From the radio waves to Twitter
Today, one cannot truly follow the happenings of the Southern Seminary community without keeping an eye on the school’s various social media outlets. Both professors and students develop their own personal social webs. The community uses social media to make announcements, praise friends, entreat prayers, recommend articles or sermons and provide simple updates about life in general.
An examination of media milestones in the seminary’s history illustrates that previous generations of seminarians used the popular media of their day for similar purposes.
Nearly a century ago, Southern Seminary’s administration was already using media outlets as tools for greater effectiveness in its ministry. In 1922, professor John R. Sampey began a series of radio broadcasts on “Great Men of the Bible” for Louisville, Ky.’s new WHAS Radio Station.1 The upstart station, which made history in 1925 with the first live broadcast of the Kentucky Derby, recognized the mutual benefit of cooperation with Southern Seminary to fill its programming schedule. R. Inman Johnson, who taught speech and hymnology for decades, invested many years in providing weekly religious music for station programming and for directing the Seminary’s Radio Chorus. In 1936, the weekly “Seminary Worship Hour” also began to feature the “Sunday School of the Air” segment, which promoted a systematic study of the Bible in which listeners could actively participate by ordering lesson plans from the seminary in advance.2 During the institution’s early years in broadcast- ing, radio studio control rooms were established in the lower floors of both Whitsitt Hall and Mullins Hall.3
The seminary used audio-visual media in order to promote its reputation among churches and to solicit financial support. As a result of an ambitious campus relocation to its present location at “The Beeches” during the 1920s, the seminary struggled under massive debt until 1943, a situation further aggravated by the national financial panic of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression.4 The institution worked to remedy this problem partially through the production of phonographic recordings and short films promoting the seminary’s history and purpose that were distributed to local Baptist churches and exhibited to garner awareness and appreciation for the school.5
During the 1940s, the Radio Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention began a series of radio broadcasts called “The Baptist Hour” that aired on stations across the major cities of the South.6 Several popular Baptist leaders known for their ties to Southern Seminary contributed to this new radio ministry. These broadcast messages promoted the integration of theology and practical living through the implementation of overarching
annual themes which tied the various messages together, such as “The Living Christ in the Life of Today” or “American Christians Amid World Crises.” The SBC Sunday School Board (now Lifeway Christian Resources) collected transcripts of these messages into bound volumes for preservation and further distribution.
Ellis Adams Fuller had become a veteran of radio ministry by the time of his 1942 election as the seminary’s sixth president, having been a popular presence on the Atlanta airwaves while he pastored the city’s First Baptist Church.7 Under his administration, the seminary’s radio ministry continued to expand with the addition of an FM broadcasting station in the newly expanded wing of Norton Hall. At the dedication of the new studio, Fuller celebrated the increased breadth of the seminary’s reach.
“This is the hour for which the Semi- nary has waited since it was founded, nearly ninety years ago. … Hitherto only students on the campus could sit at the feet of our teachers, but now these professors can come into the homes and the churches by radio to teach and preach.”8
By 1949, the seminary was on the air six days a week and had added a second daily program on Louisville’s WKLO station. This new “Meditations” pro- gram featured a weekly speaker (usually a seminary professor) who would pro- vide a series of 15-minute devotional talks.9 In November 1950, the seminary began to broadcast all chapel services,
musical programs and some classroom lectures via its own radio station, WSDX. Fuller estimated that these FM broad- casts could reach between 750,000 to 1,000,000 people in the Louisville area, but the seminary planned to make this ministry reach “to the ends of the earth” by means of distributing the recordings to alumni and churches to air on their own local broadcasting stations.10
The 1950s saw the rise of television as a fixture in American homes, and with hit shows like I Love Lucy dominating the national ratings, the seminary recognized the medium’s potential for ministry use. In 1952, the seminary produced a 30-minute informational commercial called, “The Carpenter’s Bench,” which aired weekly in the afternoon. Louisville’s WAVE-TV presented the program as a public-service feature, and praised the production quality and cooperativeness of the seminary’s professors and students — a group that consisted of about 100 choral members. Duke K. McCall, Southern’s seventh president, hailed the television ministry as “an excellent medium for us to use in get- ting across the messages which God has commanded us to preach.”11
The television ministry expanded during the following decades as the seminary continued to air its chapel services on local stations. Burgeoning multimedia technologies motivated the seminary to look for creative ways to express the gospel message through music, drama and art.12 In 1987, Southern Seminary installed satellite equipment on campus to begin broad- casting The Faith Channel, a 24-hour Christian programming cable television service, across Louisville and Jefferson County.13
For nine years, R. Albert Mohler Jr., the ninth president of the seminary, hosted a popular live-radio program through which he commented on daily news, interviewed notable guests and promoted “intelligent Christian conversation.” Originally titled “Truth on the Line” and only broadcast in the Louisville metro area, “Albert Mohler Program,” produced by Salem Communications, became nation- ally syndicated in 2004 until its final broadcast on July 1, 2010.
On the decision to end the program, Mohler stated that “the thing I will miss more than anything else is the conversation with America over the means of the radio broadcast. There’s an incredible intimacy to radio … because radio builds a community.”14 The “conversation with America” was most clearly on display during the listener call-in sessions, when Mohler provided unscripted answers to questions on theology, history, politics and just about every other subject fit for public discussion. Mohler’s public media ministry now continues through daily and monthly podcasts, “The Briefing ” and “Thinking in Public,” respectively.
Today, as it has throughout its history, Southern Seminary utilizes a plethora of ever-evolving communication technologies and social media as it continues to lead the way in theological education. No one knows the next giant leap in these kinds of media outlets, but one can be sure that Southern Seminary will use every available resource to advance the kingdom of Jesus Christ throughout every generation.
Adam Winters is the processing archivist for the James P. Boyce Centennial Library. He is pursuing a doctorate in Baptist history at Southern Seminary.
1Linwood T. Horne, Sr., R. Inman Johnson Better Known as Prof: His Life and Times (Karen Home Marasco,1999),116-17.EdwardA.McDowell, “The Seminary Session in Retrospect,” South- ern Seminary News 7.2 (May 1939), 7. 2“Seminary Extension Studio Opened,” South- ern Seminary News 5.1 (January 1936), 5. 3Horne, R. Inman Johnson Better Known as Prof: His Life and Times, 117. “Seminary Exten- sion Studio Opened,” 5.
4“Freedom from Debt- A Notable Achievement,” Southern Seminary News 11.4 (November, 1943), 1.
5Southern Seminary News 5.5 (August, 1936), 4-6. “Seminary Film Available,” Southern Seminary News 10.3 (September, 1942), 6.
6The Living Christ in the Life of Today: The First Baptist Hour (Nashville: Broadman, 1941), vii-viii.
7“You Gain Atlanta Loss,” Southern Seminary News 10.4 (November 1942), 11.
8“Studio is Dedicated,” The Tie (December1949), 10.
9“Seminary Radio Program,” The Tie (February1949), 10.
10Ellis A. Fuller, “The Radio Ministry of AlmaMater,” The Tie (November 1950), 9.
11“Seminary on Television,” The Tie (March, 1952), 8. “The Carpenter’s Bench” can be viewed at http://digital.library.sbts.edu/handle/10392/2977
12“Center for Religion and Art Created,” The Tie(March/April 1986), 3.
13“Faith Channel Funded for Initial Operations,”The Tie (May/June 1987), 12.
14Audrey Barrick, “Albert Mohler Says Farewellto Live Radio,” July 2, 2010. Available at http:// www.christianpost.com/news/albert-mohler- says-farewell-to-live-radio-45762/