Academic Freedom and Southern Baptist History
Yarbrough, Slayden A., Baptist History and Heritage
Following the 1898 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting, William Heth Whitsitt, under pressure from a threatening B. H. Carroll and at the encouragement of A. T. Robertson, resigned as president and church history professor of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
In May 1899 the trustees accepted his resignation. A century later, as Southern Baptists and their institutions stumble into the twenty-first century, one of the most significant challenges facing Southern Baptist teachers, scholars, administrators, and certainly the denomination is the issue of academic freedom. This issue is important both for persons affiliated with Southern Baptist institutions and for those Southern Baptists associated with both non-Southern Baptist denominational institutions and secular institutions.
Baptists and Academic Freedom
Academic freedom is an issue that is vital to the integrity and the advance of the denomination. For persons working in Southern Baptist institutions, the issue often relates both to academic freedom in the classroom and in the world of scholarship and to concerns over orthodoxy and heresy. Many, possibly all, of the historical case studies related to academic freedom in Southern Baptist seminaries and colleges focus on a struggle over academic freedom and integrity. As a confessional people, Southern Baptists do not stand in neutral territory. Teachings and beliefs are important concerns. The issue of academic freedom too often presents itself in the disciplines related to academic pursuit and to matters of student recruitment, development activities, individual personalities, and denominational politics and agendas.
In 1963, Southern Baptists adopted a revised confession. This action could easily be interpreted as the result of a struggle over academic freedom. The 1963 version of the Baptist Faith and Message addressed the issue of academic freedom in article XII, stating that:
In Christian education there should be a proper balance between academic freedom and academic responsibility. Freedom in any orderly relationship of human life is always limited and never absolute. The freedom of a teacher in a Christian school, college, or seminary is limited by the pre-eminence of Jesus Christ, by the authoritative nature of the Scriptures, and by the distinct purpose for which the school exists. (1)
This statement recognized the importance and ideal of academic freedom at denominational institutions in the context of basic Baptist convictions. Thomas H. Graves, in "Freedom of Academic Inquiry," discussed Baptist ideals and academic freedom. Graves wrote, "it is tragic to note how often attacks have been mounted upon the operation of respectable scholarship and to note how often these debates have been the center of denominational controversy." (2) He traced the roots of suspicion of legitimate scholarship to the nineteenth-century environment for Baptists and described the "generally low level of education in the rural South and the rugged frontier, the parochial and insulated nature of life in much of the American South, and the intensely practical nature of life on the frontier, which left little room for academic reflection." (3) Graves rightly concluded that anti-intellectualism continues to be a part of Baptist history in the United States.
Appreciation for academic and scholarly freedom, according to Graves, is found in several Baptist principles. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers implies freedom of faithful inquiry. Personal responsibility, the highest authority being found in God, and communal responsibility to others emanate from this doctrine and are duties of faith. Scholars have a divine responsibility to express freely their God-given skills. The freedom of academic inquiry expresses a refusal "to accept truth without exposing it to the rigors of personal struggle and assent. …