If B. H. Carroll is considered the grand visionary and founder of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, then L. R. Scarborough is its architect and steward. His zeal and influence ignited a passion for evangelism among faculty and students and sustained the infant seminary through difficult times such as the Great Depression and World War I. This fiery West Texas cowboy possessed the ability to round up just about anything, whether it was new converts, funds, or ministry recruits.
Despite humble beginnings, God’s call on Scarborough’s life was undeniable. Born Lee Rutland Scarborough on July 4, 1870, to George and Martha Scarborough, his birthday foreshadowed his future career of championing freedom from sin through Jesus Christ. When he was just three weeks old, his mother, who nearly died after giving birth to him, crawled out of bed, leaned over his crib, and prayed that God would save him and call him to preach—an oft-repeated prayer of his parents during his early years.
Scarborough’s father was a cattle rancher, itinerant evangelist, and Baptist preacher. Growing up on a West Texas ranch, Lee quickly honed his skills at horseback riding, roping, and handling a six-shooter. He learned tenacity and a strong work ethic on the open range but received only snippets of education until he was 16. Once he entered school full time, he learned the material as quickly as he had developed his cowboy skills, and he began to have aspirations of becoming a lawyer.
These ambitions would prompt Scarborough to pursue his bachelor’s degree at Baylor University. If not for the joyful sacrifice of his mother, though, young Scarborough would have never had the opportunity. Martha chose to forfeit the money the family had saved to build her dream home in order to pay for her son’s education. Years later his father said to her, “My dear, I did so much want to build you a home, but if the amount of money had been a hundred times what it was, I would be satisfied and happy today if every dollar of it had gone into the preparation of our boy to preach the Gospel.”
As Scarborough prepared to go off to college, his father made him promise to attend First Baptist Church of Waco, where B. H. Carroll was the pastor. He was required to write home weekly and recount Carroll’s sermons. In later years, Scarborough would claim that under the preaching of Carroll he received his best theological and ministerial training. Although he had made a profession of faith at a revival meeting prior to going to college, he was baptized by Carroll in 1889.
Still convinced that he wanted to be a lawyer, the adventurous young Scarborough enrolled in Yale in 1895. Just before he left, his father pulled him aside and said, “My boy, God’s plan is for you to preach.” Undeterred, he set off to pursue his second bachelor’s degree and began to excel in all his classes. His senior year, after fighting God's call for some time, he surrendered to preach and returned to Texas after graduation.
Upon his return, Scarborough was invited to preach his first sermon at First Baptist Church of Abilene; and during his sermon, a lady remarked to her friend that his preaching surpassed that of his father. Unbeknownst to the lady, his father was sitting behind her and overheard her comment. Humorously, he leaned forward and whispered, “He ought to beat me, he is standing on my shoulders.”
Soon after, Scarborough accepted a call to become a pastor in Cameron, Texas. During that time, he married 'Neppie' Warren. Throughout the next three years, due to his emblazoned evangelistic emphasis and faithful preaching of the Word of God, the membership of the church increased from 200 to almost 500.
Feeling the need to improve his ministerial skills, Scarborough moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1899 to attend the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He cut his studies short and returned home after the death of his brother in 1900. Upon his return, he became pastor of First Baptist Church in Abilene, Texas, where he experienced incredible growth in his ministry, increasing the size of the church from 400 to more than 1,000 members. During his pastorate, he also became prominent in denominational work and was instrumental in raising the necessary funds to save Simmons College (now Hardin-Simmons University) from financial failure.
Recognized for his burning heart for evangelism and incredible ability to rally individuals around worthy causes, Scarborough was approached by his former pastor, B. H. Carroll, and was asked to join the infant Southwestern Seminary in Waco. Carroll created the first chair of evangelism in a seminary, and he believed Scarborough was God’s chosen man to fill the position.
Scarborough initially refused the offer, but Carroll’s persistence over the next two years finally persuaded him to leave Abilene and become professor of evangelism and the school’s field secretary in 1908. As field secretary, he was able to use all of his God-given talents and passions. He was responsible for conducting evangelistic meetings, raising financial support and awareness for the seminary, and recruiting the next generation of preachers, evangelists, and missionaries.
Commissioned with the task of securing a permanent home for the seminary, Scarborough’s unparalleled ingenuity made Carroll’s grand vision a reality in 1910 when he helped the city of Fort Worth raise $100,000 to relocate the seminary and supervised the construction of the seminary’s first building, Fort Worth Hall.
In 1913, Carroll, who was incapacitated due to poor health, had the seminary’s board of trustees name Scarborough the assistant to the president, which, in effect, made him acting president and spokesperson for the seminary until Carroll’s death in November, 1914. He was unanimously elected as the second president of the seminary in February, 1915.
Scarborough’s inaugural address, titled “The Primal Test of Theological Education,” outlined the seminary’s fundamentals, including its doctrinal and denominational commitments. He said, “Our great aim is to meet the needs of a suffering world in high places and low, with adaptable, efficient, evangelistic, and Spirit-filled men. We confess that our aim is found in the subject of this address—kingdom efficiency through culture, scholarship, training, consecration, and the power of God.”
In an effort to develop a closer connection between the seminary and the denomination, Scarborough sought to transfer the ownership of the seminary from the Baptist General Convention of Texas to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The process took seven years and was finally completed in 1925.
During this time, Scarborough was also strategically involved in directing the “75 Million Campaign” of the SBC, which was an ambitious, convention-wide fundraising effort and served as the precursor to the Cooperative Program. Scarborough not only focused on gathering financial support during the campaign, but he also passionately recruited individuals to serve in ministry. He organized “calling out the called” services in churches and schools, and more than 20,000 men and women volunteered for the ministry, missions, and other forms of service during this effort.
From Scarborough’s early days as an unknown West Texas preacher to his years as a prominent Baptist figurehead, the flames of evangelism burned deep within Scarborough’s soul. He authored 14 books throughout his lifetime, nine of them on evangelism. He believed that evangelism coupled with education would preserve the seminary. “It is found that so long as the heart of an institution burns hot with the fires of soul-winning, it is not likely to drift in its theology from the fundamentals of New Testament faith,” he said.
Scarborough saw evangelism as twofold: calling lost souls to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and urging Christians to surrender to God’s call on their lives. In Recruits for World Conquests, he said, “In almost every church where the fires of evangelism burn at all, and where God’s Gospel truths have been faithfully preached, God is calling some young man to preach, or young woman to be a missionary.” Because many resisted God’s call on their lives, as did Scarborough in his early years, he believed it was necessary to call out those who were called.
As Scarborough traveled, he heard one universal cry from the churches: “Give us more and better preachers.” He took these pleas seriously and set out to amass an army of faithful Christ-followers to carry out the task of the Great Commission. In a Baptist Standard article, he outlined what the seminary had to offer Southern Baptists. He promised that the institution would provide “a trained leadership to our churches which is thoroughly loyal and co-operant with all the work of our ongoing, progressive, militant churches.”
Scarborough added, “It can give soul-winners to every line and phase of the denominational task. We propose to give evangelists, evangelistic pastors, evangelistic Gospel singers, soul-winning teachers, and spiritual leaders in all the lines of Christian service. If the Southwestern Seminary has any phase of its work which is unique, if it gives special emphasis to anything, probably it is in the line of fervent evangelism. The entire administration and teaching force, the whole life of the institution, is set to the high notes of soul-winning.”
Scarborough’s claims were not merely lip service. He required all members of Southwestern’s faculty to hold at least two evangelistic meetings per year. In a five-year period, from 1920 to 1924, the seminary reported conducting 4,166 revival meetings, which resulted in an unprecedented 55,861 professions of faith, 70,391 additions to Baptist churches, and 5,567 volunteers for service.
Despite remarkable evangelistic results and impressive growth in endowments through the years, the seminary's debt grew. The Great Depression only intensified the financial strains, forcing the seminary to pay partial salaries to faculty. Scarborough implemented many radical strategies to keep the institution afloat, including investing in South Texas citrus orchards. Additionally, a quiet drive to raise $100,000 as a special emergency offering was attempted in 1931.
Scarborough’s efforts helped the seminary survive during the lean years and set them on a course to financial security. With the help of the SBC’s Hundred Thousand Club campaign, Southwestern eventually paid off all its debts shortly after the end of his presidency.
Due to advanced age, Scarborough resigned his position as president of Southwestern Seminary in 1942. His administration faced the steep challenge of stabilizing the fledgling seminary; and despite opposition and unforeseeable obstacles, he was able to accomplish his goals. For 34 years, his fiery passion for evangelism and training preachers, evangelists, and missionaries fueled the heartbeat of the institution, securing its foundation and its future.