Southern Baptist Theological Seminary 1859-2009 by Gregory A. Wills

August 13th, 2009

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Wills, Gregory A. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009. New York: Oxford, 2009. 566 pp. $35.00. 


Dr. Gregory A. Wills is Professor of Church History (1997), the Associate Dean, Theology and Tradition, and the Director of the Center for the Study of the Southern Baptist Convention. He has a heart for Christ and the history of His bride, the church.

Dr. Gregory A. Wills has written a thoroughly researched history of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). Most of his research came from primary resources found in the Archives and Special Collections Department at the James P. Boyce Memorial Library and through personal interviews when possible.


Naturally, he begins with the founding of the seminary and how it really was the vision of one man—James Petigru Boyce. It becomes quite evident that this vision drives Boyce perhaps to an early grave as he did everything within his power to keep the seminary from  closing. While Broadus’ quote is most recognizable, “Suppose we quietly agree that the seminary may die, but we’ll die first,” it is easily seen that Boyce’s passion led the other men to be ready to work themselves to death so that the seminary may remain open.

Wills moves into the extremely colorful cast of characters that followed the stately men who founded the seminary. From Whitsitt to Honeycutt, Wills does an excellent job of detailing their presidencies in their own words. He also details the interactions of the professors with each other as well as with the presidents. For most of the 20th century, SBTS was not a pleasant place to work. He concludes his study with how the current president, R. Albert Mohler, has brought the seminary back to her original goals.

Throughout the history of the seminary, Wills shows how the Abstract of Principles played a key role in the rise and fall and rise again of the seminary. Boyce had the foresight to see that the Abstract would be essential for the seminary to maintain her orthodoxy. However, during the majority of the 20th century, it is well noted how the presidents and professors played fast and loose with the Abstract. Many times, the professors taught with complete disregard to the Abstract using their own subjectivity as the means to avoid complying with them.


While a timeline would have been beneficial and perhaps more on the Mohler administration could have been written, Greg Wills has written a wonderful history of perhaps the most well known Protestant seminary in America. He does a masterful job of letting the men speak for themselves and show how they truly believed they were serving the kingdom of God in their respective visions of the seminary. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is a model of what Paul meant when he wrote to Timothy to “keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”  One quickly sees how not doing so can and will lead you astray as was the case with SBTS.  To see how the Southern Baptist Convention followed the seminary is quite eye opening.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary 1859-2009 should be mandatory reading for every student of a Southern Baptist seminary and I believe should be read by every seminarian whether regardless of denominational affiliation. I do not think it a stretch to say that SBTS has influenced the seminary culture at large. Reading this book has encouraged me as a student at SBTS and helped me to reevaluate why I am there in the first place.

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