To Southern Seminary President John A. Sampey, A.T. Robertson was more than the world’s foremost New Testament scholar; he was a cherished friend. But Robertson had been dead for more than three years when Sampey received a cryptic letter in the winter of 1938 that must have perplexed him with its startling claim. Handwritten beneath a letterhead bearing the stamp of a Louisville hotel was the testimony of a former student alleging to have communed with the spirit of the late Dr. Robertson.
The correspondent identified himself as M.F. Beamer, who in 1921 had enrolled at SBTS. According to academic catalogs and official gradebooks, Sampey’s Old Testament class was the only credit Beamer attempted, but he apparently withdrew before the close of the session. Not only did Beamer claim a paranormal encounter, but also the remarkable idea that Robertson’s spirit prevailed upon him to send Sampey some literature for private reading to be followed by a personal meeting:
“I am writing you this letter at the request of Dr. A.T. Robertson, now in spirit. He has asked me to send you two books which I will do in a few days as soon as I get them. He ask [sic] that you read the two books at your home where you will not be disturbed. He ask [sic] that you read them carefully and prayerfully, and keep all to yourself. When you have read the two small books, then I am to see you and have a talk about our future plans to turn on the light and prove it to the people.”
Beamer’s spiritualism carried a Gnostic tone, evidenced by his emphasis on secrecy and esoteric mysticism. In the letter, he described himself as a seeker who “for 40 years … have been seeking the light, and about five years ago I found it to my entire satisfaction.” He even dared to suggest that Robertson had experienced a similar conversion posthumously: “Dr. Robertson says while on the earth plain he was wise in his own conceit but that he knew nothing. I will explain all when I see you and you may question me from every angle.”
Beamer never divulged the books he planned to send, but Sampey wanted no part of either the literature or future personal interactions. His response to Beamer was a concise and nonchalant rebuke, tinged with sardonic wit: “Dr. A.T. Robertson was perhaps my closest friend. If he wished to communicate with me, I do not believe he would do so through a stranger. Until I get direct news from him, I prefer not to take time to read the books about which you write.”
Indeed, Sampey had known the heart and mind of Robertson like few others. Sampey had joined the seminary faculty in 1885 as a 24-year-old Old Testament professor, and his early impressions of Robertson came in the classroom, as Robertson distinguished himself as a brilliant pupil in the first course Sampey taught. Three years later, Robertson joined Sampey on the faculty, and throughout their years together, the two scholars embodied high personal character, commitment to orthodox doctrine, and boundless evangelistic fervor, qualities that they communicated clearly in their multitude of speaking and writing engagements. Their reputations did much to establish trust in the seminary’s value to Southern Baptists among the denomination’s churches.
Robertson’s sudden death in 1934 struck a literal blow to Sampey’s heart, as he recounted that a few days after Robertson’s passing his physician discovered a leak in his own heart, of which Sampey later declared, “I have always thought that the terrific shock of Dr. Robertson’s sudden death brought this on.”
These dual bulwarks of doctrinal orthodoxy and cherished friendship vindicate Sampey’s wisdom in rebuffing the opportunistic advances of biblically unsound sensationalism. He chose not to debate the claims of his misguided former student, but to dismiss the ordeal as the babblings of a stranger. Sampey knew his Bible and his old friend too well to be misled by a ghost story.
The A.T. Robertson Papers and John R. Sampey Papers are accessible at the Archives & Special Collections office of the James P. Boyce Centennial Library.
M. F. Beamer to John R. Sampey, February 18, 1938, John R. Sampey Papers, Box 11, SBTS Archives & Special Collections.
John R. Sampey to M. F. Beamer, February 22, 1938, John R. Sampey Papers, Box 11, SBTS.
John R. Sampey, Memoirs of John R. Sampey (Nashville: Broadman, 1947), 40.