or waiting in line, Southwestern expects its student body to witness for Christ. Our prayer is that every student will be a personal soul winner or else be absolutely miserable.

"Our goal at Southwestern Seminary is to have a great seminary in the Southwest that provides our churches with better preachers and teachers. We want to supply evangelists eager to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth."

The cornerstone of the seminary's first building in Fort Worth was inscribed with Christ's quote in Matthew 10:7, "As ye go, preach." As Southwestern celebrates its centennial in 2008, the revised motto, "As you go, preach," challenges faculty, students, and alumni to embrace this command as they spread the Gospel. From its founding to its future, Southwestern continues on an upward course to make the name of Christ known in Fort Worth, North America, and the far reaches of the world.

    About the Author

  • Keith Collier