SBTS and American history have aligned at intriguing points

Communications Staff — March 2, 2009

According to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary founder James P. Boyce, books, brains and bricks are the three components necessary to build a theological seminary.

While those items forged the foundation for Southern’s 150 years of training Gospel ministers, along the way billionaires, presidents, wars and natural disasters have also been part of the story, according to Greg Wills, professor of church history and organizer of a recent conference on Southern Seminary and the history of American Christianity.

One of the most interesting Americans to come in contact with the seminary was billionaire John D. Rockefeller, who founded the Standard Oil Company in 1870 and is regarded by many as the richest person in history. Rockefeller formed a close friendship with Southern’s second president, John A. Broadus, and donated a large sum of money for the construction of the seminary’s first building in Louisville, New York Hall.

When Rockefeller helped found the University of Chicago, he wanted Broadus as the school’s president.

“(Baptist theologian A.H.) Strong and Rockefeller pleaded with Broadus to become president of the new Baptist university, which became the University of Chicago,” said Wills, who is author of the forthcoming book “Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009.” “But Broadus believed his life work, his calling from God was to equip ministers of the Gospel for Southern Baptist churches.”

Despite Broadus turning down Rockefeller’s offer, the two remained close friends, with Broadus visiting both Rockefeller’s New York and Cleveland homes. Broadus also invested in Standard Oil stock.

Southern’s third president, William H. Whitsitt, had a relationship with Rockefeller as well, but the seminary’s dealings with the billionaire took an interesting turn under E.Y. Mullins, Southern’s fourth president.

“In the early years of Mullins’ presidency the faculty feared that he would accept the position at University of Chicago Divinity School. They wanted him to become their dean in that period,” Wills said, noting that Mullins ultimately refused the offer from Chicago.

After the University of Chicago was founded, Rockefeller largely stopped giving money to Southern.

In addition to billionaires, at least one American president intersected Southern’s history. When President Bill Clinton became embroiled in a scandal over his inappropriate sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Clinton sought council from Wayne Ward, a longtime professor of theology at Southern. At the time, Ward was serving as interim pastor of Clinton’s church in Little Rock, the Immanuel Baptist Church.

“He became the confidant of Bill Clinton,” Wills said.

This incident was not the first time Ward and Clinton had met. They encountered one another years earlier while Clinton was governor of Arkansas.

The seminary’s intersection with American history also extends to the nation’s wars, Wills said. During the Civil War Broadus and Boyce both served as chaplains for the Confederate Army, as did Crawford H. Toy, an Old Testament scholar at Southern who resigned amid controversy in 1879 for teaching unorthodox views of Scripture.

Toy initially entered the service as a soldier, but became a chaplain in 1863, feeling that his Christian witness as a soldier was ineffective. At the battle of Gettysburg, Toy was captured by Union troops when he stayed behind to help the wounded after the Confederate Army retreated. In prison Toy became a noted leader.

“He organized his fellow prisoners,” Wills said. “He had mock parades with them. He organized a glee club. He taught Italian.”

At the close of the Civil War, Toy taught physics and astronomy to Confederate artillery officers at the University of Alabama. Federal troops came through in April 1865 and burned the school despite Toy’s pleading to spare the library and science building.

Southern Seminary played a central role in local government when floods engulfed Louisville in 1937. The downtown area and west Louisville were covered by ten feet of water in places, and President John R. Sampey allowed the seminary to be used as a refugee-processing center for three weeks.

“Sampey offered the mayor and the mayor accepted Sampey’s offer to set up headquarters in Sampey’s office. So right down there in Norton Hall where Dr. (Russell D.) Moore’s office is became the mayor’s office,” Wills said.

On several other occasions—from tornadoes hitting
Louisville to the founding of the Jesus Seminar—the seminary’s story coincided with prominent events in local or national history. These events revealed the colorful lives of faculty and students time and again.

“The teaching of Bible and theology is the heartbeat of the institution, but the lives of the students and faculty are rich with varied experiences,” Wills said.

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