Celebrating Albert Mohler’s 25th anniversary as president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, former Southern Baptist Convention president James Merritt recalled the journey’s rocky start.
“When he came here, there were very few exceptions, almost everybody hated Dr. Mohler,” Merritt, lead pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Georgia, said in a special chapel service Oct. 9.
Mohler, 59, was inaugurated as ninth president of the seminary located in Louisville, Kentucky, on Oct. 15, 1993. Three previous presidents have served longer terms: James P. Boyce and E.Y. Mullins – who both led the school 29 years — and Duke McCall, president for 31 years when he retired in 1982.
Mohler, just four years after receiving his Ph.D. from Southern Seminary, was elected to redirect the institution founded in 1859 away from its trajectory when moderates controlled the SBC in the mid-20th century toward a path in line with ideology driving the “conservative resurgence” theological/political revolt in the 1980s and 1990s.
He charted a course of “confessional” fidelity to the seminary’s Calvinistic founding document – the Abstract of Principles – and away from interaction with modernist ideas that took hold in mainline Protestant theology during the 20th century.
Merritt, SBC president 2000-2002, reminded current students, faculty and staff that Southern Seminary was a different place in 1993.
“When Dr. Mohler came to this seminary, he had to endure the firestorm of criticism not just for days, not just for weeks, not just for months, but even years,” Merritt said.
“Dr. Mohler, I’ve never told you, I remember for years walking the hallways of our convention hearing people rip you behind your back, who didn’t even know what they were talking about.
“Just four years from being a student himself, he stood up as president holding forums to field questions from students who were angry, who were rude, who yelled, who screamed, who said to him we are going to be in your face, who said to him we’re devoted to oppose you in whatever way God may lead us.
“After only two years in this institution, this wonderful man had a vote of no-confidence cast by the faculty of this institution.
“Protesters would be outside Alumni Chapel marching in front of the chapel. Banners would be unfurled from the balcony. Graduates would wear flowers and ribbons on their robes in support of faculty that was leaving.
“Think about this. He would extend his hand over and over to shake hands with graduates, only to have many of them to refuse to shake it. This is amazing to me. This man was here nearly a decade before a graduation finally occurred where every graduate shook his hand.
“Imagine this seminary president walking into a restaurant or a store with his family and be treated like persona non grata.
“The newspaper was relentless in its negative news stories, editorials and cartoons that even called him a Neanderthal before he took office. He was called an embarrassment to the community.”
In his response to Merritt’s remarks, Mohler recalled “one of the worst meetings of my life” in Sea Island, Georgia, with major donors who told him “they were going to put an end to me.”
“It was one the strangest things,” Mohler said. “I was looking at people who told me, ‘We will defeat you. This is not going to happen.’”
“You’ve got Billy Graham on your side. That’s going to count for a lot.”
Then, Mohler said, T.W. Wilson, longtime executive assistant to evangelist Billy Graham who died in 2001, leaned over to him and said: “You’ve got Billy Graham on your side. That’s going to count for a lot.”
“I thought: ‘Well that’s really good. That’s extremely helpful,’” Mohler wryly reminisced.
“But in the room T.W. Wilson, in the midst of a moment of tremendous crisis — and I had no idea in the world how I would even respond — T.W. Wilson just immediately put the room to rest by saying, ‘This is not the way this is going to end, and I am solidly behind this young man and where he intends to go.’”
It was “a minority report,” Mohler admitted, but one of a number of similar shows of support that helped his administration move forward.
Seminary trustees adopted a resolution of appreciation for Mohler’s “unyielding commitment to God’s Word, his zeal for the Great Commission, and his twenty-five years of visionary and effective leadership of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.”
The trustee resolution listed accomplishments including, “there are presently more students training for pastoral ministry at Southern Seminary than has been documented at any one time, in any one place in the history of the Christian church.”