BETWEEN THE LATE 1970s AND EARLY ’90s, a concerted effort by church leaders transformed the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) from largely theologically liberal—for example, denying the inerrancy of the Bible and a literal interpretation of some of Jesus’ miracles—to conservative. With conservative trustees, the convention’s six seminaries shifted back toward historic Baptist doctrine. In 2000, Southern Baptists adopted a conservative revision of their doctrinal statement, the Baptist Faith and Message.
State Baptist conventions followed this national shift only slowly and inconsistently. While the seminaries belong to the national Southern Baptist Convention, colleges are connected to state conventions. John Mark Reynolds, former provost at Houston Baptist University, said for parents of prospective students, knowing a school is “Baptist” is just the start of a conversation—and an investigation. He noted colleges with Baptist roots tend to take one of three paths: leaving the denomination, embracing the denomination, or respecting their roots while shifting to become more broadly Christian.
After the conservative resurgence, many colleges cut ties with the state conventions, trading financial support for self-governance.
In 1990, Baylor University trustees passed a measure to restrict the Baptist General Convention of Texas from selecting more than a quarter of the school’s trustees. Two months after the vote, Michael Bishop, Baylor’s vice president for communications, told the Los Angeles Times, “We’re told the fundamentalists are going to launch an attack against Baylor. … They are enraged because we just outmaneuvered them.” Today, Baylor presents itself as “a private Christian university and a nationally ranked liberal arts institution.” Faculty members don’t sign any statements of faith. In 2018, a little more than a quarter of students identified as Baptist.
The same year Baylor acted, Furman University trustees voted to allow themselves to choose future trustees. But in late 1991, the South Carolina Baptist Convention decided to use funding allocated for Furman to sue the school and regain control. The convention eventually dropped the legal action and distributed the money to the state’s other Baptist institutions. Furman and the SCBC ended their formal relationship in 1992.
But not all schools successfully left. The trustees of Shorter University, a small Baptist college in Georgia with a reputable performing arts program, voted to go independent from Georgia Baptists in 2002, but lost a subsequent legal fight. When Donald Dowless became president in 2011, one of his first actions was to require faculty members to sign a statement of faith he described as “much in concert with the Baptist Faith and Message.” The statement included affirmation of Biblical inerrancy. A lifestyle statement also acknowledged that homosexuality is un-Biblical. Faculty had to sign or risk not getting their contracts renewed. One-third of Shorter’s full-time faculty left, according to an Inside Higher Ed report. Now Dowless says Shorter is doing well: Georgia Baptists provide $2.2 million in funding a year, close to 6 percent of the school’s annual budget.
Some schools chose to celebrate and strengthen their relationship with the state convention that founded them.
In 1995, David Dockery was elected president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and began strengthening ties with the state’s Baptist pastors. Union hosted 40-80 pastors each month for career development meetings, encouraged faculty members to preach at Tennessee churches, and partnered with the state convention on projects. The school hosted conferences about Baptist identity and heritage, started a pastor training program, and offered pastors free “retreats” on campus with a room, meals, and use of the library.
Tennessee Baptists select all of Union’s trustees and contribute $1.8 million a year, about 2 percent of the school’s annual budget. Todd Brady, vice president for university ministries at Union, described the relationship between the university and the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board as “long and good.” He said: “We very much like the partnership we have. We’re very much a part of the Tennessee Baptist family.” More than half of Union’s undergraduate students are Baptists.
Other colleges take a third path: While retaining their Baptist affiliation, they emphasize their identity as a more broadly Christian school.
Houston Baptist University (HBU) walked this line, becoming what Todd Bates, dean of HBU’s School of Christian Thought, described as “mere Christian.” Professors must be Christians, affirming a basic confession of faith and Christian lifestyle statement, but they do not need to be Baptists. Though the school does not require professors in its Christian studies or ministry department to be Baptists, the majority of them are. As of fall 2018, only about 22 percent of undergraduate students were Baptist.
HBU is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, so the state convention elects some trustees and provides some financial support. “We do look for people who are Baptist and, all things being equal, we like to hire Baptists because they help us maintain that affiliation,” said President Robert Sloan. Practically, the affiliation also plays out in Baptist history classes and scholarships from the state convention to ministry majors from BGCT churches. “In day-to-day operations, we are Christ-focused first, but are deeply committed and fond of our roots in Baptist life,” said Bates.
Even though many state conventions failed to keep their schools, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College and a WORLD board member, said more and more are preserving conservative theological roots: “Forty years ago, none of the state conventions were attempting to exercise this kind of theological influence, and now several are.”
Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tenn., may be on its way to becoming another example. Amid questions from Baptist churches and pastors about theological liberalism bubbling up, Carson-Newman adopted the BF&M 2000 in 2017. Professors are not required to sign the statement, but it set clear boundaries about the school’s positions. Charles Fowler, a Tennessee pastor and former Union University vice president, recently became Carson-Newman’s president, and Randy Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, said he believes “Dr. Fowler will help right the ship theologically.”
IN MISSOURI, Southwest Baptist University announced in December it would appoint an outside committee to “lead a University-wide dialogue regarding faith and learning.” Led by Dockery, the committee twice visited campus and talked with trustees, professors, staff, and administrators. It also interviewed alumni, Missouri pastors, and MBC leaders.
A report from the committee in July found that the school’s statement of faith was inadequate and not implemented effectively (“virtually irrelevant” in the hiring, promoting, and tenure process). Dockery said the school’s statement of faith was more than 100 years old and only covered Baptist distinctives, not Christian essentials, like the Trinity and the gospel. The school had not adopted any form of the Baptist Faith and Message. Dockery said it could take two or three years to know if SBU has implemented all the recommended changes, but the MBC demanded the school make two changes in the next few months: adopt the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 and name the convention as the “sole member” of the corporation.
Meanwhile, Clint Bass is training to be an Army chaplain. As a tenured professor abruptly fired, his chances of getting another teaching position are slim. But if this is the end of academia for him, so be it: “The academy is not my God.”