RUSSELL H. DILDAY
When longtime president Robert Naylor informed Southwestern Seminary trustees that he would be retiring in 1978, they elected a search committee to find his replacement. After nearly a year of searching, they elected Russell H. Dilday, Jr., as the sixth president of Southwestern Seminary on November 22, 1977.
In 1982, under Dilday’s leadership, the seminary renamed its Memorial Building in honor of B. H. Carroll, the school’s founder and first president. Two years later, Dilday wrote a column in the Southwestern News, commenting on Carroll’s possible response to changes at the seminary if he returned at that time. He would surely be surprised, Dilday wrote, by the technological advances on the campus and by new courses, such as “Computers in the Ministry of the Church” and “Televangelism.” Despite these changes, the seminary still upheld its original spirit and vision.
“Expecting to find here the same spirit of evangelism and missions which marked his day, it would be no surprise (to Carroll) that over 30 percent of our students are mission volunteers,” he wrote. During his presidency, Dilday carried on the seminary’s evangelistic and scholarly pursuits, and he often recalled Carroll’s mandate to lash the seminary to the cross of Christ.
Dilday was born in Amarillo, Texas, on September 30, 1930. His father was a religious educator and leader of Texas Baptists, and the godly lives of both his parents encouraged him to love Christ from an early age. During a revival service at the First Baptist Church of Port Neches, Texas, Dilday came to a saving relationship with Christ. A shy 9-year-old boy, he hesitated to make a public profession of faith until the Holy Spirit convicted him through the evangelist’s charge: “If Jesus was willing to carry His cross all the way to Calvary and die for you, surely you can walk down a carpeted aisle for Him.” With this encouragement, Dilday walked down the aisle and made public his profession of faith.
“The certainty of that salvation experience,” Dilday noted, “has been the source of my strength for 45 years and the basis for my assurance of life eternal with Him now and after death.”
As a high school student, Dilday attended another revival service in Wichita Falls, Texas, where he began to sense that God was leading him to the ministry. At first, he hesitated to obey God’s call to the pastorate, looking at the education and music ministries as more preferable. Unable to sleep because of the conviction that weighed upon him, he finally surrendered completely to God’s will for his life.
After graduating from Baylor University with a bachelor’s degree in 1952, Dilday and his wife Betty moved to Fort Worth, where he attended Southwestern Seminary. As he worked for eight years to complete his M.Div. and Th.D. in the philosophy of religion, Dilday served as pastor of several churches, including Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia, where he ministered until he was elected to his presidential post at the seminary.
Dilday greatly involved himself in the life of the denomination serving as a member of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, as a moderator for the Atlanta Baptist Association, and as the second vice-president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). For a time, he taught at Baylor University, and he sat on the board of trustees for Baylor, the San Marcos Academy in Texas, and the Pace Academy in Georgia. Revealing his concern for missions and church growth, he also served as president of the trustees for the SBC’s Home Mission Board and worked on the convention’s Mission Challenge Committee, which was appointed to propose a 75-year plan for missions.
When Dilday was elected president of the seminary in 1977, he spoke to the trustees of his vision for the school and of his desire to be a role model for students through his “stewardship, tithe, and personal witnessing.” Officially inaugurated on October 25, 1978, he became the first president to receive the medallion symbolizing his office.
During the months following his inauguration, Dilday and his staff created a 12-point proposal, called VISION/85, implementing his vision for the seminary by 1985. Besides desiring to prepare the school for an enrollment of 4,000 students per semester, Dilday foresaw the creation of a World Mission and Church Growth Center, the construction of a new library, and the provision of a link between students and ministry needs within the denomination.
Dilday’s attempt to prepare for increased enrollment was not unwarranted. In fact, the seminary saw its highest enrollment ever, reaching 5,120 students in 1983 to 1984. No fewer than 4,000 students attended the school during any given semester of Dilday’s presidency.
Alongside this increase in enrollment, Dilday promised there would be “more emphasis on missions and evangelism, as well as the ultimate purpose of training for the ministry.” Southwestern continued its great focus on evangelism with professors such as Roy Fish, who held the “Chair of Fire,” leading the way. Fish, who would go on to teach evangelism at Southwestern for more than 40 years, would so embody evangelism that when the institution created a school for evangelism and missions in 2005, the school was named after him.
In 1980, Dilday led in the founding of a missions center to be directed by Cal Guy, professor of missions at the seminary. The seminary proposed six objectives for the center, which included the creation of “Missions-Evangelism Concentrations” in Southwestern’s three schools and the study of the philosophy and practice of missions.
Like his predecessors, Dilday understood that evangelism and missions lay at the center of Southwestern’s purpose, as he explained in a 1982 edition of the Southwestern News: “The ultimate purpose of evangelizing the world is behind every decision and action—from maintaining the grounds to planning mission days in chapel, from planning buildings to planning curricula.”
Dilday also had a passion for theological training and for helping students find positions of ministry upon graduation. He desired to improve the seminary’s programs by implementing more field education and internships so the seminary would be able to meet the increasingly specialized needs of the church. He also wanted to connect students to ministry positions, a goal that was furthered when trustees named Edwin A. Seale as director of placement information on March 24, 1982.
The construction of a new library, which was the eighth goal in Dilday’s VISION/85, was completed in 1982 with the opening of the A. Webb Roberts Library. During the same year, the seminary opened the Charles D. Tandy Archaeological Museum, currently located on the first floor of the library. Dilday later led the seminary to construct the Kathryn Sullivan Bowld Music Library, located on the southeast side of Cowden Hall.
Under Dilday’s 16-year presidency, the seminary experienced unprecedented growth and continued its focus on missions and evangelism. Despite these successes, his presidency spanned an era of theological controversy, which affected the entire SBC. When Dilday appeared to side with moderates in his 1984 convention sermon “Higher Ground,” this convention-wide debate about the Bible had officially reached the seminary. Transition at Southwestern, popularly known as the most conservative Southern Baptist seminary at that time, occurred later than the other seminaries. Nevertheless, in 1994 Dilday was relieved of his office through the action of the seminary’s board of trustees. After leaving the seminary, he worked as a distinguished professor of homiletics and hermeneutics at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary from 1994 to 2000.