LOUISVILLE, Ky. – For the last 20 years, Dr. Albert Mohler has led one of the six seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention, restoring it to more conservative principals even though it meant purging faculty who were out of step with his beliefs.
He expressed satisfaction with the transformation as he recently welcomed a new class of students to the Louisville campus of stately brick buildings and perfectly manicured lawns. Donations, enrollment and the school’s budget dramatically have grown since Mohler took the helm, and there’s no sign of him leaving.
“I’m going to do it until they pry my cold, dead fingers,” he said, making light of his two decades at the school. “There’s a right time for everything. But I’m 53, and I fully intend to be here for my adult life. I’m not going anywhere else. This is where the Lord’s called me and planted me.”
Mohler took over as president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1993, when he was just 33.
When he speaks, it’s often rapid fire, with vigor and emotion. He talks about the seminary’s current prosperity as a sign of God’s blessing on the institution because it rejected liberal trends in society. He returned it to more conservative social ideas, such as the submission of women to their husbands, and a more strict interpretation of the Bible, such as the literal belief in Adam and Eve.
Mohler has risen to become an intellectual leader among conservative evangelicals and a well-known personality through his blog, books and television appearances.
But his personal growth and the seminary’s is in contrast to the denomination as a whole. Although still the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, with a declared membership of 16 million people, the convention does not wield the same political influence it did when President George W. Bush addressed the group’s annual meetings.
And while the convention’s return to a conservative theology at first coincided with growth, the denomination saw its sixth straight year of declining membership in 2012.
When Mohler took over as president, the convention’s massive upheaval known as the conservative resurgence was well under way. But even 14 years later, the seminary still employed professors who held theological positions Mohler and others considered wrong.
For instance, some professors believed parts of the Bible were metaphorical, said Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology of religion at Boston University and author of “Baptist Battles.” They might believe that God created the Earth but used evolutionary mechanisms to explain it. They didn’t believe the six-day creation in Genesis literally referred to six, 24-hour days, she said.
One of the biggest conflicts was the role of women, both in the church and at home. The conservatives believe women should submit to their husbands and not teach men in the church or become pastors.
Bill Leonard, a professor of church history and Baptist studies at Wake Forest University, taught at Southern until 1992. He was Mohler’s church history teacher at Southern.
Leonard said he knew he would be forced out after conservatives became a majority of the board of trustees in 1991, so he left on his own accord.
“It’s less painful now,” he said. “I would never have gotten to Wake Forest, which is the joy of my life, if I hadn’t been forced to leave. But it was painful at the time, extremely painful, because we loved that place.”
Southern is doing quite well, Leonard said, but he attributes much of the success to Mohler’s strong personality and ability to recruit students and donors.
“While Southern Seminary seems healthy and thriving, the denomination that supports it is not,” he said. “That’s the gorilla in the sanctuary.”
During Mohler’s tenure, enrollment has grown from less than 3,000 to 4,366 last year. The seminary’s budget has more than doubled, from $16 million when he took over to $38 million. The seminary’s endowment has risen from $50 million to $83 million. New buildings have been built, and others have been renovated.
Mohler recognizes that the convention and the seminary no longer are within the mainstream on many issues, perhaps most notably on gay rights. While not addressing any one issue directly, Mohler called on students to stand for what they believe is right.
The temptation is to stay silent, to avoid offending some in society, he said.
“To fail to say something, or to be silent in a time of trouble, is sin,” he said at a recent convocation on campus.
In an interview, Mohler acknowledged the personal toll that accompanied the seminary’s transformation. Professors had to find new jobs, and families had to move. But he’s at peace with the overhaul.
“I know that it was right, and there’s no regret in doing what I know was right,” he said. “But there is a sober reality and recognition that the personal costs were very high.”