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 ministry.