Last November, when Matt Bevin won Kentucky’s gubernatorial election he joined elite company in Southern Seminary history. The Bevin Center for Missions Mobilization, which the businessman turned governor endowed in 2012, is named in honor of his late daughter Brittiney and sends student missionaries to international and domestic fields of service in addition to local ministry efforts. Bevin’s gift bears to mind the historic endowment bestowed upon the seminary by Joseph Emerson Brown (1821–1894), also a successful businessman who held the office as a state governor.
An ominous cloud lingered over the seminary’s financial future in December 1879. Throughout the decade, James P. Boyce had made repeated appeals in hopes of raising the school’s endowment, but even after relocating the campus to Louisville in 1877, his outlook turned bleak, as reflected in his plea published in an issue of Tennessee’s The Baptist newspaper: “I think it my duty to warn the brethren of the danger to our seminary … our means of annual support are so utterly insufficient that unless the brethren aid in this direction, this must be our last session for some years to come.”
Though some supporters feared Boyce’s public honesty would discourage the denomination, his decision proved a wise strategy. The Baptist enjoyed a wide circulation across the South, and Boyce’s appeal resonated with many churches that scrambled to make special offerings to save the school; by mid-January 1880, 79 churches had raised $2,672. Yet, the small gifts alone were insufficient for the mountain of debt the school faced, and Boyce hoped that God would raise up a benevolent donor to give $50,000. That donor proved to be businessman and former Georgia Gov. Joseph Emerson Brown.
Brown, educated at Yale Law School between 1845 and 1846, had established himself as a prosperous lawyer and businessman, but gradually focused his efforts upon politics. Elected to the Georgia State Senate in 1849, Brown achieved great influence within the Democratic Party. In 1857, he won the election for the governor of Georgia, and enjoyed a succession of re-elections, remaining in office until the end of the Civil War in 1865. After being paroled by Andrew Johnson, he briefly became a Republican and supported the president’s Reconstruction policy, serving as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia. He soon returned to his Democratic roots, however, and resumed his career pursuits in law and business. In 1879, Brown found himself on the threshold of a 10-year run in the United States Senate, which he would serve from 1880 to 1890.
Brown, after reading to the appeal in The Baptist, wrote to Boyce and promised that “if he could be satisfied as to the financial condition and prospects of the seminary,” he would bestow the $50,000 gift free of conditions. Boyce journeyed to Atlanta to meet with Brown, and returned to Louisville with the gift, resulting in the endowment of the Joseph Emerson Brown Professorship of Systematic Theology. The serendipitous nature of Brown’s gift gave Boyce renewed vigor to launch a campaign to raise $200,000 for the seminary’s invested endowment. The seminary soon reached its goal through additional contributions from Louisville benefactors and more than $40,000 raised in New York City. By the summer of 1881, Boyce was finally able to say, “The seminary is now safe — humanly speaking.”
Boyce became the first occupant of the Brown Chair of Theology, and a total of nine Southern Seminary professors have held the title, the incumbent now being President R. Albert Mohler Jr.
Those interested in learning more about the early history of Southern Seminary can research the voluminous collections of rare books and manuscripts available in the Archives and Special Collections, on the second floor of the James P. Boyce Centennial Library.