ROBERT E. NAYLOR
During his presidency, J. Howard Williams inspired the seminary to pursue God-sized dreams, but with his sudden death in 1958, it would be the challenge of another president to step into the gap and fulfill those visions. Robert E. Naylor was elected to the task only months after Williams’ death.
Naylor led the seminary for 20 years, accomplishing many of the goals that his predecessor left behind. The seminary opened a student center and children’s building under his leadership and began the construction of a recreation and aerobics center during his last year in office. But at the heart of Naylor’s presidency was a passion for evangelism and missions, and he succinctly described the seminary’s world outreach: “The sun never sets on Southwestern.” Indeed, under Naylor’s leadership, the seminary trained and commissioned more ministers than ever before; and wherever the sun was shining, Southwesterners could be found advancing the Kingdom of God.
Naylor was born on January 24, 1909, the son of a pioneer Baptist preacher to the Creek Nation in Oklahoma, which was “Indian Territory” only a few years before his birth. He recounted the early years of his life traveling with his father in a horse-drawn buggy to visit small congregations in the area. At age 9, he trusted Christ as his Savior during a revival at his father’s church in Heavener, Oklahoma.
Naylor advanced quickly during his early school years, skipping from the second to the fourth grade and then from the fifth to the eighth grade. As a young, 4-foot-eleven-inch high school student, he had no aspirations to enter the ministry. Rather, he planned to be a lawyer, and for this purpose, he enrolled at East Central State College in Ada, Oklahoma. During his senior year, however, Naylor began to sense God calling him to the ministry, and the thought of this was initially “tremendously upsetting and unsettling.” After a few days of struggling with God, Naylor surrendered to the ministry during an impromptu prayer meeting at his church. “As I knelt there by that pew and wept,” he later recounted, “I promised God that I would do whatever He wanted.”
Determined to obey God’s calling, Naylor studied at Southwestern Seminary immediately after graduating from college, remarkably, at age 19. Falling one year short of the seminary’s minimum age requirement, he was obliged to receive special permission from L. R. Scarborough to enroll. Interestingly, Goldia Geneva Dalton, whom Naylor would marry in 1930, also gained Scarborough’s consent for early admission into the seminary.
Naylor entered the seminary in 1928, only a year before the nation plunged into depression. Despite this economic depression, he found work at the J. C. Penney Company in Fort Worth. During the same period, he exemplified his passion for the ministry by preaching in Ada, Oklahoma, traveling 180 miles by train to his preaching post each weekend. After working at J. C. Penney until 10 p.m., Naylor rode the 11 p.m. train to Ada, sleeping as much as possible before arriving at 5 a.m. Each Sunday, he preached to four or five congregations before taking the 3 a.m. train back to Fort Worth.
Naylor graduated from Southwestern Seminary with his Th.M. in 1932 and entered into a lifelong ministry that impacted both local congregations and the Southern Baptist denomination. As a pastor, he served seven churches, including Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth, before accepting his responsibilities at Southwestern.
Beyond the pulpit, Naylor served numerous denominational and associational organizations. He served, for example, on the board of trustees for Ouachita Baptist University, the South Carolina Baptist Hospital, and the Southern Baptist Committee on Royal Ambassadors. From 1941 to 1958, he served on the board of trustees for Southwestern Seminary during the administrations of L.R. Scarborough, E. D. Head, and J. Howard Williams, leading the board as chairman from 1955 to 1958.
In light of his personal history with Southwestern as a student and trustee, Naylor was a natural pick when the institution found itself without a leader in 1958. One member of the search committee that sought out Naylor noted that his excellent work as chairman of the board in preceding years prompted this selection.
Throughout his presidency, Naylor portrayed his zeal for evangelism. During his inaugural address on November 25, 1958, he tied the life of the seminary—past, present, and future—to one word: “Gospel.” In 1976, two years before his retirement, he recounted Southwestern’s heritage in evangelism.
“Evangelism is to be the main business of the Kingdom of God,” Naylor said. “To the degree that this seminary is based in evangelism, bathed in evangelism, committed to evangelism, rooted in evangelism, the institution is a quickening flame and an all-embracing arm of love around the whole world.”
Not only did Naylor bind Southwestern Seminary to the Gospel, but he also provided stability for the seminary during times of drastic social change and denominational controversy. Among other things, the seminary was affected by the Vietnam War and its repercussions, the Cold War, tensions resulting from the civil rights movement, and economic inflation. In the denomination, the publication of Ralph H. Elliott’s The Message of Genesis created controversy about the reliability of Scripture. In the midst of this controversy, Naylor showed an unwavering devotion to the inspiration and reliability of Scripture. Naylor portrayed his own love for the Word of God as he preached during chapel at the seminary and recited lengthy passages of Scripture by memory. Under his leadership, the seminary adopted the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message as its confession, pointing to it as the seminary’s statement on the issue.
During his administration, Naylor also improved the seminary’s faculty structure, programs, and facilities. When he took on his duties in 1958, more than 2,000 students were enrolled in the seminary, and only 53 faculty members instructed them, creating a ratio of 45 students per teacher. By 1978, with 125 faculty members, the ratio had been reduced to 28 students per teacher.
In 1960, Naylor became a leading member of the executive committee of the Association of Theological Schools, which had the duty of accrediting theological schools throughout the United States and Canada. This experience opened his eyes to the seminary’s need for improvements and helped him meet the standards set by accrediting agencies. Because of Naylor’s leadership, the School of Church Music became the first music school of any seminary to be accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music. By 1970, the Association of Theological Schools and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools granted accreditation to all three of Southwestern’s schools.
Along with these achievements, Naylor led in the renovation of several buildings on campus and the construction of four new buildings: the Robert E. Naylor Student Center in 1965, the Walsh Medical Center (now the Walsh Counseling Center) in 1968, the Goldia and Robert E. Naylor Children’s Building in 1973, and the Myra K. and J. Roy Slover Recreation and Aerobics Center, which was completed in 1979.
Despite his success at building up the seminary campus, Naylor described the seminary as “larger than anything physical. We talk about being the largest seminary in the world. We mean a great deal more than bricks and mortar. The seminary is a living thing.” Its driving force, Naylor added, is “to train God-called men and women for a witness to the whole world.” Enrollment at the seminary nearly doubled during Naylor’s presidency, rising from 2,395 students in 1958 to 4,136 students in 1978. Furthermore, stories in the Southwestern News during the period reveal that these students were passionate about representing Jesus Christ before the world.
On November 22, 1976, Naylor notified the trustees that he planned to retire on August 1, 1978. At his death in 1999, Naylor left behind a fruitful, 70-year history with the seminary. He renovated and expanded the facilities on campus, added faculty to meet the needs of a growing student body, and improved the three schools to meet the standards for accreditation. Most important, he tied the seminary to the worldwide proclamation of the Gospel, determined to do the work of God “as long as it is day,” even ‘til the setting of the sun (John 9:4, NASB).