Twenty years and counting: Mohler reflects on his presidency of Southern Seminary
In April 1995, he was completely spent.
“I thought it was all over,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr. “I just thought I didn’t have anymore to give. I thought this was it.”
Two weeks earlier, the faculty of Southern Seminary, where Mohler had been president for less than two years, overwhelmingly supported a motion that explicitly rebuked him and repudiated his policies, with only two members voting for him and two voting in absentia. The days that followed weren’t any easier.
Mohler even recalled an Easter party when some of those who opposed him were mean to his children who were only six years old and three years old at the time.
“I sat down on the floor in the guest room in the President’s Home with Mary, and we just closed the door and lost it. And we, honestly, as tearfully as we could, prayed, ‘Lord, it’s in your hands; we’ve got nothing more to give.’”
In a recent interview with Towers editors, Mohler discussed the tumultuous earlier years of his presidency, how he arrived at Southern Seminary and the work that remains at the seminary.
The vote of no confidence resulted from Diana Garland’s resignation as dean of the School of Church Social Work because of disagreements with Mohler concerning the election of faculty who supported the ordination of women. The reaction to her resignation and the controversy surrounding the Carver School was fierce, leading to the vote which supported Garland and rebuked Mohler.
And according to Gregory A. Wills’ history of the seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009, some faculty urged the trustee chairman to remove Mohler as president.
“I didn’t fear being removed from office, simply because the vast majority of Southern Baptist leadership, and specifically the trustees at Southern Seminary, knew that it was going to be a fight,” Mohler told Towers editors.
But his confidence in trustees’ support didn’t lessen the toll on him and his family. And at times, he even thought he might implement a plan to recover the seminary only to be unable to rebuild afterward.
“I felt very imperiled about being able to be the president who would be able to build the institution on the other side,” he said. The trustees “needed me at least to get the hard work done and do the deconstructive work, even if I didn’t have the opportunity to have the constructive work on the other side.”
A fit ‘just so natural’
Mohler arrived at Southern Seminary as a student in 1980 with the intention that he would then pastor a church, probably back in his home state of Florida.
At that time, the seminary looked and felt significantly different. The culture of the school aligned theologically and methodologically with mainline divinity schools like the University of Chicago Divinity School and Princeton Theological Seminary. In 1958, some at the seminary even tried to make Yale Divinity School an “explicit model for Southern Seminary’s faculty,” Mohler said.
Mohler said God called him into the ministry during his late teens. And so, after he graduated from Samford University in two years, “the obvious place to go was Southern,” he said. The expectation for Samford students, “with the full and eager support of Samford’s religion faculty,” was that they would attend Southern Seminary. Even Mohler’s boyhood pastor, Rupert Coleman, told him, “Well, of course you’ll go to Southern.”
Although this momentum pointed toward Louisville, Ky., Mohler almost studied in Fort Worth, Texas, instead.
“I did reconsider [attending Southern Seminary] right at the last minute,” he said. “Southern did not handle my application very well, as a matter of fact. And Russell Dilday gave me a full presidential scholarship to Southwestern.” He nearly accepted.
In the end, however, Southern Seminary was “just so natural” for Mohler. As an undergraduate, he visited the campus along with a fellow Samford student. The similarities between Samford’s campus and Southern’s made Mohler feel at home, and the people he met on campus further drew him to Southern. On his visit, he met theologian Dale Moody and sat in Wayne Ward’s systematic theology class in Norton 102.
So, in August of 1980, the 21-year-old Mohler loaded his 1974 Mustang II and moved to Louisville.
During his time at Southern Seminary, his intention to pastor a church remained strong. In fact, he continued seminary beyond a master’s degree because the pastors with whom he was most familiar earned doctorates from Southern, including three of his home church pastors.
“My picture of a pastor was one who had a Southern Ph.D.,” he said.
And at the time of his graduation in 1989, Mohler planned “to accept the call to a pastorate in Florida,” before he accepted the editorship of the Georgia Baptist Convention newspaper, The Christian Index.
Even then, Mohler expected he would end up in the pastorate. All along the way, however, he worked with and around influential leaders, both denominationally and in higher education. At Samford, he worked closely with president Leslie Wright, as Mohler was president of the student ministerial association. And then at Southern Seminary, he observed the presidency of Duke K. McCall and later worked as an assistant and fundraiser for the seminary’s eighth president, Roy L. Honeycutt.
After Honeycutt announced his plans in 1992 to retire, Southern Seminary’s Board of Trustees appointed a search committee to find the school’s new president. The committee primarily considered well-known candidates. One nominee, however, they did not anticipate: the editor of The Christian Index.
When the search committee interviewed Mohler, according to Wills, he presented a “powerful, compelling vision of Southern Seminary, past, present and future and the plan for how to renovate this institution.” The chairman of the committee, Rick White — who later served as Mohler’s first chairman of the board — said in an interview that he “never had a greater peace in all [his] life about a decision like that: that Al Mohler was the man to lead Southern Seminary.”
A ‘declaration of war’ against unorthodoxy
In March 1993, trustees elected Mohler as the ninth president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And they charged him with returning the school to its founders’ commitments.
When the seminary began in 1859, founders James P. Boyce, John R. Broadus, Basil Manly Jr. and William Williams established the school with a confession of faith to define its theological commitments and to set boundaries of acceptable belief for the faculty. But, despite their precautions, as the school grew, many of Southern Seminary’s faculty members departed from the school’s confession. By the 1960s, most of the men and women on faculty were thoroughly and decidedly liberal in their theological commitments. And this progressive trajectory continued into the 1980s.
When Mohler arrived back in Louisville, this time as president, he gave a “declaration of war” against unorthodoxy within the institution, a declaration in the form of a convocation address: “Don’t Just Do Something: Stand There.”
The address set his agenda to restore the seminary to orthodox belief and practice — a central concern during the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention in the decade preceding. He argued that the school had lost its way theologically and needed to recommit with integrity to its confession of faith, the Abstract of Principles.
Many on the faculty, most of whom were former teachers and advisors to Mohler when he was a student, did not agree. But most profoundly disagreed with Mohler’s interpretation of the Abstract, his views on the Scriptures, the gospel and the church. They did not support his vision for the graduates he wanted to produce. The divide was sharp.
The conflict among Mohler and the faculty, alumni and constituents often elevated to personal levels, as Mohler received attacks from multiple directions.
“We were day-by-day, living in the tortuous context of walking into nothing but unending conflict, from beginning to end,” he said, commenting on the intense times of controversy. “Conflict that wasn’t just on the campus, but extended over into the SBC, extended over into the world of theological education, extended over into the city of Louisville, such that Mary and I were almost unable to go eat in a restaurant without having invectives hurled at us.”
Through it all, Mohler remained committed to the conviction that the seminary should preserve James P. Boyce’s original vision, and to the principle that a Southern Baptist seminary ultimately answers to Southern Baptists.
He said that, through the difficult days, months and years, while intense and often painful, his convictions — and the convictions of those who hired him — drove him to persevere.
“If it’s about the convictions, then you can handle the opposition, the criticism, the controversy because it’s not most importantly about you,” he said. “My ambition and goal and purpose has been to articulate convictions that I believe are not only true, but are important for the sake of the church, for the sake of the world, for everything from eternal life to human flourishing. If you understand the issue of the truth, if you have confidence in the truth — and your convictions you know are not only true, but urgently important — then you have to be willing to undergo a great deal of controversy.”
Still, Mohler added, “ideas are not disembodied” and the harshest criticisms directly affect the person espousing those convictions. He particularly struggled with suggestions that his work at the seminary and in the convention was only about him and his professional ambitions.
“The most injurious thing is when people impute motivations that you can’t possibly refute because you can’t put your heart out on the table and let people read it,” he said. “You just have to trust you’ll be vindicated over time.”
But the highest cost of his early years as president was not personal attacks, Mohler said, but the loss of relationships.
“If I had the responsibility to do the same thing all over again, I don’t think I could or would have changed any of the major decisions,” he said. “But, I think 20 years later, I would probably go into it understanding just how costly at the relational level it would be.”
The full weight of the relational loss occurred in 1995, when Mohler found himself alone with his wife, crying in the guest room of his home.
He was completely spent.
‘A different world’
At the apex of the crisis in April 1995, Southern Seminary’s Board of Trustees took several votes that affirmed Mohler’s actions. After the trustee meeting, Mohler held a press conference with White, who by then was chairman of the Southern Seminary Board of Trustees. Walking into the press conference in Carver Hall, one of the many embittered students protesting spit on Mohler. In the press conference, White expressed the board’s full support of Mohler and the direction he was leading the seminary.
“I walked into that courtyard outside of Carver and I realized, ‘This is a different world’,” Mohler said.
The trustee votes to affirm Mohler’s actions on faculty hiring qualifications was the beginning of the end for the major opposition. In the meeting, not only did the trustees affirm Mohler’s decisions, but they adopted an early retirement package, an “exit plan for liberal faculty to leave” the seminary. In a surprisingly short time, they did.
“The purpose for which I came was to see Southern Seminary unapologetically committed to the faith once for all delivered to the saints, to the service of the Southern Baptist Convention, to an affirmation of biblical inerrancy and a passion for the gospel,” he said. “And I would not take credit for the fact that those things have happened, but that was the goal of my coming to Southern Seminary. And I’m very happy to say that the institution is safely now established theologically, missiologically and denominationally where we desperately wanted it to be.”
Like any movement, the return to orthodoxy and confessional fidelity at Southern Seminary included not only a leader, but many people. Among them, Mohler expressed his thankfulness for the support of his trustees and the pastors within the conservative movement who provided essential support and encouragement. Inside the institution, men like dean David Dockery and New Testament professor Mark Seifrid began laying groundwork for conservatives even before Mohler’s arrival.
But one supporter, beyond the rest, provided guidance and support for Mohler’s effort to recover the seminary.
“The first person, and most people can probably figure it out, but it can’t be exaggerated, is Mary Mohler, without whom this just wouldn’t have happened because of her magnificent gifts and consummate loyalty and encouragement,” he said. “Often, other than Christ, that’s all I had. And I had my children: they were sanity in the midst of all this.”
‘Life has a purpose; I wasn’t here by accident’
Well into his second decade as president of Southern Seminary, he faced a challenge vastly different from the theological controversies of the early 1990s — he nearly died.
Early in January 2007, David Van Biema, a religion writer for TIME magazine, interviewed Mohler about his health crisis. Van Biema reported that Mohler “went into the hospital in December  for a fairly routine stomach operation and suddenly developed pulmonary embolisms, a frequently fatal form of clotting, in both lungs.”
Now, more than six years later, Mohler said that episode still serves as a reminder of God’s purpose in every aspect of life.
“You realize [life] is a gift,” he said. “It does make you weigh every moment and day in terms of its worth.”
‘This is worth doing and perpetuating’
Since those early days in the 1990s, the seminary has grown on all fronts. The faculty is larger and its academic credibility stronger. And every member signs the school’s confession, as Mohler says, “with gladness of heart.” The student body has vastly grown — Southern is now the second largest seminary of any kind and enrolls more master of divinity students than any other seminary. The finances of the school are more secure, with the budget more than doubled and an endowment growing by more than $30 million.
According to Mohler, his work at Southern Seminary is far from over. He sees today’s challenges — from things like the current moral revolution in America to the rapid pace of change within education — making the seminary and its mission as relevant as ever.
Twenty years behind him, he now turns his attention to the coming decade and beyond.
In a particular and unprecedented way, according to Mohler, the next decade will be decisive. Unlike years in the past, he said, the areas of education, church life and socio-cultural values are evolving simultaneously at a rapid pace. He thinks these changes make Southern Seminary and its mission as important as ever.
“It’s going to be our challenge in the next 10 years to make sure we have the resources to do what we need to do,” Mohler said, “and that we are the obvious answer to the question, ‘Where are people going to find the kinds of pastors and teachers, ministers and missionaries and leaders they’re looking for in their churches?’”
Mohler said, too, that in the next decade, the seminary will “give a lot of attention to ethnic and minority development, to making sure that the institution increasingly looks not only more like the world, but more like America.”
His plans for the future also include the writing of a systematic theology textbook.
“My goal is that in the next 10 years, by the time I reach the end of this 10-year period, I’ll be well on my way to getting that systematic theology into final, printed form,” he said. “It will be a systematic theology written intentionally to express what it means to confess the faith once for all delivered to the saints within the very intellectually hostile conditions of late modernity.
“So it’s going to be a systematic theology and an apologetic engagement,” he said.
Because of the large number of quality systematics books available, Mohler said he doesn’t feel an urgency to publish his systematic soon. And several writing projects before then demand his attention. Nonetheless, Mohler views writing a systematic theology as his responsibility as president of Southern Seminary — just as presidents Boyce and E.Y. Mullins famously did.
Also like previous Southern Seminary presidents Boyce, Mullins and McCall, Mohler plans to continue serving the seminary as long as his mental and physical health allow.
“The committee who hired me asked me to stay for 35 years,” he said. Members of that committee determined that only a long-term presidency could affect the changes needed in the seminary. They saw that the long tenures of Boyce, Mullins and McCall each set a trajectory that lasted beyond their individual presidencies. Mohler agreed.
“If this is worth doing, which I believe with all my heart it is,” Mohler said, “then this is worth doing and perpetuating.”
Long after the early crises and the trustees’ affirmation in the midst of that opposition, Mohler is not even close to being spent.
He’s still working.