Editor’s Note: We are posting this at 35k feet somewhere over the state of West Virginia from the cabin of a CRJ700 equipped with interrupted WiFi service. Please forgive our typos and other errors. We will correct them upon safe landing.
For many years leading up to his death in 1994, Russell Kirk hosted a grand Halloween celebration at his home in Mecosta, Mich. There he would dress in his formal academic regalia and pass out candy to children dressed as ghouls and goblins and pirates and princesses. With his doctoral robe from St. Andrews draped around him and striking the image of a wizard from Middle Earth, Kirk would welcome to his home all manner of trick-or-treaters whom he invited to participate in the “dreadful joy” that the father of modern American conservatism conjured to retrieve the faithful witness of tradition.
But Halloween was not only costumes and candy corn for Russell Kirk. He believed deeply, sincerely, and unapologetically in the existence of ghosts. According to Kirk, there are places in this world where a thin, translucent veil separates the next. Biblical exegesis might find that veil at the Mount of Transfiguration, where the dead bear witness to the Living, and the faithful petition Heaven to thereupon sanctify a tabernacle. We may, like King Saul, behold the prophet Samuel summoned from the afterlife to torment the soul of a backslidden, emotionally unstable monarch. We may witness the Real Presence on the roads to Emmaus or Damascus. But the Bible, if we are honest with each other, does not preclude the possibility that the eternal communion of saints may, at times, dip into the temporal. Put another way: the great cloud of witnesses may be seen and heard by pilgrim travelers running the race of faith.
Quite apart from some Platonic metaphysic, Southern Baptists possess somewhat naturally an almost paranormal fixation. One cannot talk foreign missions without summoning the spirit of Lottie Moon. The same goes for home missions and Annie Armstrong. Looming large over Baptist life are the ghosts, if you will, of E.Y. Mullins, George W. Truett, and B.H. Carroll. There are even the ghosts of John R. Claypool and Carlyle Marney, who ventured far afield from a Baptist confessional framework yet still speak to us clearly and prophetically. And, of course, there are women like Bertha Smith, Mrs. R.L. Mathis, and others.
There is perhaps no place on Southern Baptist soil where the ghosts speak so powerfully, if not audibly, to faculty and students in preparation for gospel ministry than the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. The men and women who have studied in those classrooms — or taught in them — over the course of the seminary’s 160 years have each contributed to the institution’s DNA. Some of them were fundamentalist provocateurs like J. Frank Norris. Some became legendary pastors like W.A. Criswell and Hershel Hobbs. There have been towering scholars like Basil Manly, Jr. and A.T. Robertson. Behind the chapel pulpit have stood evangelists like Billy Graham and Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.
Even today, the contours of evangelical theology are shaped in no small part by theologians, philosophers, historians, and biblical interpreters like Bruce Ware, Doug Blount, Greg Wills, and Don Whitney. And for the past twenty-five years, the influence of the seminary’s ninth president, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., has defined the transformation and sustained character of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Arguably, that influence has shaped not only the trajectory of theological education in the Southern Baptist Convention, but the very essence of its churches’ public witness.
To have visited Southern’s campus during Heritage Week and the celebration of Mohler’s 25th anniversary was a crash course in higher education administration and confessional pedagogy. There is an indisputable awareness that Southern’s enrollment success, academic prestige, and cultural impact are not accidental. In truth, there is a sense that the seminary’s founding vision, once painstakingly recovered, has slowly, consistently, and methodically built this modern academy brick by brick, faculty hire by faculty hire.
Some concluding observations:
- Mohler has labored to keep the seminary community in constant conversation with its past. He has does this both through what he has said — in chapel sermons, academic addresses, daily podcasts, and countless other speeches — and what he has done. For instance, we learned last month that Mohler’s formal academic regalia was inherited from T. Rupert Coleman, the childhood pastor who baptized him as a boy in Florida. Coleman himself was robed by the famed New Testament scholar and longtime Southern professor, Archibald Thomas Robertson. This sophisticated nod to Southern’s past speaks volumes not only about the seminary’s confessional continuity but Mohler’s subtle determination to protect it.
- It’s hard not to become hagiographic about Southern. As a proud Southeastern alumnus and mere tinkerer in denominational matters, our appreciation for the seminary on Crescent Hill seemed unlikely. But you cannot be a fly on the campus walls very long — either in the academic buildings or the student center — and escape without realizing students and faculty alike have a sense that they are witnesses to something consequential in Southern Baptist life. And yet, participation in these recent chapters of Southern’s 160-year metanarrative does not seem to nurture haughtiness. Despite what we’d been told on numerous occasions by those more closely associated with the idiosyncratic Anabaptist/Sandy Creek apologetic, Southern Seminary stands not in some exclusive, highbrow Charlestonian tradition but welcomes meaningful engagement and discerning appropriation of the diversity reflected in the grand mosaic of Southern Baptist traditions.
- The sight of 19 year olds in bow ties curls a benign grin across our face. There was a time in Wake Forest when we wore suits and ties to every class, even on the hottest days of unairconditioned, post-hurricane existence.
- A century ago when Southwestern was just getting off the ground, the Fort Worth seminary postponed its request for convention support to allow Southern to complete a building campaign. Today, the funding formula that allocates Cooperative Program dollars to the six Southern Baptist seminaries is outdated and ill-equipped to account for shifting paradigms. The result: Southern and Southeastern, which was the fasted growing SBC seminary last year, are subsidizing both New Orleans and Southwestern amid those schools’ enrollment declines. If we were Al Mohler or Danny Akin, we’d probably be a little chapped about that, particularly in light of the expansive over-construction that has occurred in Fort Worth. What’s more is that the enrollment declines at Southwestern — and thus reduced Cooperative Program support to the school– did not dissuade the institution’s former First Couple Emeriti from their multi-million dollar vanity projects. Now the school has to sustain these buildings — on top of figuring out how to remove the chapel’s atrocious stained glass windows — all while paying the Pattersons exorbitant severance. Our point: Southern and Southeastern have built schools the old-fashioned way by increasing the appeal for prospective students. Southwestern — under the Pattersons — built a Potemkin Village.
- Did we mention there are no stained glass windows in Southern’s chapel depicting the Mohlers or their family pets? Or that the seminary’s chapel capacity is one third that of Southwestern while its student enrollment is nearly 3 times larger?
- And did we mention that while Southwestern’s former president was slashing faculty retirement benefits and multiplying the number of deans and administrative officers, Southern was increasing faculty salary scales and holding the line on faculty headcount? We are convinced by visiting Southern Seminary that building a great school means investing in a great faculty and providing the resources that faculty requires to do serious scholarship. If you want ghosts of great theologians haunting your seminary halls, you probably need to prioritize faculty support ahead of expanding your own household staff.
- And did we mention that Southern Seminary doesn’t own any Dead Sea Scrolls. Then again, in fairness, Southwestern doesn’t either.
So our bottom line is this: For the past twenty-five years, Southern Seminary has retrieved a tradition and reinforced a reputation for evangelical excellence. During that time, there have been some hiccups and painful course corrections, but the proof is in the pudding.
Or put more simply: The ghosts of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary are surely pleased with the school’s recovery under its ninth president. As Southern’s younger sister seminary continues its quest for a new president and a better future, we pray steadfastly that the ghosts of Southwestern end up with much more than a ghost town.
Because that’s about all the Pattersons were building in the end.
3 thoughts on “Louisville’s Ghosts: Pt. 5”
“Then again, in fairness, Southwestern doesn’t either.”
Laugh out loud funny.
Your overview of Southern may be your best written series of articles yet. As a two-time grad, I found it fair and accurate. My eight years on campus remain a formative highlight of my life that still informs and strengthens my ministry.
Can’t wait for your book on Patterson. May it be the first of many biographies/historical works you produce. You are a gifted writer.
What is the Patterson’s exorbitant severance? After getting fired?
Why was I never given any severance after all my years at SWBTS?
Just my personal take…After graduating from Criswell College in the early 90s I attended SWBTS for one year before ending up at Southern for my MDiv. The academic challenge at Southern far exceeded anything I encountered at Southwestern.