In late nineteenth-century Southern Baptist life, few names commanded as much respect as John A. Broadus. Baptists in congregations across the South esteemed him as a powerful preacher of the gospel and a champion of biblical orthodoxy. Scholars across the nation admired him for his command of modern and classical studies. His enduring legacy, however, is his status as a founder and president of Southern Seminary. Though many people today could not conceive of Broadus apart from his seminary ties, they would likely be surprised to learn that he consented to come to the seminary only after multiple refusals and a spiritual struggle. Broadus made the decision to dedicate his efforts to the establishment of the seminary only after repeated persuasion on the part of James P. Boyce, who believed the seminary would never succeed without Broadus’ presence.

The formation of the Southern Baptist Convention’s first seminary grew out of James P. Boyce’s dream for Baptist higher education. Yet, Boyce alone could not muster the necessary support within the denomination. He needed like-minded professors of high reputation who could divide the teaching load and earn the trust of Baptists across the South. Though Broadus and Basil Manly Jr. were the most prominent early candidates to fill the seminary’s faculty slots, Broadus initially declined the nomination. Manly feared Broadus’ decision would prove a “death blow” to the efforts of establishing the seminary.1 Broadus cited dedication to his work as pastor of Charlottesville Baptist Church and instructor at the University of Virginia (positions he had held since 1851) as too valuable to abandon even in the name of a central institution for Baptist higher education.2 Boyce planned to open the Seminary in October 1858, but refusals by Broadus and two other nominated professors (E. T. Winkler and A. M. Poindexter) delayed the seminary’s opening for another year. Without the addition of a prominent denominational leader to the faculty, the seminary’s vital status lingered on life support.

Undeterred, Boyce again called upon Broadus. On March 29, 1859, Boyce wrote, “we are assured that we cannot make any other nominations that would be acceptable — we beg you to take this into consideration. Have not circumstances so changed since your refusal last year as clearly to point this out as duty now?”3 Boyce continued to implore Broadus’ consent, promising him that the reputation of his name alone would bring sufficient credibility to the upstart seminary in the mind of the denomination. “Your simple name will be tower of strength to us,” wrote Boyce in an April 11 letter. “Will it not be congenial to preach Christ daily to the most attentive hearers, knowing that you are starting influences to reach every quarter of the globe and the hearts of every class of men?”4 Broadus’ decision was perceived to be the deciding factor in securing consents from other nominees to join the faculty. Boyce concluded his pitch with a desperate plea, stating that “if you fail me and Winkler fail me, I must give up, and I fear Winkler will go. My chief hope of getting him now is that he looks to you and your coming may move him.”5

Boyce’s final plea persuaded Broadus to accept the mantle of Southern Seminary professor and take his talents to Greenville, South Carolina. Broadus confessed he “trembled at the responsibility of the thing.”6 He cited the fact that “few personal considerations about the matter are so attractive to me as the prospect of being associated in a great work with you. I rejoice in a warm mutual friendship now; and I trust we shall ere long learn to love each other as brothers.”7

In spite of Broadus’ emotional pledge to the seminary’s future, Winkler eventually declined nomination to the faculty, opening the door for William Williams to become the seminary’s fourth founding professor.8  Broadus served the seminary faithfully and unceasingly from 1859 until his death on March 16, 1895. Today, one cannot conceive of Broadus apart from his conviction of duty to the seminary. And one cannot conceive of Southern Seminary apart from the heroism of John A. Broadus.



Any historical record of the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention, and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is incomplete without an honest telling of their complicity in American slavery and racism. For more on that story, read here.




1 Basil Manly Jr. to John A. Broadus, 18 May 1858. In A. T. Robertson, Life and Letters of John A. Broadus (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1910), 152.

2 A. T. Robertson, Life and Letters of John A. Broadus (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1910), 149.

3 James P. Boyce to John A. Broadus, 29 March 1859. In Robertson, Life and Letters of John A. Broadus, 157.

4 Boyce to Broadus, 11 April 1859. In Robertson, Life and Letters of John A. Broadus, 157-58.

5 Ibid.

6 John A. Broadus to James P. Boyce, 21 April 1859. In Robertson, Life and Letters of John A. Broadus, 159.

7 Ibid.

8 John A. Broadus, Memoir of James P. Boyce (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1893), 153-54.