Someone once said that “history is very largely the lengthened shadows of great men.” Spiritual giants from diverse backgrounds and assorted personalities have shaped Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s history and legacy, but one shadow looms over the others, that of Benajah Harvey (B. H.) Carroll, founder and first president of the seminary. The name Benajah, a Hebrew word meaning “God has built,” proved to be prophetic. His vision and leadership have echoed throughout the past century in the hallways of Southwestern’s buildings and the hearts of its occupants.
At a height of 6 feet 4 inches, Carroll’s grand physical stature was dwarfed only by his towering spiritual stature. His humble beginnings as a rugged country boy with an impressive intellect foreshadowed his magnetism and prowess as a pastor, denominational leader, and pioneer in ministerial training.
Born to Benajah and Mary Carroll on December 27, 1843, in Carrollton County, Mississippi, young Carroll inherited his high-energy personality from his father. Despite no opportunity for higher education, his father was known as an astute reader, profound thinker, and fiery Baptist preacher—characteristics that would later be used to describe the son. The combination of voracious reading and an incredible memory made him an extraordinary learner in his early years. When his family moved to Texas in 1858, he quickly outlearned the other students in his class; and, at age 16, entered Baylor University as a full junior.
In 1861, his academic endeavors were cut short when he dropped out of school two months before graduation to join the military. Growing up in the country and being an avid hunter, Carroll flourished as both a Texas Ranger and a soldier in the Confederate army. In addition to being a skilled fighter, he also became known as a strong debater, holding campfire debates and even challenging preachers who were trying to preach to the soldiers during the Civil War.
During this period of his life, Carroll reached the height of his infidelity. He had rejected the faith of his parents. Although he knew the Bible and orthodoxy well, his heart was closed to biblical truth. He claimed that his profession of faith early in life was based purely on knowing the right answers and was not valid. He found no hope or alternative in the infidel books he read, so he wrote his own, which he burned prior to publishing because one of his brothers found it and was devastated by it. His father passed away with little hope for his son’s salvation.
A gunshot to his leg at the Battle of Mansfield ended Carroll’s military service. According to legend, had the bullet entered one inch in either direction, it would have severed blood vessels and ended his life. He returned home, where he became a schoolteacher.
During the fall of 1865, upon his mother’s pleading, Carroll reluctantly agreed to attend a revival meeting. On the first day of the meeting, he tried to dissuade one of his former pupils from being converted, but she was unaffected by his efforts. By the last day, he, too, was under conviction but refused even the personal pleas of the preacher. On the journey home, he turned his horse into the woods and got down alone with God. Similar to Paul’s Damascus road experience, he emerged from the thicket both converted and called to preach, and within six months he was licensed and ordained for ministry.
As a circuit preacher to several small rural churches, Carroll led numerous successful revival meetings with his powerful, passionate preaching and was recognized as a firm defender of Baptist beliefs and conservative biblical theology. Eventually, in 1870, he accepted an offer to be the full-time pastor at First Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, where he served as pastor for 28 years. His straightforward, relevant preaching style, coupled with allusions to literary classics, seized the attention of his audience while clearly communicating the truth of the Gospel. He instilled his passion for evangelism and missions in the congregation, making the rescue of lost souls from the kingdom of darkness an utmost priority.
Throughout his pastoral ministry, Carroll was influential in local, state, and national Baptist affairs. He served a major role in reuniting the General Association and State Convention in Texas and was instrumental in preserving the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) amidst divisions and factions between Baptists in the North and South following the Civil War. As a member of the board of trustees of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Carroll found himself a key player in the middle of a controversy involving the issue of the relationship between the convention and the seminary.
Carroll’s zeal for education, and specifically ministerial education, prompted him to invest time and energy in Baylor University in Waco. Carroll was elected president of the trustees and eventually began to teach in the Bible Department. His unique position as a professor and as head of the trustees in many ways made him more powerful than the president of the university.
In 1898, his brother, J. M. Carroll, convinced him to concentrate his focus on ministerial education and to become part of the Texas Baptist Education Commission, an agency designed to eliminate debt in Texas Baptist schools. With great reluctance, he resigned his pastorate at First Baptist Church in Waco, thus turning the course of the rest of his life toward ministerial education. After serving on the commission for four years, Carroll entered the classroom to teach full time at Baylor.
Over the next few years, the number of Carroll’s students began to grow, and many sought expansion of the Theological Department into a seminary. However, these notions of development met with resistance from Baylor’s president and pressure from those in the SBC who were concerned that a new seminary would rival the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Moreover, one of the few men who would be able to accomplish the task of establishing a new seminary had doubts of his own. Failing health and awareness of the hardships to be endured caused Carroll to question his own involvement.
On a westbound train across the Texas Panhandle, Carroll received confirmation of his call to establish a Baptist seminary in the Southwest in the form of a vision. He was enraptured by the limited education and desperate need of men who had singly devoted their lives to preaching, calling it a weight on his soul “like the earth on the shoulders of Atlas.” Recalling all the institutions in the Southwest that trained men and women for noble vocations, Carroll lamented that no institution existed in the region for the specific purpose of training Baptist preachers.
Carroll went on to say, “It was made clear to me on that memorable day that, for the highest usefulness of our Baptist people, such an institution was an imperious necessity.” With that vision firmly ablaze in his mind, Carroll set out, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to accomplish this God-ordained task.
The first obstacle would be persuading Baylor’s president, the board of trustees, and the state convention to embrace his vision. In a daringly bold move, Carroll leveraged his unique position as a professor and president of the board of trustees to introduce his vision. He offered a resolution to the board on August 31, 1905, while Baylor President S. P. Brooks was in Europe. After an impassioned description of his vision to the board, the board’s secretary, Judge W. H. Jenkins said, “None of us is prepared for this. Humanly speaking, it seems a rash step to take. But evidently our noble brother has had a vision from God.” With that, the board granted Carroll’s request and voted to take immediate action on launching the enterprise.
When the fall quarter opened a week later, Carroll announced that the Theological Department was officially the Baylor Theological Seminary, of which he was named dean. He explained the reasons for establishing such an institution, while acknowledging the challenges that lay ahead and emphasizing that the institution was not intended to rival Southern Seminary. Additional professors were recruited, and three degrees were offered: the Bachelor of Theology, the Master of Theology, and the Doctor of Theology.
He reported to the state convention in the fall of 1905 that Baylor had “established a first-class theological seminary, with a full corps of teachers, authorized to teach all courses and bestow all degrees common to such an institution.” The fledgling seminary received high praises from prominent Baptist leaders across Texas, but many Southern Baptists, both in Texas and throughout the convention, were skeptical. Carroll defended the seminary’s right to exist and argued that the seminary needed to separate itself from the university, lest one overshadow the other.
Although Brooks was against the notion initially, he reversed his stance and supported the separation. In November, 1907, the state convention authorized the distinction between the university and Carroll’s visionary “school of the prophets.” A board of trustees was appointed and immediately began work on drafting a charter.
Carroll’s passion for evangelism compelled him to create the first-ever chair of evangelism in a seminary, and he had one person in mind for the position: Lee Rutland (L. R.) Scarborough, a fiery evangelist and pastor of First Baptist Church in Abilene, Texas. After two years of persuading, Scarborough finally agreed to join the seminary as professor of evangelism and field secretary.
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was officially founded and chartered on March 14, 1908. Carroll was 64 at the time. The second article of the seminary’s charter read, “The purpose of said corporation is hereby declared to be mainly for the promotion of theological education, but to include the instruction of a Women’s Training School for special Christian service, and such other instruction as is needful to equip preachers for their life work.”
The first commencement of the new seminary occurred on June 24, 1908, and a total of nine degrees were conferred upon graduates of Baylor Theological Seminary and Southwestern Seminary. Among these inaugural graduates was W. T. Connor, who later became a professor in the seminary.
The seminary would remain in Waco until a new location could be found and funds were secured. Carroll published an article asking interested cities to invite the seminary to come, and several responded. A campaign for endowment was launched and strategically scheduled so as not to interfere with other state giving campaigns.
During 1909, the city of Fort Worth, Texas, became the front-runner for the permanent home of Southwestern Seminary. Negotiations ensued, and finally, through the cooperation of Baptist pastors and community leaders, the city offered $100,000 and tracts of land in a proposal Carroll could not refuse. The money would be used to move the seminary to Fort Worth and build its first building, which was named Fort Worth Hall in honor of the city.
In the spring, 1910, Southwestern held its final graduation ceremony in Waco, but it marked a first in the school’s brief history. The first Doctor of Theology degree was conferred to William T. Rouse, who later became a noted Baptist leader and pastor of First Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. Additionally, Scarborough worked with the Baptist Women Mission Workers of Texas to raise funds for a building to house the Women’s Missionary Training School on the new campus in Fort Worth.
After years of labor, Carroll finally experienced the reality of his illustrious vision when Fort Worth Hall opened on October 3, 1910. The construction was not yet finished due to some financial setbacks, but the school opened nonetheless.
Unfortunately, illness plagued Carroll’s final years, leaving him largely uninvolved in the day-to-day operations of the seminary. In 1913, he requested that an assistant to the president be appointed until his health improved and recommended L. R. Scarborough for the position. Scarborough became the administrative officer of the seminary, but Carroll never fully recovered.
Carroll’s final words to Scarborough became the inspiration of Scarborough’s future presidency. “Lee, keep the seminary lashed to the cross. If heresy ever comes in the teaching, take it to the faculty. If they will not hear you and take prompt action, take it to the trustees of the seminary. If they will not hear you, take it to the convention that appoints the board of trustees, and if they will not hear you, take it to the great common people of our churches. You will not fail to get a hearing then.”
B. H. Carroll died on November 11, 1914. Although his physical frame had dwindled in his latter years, his spiritual fervor remained ablaze until the end. Standing in the shadow of such a saintly giant, Southwestern Seminary embarked on the next chapter of its illustrious history.