Since 1859, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has exerted a widespread influence within American higher education, but particularly within Christian institutions. That legacy continues to the present, representing a significant institutional stewardship.
Southern Seminary and higher education
During its early years, the seminary was part of a broad movement throughout the postbellum South that sparked the founding of a number of colleges and universities. In the years preceding the Civil War, Baptists throughout the Old South began work to develop a variety of educational institutions. Schools such as Furman (1826), Mercer (1833), Carson-Newman (1851), Baylor (1845), Samford (1841), and Mars Hill College (1856) all reflected this energy and an emphasis on Baptist-led efforts.
Southern Seminary emerged in that particular context, one of an antebellum South intent on establishing structures and institutions to educate the region’s white population. What is remarkable is the way in which the seminary exerted an expanding influence over the course of its history, not only among Baptist institutions in the South but throughout the broader world of Christian higher education. That influence was more often complex than simple, resulting in great successes and tragedies. But there is no denying that The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has had an enduring and shaping role in the world of higher education.
An incubator for academic leadership
When the seminary began, it borrowed from other Baptist institutions to populate its original faculty. For example, founding President James P. Boyce had served as a professor at Furman University and had even been elected president of Mercer University, a position he had refused. Basil Manly Jr. served as president of the Richmond Female Institute, a Baptist-initiated women’s college that eventually became part of the University of Richmond. William Williams came from Mercer University, where he had succeeded John Dagg as professor of theology. For his part, John A. Broadus had served as a professor at the University of Virginia while pastoring Charlottesville’s First Baptist Church. From its founding generation, the seminary was inextricably linked to some of the South’s leading institutions of higher education.
“What is remarkable is the way in which the seminary exerted an expanding influence over the course of its history. . . throughout the broader world of Christian higher education.”
As decades passed, Southern Seminary began to return the favor. Its graduates increasingly populated the faculty of many of the South’s colleges and universities, as well as new Southern Baptist seminaries established in Texas and North Carolina. In fact, for its entire history, Southern has helped populate the leadership network of a broad range of institutions of higher education.
The seminary has had a particular impact on Christian higher education, with many of its administrators later serving as college and university presidents, including: Edwin Poteat (Furman University, 1903-1918); H.C. Wayman (Des Moines University — defunct, 1928); Harold Tribble (Wake Forest University, 1950-1967); Morgan Patterson (Georgetown College, 1984-1991); David Dockery (Union University, 1996-2014; Trinity International University, 2014-present); Danny Akin (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2004-present); Jason Allen (Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2012-present); and Greg Thornbury (The King’s College, 2013-present).
Southern’s reach has extended even more broadly beyond presidential leadership into a wide array of administrators and professors who served with distinction on campuses throughout North America and beyond. Due to the reputation and quality of Southern Seminary’s Ph.D. program, its graduates have a long history of being placed in leading institutions, transporting with them their educational experience among The Beeches.
A leader in academic rigor
Southern Seminary has always committed to a model of theological education that would be accessible to any God-called minister of the gospel but would also provide the most rigorous instruction and educational experience. This commitment ensured that Southern Seminary would play an expansive role in shaping the best practices within the world of theological education and Christian higher education.
In 1918, Southern Seminary was one of 53 founding institutions of the Conference of Theological Seminaries and Colleges of the United States and Canada, which eventually became the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). Represented by Professor H.C. Wayman at the meeting, the seminary played a prominent role in the organization’s beginnings. President E.Y. Mullins also played a critical role, serving on the group’s continuation committee that charted the course for the organization during its formative years.
While the seminary was established within the context of Baptist education in the South, it exerted immediate influence within American theological education. However, during its history, Southern Seminary has also played a pivotal role in broader American higher education. When the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools was chartered in 1895, it included only a handful of member institutions. By 1913, SACSS had expanded to 28 colleges and universities. During those years, it limited membership to colleges and universities that granted four-year baccalaureate degrees, largely excluding independent seminaries and divinity schools. That changed, of course, and in 1968 the seminary petitioned for and was granted accredited status by the association. Since then, Southern Seminary has long retained its commitment to best practices in higher education and a system of regular and ongoing peer review to ensure its own accountability and effectiveness. In turn, regional accreditation has expanded the impact of the school’s graduates not only for placement in teaching posts, but also opening doors for graduates to go on to earn terminal degrees from some of the world’s leading research universities.
Looking toward the future
The challenges before Christian higher education can appear daunting. In the face of encroaching federal regulations, increasingly hostile cultural winds, and a demographic realignment that will challenge the long-term enrollment viability of many institutions, these are difficult days for like minded evangelical institutions. However, the opportunity and stewardship has never been greater. More than ever, Christian colleges and universities have the capacity to exert a formative influence on the lives of a tremendous number of young men and women. This opportunity is also global, as students from around the world continue to matriculate in American Christian colleges and universities. Those institutions that are committed to a distinctly Christian mission and confessional identity have the potential to impact the world significantly. And Southern Seminary continues to be a partner in that effort. Through its faculty, staff, students, and alumni, the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship seminary continues the rich legacy of sending out servant leaders, building collaborative partnerships, and striving for a distinctly Christian vision of the supremacy of God in all things, including the life of the mind.
Matthew J. Hall (Ph.D., University of Kentucky) serves as vice president for Academic Services and assistant professor of church history at Southern Seminary.