The Worst Decision B. H. Carroll Never Made: Southern Seminary, the Whitsitt Controversy & the Quest for Institutional Accountability

For Southern Baptists, B. H. Carroll is an iconic figure, and for Texas Baptists he is especially so. During his 28-year pastorate, the First Baptist Church of Waco, Texas became one of the state’s most preeminent congregations. Denominationally, he channeled domestic and foreign missionary efforts, advocated the establishment of the Sunday School Board, helped to consolidate the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and championed Southern Baptist causes—preaching nearly every annual meeting for 30 years.[1]

However, Carroll’s legacy is not the church he pastored, but the institution he founded—Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Sensing divine leadership, in 1908 Carroll almost singularly established Southern Baptists’ second seminary through his personal ingenuity and sheer force of personality. Like a human dynamo, Carroll propelled Southwestern Seminary’s meteoric rise. In just a few short decades after its founding, Southwestern Seminary would stand as the largest Southern Baptist seminary and, arguably, would shape the SBC in the latter decades of the 20th century more than any other seminary.

Yet before Carroll founded Southwestern Seminary, he was a trustee of Southern Seminary. And in a strange twist of Southern Baptist history, before he established Southern Baptists’ second seminary, he nearly led them to relinquish their first.

The Whitsitt Controversy

After the death of John A. Broadus in 1895, Southern Seminary’s Board of Trustees elected William H. Whitsitt as the school’s third president. The honeymoon quickly wore off, and less than a year after his installation Whitsitt plunged the seminary into the second of its four major controversies. [2]

The controversy centered on Whitsitt’s questioning of Baptist origins, in particular his insistence that English Baptists did not baptize until 1641, thus denying Baptist succession. He also questioned Roger Williams’ baptism and argued that early English Baptists practiced affusion, or baptism by pouring. Not only were Whitsitt’s findings relatively new—Whitsitt claimed they were his discoveries—but they also ran afoul of many Southern Baptists, who believed in a continuity of baptism by immersion all the way back to the apostles. Further complicating matters, before his election as president Whitsitt published his articles on Baptist origins anonymously, prompting critics to question his courage and integrity.[3]

As conflicts often do, what began as a historical and biblical debate degenerated into concerns over Whitsitt’s character, judgment, and general fitness for the seminary’s presidency. The Whitsitt controversy grew into a full-scale denominational conflagration, consuming the attention of the convention and threatening not only the seminary but also the convention’s collaborative mission efforts.

Enter B. H. Carroll

Whitsitt’s chief protagonists were two of his own trustees: Carroll and T. T. Eaton. Eaton pastored the historic Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., while concurrently serving as editor of the influential Kentucky Baptist paper, The Western Recorder. Though Eaton was the most persistent critic, Carroll was the most influential one.

While Carroll agitated for Whitsitt’s removal, he never fully embraced the Landmark understanding of Baptist origins as championed by his younger brother J. M. Carroll.[4] Rather, Carroll fought for reasons of principle, believing trustee governance, doctrinal accountability, and the seminary’s responsibility to Southern Baptist churches were at stake. He argued that trustees bore not only a formal and fiduciary responsibility to the denomination, but also a moral one. Presciently, Carroll maintained that if trustees permitted unfettered academic freedom for historical research, the same argument might prevail in theological and biblical studies, thus leading to the seminary’s doctrinal compromise and downfall.

After a temporary relaxation in tensions that prompted Whitsitt and his supporters to believe the matter largely settled, Carroll reasserted his concerns through articles published in June 1897 in the Baptist Standard entitled, “The Whitsitt Case at Wilmington” and “Back to the Realm of Discussion.” Carroll’s pen once again put the Whitsitt controversy at the forefront of the convention’s attention.[5]

Motion to Sever the Seminary from the Convention

One of the forgotten aspects of the Whitsitt controversy involves a resolution Carroll presented to the convention when it gathered for its annual meeting in May 1898 in Norfolk, Va. There, Carroll submitted a resolution—to be voted on at the 1899 convention—to formally and legally sever the seminary from the convention. Carroll’s motives to sever ties were reasonable enough. He cited the Whitsitt controversy as hindering Southern Baptists’ collective missionary work, and the convention’s inability to hold the seminary responsible to the churches. In other words, to Carroll, the current relationship between the SBC and Southern Seminary granted the convention’s financial support and tacit endorsement, but denied it a sufficient mechanism to hold the seminary accountable.[6]

Thus, Carroll’s motion: “Resolved, that this Convention, without expressing any opinion whatever on the merits of the controversy concerning seminary matters, about which good brethren among us honestly differ, but in the interest of harmony, particularly with a view to preserve and confirm unity in mission work, does now exercise its evident right to divest itself of responsibility in the Seminary management, by dissolving the slight and remote bond of connection between this body and the Seminary; that is, that this body declines to nominate trustees for the Seminary or to entertain motions or receive reports relative thereto, leaving the Institution to stand on its own merits and be managed by its own trustees.”[7]

In response to Carroll’s motion, the convention appointed a committee to study the feasibility and prudence of separation.[8] The committee, reporting in 1899, declined to take any action, and Carroll announced his intent not to bring the motion forward for a convention vote.[9] Predicting counterfactuals is a fool’s errand, but at that time Carroll may have been the most respected and influential man at the convention. If Carroll submitted his resolution, and so argued for it, it may have passed.

A Time to Reassert Control, not Relinquish it

Carroll’s prevailing concern was holding the seminary accountable to the churches, as evidenced by his own words, and ultimately witnessed in forging Southwestern Seminary in accountability to Texas Baptists. Of Carroll, Glen Miller accurately observed, “The theme of ecclesiastical accountability is one of the consistent threads in his work as an educator and administrator.”[10]

In fact, Carroll’s resolve for the seminary to be accountable to the churches is most vividly captured in his deathbed injunction to Lee Scarborough, his successor as president of Southwestern Seminary. Carroll instructed Scarborough, “Lee, keep the Seminary lashed to the cross. If heresy ever comes in the teaching, take it to the faculty. If they will not hear you and take prompt action, take it to the trustees of the Seminary. If they will not hear you, take it to the Convention that appoints the Board of Trustees, and if they will not hear you, take it to the great common people of our churches. You will not fail to get a hearing then.” [11]

In the Whitsitt controversy, Carroll’s concerns were spot-on, but his proposed solution—to sever the seminary from the convention—would likely have brought disastrous consequences. One is hard-pressed to find any seminary that has ever been separated from its founding churches and yet maintained doctrinal faithfulness and missiological focus.

Every generation of Southern Baptists owes to their forebears and to their posterity to steward rightly the ministries and resources with which they have been entrusted. And, in this, Carroll was especially right: the stewardship is not merely legal and fiduciary—it is moral as well.

Given the historical and legal uniqueness of Southern Seminary’s founding, Carroll’s engagement in the Whitsitt controversy is not entirely transferrable to modern circumstances. As Duke McCall observed, in its early decades Southern Seminary grew up more alongside the convention than within it. Though the circumstances were unique, there is a principle that rings true in every generation—when churches perceive themselves distanced from the entities they own, they should reassert their control, not relinquish it.


B. H. Carroll was a Colossus figure, ranking with George W. Truett, W. A. Criswell, Lee Scarborough, Paul Pressler, and Paige Patterson as Texas Baptist luminaries. He justifiably garnered the accolades of Truett, who called him, “the greatest preacher our state has ever known,”[12] and John R. Sampey, who told him “You are now—since Broadus is gone—our natural leader in the Southern Baptist Convention.”[13]

Carroll was a decisive man who made many consequential decisions, none greater than founding Southwestern Seminary. However, I am especially grateful for one decision that, in the final analysis, he never made—to recommend Southern Baptists sever ties with their mother seminary.

[1] James Spivey, “Benajah Harvey Carroll,” in Theologians of the Baptist Tradition (ed. Timothy George and David S. Dockery; Nashville; Broadman & Holman, 2001), 167.

[2] The other three controversies being; the Toy controversy in the 1880s; the 1958 conflict that resulted in the dismissal of 13 school of theology faculty members; and the SBC Conservative Resurgence and the election of Albert Mohler as president in 1993.

[3] Gregory Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859–2009 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 198–99.

[4] H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: Broadman, 1987), 670.

[5] Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 216.

[6] Proceedings of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1898, 23.

[7] Ibid., 23.

[8] Ibid., 30.

[9] Proceedings of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1899, 18.

[10] Glen T. Miller, Piety and Profession: American Protestant Theological Eduction, 1870–1970 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 281.

[11] Spivey, “Benajah Harvey Carroll,” 169.

[12] George W. Truett, “B. H. Carroll, the Titanic Champion of the Truth,” in Dr. B.H. Carroll, the Colossus of Baptist History: Pastor, First Baptist Church, Waco, Texas, First President of S.W.B.T. Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas (ed. J. W. Crowder; Fort Worth, TX: Crowder, 1946), 90.

[13] Carroll Collection, File 208-1, Letter to B. H. Carroll, August 24, 1896.

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