A recent news story about Samford University by Baptist News Global described the university as “affiliated with the Alabama Baptist Convention.” A Religion News Service article described it as “Southern Baptist-affiliated.” The student petition behind these stories called it a “Southern Baptist institution.” The university itself employs none of these labels in its advertising, referring to itself instead as a “Christian university.” Given these various terms and changes at Samford in the past several decades, some faculty and alumni have asked me which if any of the Baptist-centered descriptions are correct.
Given the nature of Baptist polity Samford has never had a direct relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention. It has never been governed by it or responsible to it. For decades it annually received substantial funds from the Alabama Baptist State Convention and at times was governed by it. Neither is the case now. But the school still seeks to work with the state convention. For most of its 180 years, Samford was firmly part of the Southern Baptist world. Is it still Baptist today? And if so, is it Southern Baptist?
All of Samford’s Trustees Must be Members of Baptist Churches
At one time, members of Samford’s Board of Trustees were elected by the Alabama Baptist State Convention and convention leaders were ex officio members of the board. That ended in part in 1994 and completely in 2017. Samford is governed by an independent and self-perpetuating board of trustees. In 2017 Samford also chose to stop receiving money from the convention. (For the 1994 changes, see Wayne Flynt’s Alabama Baptists, For the 2017 changes this Baptist Press article is helpful.)
Prior to the 2017 changes, all of Samford’s trustees had to be members of churches that were cooperating members of the Alabama Baptist State Convention. In 2017 the trustees changed their rules to allow for up to one-quarter of its members to be members of Baptist churches outside of Alabama. In recent years, announcements of trustees’ election are careful to note the church they belong to. As of October 2021, four of the board’s thirty-eight members are from outside Alabama: Verne Bragg, First Baptist Church, Orlando, FL; Brent Fielder, Dogwood Church (Baptist), Tyrone, GA; Terry L. Hales, Jr., Calvary Baptist Church, Winston- Salem, NC; Keith Kirkland, Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, Marietta, GA. All of these churches are identified with the Southern Baptist Convention.
The same is true of almost all of the Alabama churches to which trustees belong. The only exceptions are three Black Baptist churches. The four Black Baptist churches to which trustees belong are all in Birmingham, and all but one of them is a member of the Birmingham Metro Baptist Association, the local association to which Southern Baptist churches belong. One of the four is listed as a member of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Board of Trustees can change its own criteria for membership, but at present, and in the past, it requires that all members be members of Baptist churches and except for a few Black majority churches, these are churches cooperating with the Southern Baptist Convention.
In Baptist polity, each congregation is autonomous. So is each local association, state convention, and national convention. Historically, practically all congregations belonging to the Birmingham Baptist Association belonged to Alabama Baptist State Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). But each level, national, state, local, and congregation is autonomous. That is to say, the SBC does not have authority over state conventions, local associations, or congregations.
Futhermore, these affiliations are independent of one another. A congregation can affiliate with a local association and not a state convention. Likewise it can affiliate with the state convention and not the national convention. Developments since the 1980s have increased this tendency. African American Baptist churches have joined the SBC while remaining members of the National Baptist Convention or other Black Baptist groups. Moderate White churches have affiliated with both the SBC and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. They may participate in meaningful ways in their local associations while being active in the SBC in only a few ways.
Baptist colleges were traditionally founded by or (as in Samford’s case) later affiliated with state conventions. They, and more particularly Samford, never had direct ties with Southern Baptist Convention. In that technical sense Samford has never been “Southern Baptist institution.” It was an Alabama Baptist institution (a sign on the front gate once said it was “an agency of the Alabama Baptist State Convention”). But since in practice most churches affiliated with the ABSC are also affiliated with the SBC, as are most Baptist churches from which trustees come, it is not surprising that students and others see Samford as a Southern Baptist institution.
Samford’s Foundational Statements Place it in the Baptist Tradition
Samford’s “foundational statements” place it in the Baptist tradition, but the university does not promote itself as such. The university’s current foundational statements were adopted in September 2005, in the last year Samford was led by President Thomas Corts. There are four sets of foundational statements: identity, mission, vision, and core values. The latter three appear prominently on Samford’s website. The mission statement defines Samford as a “Christian university” but does not use the word Baptist. Like the mission statement, the school’s “core values” are explicitly Christian, but not explicitly Baptist. The vision statement does say that the university “stresses vigorous learning and personal faith, in the Baptist tradition.” Yet, even this prepositional phrase at the end of a sentence is buried in the middle of a paragraph.
To find “identity” section of the foundational statements one needs to go to the Catalog or the Faculty Handbook. Two of its five statements reference Baptists. The first of these reads:
- Samford was founded in 1841 by Alabama Baptists. In the present day, it maintains its ties to Alabama Baptists, extending and enhancing their original commitment by developing and maintaining in the campus community an exemplary Christian ethos and culture.
The thrust of this is that Samford maintains its ties with Alabama Baptists, but moves beyond them in a more generally Christian direction. It should be noted that even after the 2017 change in Samford’s relationship with the Alabama Baptist State Convention, the university still seeks to maintain close ties with it in a variety of ways, including sending university leaders to the annual meeting.
The second of the Baptist statements in the identity is
- Samford University’s corporate expression of faith commitment is The Statement of Baptist Faith and Message of 1963, without amendment
This was a new statement in 2005, but could be seen simply as keeping with previous Samford decisions. Samford’s Board of Trustees did not reference any faith statement until 1988 when it created Beeson Divinity School with a charter that required some non-Baptists. Since membership in a Baptist church would no longer be the guarantee of orthodoxy, a faith statement needed to be chosen. The trustees adopted the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message and required those teaching religion who differed with it (primarily non-Baptists) to provide a statement of how they differed. When in the early 2000s attorneys counseled the university that it needed a university-wide faith statement to shore-up its religious status, the university kept with the one it had been using for twenty-five years.
If Samford had adopted the 2000 in 2005, it would have gone beyond the stances taken at tha time by the Alabama Baptist State convention and the Birmingham Baptist Association. In 2000 the Alabama Baptist State Convention did not adopt the SBC’s new statement as its own. It merely endorsed it. In 2002 and 2003, the Birmingham Baptist Association voted against adopting the 2000 statement. It was only in 2014, nine years after Samford adopted “a corporate expression of faith commitment” that the ABSC adopted the 2000 statement. (See Greg Garrison’s 2014 article on the ABSC’s action.)
There is no doubt that if Samford had referenced the 2000 in 2005 it would not have been supported by many on campus, nor by its own president Thomas Corts. Among other things, the 2000’s statements about women’s roles in the family and restricting women’s roles in ministry would not have been accepted. Thus Samford’s faith statement places it squarely in the Baptist tradition but distances it from the current Southern Baptist Convention.
The Baptist Faith and Message was first adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1925 as a response to the Fundamentalist Controversy. It was revised in 1963 under the leadership of Samford alumnus Herschel Hobbs. As a result of the Conservative Resurgence of the late twentieth-century, the BFM was amended in 1998, and substantially revised in 2000. In referencing the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message rather than the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message Samford can be seen as distancing itself from the Conservative-Resurgence and the current Southern Baptist Convention.
Samford Still Emphasizes Baptist Identity in Hiring Leaders
All twenty men who have served as president of Samford have been Baptists, though the newly-elected president Beck Taylor was president of a Presbyterian university immediately prior to coming to Samford. Four of the current five vice presidents are Baptists. While three non-Baptists hold tenured positions in the Department of Biblical and Religious Studies, their numbers are limited. The most recent four faculty searches in this department have all required applicants to be Baptists. (There are eleven tenure-track positions in the department, so the percentage of non-Baptists is 27%). In the Department of Christian Ministry all faculty are Baptist. All the men who have served as university minister have been Baptists.
The Number of Baptist Undergraduates has Declined over in the Past Two Decades.
The university has reported the religious composition of its undergraduate student body annually through 2020. In 2000, fifty-nine percent of undergraduates (1,501 students) had told the university that they were Baptists. Twenty years later, in 2020, the number had dropped to thirty percent (or 1,167 students). Based on this measure Samford’s Baptist character decreased by half. (See this earlier post for more details.)
Having taught at Samford throughout this period, I would say that there has not been as dramatic a change in the general form of Christianity embraced by students. There are more Roman Catholics and I have sensed an increased number of student athletes who are not from Samford’s core region or churches, but on the whole the overall piety and faith of the student body is similar. What is different is that more students come from non-denominational churches and the Baptist identity of many who are Baptist is weaker.
The percentages above are also shaped by a much larger number of students not providing their religious identity to Samford in 2020 than in 2000. But even when the percentage is calculated among respondents rather than total students, the percentage of Baptist undergraduates dropped from sixty-one percent to thirty-eight percent.
Unless the trustees change their policy, or people change their denominational affiliation, most recent alumni and students will never be able to serve on the Board of Trustees because of their church membership. Samford does have a board of overseers. I understand it was created in part to allow non-Baptist supporters a place in Samford leadership.
The bottom line is that Samford is a Baptist university because it is all-Baptist in its governing board and in its corporate expression of faith. However, it chooses to identify itself as a Christian university, not a Baptist one, and its student body is decreasingly Baptist. While its reliance on the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message suggests a distancing from today’s Southern Baptist Convention, most of the churches to which its trustees belong do not distance themselves as much from the SBC.
It may not have been technically correct for the student petition to have described Samford as a “Southern Baptist institution.” Some Southern Baptists will insist it is not because it has not embraced the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. The university would rather be seen as simply “Christian,” but its history and ethos is shaped by the Southern Baptist tradition and in recent years, the university has sought to reduce the distance between it and the current Southern Baptist mainstream.
Revised, November 18, 2021, minor corrections July 9, 2022. The judgments expressed here are mine alone, but I am grateful for my Baptist colleague Scott McGinnis’s contributions to the “Baptist Polity” section.