Baptist higher education holds lengthy tradition
Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press
September 08, 2010

Baptist higher education holds lengthy tradition

Baptist higher education holds lengthy tradition
Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press
September 08, 2010

(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

global scale.

“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.

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