Twenty graduates await diplomas in May as the last graduating class of Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.
Jan. 31 marked the final day of operation for the moderate Baptist seminary closing its doors after more than 30 years due to financial pressures.
Members of the BSTR Class of 2019 scheduled to walk the stage May 25 at First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, join more than 750 alumni of a new kind of distinctively Baptist seminary in response to a crisis in theological education created when political factions began fighting for control of the Southern Baptist Convention.
BTSR filled a void created when Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina fell under control of a fundamentalist-led cabal calling itself the Conservative Resurgence that was coming to power in the nation’s largest Protestant group in the 1980s.
The proposal to begin a new stand-alone seminary from scratch met initial resistance from like-minded moderates who believed other SBC seminaries – particularly Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky – had sufficient resources to make up for the loss being felt in the mid-Atlantic states.
The turning point, according to BTSR President Linda McKinnish Bridges, began with a caucus inside a women’s bathroom at the First Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, during a meeting of moderate Baptists in 1989.
“We need a new seminary. No, it’s too early. Yes we do. No, it’s too early. Back and forth the session went,” Bridges recalled about the debate at the third convocation of what is today called the Alliance of Baptists. She shared the memory during the final BTSR chapel service Jan. 29.
Bridges, a member of the original faculty when BTSR opened for classes in 1991 and who returned as president in 2017, said it was then that Elizabeth Barnes, a professor at Southeastern Seminary, gathered a group of women in a restroom to tell them she wanted to go back to the floor and bring the proposal to a vote.
About 90 percent of the crowd voted in favor of the motion to establish a Baptist seminary symbolized by a towel and basin. Later on the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, formed in 1991, and Baptist General Association of Virginia, added financial support.
The closing affects students who will have to finish their studies elsewhere, a small staff and five faculty members with tenure adding up to a combined 82 years.
Art Wright, a New Testament professor who joined the BTSR faculty eight years ago, said during Tuesday’s chapel service he has wondered a few times in recent months if he ought to regret coming or staying as long as he did.
“I don’t regret it, but I’ve wondered if I should,” Wright said. “It’s natural for regret to surface in times like these.”
“Would it have been better for us all if BTSR had not been born in the first place, knowing now how it ends?” he pondered. “Of course the answer is no.”
“Too much goodness has resulted from this place,” Wright said. “Too much goodness continues to result from the work of BTSR over nearly 30 years.”
“We have some 750 alums out there, women and men changing the world for the better. They are serving as pastors and chaplains, missionaries, social workers, professors, leaders in denominational life, CEOs, deacons, parents, friends, I could go on and on.”
Their ministry and service, Wright said, carries on BTSR’s legacy.
“BTSR is not a failed experiment or unsuccessful as an institution,” Wright said. “It is a pioneer, a visionary, a trailblazer that served and taught so many of us well. It has at least 750 successes, and my hunch is we could count many, many more.”