Ghosts at Southern Seminary: A Lenten Haunting
Even though I still live in the same city, Louisville, KY, I don’t often visit the campus of my theological alma mater, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, mother seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention. At first, it was too painful to visit the campus and see just what R. Albert Mohler, Jr. (Al Mohler) has done as president to destroy the school that I knew and replace it with one of the same name, but almost no continuity. It’s still painful, but it has the largest theological library around and, from time to time, I sneak in to do research–but only after I have tried the library at nearby Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary first.
Last week, circumstances brought me again to the campus, and, for the first time in a very long time, I allowed myself to move past the pain of the fundamentalist war in the SBC which resulted in the takeover of my alma mater (completely after the retirement of the former president, the late Dr. Roy Lee Honeycutt)–and every other seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, and to walk around campus in the early morning remembering the school as I first knew it. I relived the memories of when I first arrived and encountered again the “ghosts” that haunt these halls and grounds. If the school ever recovers from what Mohler has wrought here, I wonder if those restless spirits will then find peace. My mind drifts backward:
It was New Year’s Day, 1986. I finished the drive from Atlanta, GA where I had been living temporarily with my parents as I saved to come here. I had recently graduated from a small Baptist college in South Florida and taken an M.A. in history from Florida State University as I made my final decision between law school and seminary. Most of the other would be seminarians I knew at my small college were making plans to go to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, TX, but I had checked it out and been unimpressed with SWBTS’ academic rigor. None of the other SBC seminaries had any attraction for me. The news from the 1985 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas was sufficiently disturbing –the feud between fundamentalists and those they considered theologically “liberal” was growing and could become a denominational schism as had happened in the late ’70s with the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod–that I did consider seriously attending seminary outside the SBC. After all, I first “became Baptist” as a young Christian through encounters with African-American Baptists and then, later, with Baptists in Germany. “Baptist” was an important modifier identifying my tradition of Christianity, but I was much less emotionally invested in “Southern Baptist.” So, I considered some other seminaries–but SBTS had a strong lure that I did not resist.
I had felt connected to the school before I visited. My home church pastor was an alumnus and his connections brought some of the seminary’s brightest to our church for annual revival meetings. At FBC, Jacksonville Beach, FL, I heard famed NT scholar Frank Stagg preach on the “unhindered gospel” displayed in the Book of Acts. I heard church historian C. Penrose St. Amant (pronounced “Sahn Amahn.”) illustrate God’s faithfulness through reference to figures in the history of the Church universal. I had heard Henlee H. Barnette preach against nuclear arms and for the care of God’s earth. I had finally heard the great theologian Dale Moody, one of the few Protestants and only Baptist ever invited to lecture at the Gregorian University in Rome, preach through the Book of Ephesians. All these giants were retired by January 1986, of course, but they had been my lure. If I were to study theology in an SBC seminary, there could be no other choice than SBTS–once of Greenville, SC, and since shortly after the Civil War, at Louisville, KY.
On that January morning in ’86, I rounded Lexington Road and entered campus, mesmerized by the gondola tower on Norton Hall and the spire of the seminary chapel. I unloaded my car, helped by others who were there 2 weeks before the start of term and set up my room in the dorms over Boyce Bible School–a dorm where I would live until getting married in another January–this time in 1990–but I knew nothing of that later date with destiny–hadn’t even met my bride-to-be.
As I walked over the campus again, I wept. I remembered the feelings from that New Year’s Day in ’86. I was excited, but anxious. I had been an excellent student in my small college–but so had everyone who was now here. It was a much bigger pond for this poor fish. Could I swim in it successfully? I remembered wondering that strongly. Baptists are not usually known for academic brilliance, but Southern was a different story (as are some other schools in American, Canadian, British Baptist circles–and around the globe). In the Boyce Centennial Library, one can see the desk where A. T. Robertson (1863-1934) wrote his “Big Grammar” of NT Greek–that revolutionized the study of NT Greek, not as a “Holy Ghost” language, but as the ordinary koine Greek of the Mediterranean in the Hellenistic era. There’s Whitsitt Hall, named after the 3rd President of the seminary, William Heth Whitsitt (1841-1911), a church historian who was forced to resign because he demonstrated that, Landmarkists to the contrary, Baptists do not connect back in unbroken succession through sectarian groups to the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River! In this place, piety and scholarship were not seen as enemies, but part of a seamless whole. I wondered if I could measure up.
I did. Despite the constant attacks by the fundamentalists on all the professors with whom I had come to study–attacks which ultimately prevailed in the early ’90s, I obtained a world class theological education here–for a tiny fraction of what it would have cost me to study at comparable schools.
I doubt that ever again will so many Baptist scholars of such magnitude ever be assembled together in one place–and, perhaps, that is best. Perhaps, diaspora is more fitting. The root problem of the SBC–and what makes it different from Baptists everywhere else on the globe–is its size and cultural power. But Baptists were born as minority dissenters and were never meant to be an empire. The SBC is imperial Baptistland–and that is shown in its long defense of slavery, segregation, its continuing defense of the subordination of women, and persecution of sexual minorities. The founder and first president of this school, James P. Boyce (never one of my heroes) was a self-described “ultra-pro-slavery-man” from the antebellum landed gentry of the South who left his studies with Francis Wayland of Brown University (the first Baptist university in America) because of Wayland’s anti-slavery views and transferred to Princeton Seminary where Charles Hodge’s brand of Calvinism was more congenial to Southerners who saw slavery as predestined for Africans and their descendants by the hand of a sovereign God! But, until Mohler, the school had grown beyond Boyce and his 19th C. scholastic Calvinism. It had produced most of the faculty at the other seminaries. It’s leaders, especially 4th president E. Y. Mullins and A.T. Robertson had helped Principal H. Wheeler Robinson of Regent’s Park College (Oxford) launch the Baptist World Alliance in 1905.
I thrived here. I learned the history of Christianity here with Patristics scholar E. Glenn Hinson, American Church historian Bill J. Leonard, and Reformation scholar, Timothy George. (The latter has since gone in directions I cannot follow, but I nevertheless learned enormously from him.) I studied theology here with Molly Marshall–who later officiated at my wedding as is now President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in KS, an American Baptist school, David Mueller (who deepened my love for Barth and had me wrestle with all the great modern theologians from Schleiermacher onward), and Frank Tupper. I studied philosophy of religion with Dan R. Stiver (encountering Paul Ricoeur!) and theological ethics with my Doktorvater, Glen Stassen, as well as with Paul D. Simmons. Pam Scalise pulled her hair out trying to teach me to read biblical Hebrew. She and Tom Smothers and Paige Kelly and especially John D. W. Watts imparted to me a great love of the Biblical prophets and the Hebrew Bible generally. David Dockery, Alan Culpepper, Gerald Borchert, and–visiting from his retirement back to England–George R. Beasley-Murray deepened my already deep love for the Greek NT. I encountered world religions–and a mighty passion for justice and a rethinking of missiology–in John N. Jonsson from South Africa.
Here I met my bride (of 2o years now), Kate Westmoreland-White, in a homiletics class where we graded each other’s sermons. Here I became a founding member of the campus chapter of the Southern Baptist Alliance–now evolved into the small denomination to which I belong, the progressive and ecumenical Alliance of Baptists. Here I responded to Emilio Castro (then president of the World Council of Churches) and sought to become a missionary theological educator–only to be rejected as too “theologically liberal.” (Walter Rauschenbusch and Crawford Toy were also Baptist scholars before me who were rejected by mission agencies.) Here I marched against homelessness in Hands Across America, and began my lifelong ministry with the poor people of our inner cities–with them, not TO them. From here I went on my second trip to Nicaragua with Witness for Peace. Here I joined the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. Here, I rounded up 14 other students and went to Washington, D.C. in March of ’89 to “Stand for Truth” against apartheid in South Africa and our governement’s support of the apartheid government there. There I was arrested in D.C. with Jim Wallis of Sojourners, with Walter Wink, with a young Jesuit named John Dear (now very famous) with nuns who had never heard of Baptists interested in social justice–I was glad to break stereotypes.
But, now I have to stop. Because now the memories flash on other ghosts–vicious, dangerous ghosts. I do not want to relive these memories–but they flood through anyway. The students who were paid by fundamentalist trustees to secretly record faculty lectures and see if quotations could be snipped apart from context and run in denominational presses as “proof” of the “rank liberalism” of the seminary! Of the illegal copying of Molly Marshall’s doctoral dissertation for ignoramuses to use as “proof” of her supposed “universalism” in soteriology. The manipulations to try to get her denied tenure–and, when that failed, Mohler’s eventual forcing of her resignation because “we have the votes” on the trustee board–regardless of her defense and before any such defense were possible. The similar fate of Paul Simmons–whom the fundamentalists had hounded for years because he holds a mildly pro-choice view in the ethics of abortion–a matter on which the seminary’s Abstract of Principles (which all faculty sign) is completely silent. My personal confrontation with Judge Paul Pressler (one of the architects of the fundamentalist takeover) for his dishonesty and lack of integrity in the way that he confronted sisters and brothers in Christ with whom he disagreed. Roy Honeycutt’s heart attack and decision to retire early–hoping (in vain!) to thereby shape the trustees’ choice of his successor as president.
The pain is less these days. I have been gone from here many years, now. I have worked to forge an identity as a global Baptist–and as a baptist, a member of the Believers’ Church groups. I transferred my alumnus status to the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (BTSR), the first of the post-fundamentalist Baptist seminaries in the South. In many ways, I have shaken off the dust of this place and the sorrows it hold for me.
And, yet. And, yet. As a student–at the back of mind was the thought that my highest joy would be if someday, I could return here and teach. Now, no one could pay me enough to teach at the “new” Southern of the Mohler-era. And that hurts–it hurts that teaching here can no longer even be a dream of mine because my conscience would not let me do so as the school is designed now.
I look out over the campus quad–long ago nicknamed the “Josephus Bowl” –and I see the ghosts of Dale Moody and Clarence Jordan, Robertson, and Eric Rust, and Findley Edge, and Anne Davis and W. O. Carver and Clyde T. Francisco, and so many others. And I realize that the school is but another “clay pot” that God has used. The treasure, the gospel, is not in these bricks and mortar. If this earthen vessel has ceased its time to be used of God in the way that it was in its former glory, other places will arise–and maybe already have.
“Ichobod,” the glory has departed. But the remembrances and ghosts of that former glory remain. I wipe my eyes as I head back to my car and hope that it is some time before I need to walk here again.