An advertisement for a trip to Hawaii in 2022

A leadership dispute between the Tennessee Baptist Convention and Belmont University–likely headed to court after Tennessee Baptists refused a settlement offered by university trustees at a special convention session last week–is the latest chapter in a long story about realignment of Southern Baptist higher education.

Of the first 120 colleges founded in the United States, 100 were church-affiliated. When the Southern Baptist Convention formed in 1845, 11 colleges that would later belong to the Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and Schools were already in existence.

The SBC chose not to start colleges, entrusting undergraduate education of the general population to Baptist state conventions. The denomination instead concentrated its educational efforts on graduate training of ministers in six theological seminaries.

The colleges and seminaries cooperated well for a century and a half, before Baptists fought over control of the convention and its entities in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The “inerrancy” movement focused at first on seminaries. Trustees and faculty battled over issues like “liberalism” and academic freedom. Many professors lost their jobs.

“Moderates” in several states took precautions to guard against what they viewed as indoctrination rather than education being imposed upon Baptist colleges and universities as well. They distanced election of trustees from manipulation of political processes of state conventions to make it harder for fundamentalists to gain a foothold on boards of trustees.

The first Southern Baptist school to leave the fold, the University of Richmond, was well on its way before the heated days of the SBC controversy. Founded by Virginia Baptists in 1830 as a seminary for men, Richmond today has 3,000 undergraduate students and 1,300 graduate students. Its endowment fund of $1.2 billion is the 42nd-largest among institutions of higher learning in the United States.

Funding often became a bone of contention between Richmond and the Baptist General Association of Virginia. In 1969 the university expressed interest in federal funding for student assistance–a move at odds with Virginia Baptists’ strong tradition of upholding the separation of church and state. In the late 1960s the university learned of a donor prepared to make a substantial gift if the university were released from convention control. The school took the $50 million donation and changed its charter to allow Virginia Baptists to nominate one fifth of its trustees. The ratio changed again in 1993 and in 1999. Now no trustees are nominated by the BGAV.

In the mid-1980s Wake Forest University negotiated a legal separation from the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, replacing it with a voluntary, fraternal relationship, in which the university is responsible for all its governance.

In 1989 Wake Forest approved formation of a divinity school, setting a new trend of state Baptist schools offering graduate training of ministers modeled after the pre-takeover days at SBC seminaries.

SBC seminaries responded by adding baccalaureate programs, like Boyce College at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the College at Southwestern located at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Various degrees of separation followed between schools and Baptists in Texas (Baylor, 1991), South Carolina (Furman, 1992), Florida (Stetson, 1993) and Alabama (Samford, 1994).

Georgetown College and the Kentucky Baptist Convention parted amicably last year, allowing the school to choose its own trustees while phasing out denominational funding over four years.

In other places, things got messier. Georgia’s Supreme Court last year overturned a vote by Shorter College trustees to change the school’s charter, giving the Georgia Baptist Convention the right to elect trustees for the first time since 2002.

The Missouri Baptist Convention is in the middle of a long-running lawsuit against five of its former entities that adopted self-perpetuating boards, including one college. An unofficial Web site monitoring the proceedings estimates legal fees so far in excess of $2.2 million.

The Georgia Baptist Convention recently voted to end its 172-year-old ties with Mercer University over a student-led homosexual club. But that was just the final straw in a relationship that had been rocky for years. Controversies included a 1996 book by then President Kirby Godsey titled When We Talk About God, Let’s Be Honest and Mercer’s embrace of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology is a theological-education partner of the CBF, and the CBF’s national offices are located on Mercer’s satellite campus in Atlanta.

Theology and denominational politics aren’t on the front burner of the Belmont debate. University trustees say they want to diversify their leadership to be more in line with a student body that is only one-fourth Baptist. The convention claims the issues are who has the legal right to elect trustees and whether Baptists are due refunding of money they have given to the school over the years.

But conservatives now controlling elections in the Tennessee Baptist Convention have made it clear in the past that they intend to hold all entities funded by Tennessee Baptists to “traditionally held Baptist doctrine” and desire to “eliminate the influence and involvement of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship” in the state convention’s operation and affairs.

Another Tennessee Baptist school, Carson-Newman College, amended its charter in 1998 to allow its board to control the election of trustees, but later reversed the decision under a new president to resolve a dispute over $2.4 million in funding for the school held in escrow by the state convention.

Two years ago the Tennessee Baptist Convention called for an investigation at all three of its colleges, amid concerns over teaching of evolution and whether the Bible contains errors.

The TBC contends Belmont’s board of trustees overstepped their rights when they filed an amended charter on their own with the State of Tennessee allowing them to elect members–including non-Baptists–to the board.

Messengers at a specially called convention meeting last week at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville voted 923-791 to reject a $5 million settlement offered by Belmont trustees. The agreement would have formally ended the 55-year-old relationship between the state’s Baptists and the university in Nashville.

The convention also claims that under a disputed 1951 document, Tennessee Baptists are due $58 million they have given to Belmont over the last 55 years should the school ever be removed from convention control.

That is $6 million more than the cost of a single building that opened on campus in 2003. The $52 million Curb Event Center was funded in part by a $10 million donation from a family foundation of record company executive Mike Curb. A frequent benefactor of Belmont, Curb is also namesake of the university’s Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business, a popular program that has contributed to Belmont’s appeal across a broader Christian spectrum than just Baptists.

About 26 percent of Belmont’s 4,000 students identify themselves as some kind of Baptist. They come from nearly every state and more than 25 countries.

Tennessee Baptists provided about 3 percent of Belmont’s annual budget before cutting off those funds last November in an impasse over the university’s request to allow up to 40 percent of its trustees to be non-Baptist Christians.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

Share This