Samford’s Gate: Baptists and the Bible

When introducing students to Judaism, one text I always discuss is the Shema, the passage of the Torah that is the centerpiece of Jewish daily prayer. It begins at Deuteronomy 6:4 with the words “Shema yisrael,” or in English, “Hear O Israel.” It then continues


The Lord is our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9, New Jewish Publication Society translation

The Shema concludes with the recitation of Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41. In class we usually just focus on the words in Deuteronomy 6.

When we discuss the commandment to “bind them as a sign on your hand” and “inscribe them . . . on your gates.,” I mention that this has shaped the traditional Jewish practice of wearing small boxes containing scripture (tefillin) during daily prayer and hanging a container containing it (a mezuzah) on the door post of homes. I also mention that it has shaped the front gate of their own university.

Samford’s Main Gate

The university, then known as Howard College, moved to its new campus in Shades Valley in 1957. Promotional drawings show that a gate such as graces the main entrance was part of the master plan.

Promotional drawing, 1956, Van Keuren, Davis, & Co., Architects and Engineers, 1956, Special Collections, Samford University Library

However no gate was built until after the college became a university by acquiring Cumberland School of Law and was renamed, in 1965, in honor of the chair of its board of trustees, insurance executive Frank P. Samford. In gratitude for honor, Mr. and Mrs. Samford donated front gate bearing the school’s new name. The gate’s function was symbolic. It had no gates that could be closed across the roadways. Those would not be added until the early 1990s.


Mr. and Mrs. Frank P. Samford, Sr. c. 1966, posing with gate they donated to the university after it was renamed for Mr. Samford. From Howard College Alumnus, v. 18, no. 4, p. 3

When the Alabama Baptist State Convention was debating what to rename the university, the leading rival to “Samford University” was “Alabama Baptist University.” The vote for “Samford” at the Alabama Baptist State Convention was close, 593 to 512. Perhaps as a nod to those who preferred the longer name, and definitely to reflect the school’s close tie to the convention, the new gate included the phrase “An Agency of the Alabama Baptist State Convention.”

Detail of undated photo published in Corts, Legacy of Gratitude, 34.

In the late 1980s, President Thomas E. Corts grew troubled by these words. He explained in his memoir, “lawyers had taught me that ‘agency’ has special legal consequence, and the Convention would likely not want to position itself to accept ascending liability.” Convention leaders agreed and Corts replaced the agency sign “with the best quotation I could think of, a foundational statement, the statement Jesus made in response to the question: ‘What is the great commandment?'” (Corts, Legacy of Gratitude (2007), 34).

The famous passage appears three times in the New Testament. Given sign’s relatively small size, Corts chose the most concise version, Luke 10:27. “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself” (Luke 10:27, King James Version).

Photo: David R. Bains, September 2004.

I jokingly tell my students, that the change is testament to the fact that if you want displace Baptists at Samford, you have to use the Bible. Indeed given how Samford redefined its relationship to the convention in 1994 and again in 2017, a change in the sign would have had to come, even without Corts’s concern with “agency.”

The Shema vs. The Summary of the Law

Perhaps to support the change, Corts often referred to the passage as “the Shema,” thus emphasizing its root in Deuteronomy 6 and its commandment to write God’s words “on your gates.” Referring to the passage as the Shema, however, causes confusion to those who know Hebrew or the Jewish tradition. As we’ve seen “shema” is the simply the Hebrew word for “hear,” and the passage on the gate and in the Gospel of Luke does not begin, “Hear, O Israel.” Also while the commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” is esteemed in Judaism just as much as it is in Christianity, it is not part of the Shema.  It comes from Leviticus 19:18. Among Christians, the passage on the gate is more commonly referred to as the Greatest Commandments or the Summary of the Law.

Given the fluidity of biblical tradition, the three gospels each differ from Deuteronomy and each other in either the number, the names, or the order of the human faculties to be used to love God.
Deuteronomy 6:5, “heart, . . . soul, . . . might.”
Matthew 22:37, “heart, . . .soul, . . . mind.”
Mark 12:30, “heart, . . .soul, . . . mind, . . . strength.”
Luke 10:27, “heart, . . . soul, . . . strength, . . . mind.”
(These and all the quotations of scripture in this article are from the King James Version.)

When Dr. Corts had a silver mace made for the university in the early 1990s, he inscribed on the cylinder at the base of its head these words:
“And thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, . . . And thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. Mark 12:30-31.”
Yet, this is not an accurate quote from Mark in the King James Version. Mark includes “mind” between “soul” and “strength.” The mace omits it.

Samford University Mace, from  Paul Aucoin, “Samford University Mace: A Pictorial Guide”

The explanation of the mace that has often appeared in the program for commencement exercises states that “the cylinder bears the Shema,” yet provides the words of the Shema as “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” (Commencement Program, December 2014, p. 3). In Mark 12, Jesus does begin his recitation of Deuteronomy with “Hear O Israel,” but those words do not appear on the cylinder.

The authors of the commencement program, knowing that “the Shema” is on the mace, correctly identify the opening words of the text in the Jewish tradition but by so doing wrongly identify the words on the mace. Using the Hebrew name is a nice acknowledgement that Jesus’ greatest commandments are from the Hebrew Bible. But giving the word Shema a different meaning than it has in the Jewish tradition by including Leviticus 19:18, and omitting much else especially, “Hear O Israel,” sows confusion.

The Belltower Logo and Deuteronomy 6:5

Fortunately, the habit of refering to the commandments on Samford’s gates as the Shema seems to have run its course. Attention instead has focused on the link between the first commandment on the gate and Deuteronomy 6:5. In the 2009 revision of the university’s belltower logo, the hands of the clock were positioned at 6:05 in reference to Deuteronomy 6:5. In explaining this fact Inside Samford (Spring 2016p. 20) said that it was Deuteronomy 6:5 that was inscribed on the gate, quoting it correctly from Deuteronomy (but incorrectly from the gate) as “heart, . . . soul, and . . . might.” In Seasons, President Andrew Westmoreland also said it was Deuteronomy but the quote he provided was actually Matthew’s version “heart, . . ., soul, . . . mind” (Spring 2016, p. 2).

Revised Belltower logo introduced in 2016, minor changes from 2009 logo. As used on Twitter at @SamfordU

Since the front gate cannot be accessed by pedestrians and the scripture cannot be safely read by motorists on Lakeshore Drive it is not surprising that various understandings of what is on its sign have emerged. The version Corts chose seems best for a university since it includes “mind” and emphasizes it by placing it last. The hands of the clock could be set at 10:27 in reference to the actual text from Luke that is used, but at that angle the hands of the clock might be more distracting from the logo’s clean lines.

Founded in 1842 or 41?

Careful viewers of the photos of the gate above may have noticed that originally the gate said “Founded 1842,” but that now it has been altered to read “1841.” Indeed the fact that the final “1” in the 1841 looks different than the first suggests that the final digit has been altered even without seeing earlier photographs.

1841 on the Main Samford Gate, in the snow on December 9, 2017.

Howard College held its first classes in January 1842 and the year 1842 appeared on its seal which can still be seen in the tympanum of Davis Library or the marker near the library at the site of the flag pole given to the school by the class of 1964.

The State of Alabama, however, granted Howard College its charter on December 29, 1841. This 1841 date was used on the 1955 cornerstone for Samford Hall in 1955.

Samford Hall cornerstone ceremony, April 29, 1955 from Claire Davis, “Laying Foundations in Past and Present,” July 8, 2016 Bull Pup: The History of Samford University

During the administration of Dr. Corts, the date on the seal and on the gate was changed to 1841 in keeping with the common practice of universities and colleges to claim as their founding date the year in which they were chartered, not the year in which they first held classes. At inaugurations and other ceremonial occasions, universities are often listed in order of founding, thus by claiming the 1841 date, Samford is now ahead of other schools founded in 1842 including the Citadel, Ohio Wesleyan, Villanova, Willamette, and, most notably, the University of Notre Dame.

Slavery, “Servants,” and Samford

In the middle of Samford University’s campus, at the head of Centennial Walk, just below Davis Library, a black stone marker is set in the pavement. It reads:

In Memoriam
Harry
This marker honors the memory of Harry, college janitor and servant of President Talbird. At midnight, October 15, 1854, he sustained fatal injuries as he roused sleeping students form the burning college building in Marion, Alabama.
Alarmed by the flames and warned to escape for his life, he replied, “I must wake the boys first.” Thus, he saved many lives at the cost of his own.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13
In the cemetery at Marion is a handsome marble shaft erected in honor of Harry.

Marker in the pavement of Centennial Walk, Samford University, 800 Lakeshore Drive, Birmingham, Alabama. Photo: June 24, 2016, by David R. Bains

It is right that Samford remembers Harry. Had the loss of life in the fire been more extensive, the thirteen year-old college might have simply folded. Instead the school, then known as Howard College and located in Marion, Alabama, built a new campus, now the site of Marion Military Academy. While the college closed during the Civil War, it was revived afterwards and in 1887 moved to the booming Birmingham area.

The university proudly celebrates that it is the 87th oldest college in the nation, but this marker is one of the few objects that links the current campus, opened in 1957, to the town where the college spent its first forty-six years.

Unfortunately, however, I know more than one person in the Samford community who has been misled by the word “servant” in this inscription. They have come away thinking Harry was a free man. He was not. He was the enslaved servant of President Talbird, one of nine human beings Talbird owned. The memorial Baptists erected in his memory in Marion stated that “he illustrated the character of a christian servant faithful unto death.” As a friend said to me the other day, despite the fact that Harry defied the warning to flee from the fire, his own life was not his to give.

Thankfully, Samford publications on the 150th and 160th anniversaries of the fire have clearly explained that Harry was enslaved. Unfortunately a more recent mention on the university’s website refers to him only as “servant.” When Alabama Baptists identified Harry as “servant of H. Talbird”” on the obelisk they placed above his grave in the Marion cemetery, they knew he was enslaved and were confident that others would too. I expect the same was true when the tablet on the present campus was inscribed to echo the Marion monument. But to describe him as something other than an enslaved person is to detach our selves from the reality of his life.

Memorial in Cemetery in Marion, Alabama

I’m reminded of all this because of the recent controversy over Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, describing the first Africans to arrive there four hundred years ago as “indentured servants,” not “slaves.”

Virginia is my home state. In 1619 those first Africans were sold at Old Point Comfort in my hometown of Hampton. It is the same point of land where my grandfather first arrived in Virginia by steamship a little more than three hundred years later. In fourth grade Virginia history, I learned that 1619 was a “red letter year,” because Africans and English women arrived and the first legislature met. And yes, I learned that those Africans were sold as “indentured servants” not as slaves.

I have no doubt that Northam learned the same thing from the same 1957 Virginia history textbook that we used in Hampton. As Rebecca Goetz, author of The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (2012), explained in the wake of Northam’s comments on Twitter, there was an absence of laws concerning slavery in Virginia in 1619 and in the early decades of the colony enslaved Africans exercised paths to freedom more easily than in later decades. Historians in the 1950s used this absence of laws to argue that the first Africans in Virginia were indentured servants, a status shared by many early English immigrants to Virginia. More recent historians have shown that to be false.

Goetz concluded, “When Northam said this morning that those people were servants, he was not engaging an earlier historiography. He was engaging in a narrative of white innocence, of Virginian innocence, a narrative that slavery wasn’t that bad.”

I worry that members of the Samford community might gain the same impression from the Harry memorial, or worse yet not understand that Samford’s early history is intertwined with slavery. My alma mater, the University of Virginia, is currently constructing a large Memorial to Enslaved Laborers on prominent site on the University’s world-renowned Grounds that they helped build and maintain. While Samford is now located 78 miles from the campus Harry and other enslaved people helped maintain, and probably helped build, it has had a memorial to an enslaved laborer on the center campus for decades. It is important that it is understood as such.


Harry as depicted on Samford University’s 1994 silver mace. Photo by Paul Aucoin.

Baptists and Catholics (almost) Together in Birmingham

This June Baptists and Roman Catholics will hold major conventions at at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC), separately. There are two national meetings of Baptists and a diocesan meeting of Catholics. While the meetings are not at the same time, it will be unusual to have a trio of major religious meetings in the same complex in the same month.

The national meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will be held at the BJCC in the middle of June and at the end of the month the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham celebrate its fiftieth anniversary by holding its first-ever Eucharistic Congress in complex. I expect this is the first time Birmingham has seen so many major religious gatherings in one month.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the first group to meet. Its annual Pastor’s Conference is June 9 & 10. This is followed immediately by the Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention on June 11 & 12. The Pastor’s Conference is free and open to the public.

This will be the first time that the SBC’s annual meeting has been held in Birmingham since 1941. According to a 2010 study, Alabama was second only to Mississippi in the percentage of people who were adherents of Southern Baptist churches (29.1%, Mississippi was 30.5%). This helps explain why the SBC has not meet here, many recent meetings have been in cities where Southern Baptists are not numerous so that Baptists can use the opportunity to bring their witness to that city. Other meetings have been in Southern cities with better transportation connections than Birmingham.

Over all this is the forth time the SBC annual meeting has been in Birmingham. The other meetings occurred in 1891 and 1931. The 1891 meeting is memorialized by a sidewalk marker at the northwest corner of First Avenue North and Eighteenth Street. The marker commemorates the creation at that meeting of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board, now known as LifeWay Christian Resources.

O'Brian Opera House historical marker.
Marker in the sidewalk on the northwest corner of 1st Ave. N. and 18th St., Birmingham, Alabama, December 2018. Photo: David R. Bains

The convention met in O’Brien’s Opera House which was located on this corner. The auditorium was built in 1882. It operated for almost thirty years before being closed in 1911. Four years later it was razed. and razed in 1915. Some of its bricks were reused to build a gymnasium at what is now the University of Montevallo (“O’Brien’s Opera House,” Bham Wiki). The opera house’s former site is now a parking lot.

The week following the Southern Baptist Convention, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will hold its General Assembly from June 17 to 21. The CBF was formed in 1991 by Baptist churches dissatisfied with the way the Southern Baptist Convention had been transformed by conservatives over the preceding fifteen years. It is unusual for the CBF to meet in the same city as the SBC. I am not sure how they both ended up in Birmingham this year. The CBF has been to Birmingham twice before, in 1999 and 2003.

Just a week after the CBF assembly ends, the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama of the Roman Catholic Church will hold its first Eucharistic Congress on June 28 & 29. The event will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the diocese. It was separated from the diocese of Mobile on June 28, 1969. It is a significant date because June 29 is the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Saint Paul is the patron saint of the Birmingham diocese. With June 29 falling on a Saturday in this anniversary year, it is an ideal time for the celebration.

The schedule for the congress has not been released, but the dioceses’s Alex Kubik explains eucharistic congresses typically “include a procession with the Eucharist in a public setting, a significant amount of time for Eucharistic Adoration, significant availability of the sacrament of reconciliation, talks and catechisis on important matters of faith, and a Holy Mass with the bishop or bishops with all in attendance.” The announced speakers include the papal nuncio to the United States, the bishop of St. Augustine, Florida, and Scott Hahn, a popular Catholic professor and author.

The theme for the congress is “The Eucharist and Missionary Discipleship.” While Alabama is #2 in terms of Southern Baptist affiliation, it is #46 in Catholic affiliation among the fifty states. Only 4.2% of Alabama residents were adherents of the Catholic church according to the 2010 study. This helps explain the missionary theme. Of course in terms of overall religiousness, Alabama is a national leader. In 2010 it had the third highest rate of religious adherents among its residents, trailing only Utah and North Dakota. So if the number of Catholics grow here, it may well be that other groups, such as Baptists decline. It will be interesting to see if any of these meetings leave a lasting mark on the city.

National Prayer Breakfast Site was Almost a Church

For sixty-seven years, Washington’s most prominent annual religious-political event has occurred not in house of worship but in a hotel ballroom. Yet the site of the Washington Hilton, where the National Prayer Breakfast has been held for at least the last three decades, was almost the home not of a hotel, but a of church.

In February 1953, when the newly-inaugurated President Dwight Eisenhower attended the first such breakfast, the site of today’s Hilton was known as Temple Heights. It was one of the largest undeveloped sites remaining in central Washington and occupied a commanding hillside location at the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, NW. Near the top of the hill stood Oak Lawn, a mansion built in 1873. The rest of the nine-and-a-half-acre site was grass and woods.

Aerial view of "Oak Lawn," Washington, D.C., site of Washington Hilton Hotel.

Aerial view of “Oak Lawn,” Washington, D.C., site of Washington Hilton hotel. Photographed between 1909 and 1932. National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/97505334/

Just a few days before the first prayer breakfast, Eisenhower had joined the National Presbyterian Church. The congregation dated back to the earliest years of the capital, but had received this name from its denomination only in 1947 in an effort claim a larger role for Presbyterians in American life. The fact that the new Republican president joined the congregation was a boost to Presbyterian pride. Two years later, congregation leaders began an earnest effort to secure Temple Heights for a new, landmark church.

National Presbyterian’s existing building was a Romanesque revival church completed in 1889 at Connecticut Avenue and N Street, NW. It was handsome and just around the corner from St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. It was, however, no rival to the mammoth national churches being built by Episcopalians and Roman Catholics (Washington National Cathedral and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception). It also lacked the educational and recreational spaces of new suburban churches as well as their plentiful parking. Many felt that a new building was urgently needed.

Like the founding of the prayer breakfast, the drive to build a new monumental church was part of a Cold War emphasis on the link between religion and American national identity. Few denominations saw themselves as more central to American history than Presbyterians and Temple Heights was a seemingly perfect location for a landmark church.

Proposal for National Presbyterian Church c. 1955, Adams & Woodbridge, Mills, Petticord, & Mills, Architects. Collection of National Presbyterian Church.

The architect’s sketch of the proposed building shows it looming like a medieval cathedral over the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, separated from the capital’s grit and politics by a verdant forest, but drawing many to worship in its walls. Such a church would clearly give Presbyterians a fitting platform for ministry in the nation’s capital.

The building’s clean, modern lines suggested the 1950s’ most famous cathedral project–the new cathedral at Coventry, England. As in Basil Spence’s design for Coventry, the windows of the nave were angled toward the altar to provide it with dramatic light. The clean, modern lines also echoed Coventry and bespoke the International Style and the machine age. But Presbyterian church’s massing owed more to the Gothic revival, with pitched roof and a tall tower next to the nave. As at Riverside Church in New York City, the church tower took the form of a skyscraper. From the hillside location, the upper floors of an office tower on the south side of the nave would have had clear views of the Washington Monument.

Congregation leaders worked through the year to secure the needed funds to buy and develop on the expensive site, but in the end were unable to do so. The Presbyterian proposal joined a long list of unfulfilled dreams for Temple Heights including a Masonic temple and a twenty-one building glass and concrete complex designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The lower portion of the site was sold off for office buildings in 1956 and the Hilton was built on the upper portion in 1965. Eventually, in 1969, National Presbyterian opened a new large modern church of modern design on a less prominent site on Nebraska Avenue near American University.

With the National Prayer Breakfast, Temple Heights is still a site of national religious assembly and influence, though not religious architectural presence. In American religious life the influence of religious groups is often not linked to their architectural place in the landscape.

President’s Wall – A Fence with an Open Gate

Walking along Highland Avenue in Birmingham, Alabama, yesterday I saw this sign.

It is located in front of the parking lot of Temple Beth-el. The “wall” is actually a brick and iron fence installed as part of an effort to beautify the synagogue’s street front. There are no gates on the driveways that lead across into the parking lot and the synagogue’s main week-day entrance.

It will be interesting to see how the wall that President Trump may eventually claim to have built compares to that of this synagogue president.