James P. Boyce & the Abiding Relevance of "Three Changes in Theological Institutions" (I)

In the annals of Southern Baptist history, James P. Boyce’s position is secure. As seminal conceptualist, leading patron, theology professor, and founding president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Boyce not only built the seminary into one of the nation’s leading theological institutions, but he also forged a trajectory of ministerial training within the Southern Baptist Convention that carries forward into the 21st century.

Though most commonly identified with Southern Seminary, Boyce must be understood not merely as the originator of Southern Baptists’ mother seminary, but as the primary architect of theological education within the Southern Baptist context. Before Boyce led Southern Seminary, he led Southern Baptists. Before he was Southern Seminary’s man, he was Southern Baptists’ man for theological education. Boyce, though dead, still speaks and his “Three Changes in Theological Institutions” merits revisiting and renewed application as Southern Baptists seek to train this generation of ministers.[1]

James P. Boyce the Man

In Boyce rested the evident signs of a kind and particular providence. His aristocratic pedigree, forceful personality, intuitive leadership abilities, keen intellect, entrepreneurial instincts, polished self-presentation, and profound sense of calling coupled with strong and clear theological convictions coalesced to produce a once-in-a-generation leader among Southern Baptists.

Boyce’s student and successor as Southern Seminary professor of systematic theology, F. H. Kerfoot reflected of his mentor, “By birth and by training a gentleman, by the grace of God a Christian, courtly and courteous in bearing, strong in convictions, chivalrous and dauntless in courage, wise and safe in counsel . . . The people trusted him and followed him where he led.”[2] Indeed, Southern Baptists did trust and follow Boyce by endorsing his vision for a centralized theological institution in the South and ultimately by electing him as convention president some nine times.

Three Changes in Theological Institutions

Baptist luminaries, including Basil Manly Sr., Basil Manly Jr., Jesse Mercer,W. B. Johnson and R. B. C. Howell, amongst others, advocated for a centralized theological institution in the South, but Boyce alone managed to gather the denomination’s attention and hold steady its imagination for a new seminary. Through sermons, presentations, and correspondence, Boyce distilled his thinking on ministerial preparation throughout the early- and mid-1850s, but no event was as significant—for Boyce or Southern Baptists—as his inaugural faculty address at Furman University on July 30, 1856. This was an address John A. Broadus would come to reference as “epoch-making in the history of theological education among Southern Baptists.”[3]

Boyce, a recently minted professor of Furman University, took the rostrum to deliver the customary address afforded a new member of the faculty. For more than two hours, Boyce summarized the best of Baptist thinking on theological education, then proposed “Three Changes in Theological Institutions,” in which he argued for an abundant ministry, a learned ministry, and an orthodox ministry.[4]

Boyce proposed his “Three Changes” with a sense of gravity, urging their implementation in near apocalyptic terms. Boyce perceived the present limitations to an abundant, learned, and doctrinally sound ministry as lamentable gospel hindrances, even evils, writing: “These changes are intended to meet evils which, in one case by the many, in the others by the few, have been already experienced, and they are suggested as furnishing ample remedies for the existing evils.”[5]

Boyce’s “Three Changes” were framed by his own experience and pedigree, but were driven by three self-evident needs of Baptists in the South—needs that have proven to be perennial—and merit revisiting by each generation of Southern Baptists.

Abiding Relevance

Why reconsider Boyce’s “Three Changes in Theological Institutions”?  The answer is far more than Southern Baptist nostalgia or denominational indebtedness to Boyce. Rather, Boyce’s “Three Changes” are relevant because they speak to current and pressing denominational needs.

Southern Baptist churches today, just as in Boyce’s day, need a more abundant ministry. Demographic trends point to a shortage of pastors and ministers for our churches. The Romans 10 mandate reminds us that the gospel must be proclaimed so that it can be believed; therefore, preachers must be sent. Consequently, it behooves the seminary to incorporate every means possible—including distance education and online delivery tools—to produce an abundant number of ministers. To be sure, only God can call the minister, and it is the local church’s role to affirm that call; but the seminary must stand ready, with every appropriate tool at its disposal, to train a sufficient number of pastors, ministers, and missionaries for our churches.

Second, like never before our churches need a learned ministry marked by pastors and ministers well-equipped to defend the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. The complexities of modern ministry necessitate we give our best energies to equipping pastors to exposit the Word of God and to reason from the Scriptures.  Encroaching secularism, cultural decay, vexing and even exotic ethical dilemmas, a pervasive doubting of biblical authority, and the new atheism all necessitate that a seminary settle for nothing less than producing learned ministers, well-grounded in the truth of Scripture and well-equipped to advocate sound doctrine.

Third, Boyce learned the necessity of confessional integrity during his time of study at Princeton, and for this generation of Southern Baptists our recent denominational history serves as an ever-present reminder for confessional integrity as well. Additionally, Boyce looked across the Atlantic to European universities and saw heterodoxy; he found the same in northern colleges and universities as well. He knew of higher education’s propensity to drift, so he argued a seminary must be tethered to a confessional statement.  This proclivity to drift theologically recurs in every generation, including ours. If we do not maintain confessional integrity, we neither deserve an abundant ministry nor will we produce a well-educated one. Confessional integrity is a timeless, non-negotiable trait of a faithful seminary.


The year 2013 marks the 125th anniversary of James P. Boyce’s death, which occurred in Southern France on December 28, 1888.  Shortly thereafter, his body was returned to Louisville where he was buried in Cave Hill Cemetery. To mark his place of rest and to signify the consequence of his life and influence, a towering monument now stands and bears the inscription: “James P. Boyce, to whom, under God, the Seminary owes its existence.”

Under God, this is undeniably true—Southern Seminary owes its existence to Boyce—yet much more is truer still. Boyce founded Southern Seminary, but he also pioneered Southern Baptist theological education as a whole; and his “Three Changes in Theological Institutions” serves as a persistent template for Southern Baptist theological education.

In three subsequent essays, I will revisit each of Boyce’s proposed changes, argue for their abiding relevance, and point to present application for ministry preparation.  As I do, know that Boyce, though dead, still speaks through his “Three Changes in Theological Institutions,” and we will do well to listen.

[1] James Petigru Boyce, “Three Changes in Theological Institutions: An Inaugural Address Delivered before the Board of Trustees of Furman University, the Night before the Annual Commencement, July 31, 1856.”

[2] Cited in Timothy George, James Petigru Boyce: Selected Writings (Nashville: Broadman, 1989), 7.

[3] John A. Broadus, Memoir of James Petigru Boyce, D.D., LL.D. Late President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1893), 142.

[4] Boyce, “Three Changes.”

[5] Ibid., 2.


Part I // Part II  // Part III


topicsEducationEvangelicalismJames P. BoyceSouthern Baptist Convention

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