(EDITOR’S NOTE — Each North
Carolina Baptist college was invited to submit an article for a feature package
in the Sept. 11 issue of the Biblical Recorder. Scroll to bottom to find links
to all the stories.)
Baptist higher education
stands on the shoulders of a long tradition in Christianity linking knowledge
to faith. The Apostle Paul, many of the early church fathers and important
theologians like Augustine were respected for their knowledge, both in
religious and secular realms.
Most early colleges founded
in America began as denominational schools intended to meet the need for an
educated clergy and at the same time provide an educated lay leadership for
church and denomination.
Baptists were significant
players in the movement. The first Baptist institution of higher learning in
America, Rhode Island College, was founded in 1764. It was renamed Brown
University in 1804.
From its origin in the
Northeast, the Baptist movement spread into the mid-Atlantic and Southern
regions. A group of Baptists including Luther Rice, a prime mover for Baptist
home and foreign missions in the early 19th century, decided in 1819 to
establish a school in the nation’s capital called Columbian College. The
venture proved to be financially unsustainable. The federal government bailed
it out, and by an act of Congress in 1904, it became George Washington
University, severing all ties with Baptists.
Inspired in part by a desire
for an educated clergy, Furman University in Greenville, S.C., was founded in
1826. The school was named after Richard Furman, a clergyman and pioneer statesman
in Southern Baptist life.
As pioneers moved westward,
religious schools popped up along the way. Many were small academies to teach
children the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic — and the Bible. They
flourished in the hundreds until the beginning of the public-school movement in
the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Baptists in the West tended
to be more suspicious of higher learning, based on their opinion of clergy of
other faiths they viewed as intellectually elite but spiritually dead. In the
end, however, the desire for qualified church leaders and to improve the social
status of Baptists prevailed.
Georgetown College in
Kentucky lays claim to being the oldest Baptist college west of the
Appalachians, dating its founding to an academy started in 1787 by a Baptist
pastor named Elijah Craig. But it wasn’t chartered by the Commonwealth of
Kentucky until 1829. Other early Baptist colleges included Union University in
Tennessee (1823); the University of Richmond, established in 1832 by the
Virginia Baptist Education Society; Mercer University, founded by Georgia
Baptists (1833); and Wake Forest University, chartered by North Carolina
Baptists (1833). Judson College, an all-female school in Marion, Ala., began in
1838. Samford University began in Marion as an all-male school in 1841 but
relocated to Birmingham in 1877. The Republic of Texas chartered Baylor
University in 1845.
Baptists started Missouri’s
William Jewell College in 1849, Mississippi College in 1850 and other schools
in places including Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas and North Carolina.
By the time the Southern
Baptist Convention was organized in 1845, there were 11 existing institutions
of higher learning associated with Baptists in the South. Significantly, the
SBC chose not to venture into establishing colleges and universities,
concentrating the denomination’s efforts on preparing ministers in seminaries
at the graduate level and entrusting undergraduate education to Baptist state
That collegiality lasted for
nearly 150 years, until controversies of the last two decades of the 20th
century prompted seminaries to add baccalaureate programs while several
colleges and universities opened seminaries or divinity schools.
The number of Baptist
institutions of higher learning continued to grow in the late 19th and early
20th centuries, as Baptist state conventions included developing a college as
part of their ministry plan and destitute schools turned to Baptists to rescue
them from dire financial straits.
In 1915, the Southern
Baptist Convention established an Education Commission to give centralized
planning and coordination of several colleges and universities sponsored by
state Baptist conventions. The commission was abolished in denominational
reorganization in 1995, but an Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and
Schools that had worked with the agency determined to carry on its essential
functions as an independent voluntary association owned and governed by
With adoption of the
Cooperative Program unified giving plan, Southern Baptists provided a higher
level of financial support for their colleges and universities than most
denominations. That helped them retain a loyal religious constituency, while
most Northern schools started as religious institutions gradually lost or
diminished their denominational identity.
While denominational support
remains comparatively generous, the budgets of colleges and universities grew
much larger than those of sponsoring bodies, forcing presidents to concentrate
on fundraising and decreasing the percentage of their funds coming from Baptist
organizations. As schools became less dependent on state conventions for
funding, those groups exercised less influence.
Beginning in the 1980s, the
SBC controversy prompted several proudly Baptist institutions to sever ties
with state conventions, viewing theological politics as a threat to their
academic freedom. In the mid-1970s, 71 Baptist universities, seminaries and
schools identified with the Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and Schools.
By 2008, the number dropped to 51.
In 2006, members of the
association voted to rename the organization the International Association of
Baptist Colleges and Universities. Leaders said the intent wasn’t to distance
the schools from their heritage, but rather to expand the group’s focus to a
“Baptist higher education
has served Baptists well over the years, and it is our role at IABCU to
continue promoting and celebrating our member institutions,” said Michael
Arrington, the group’s executive director.