Q and A: Greg Wills on new Southern Seminary history

Communications Staff — June 18, 2009

EDITOR’S NOTE: Greg Wills is the author of a recently released history of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary titled, “Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009” (Oxford). Wills is professor of church history and director of the Center for the Study of the Southern Baptist Convention at Southern.

Question: What did you learn that surprised you while writing this book?

Greg Wills: I was surprised at just how critically important James P. Boyce’s leadership role was in establishing the seminary and saving it from imminent demise over and over again. I knew that he had a central role. I just didn’t know how remarkable his leadership was. Without his vision and determination, the seminary would not have existed and would not have survived if it had been established. I was also surprised by just how important the seminary has been to the Southern Baptist Convention. I knew that it was important, but I came away convinced that it had a deeper, more wide-reaching influence than I expected to find. I am convinced that one of the basic reasons that our denomination remained as conservative as it did was that Boyce and the other SBC leaders who established the school established it for the preservation of orthodoxy and erected a standard of sound biblical teaching which became a cornerstone against which subsequent theological developments were measured. And then when Boyce led the faculty and Southern Baptists generally to reject the emerging liberalism, he established a precedent for preserving orthodoxy whose influence endures to this day. Third, I was surprised by how quickly this faculty moved in a liberal direction beginning during World War II. The post-World War II era was one of dramatic change and I didn’t expect just how dramatic and rapid that change would be.

Q: How long did it take you to research and write this book? And how did the project impact your life?

GW: The trustees asked me to write this book in April 2005. I was able to begin working on it in October 2005, and I submitted the manuscripts in December 2008. The research phase required me to be away a lot. I was probably away at research libraries for three to four months during that first year. Gathering the materials was quite difficult. I went through approximately a million pages of relevant record. I tried to be in the office between 6 and 6:30 each morning when I was in the writing phase. I would work until 5 then try to spend time with my family until 8 or 9 o’clock. Then I did additional reading on nights and weekends.

Q: What have been the biggest failures of the seminary?

GW: The seminary failed to maintain orthodoxy. It failed to maintain the soundness of the faculty in the 20th century. It began slowly, but once liberalism was introduced, given the cultural factors in America, it was going to spread unless vigilance was applied in a new and effective way. And that was not done until 1990.

Q: What are the greatest successes in the seminary’s history?

GW: The conservative takeover is just as profoundly important as the establishment of the school in the first generation. Both were magnificent achievements of God’s mercy upon Southern Baptists.

Q: Who are Southern Seminary’s most significant heroes?

GW: Boyce has to be at the top of the list. Quite possibly, R. Albert Mohler Jr. needs to be second if we’re going to rank them. The founding faculty are all heroes. They struggled and suffered heroically for the survival of the seminary. I say in the book that was a heroic age, and I don’t mean it metaphorically. John R. Sampey led the seminary through the Great Depression in heroic ways. Ellis A. Fuller struggled heroically against the emerging liberalism but tragically failed. Duke K. McCall heroically opposed a faculty rebellion.

Q: What do you want your readers to gain from this book?

GW: One thing I hope they’ll appreciate is the critical importance of theological education to a denomination and conjointly the critical importance of the soundness of theological seminaries. I certainly hope they will recognize the heroic character of the founding faculty’s labors and sacrifices and identify with them in such a way that they will be similarly ambitious for Kingdom work and Kingdom institutions.

Q: What does the book offer for the evangelical world outside of Southern Seminary? Is its audience primarily Southern Baptists or does it have broader significance?

GW: It does have primary significance for Southern Baptists. But it has clear broader significance. For as long as evangelical Christianity exists in modern conditions—especially the prevailing acceptance of Darwinism—liberalism will be parasitic on evangelicalism. A good bit of Southern’s history is the history of the advance of liberalism and the battle against that advance by the orthodox. There are a hundred lessons to learn from Southern’s history with regard to how liberalism advances.
Of course, the story has relevance also just for understanding both Southern Baptists and American religion throughout the past 150 years.

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