Early Republic Southern Baptists, Education, and Populism

During the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries, North American Baptists joined their Congregationalist, Methodist, and Presbyterian counterparts in creating colleges and seminaries institutions to teach and train laypeople and seminarians. Despite a commitment to congregationalism and a deeply ingrained suspicion of ecclesiastical (and also civil) hierarchies, the Baptist ministry was not a populist or anti-intellectual undertaking.  Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins noted that while Seventeenth Century Baptists “depended on largely uneducated but militant leaders,” in the Eighteenth Century it was common for Baptist ministers to be “highly educated.” [1]

In the late Twentieth Century and early Twenty-First Century scholars and political observers have sometimes associated Southern Baptists with socio-political populism. That association’s roots lie in the post-Civil War Era. Joe Creech’s Righteous Indignation: Religion and the Populist Revolution rightly argues that Baptist and broader Evangelical religiosity in the South became anti-intellectual and populist because of the political aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Southern Baptist  dispositions, however, lay in traditional intellectual and theological pursuits. Southern Baptists ministers of the 1840s and 1850s were not made from men who were rhetorical champions or religious champions of political causes, but from scholars. [2]

James Petigru Boyce founded Southern Seminary, the flagship Southern Baptist seminary, in 1859 but even before the seminary’s creation Boyce’s commitment to academic and intellectual excellence made it clear that Southern Baptists would not adopt any rhetoric downplaying education and theological acumen. Boyce studied at Brown, and then at Princeton Seminary under Charles Hodge. He hoped to import the same academic and intellectual standards he learned at Princeton to Southern Seminary, and he was successful. When some prominent Southern Baptists balked at the idea of creating a seminary as superfluous given the presence of Baptist colleges in the South, Boyce answered that “Baptists are unmistakably the friends of education, and the advocates of an Educated Ministry.” [3]

Complaints about the creation of Southern Seminary were common, and Boyce perceived a general dislike of the potential seminary three years before it was created. “The Theological Seminary has not been a popular Institution. But few have sought its advantages…few have been nurtured by the influences sent forth from it.” Boyce conceded that a seminary was not a panacea; churches had been and would still be imperfect institutions with a wide variety of temporal problems. Boyce did not believe that “the Theological Institution can effect will be fully adequate to our wants, while our Pastors neglect to search out and encourage the useful gifts which God has bestowed upon the members of their Churches, or the Churches themselves neglect the law of God which provides an adequate support for the Ministry.” Nonetheless to him it appeared “that the chief cause is to be found in our departure from the way which God has marked out for us, and our failure to make provision for the education of such a Ministry as He designs to send forth and honor.” Theological orthodoxy pursued through rigorous seminary training—and not folk, political, or social identity or popularity—formed the cornerstone of Southern Baptist ministry.[4]

The curriculum at Southern Seminary included patristics and the Medievals. Students read Aquinas and Roman Catholics. They also read the Reformers and modern Protestant thinkers. Southern Seminary’s program of study, while distinctively Baptist, also reflected major trends in conservative Protestant thought shared across denominational boundaries. This educational and intellectual legacy of Nineteenth Century Southern Baptists is complicated by their support for slavery and human bondage. They were not, however, unique in this regard among Evangelical Protestants in the South. More importantly, they were not the benighted uneducated folk religionists they have often been portrayed as either. Ministry was for Southern Baptists, like their Episcopalian, Methodist, and Presbyterian brethren, an educated man’s game. Many things Southern Baptists ministers might have been in the Nineteenth Century, but folk populists they certainly were not.[5]

[1] Thomas S Kidd and Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 22

[2] Joe Creech, Righteous Indignation: Religion and the Populist Revolution (Chicago and Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 1-7.

[3] James Petigru Boyce, Three Changes in Theological Institutions, An Inaugural Address Delivered Before the Board of Trustees of the Furman University (Greenville, SC: CJ. Elford), 5.

[4] Boyce, Three Changes in Theological Institutions, 7-14.

[5] John A Broadus, Memoir of James Petigru Boyce, D.D., LL.D. (New York: C.C. Armstrong and Son, 1893), 268-9.


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