Every professor at Southern Seminary, as indicated by its original charter, is required to teach in alignment with the Abstract of Principles, the doctrinal statement of our institution. The existence of this document comes from the foresight and conviction of founding president, James Petigru Boyce.
Boyce believed that the Baptist seminary he desired to establish must be two things: conformed to scriptural truth and faithful to serve its denomination. The way he planned to ensure the seminary’s conformation to scriptural truth was to ground the institution in a confessional document.
At the time of the debate among 19th century Southern Baptists for a central denominational seminary, neither the state conventions nor the convention itself held binding doctrinal statements. Many in the Southern Baptist Convention in Greenville, S.C., believed that the charge of accepting and enforcing of confessional statements should be a duty entrusted solely to one’s local church. Boyce disagreed.
In 1856, while he held the chair of theology of Furman University, Boyce gave a speech to the university’s board of trustees, “Three Changes in Theological Institutions.” In that speech he spoke to the necessity of maintaining doctrinal standards in theological education, saying:
A crisis in Baptist Doctrine is evidently approaching, and those of us who still cling to the doctrines which formerly distinguished us, have the important duty to perform of earnestly contending for the faith once delivered to the saints. Gentlemen, God will call us to judgement if we neglect it.
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Though Boyce was the main force behind the inception of a doctrinal statement for the seminary, he was not the primary author. He drafted for that task Basil Manly Jr., another founding professor of the seminary.
The significance of geography, as it often does in history, played a significant role in the Abstract’s history. Boyce and Manly were educated young ministers from South Carolina who both inherited a theological tradition that influenced them greatly. This tradition, known as the “Charleston tradition,” set both men on a theological trajectory. Boyce and Manly grew up in a church atmosphere that prized theological orthodoxy and an educated ministry. These were ideas that would shape the formation of the Abstract and the seminary.
For assistance, Boyce and Manly turned to the Baptist confessions of the 17th and 18th centuries. Surprisingly, the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) is, as one author said, “the foremost confessional influence upon the ‘Abstract of Principles’.” This is not because Boyce or Manly desired to input Presbyterian theology into the Abstract. Instead, the Baptist confession that influenced the Abstract, namely the Second London Confession (1677), borrowed in large part from Westminster.
The Second London Confession maintained much of the language of the Westminster Confession but features significant omissions, as well as obvious changes concerning the local church and sacraments. The confession penned by William Collins and later reprinted by Benjamin Keach found its way to the American colonies through Keach’s son, Elias. And through his influence, the Second London Confession became the foundation of the Philadelphia Confession (1742). The Charleston association adopted this Philadelphia Confession in 1767, and this became the tradition in which Boyce and Manly matured.
Manly worked slowly on the first draft of the Abstract. The crafting of a document that would broadly represent Southern Baptists and yet be strict enough to defend against heresy was a daunting task. Manly’s methodology was to preserve the essence of the early English Baptist confessions while simplifying the wording into a more concise expression of Baptist doctrine. After numerous revisions at the committee level, the Abstract satisfied those delegates from the convention who were involved in the planning for the seminary.
The Abstract of Principles, when upheld, has protected Southern Seminary and the denomination it serves from heterodoxy. It contains a historic evangelical Baptist theology that accurately defines the original goal and purpose of Southern Seminary, training ministers for the advance of the gospel.
Boyce foresaw what could be when a professor signs his or her name to a doctrinal statement, “based upon no mental reservation, upon no private understanding with those who immediately invest him into office.” His vision still affects the seminary today. Boyce’s address and seminary charters cited in this article is available for research in the Archives and Special Collection reading room in the James P. Boyce Centennial Library.
1 Gregory A. Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 4.
2 Ibid., 20.
3 James P. Boyce, Three Changes in Theological
Institutions, (Greenville, SC: C.J Elfords Book and Job Press, 1856), 34. Available at http://digital.library.sbts.edu/handle/10392/8
4 Danny Martin West, “Origin and Function of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s ‘Abstract of Principles,’ 1858-1859” (Th.M thesis, The South- ern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1983), 13.
6 William Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith,
(Chicago: Judson Press, 1959), 240.
7 Wills, 31
8 “Report of the Committee on the Plan of Orga-
nization”, 8, in the container “Charters and Fundamental Articles of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Greenville, S.C, and Lou- isville, K.Y.”, SBTS Archives.