On my first visit to Southern Seminary, I thought, “This library is worn.” The floors were worn. The desks were worn. The books were worn. The campus, professors, and legacy were top notch, but the library . . . underwhelming. My perspective has since changed. If I had voiced my impression of a worn library to James Petigru Boyce he would have responded, “Yes, as it should be.” Tattered floors and desks revealed that the faithful and educated ministers Boyce envisioned to lead Southern Baptists shared his convictions.

Thus, the story of the library at Southern Seminary begins with Boyce—in spirit and flesh. He provided the Seminary with books, many of which remain today, and a love for books that Lord- willing, will endure for the life of this institution.

Boyce’s Seminary, Boyce’s Library

According to historian Gregory A. Wills, it is not an overstatement to say that “Boyce’s love and admiration for books of all kinds is embedded into the character of Southern Seminary.”

Boyce wrote in 1856 that “no institution can pursue extensive courses of study or contribute anything directly to the advancement of learning,” without a “good theological library.” Those closest to Boyce couldn’t separate the man from his books. “His library was a source of great pride and enjoyment,” his daughter wrote.

“From early childhood, James was an excessive reader,” professor and friend John Broadus wrote. “While his companions were in the ‘city square’ or on the ‘citadel green,’ engaged in their physical sports, he would be lying flat on the ‘joggling-board’ in his father’s piazza absorbed in some storybook, novel, or history” (A joggling-board was a bench a child could rock on). Broadus noted that the more Boyce read, the more his “voraciousness” and “number and variety of books he read” increased. “All through life,” wrote Broadus, Boyce’s admiration for reading was “a marvel to his family and intimate friends.” Boyce rarely went to town without scavenging through bookstores, and he always bought his theological books with the seminary in mind.

Plans for the seminary came to fruition in 1859, and the library would serve Boyce’s vision for theological education. He believed students at every level of education needed training, the curriculum

should permit advanced scholarship for the ablest students, and a biblical confession of faith should determine the boundaries of acceptable belief among the faculty. At the 1858 Southern Baptist Convention, South Carolina pastor Thomas Curtis echoed the importance of a world-class library. “The requisites for an institution of learning are three b’s,—bricks, books, brains,” Curtis wrote. “Our brethren usually begin at the wrong end of the three b’s; they spend all their money for bricks, have nothing to buy books, and must take such brains as they can pick up. But our brethren ought to begin at the other end of the three b’s.”

Greenville, South Carolina

From 1859 to 1877, Southern Seminary made its home in the former meeting house of the First Baptist Church in Greenville, erected in 1826. The Greenville building had two lecture rooms and a library, totaling 1,100 square feet.

Furman University donated two thousand volumes of its theological collection to begin the library. One of Boyce’s former teachers, William E. Bailey, then donated many of his classical works to the seminary in 1859. Broadus wrote that Bailey’s collection of 1,300 works included “many elaborate and costly editions of the great classical authors”—a good start for the first student body of seven students. The following summer, Columbian College of Washington City provided two hundred more volumes which included highly valuable complete sets. The books were stored in glass cabinets and numbered according to the shelf.

However, building a library is never final. Boyce and Broadus consistently corresponded with one another regarding the purchase of books for the library. As they traveled to New York (the most important hub for book purchasing), the two friends and professors labored to make sure they could fill the library with the latest scholarship as well as culture- shaping classical works of literature, philosophy, history, and theology.

“Three Professors and a Few Thousand Volumes”: From Greenville to Louisville

On the brink of financial ruin and facing the threat of closure, Boyce resorted to moving the seminary to Louisville, Kentucky in 1877. Broadus wrote that the move would not be difficult because “there was nothing to move, except the library of a few thousand volumes, and three professors—Broadus, Toy, and Whitsitt—only one of whom had a family.”

The seminary rented space in Louisville from the Free Public Library on the third and fourth floors. The library filled the fourth floor, and the third story housed the lecture rooms.

The actual movement of the books included the efforts of students, professors, and their families. Annie Broadus, daughter of John A. Broadus, wrote that a couple of students had worked all day for a whole week boxing

Toy’s books—and a week of work remained. Books were numbered by box, and the packing process was expected to take at least a month for the seminary library.

The boxed books, about seven- thousand volumes, were shipped by train. Around the same time, the faculty requested a list of all the periodicals and planned to draw up a list of rules. The rules contained strict instructions for checking out material and gave credence to the claims that librarians of the past were known as “shushers.”

Building the Memorial Library

Southern Seminary erected the beautiful Memorial Library in May of 1890 at the corner of Fifth and Broadway in downtown Louisville. Broadus wrote that the building “was carefully planned according to the best recent ideas and examples, and is one of the most beautiful, convenient, and every way satisfactory library buildings in existence.” He added that it would hold sixty-thousand volumes and provide plenty of space to expand.

But how did the struggling seminary construct such a spectacular home for its growing collection?

In 1888, Mrs. J. Lawrence Smith surprised the faculty with a gift of $50,000 to build and furnish a library to advance the gospel as one of the “great needs of humanity.” Smith previously contributed to the seminary but wanted the new library to honor her deceased nieces and nephews: Sara Julia Caperton, Mary Caperton, William Beverly Caldwell Jr., and Lawrence Smith Caldwell. Smith was the widow of J. Lawrence Smith, who charitably gave to many ministerial causes in Louisville but had opposed Boyce moving the Seminary to Louisville out of fear that the learned pastors of the seminary would overrun the Kentucky pastors. Mrs. Smith wrote to the faculty that the seminary needed a permanent location for its books and that students needed “to study the Bible with all its helps.”

Boyce celebrated the gift as the provision of God and envisioned a library that would last for 100 years. He died shortly after he learned of Mrs. Lawrence’s gift on December 28, 1888. According to Broadus, 5,000 volumes of Boyce’s collection went to the library. “It is proper to state that his wishes in this regard were of course very carefully carried out,” Broadus said.

“Some persons have wondered that Dr. Boyce’s noble collection was not kept separate. Yet his older colleagues were quite sure that he would himself have chosen to have his books distributed throughout the library, according to subjects. Separate collections may be a pleasing memorial, but in that way the books are not worth half so much for actual use.”

Never again could Boyce’s library be distinguished from Southern Seminary’s library.

Beeches, Boyce Centennial, and Billy Graham

Southern Seminary moved to its present location on Lexington Road in 1926. By the time of the move to “the Beeches,” as the new location came to be known, the collection had grown to 51,000 volumes. The library stacks stood in the far east end of Norton Hall, in what today is Norton 195. The room, currently called Broadus Chapel, housed the desks, circulation, and reading areas.

By the 1950s, the collection grew to nearly 140,000 volumes, and the enrollment spiked to 1,700 students. The facilities could not keep up. Seminary staff, including President Duke McCall, began pushing for a new library building in 1951. McCall envisioned opening the James P. Boyce Centennial Library in 1959 to celebrate the school’s hundred-year anniversary.

A committee introduced a three- year strategy to raise $500,000 for the new library from 1957–1959.

Southern Seminary leaders toured libraries nationwide for inspiration. After much consultation, the new library would model the library at Florida State University. Librarian Leo T. Crismon recalled, “That library impressed us more than any of the others.”

President McCall joined Crismon and others to finally break ground on the Boyce Centennial Library on May 24, 1957. After a few unexpected hoops and hurdles, such as heavy rain and busting steam pipes, builders completed the library, but costs exceeded the initial plan. The school had to borrow over $20,000 from the Executive Committee, but the alumni pledges surpassed the goal by 1960 and raised $528,067. The seminary officially dedicated the state-of-the-art Boyce Centennial Library on March 10, 1960. Billy Graham arrived on campus in May and donated artifacts for the “Billy Graham Room.”

During a round of golf in 1956, President McCall had convinced Graham to donate his crusade material to Southern Seminary instead of Harvard University. At the dedication, Graham said that his team donated the materials for three purposes: the glory of God, the study of mass evangelism, and to provide inspiration and interest in evangelism. “Research and facilities for research will bring about a continual interest in mass evangelism for years to come,” Graham said. “It is our prayer that this deposit of material might be of inspiration and challenge to students and generations to come. That they may see that the message of the first century has been used effectively in the twentieth century and that people have listened, representing many languages and all races.” Graham then presented his first Bible to President McCall.

The library stood complete and dedicated, but what about the books?

“We decided that we would use the students, as many of them who would volunteer,” Crismon said. “We would start with the zeroes and then go to the one hundreds and the two-hundreds in the Dewey decimal classifications, take them out of the old library building, carry them in to the main door and onto the main floor.” The first book shelved was Boyce’s personal copy of the Geneva Bible.

“No Neutral Spaces”: Recovering Boyce’s Seminary

The Southern Baptist Convention experienced decades of turbulence during the so-called “conservative takeover” in the late 1970s through the early 1990s. The convention garnered grassroots support to appoint conservative presidents, trustees, and, in 1993, the youngest seminary president in the history of the convention. When R. Albert Mohler Jr. became president, “there were no neutral spaces,” Wills said. “The depth of concern and pain was too deep on both sides.” Even the library failed to escape the grip of controversy.

“Very naturally, the progressive character of the faculty built the library on progressive commitments,” Wills said. “The acquisition policy under Mohler changed to include conservative presses and scholarship.” In other words, the Seminary broadened its collection of resources rather than shifting from progressive to conservative material.

Up to Date

Tradition and change coalesce in libraries. Collections grow older, but technology evolves. The initial classification of books only referenced a shelf and book number, but John R. Sampey, the fifth president of Southern Seminary, introduced the Dewey Decimal system in 1890. The system stood until 2007 when the library adopted the Library of Congress classification. The relabeling process was finalized in 2012.

Before Wills assumed the role as the first full-time archivist in 1994, the library had begun cataloging and indexing archived material with part-time workers and volunteers. The process started in 1975. At the same time, the seminary was changing from a card catalog to an online database that could be searchable around the world.

Martha Powell, who joined the library staff in 1969 and continues to volunteer her time today, said “this meant entering information about each item the library owned and putting a barcode on each item. We started entering information into the database in 1970 and library employees are still doing it today.” Another significant change the library witnessed was the increased need for digital resources, a task Southern Seminary “adapted fluidly to” in the twentieth century, according to the current librarian, Berry Driver.

There remained one problem. The desks and floors really were worn. Three previous renovation plans emerged in the last twenty years under the administrations of Ronald Deering, Bruce Keisling, and Driver. Finally, in 2022, the plans culminated with the current renovation and the library re-opened on August 29, 2023.

Current Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Joshua W. Powell, said the library exists so that students and faculty “may pursue dedicated study for the glory of God and the advancement of his kingdom.” The vision and character of Boyce live on in the library indebted to his name, efforts, collections, and spirit.

The library of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has always been Boyce’s library.