The Story of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1950-2010 (Part Two)

Author’s note: This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is the second of four posts commemorating that history.

Seasons of Controversy and Change, 1974-1992

Upon President Binkley’s retirement in 1974, trustees elected Randall Lolley, then pastor of First Baptist Church of Winston-Salem, as the seminary’s third president. The seminary experienced numeric growth during much of Lolley’s tenure. Enrollment reached almost 1300 in 1982, which remained the record until the mid-1990s. In the early 1970s, a fully-accredited Associate of Divinity program was initiated to help educate non-traditional students who already possessed some ministry experience. In 1983, Southeastern launched a new faculty journal titled Faith and Mission. But by the early 1980s, the seminary was engulfed in another theological controversy, this time a Convention-wide imbroglio over theology and denominational politics. The election of Memphis pastor Adrian Rogers as SBC president in 1979 began a succession of conservative presidencies that continues to the present. All of the seminaries were accused of employing liberal professors who denied biblical inerrancy and embraced other left-of-center views. Southeastern was widely considered to be one of the most liberal of the seminaries. In response to conservative criticism, SBC “moderates,” a coalition of theological progressives and other Baptists committed to the pre-1979 status quo, branded the conservative dissenters as “fundamentalists” and accused them of hijacking the SBC through secular political tactics. Lolley publicly sided with the moderates.

Southern Baptists formed a Peace Committee in 1985, which was comprised of representative conservatives, moderates, and those heretofore neutral. That committee issued a report in 1987 that cited doctrinal issues as the root cause of the controversy. Southeastern was among the seminaries where the Peace Committee discovered pervasive progressive theology and open opposition to SBC conservatives. Several incidents raised the ire of conservatives, including a pro-feminist chapel service in 1984, the hiring of a female liberation theologian that same year, a controversial Sunday School lesson written by an Old Testament professor in 1985, and the establishment of a chapter of the American Association of University Professors in 1987. In the fall of 1987, conservatives claimed a majority on the seminary’s trustee board. Controversy reached a head in November 1987 when both Lolley and academic dean Morris Ashcraft announced their resignations. Lolley subsequently pastored moderate North Carolina Baptist churches in Raleigh and Greensboro, respectively.

In 1988, trustees elected Southern Seminary evangelism professor Lewis A. Drummond Southeastern’s fourth president. Drummond was a theological conservative with close ties to Billy Graham. Southwestern Seminary philosophy professor L. Russ Bush was hired as the new academic dean in 1989, despite a vote of “no confidence” from the faculty. Bush had co-authored the influential Baptists and the Bible (1980), a treatise arguing biblical inerrancy was the historic conviction among most Baptists. The already declining student enrollment continued to plummet, though the number of new student applications was rising. The pre-Drummond faculty began to retire or relocate, several of the latter choosing to teach at newly established moderate schools and programs such as the Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond and the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. A Center for Great Commission Studies was founded in 1990, reflecting Drummond’s longtime interests in evangelism and missions. Under the leadership of newly hired preaching professor Wayne McDill, Southeastern began to emphasize the importance of expositional preaching, a trend that continues to the present day. In 1992, Drummond announced his retirement and Criswell College president L. Paige Patterson was elected the seminary’s fifth president. Patterson was a respected evangelical theologian and a key architect of the conservative resurgence in the SBC.

The Story of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1950-2010 (Part One)

Author’s note: This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is the first of four posts commemorating that history.

A Seminary in the Southeast, 1950-1974

The year 2010 marks the sixtieth anniversary of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. During the mid-1940s, Southern Baptists operated three seminaries in Louisville, Kentucky, Fort Worth, Texas, and New Orleans, Louisiana. A growing number of Baptists recognized the need for a seminary in the Southeast, the cradle of Southern Baptist life. North Carolina Baptists took the lead in promoting the idea, and in 1950 the SBC chartered Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. The Convention purchased the historic campus of Wake Forest College for $1.6 million and the seminary began classes in the fall of 1951. From 1951-1956, the two schools shared the campus. When the college, now Wake Forest University, relocated to Winston-Salem in 1956, the seminary took sole possession of the Wake Forest property, where it has been located ever since.

Southeastern’s founding president was Sydnor L. Stealey, formerly professor of church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. The first degree the school offered was the Bachelor of Divinity. A Master of Theology degree was added in 1954 for students who intended to pursue further academic studies. The seminary grew every year, especially following the relocation of Wake Forest College. Sociology and ethics professor Olin T. Binkley was named the first academic dean in 1958. Binkley had previously taught on the faculties of Wake Forest College and Southern Seminary. That same year, Southeastern received full accreditation from the American Association of Theological Schools, the chapel was renovated, and the Ruby Reid Child Care Center was constructed. Stealey served twelve years as president, during which time enrollment grew to approximately 800 students. Stealey retired from office in 1962, but not before Wait Hall, the school’s administrative building, was renamed Stealey Hall in his honor.

In 1963, Olin Binkley was elected Southeastern’s second president. Binkley was a popular leader, as evidenced by his election as president of the American Association of Theological Schools in 1964. Enrollment continued to grow, new faculty members were continually added, and additional buildings were constructed to accommodate the growing campus community. In 1966, a women’s dormitory was constructed and new campus duplexes were built. A new student center was constructed in 1967, named Mackie Hall in honor of benefactor and onetime campus physician George Mackie. In 1968, a new campus health center was opened and the library’s building was named in honor of Emery B. Denney, long-time friend of the seminary and former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. The following year, the seminary chapel was named in honor of President Binkley. Academic changes also occurred; the Bachelor of Divinity was renamed the Master of Divinity in 1967, reflecting the wider trend in theological education. To meet the growing demand for continuing education for ministers, Southeastern added a Doctor of Ministry program in 1971.

Despite signs of growth, Southeastern’s faculty became entangled in a divisive theological controversy. By the early 1960s, three of Southeastern’s New Testament professors were suspected of heterodoxy. Specifically, the professors were accused of holding to German scholar Rudolf Bultmann’s “demythologized” interpretation of the New Testament. Many considered Bultmann’s theology to be inconsistent with Southeastern’s statement of faith, the Abstract of Principles. The timing was significant. Following the Elliott Controversy at Midwestern Seminary in 1961-62, Southern Baptists were becoming increasingly concerned over alleged liberalism in the seminaries. Tension increased among both trustees and faculty, many of whom were concerned that public scrutiny would be brought to bear upon Southeastern. Binkley insisted that the professors teach in accordance with the seminary’s confession or relocate to another institution. The accused professors opted for the latter, each departing between 1964 and 1966. Further controversy ensued in 1964 when two Southeastern professors participated in the ordination ceremony for Addie Davis at Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham. Davis, a Southeastern student, was the first Southern Baptist woman to be ordained to the oline gameracer mobi