Founding: 1859-1878

Southern Baptists established The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1859 in Greenville, South Carolina. The founding faculty had an impressive academic record. James P. Boyce graduated from Brown University and Princeton Theological Seminary. John A. Broadus earned a Master of Arts from the University of Virginia and taught ancient languages there. Basil Manly Jr., Boyce’s childhood friend, was valedictorian of his class at the University of Alabama and also graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary. William Williams graduated from the University of Georgia and studied law at both Harvard and Yale. All were experienced college professors. And all were accomplished preachers and seasoned pastors. Just two years after Southern’s founding, the nation plunged into the Civil War and students left their coursework to join the war effort. The seminary had to close in the fall of 1862. It lost its endowment. There was no feasible path to reopening the school. The faculty determined to go forward by faith. Broadus spoke for them all: “Suppose we quietly agree that the seminary may die, but we’ll die first.” They reopened the seminary in 1865. In order to secure a new endowment, however, the seminary had to relocate. Boyce and the trustees considered Chattanooga, Atlanta, Memphis, and Louisville. They chose Louisville because its civic leaders promised strong support and Kentucky Baptists offered to contribute the bulk of the endowment. When the seminary moved to Kentucky in 1877, an unprecedented 89 students registered for classes, foreshadowing the remarkable growth the seminary would experience in Louisville.


1859 – The seminary opens in Greenville, South Carolina, with 26 students and four professors.

1862 – The Seminary suspends classes due to the Civil War.

1862 – The seminary reopens with only seven students.

1869 – Crawford H. Toy becomes the seminary’s fifth faculty member.

1870 – John A. Broadus publishes The Preparation and Delivery of Sermons

1877 – The seminary opens in Louisville, Kentucky

Since the 1830s, Southern Baptists had recognized the critical need for a theological seminary for sound and effective teaching of the Bible in the churches, but they were unable to overcome competing denominational demands. In 1856, James P. Boyce presented a bold, innovative vision for theological education to the annual meeting of South Carolina Baptists. Published at the request of the convention, Boyce’s Three Changes in Theological Institutions proposed first that Baptist seminaries should no longer require students to have an education in Greek and Latin language and literature before matriculating. Boyce’s innovation would mix students with basic education in English language with students who had a full classical education — all would study the Bible and theology in English. He proposed second that the seminary should develop a first-rate research library and offer courses in areas of advanced scholarship, in order to provide a cadre of sound biblical scholars to advance truth and refute error effectively among Baptist churches. Boyce proposed third that the seminary should establish a sound confession of faith in order to protect the institution from the various errors that threatened Baptist churches in the modern era. Since 1859, all professors must pledge their agreement with the seminary’s Abstract of Principles by signing the confession. Boyce’s vision for the seminary struck the South Carolina Baptists as so wise and sure that when he proposed they assume the largest burden in establishing a seminary, he overcame all opposition. Moved by Boyce’s vision and by South Carolina’s sacrificial commitment, all Southern Baptists agreed to join the effort. Boyce had accomplished what no one else could.

John Broadus portrait

In their own words

“Suppose we quietly agree that the seminary may die, but we’ll die first.”

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.

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