Soon after his election as president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1993, Albert Mohler declared his intent to pursue only faculty members who would restrict the pastorate to males. Molly Marshall–at the time a theology professor at the seminary–and a few other women responded by organizing a protest.
They invited women to fill the seminary chapel’s balcony, where they stood silently during an hour-long service, demonstrating their objections to the hiring of Mohler and his denial of God’s call to female pastors.
During the next year, Mohler constructed a case to oust Marshall from the seminary faculty.
Trustees accused Marshall of teaching outside of the Abstract of Principles’ (the seminary’s governing document) doctrines on God, election and biblical authority. Her dissertation had brought cries of universalism, a charge that she denied.
Despite the hubbub about the Abstract, however, the primary issue seemed to be Marshall’s open support of women pastors. Of course, on this charge Marshall was gladly guilty, having already served as an ordained pastor of a Southern Baptist church.
Marshall’s critics seemed intent to pursue their edict in the early eighties that blamed Eve for the fall in the Garden of Eden.
Throughout 1994, the pressure on Marshall to resign increased. She recalled the events of that summer:
“I was informed this past summer in June after the SBC had convened that I needed to be prepared to resign or the president would press charges for my dismissal at the fall trustee meeting.
“I asked what the charges were, and our system is such that you don’t have to say what they are until you actually file them, and so the allegation it appeared was that I was teaching outside our confessional document that is the abstract of principles.
“I had only had one conversation with the president about my teaching. On March 16, I spent an hour and a half with him in the presence of the academic vice president David Dockery, and he questioned me about my writings, whether or not I perceived that they were within the Abstract. I said I did.
“No student has ever accused me of teaching outside the Abstract. He was rather noncommittal. He didn’t say, ‘You are outside the Abstract.’ Evidently it was a just an investigation.
“A couple of months later I hadn’t heard anything and the vice president told me that the president had evidently assumed that I was outside the Abstracts and that I need to be disposed of.”
Some of Marshall’s critics began a smear campaign in an attempt to speed her removal from the seminary. Letters, flyers and booklets critical of her teaching appeared in Southern students’ mailboxes. Excerpts of her lectures were taken out of context and publicized on campus.
By mid-August, the administration informed Marshall that it had “the vote and the will to fire” her. After attempting to prolong the resignation in order to complete work with her graduate students, Marshall submitted her resignation at the end of the year.
In 1995, Marshall joined the faculty of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City and was named professor of theology and spiritual formation in 1997, making her the first female tenured professor at the seminary.
That same year, the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., extended Marshall the privilege of call, which meant that they recognized her ordination. She later commented, “To seek privilege of call among American Baptists was an expression of liberty of conscience for me. Identifying with a constellation of congregations who prize diversity, the leadership of women and social justice seemed the right thing to do; given my family history, it was a logical homecoming for me [her grandfather was a field missionary for the American Baptist Publication Society].”
For over 20 years, Marshall has been a well-known and much-loved role model as a teacher/preacher/pastor for Baptist women. Julie Pennington-Russell, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, said that Molly was the first woman pastor for young Baptist women to emulate. When Pastor Julie (as she is called by her parishioners) heard Marshall preach, she said to herself, “It can be done. God calls women to preach and pastor.”
On June 24, during its annual meeting at the site of the CBF Assembly in Birmingham, Ala., the William H. Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society will honor Molly Marshall with its Courage Award. A lifelong Baptist, Marshall remains one “out of conscience and hope,” good reasons for us all.
Joining Marshall on the Whitsitt program will be American Baptist pastor and historian Everett Goodwin, who will address the meeting’s theme of “An American Baptist Homecoming: Is it Time?” with his topic of “Shall We Gather at the River—And Get Wet?”
For more on the life and ministry of Molly Marshall (and my primary source) see the article by Pam Durso, “Molly Marshall: A Woman of Faith and Courage,” in the Spring 2004 issue of The Whitsitt Journal.
Doug Weaver is assistant professor of religion at Baylor University. He also is editor of The Whitsitt Journal.