Our Heritage Revisited

A Tide Taken At The Flood: The Birth Of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

by Amy Pierce // January - February - March 2018

“Our Heritage” is reprinting and updating earlier articles as a way of introducing a ballooning newcomer population to Wake Forest history and culture. 

Like the rest of the nation in the early-to-mid 1940s, Wake Forest College was at the dawn of a new era. “The bombs bursting in air” overseas were diminishing and the end of the war meant that the college, which had seen its enrollment drop considerably because of the hostilities, would soon be bursting its seams with returning students. As a result, in May of ’43, the trustees said “yes” to a $2-million construction campaign for 11 new facilities able to accommodate 2,000 students, including women, who had been permitted to enroll temporarily while the men were fighting overseas. It was their presence that, along with the temporary occupation of the campus by the Army Finance School, kept WFC from closing during WWII.

The stage for the unexpected move had actually been set by the medical school’s 1941 move to Winston-Salem to become allied with Baptist Hospital, and relocation of the college was talked about at that time.
With its expansion campaign well underway, in February of ’46, the institution received what would become a highly controversial offer from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation: relocate the college to Winston-Salem in exchange for annual foundation gifts of at least $350,000. Over the coming months, statewide public outcry – and support – was considerable. “Are the Baptists of North Carolina so poor that we have to go out of our denomination and take cigarette money to endow our Christian college?” asked J.B. Little in the Biblical Recorder. From the Roxboro Courier-Times, “. . . Sentiment is a wonderful thing but it should never be allowed to stand in the way of progress.”

Of course, for the little town that had grown up with the college, and flourished as a result, the announcement was akin to a bomb bursting at home. The decision, made in ’46 and finalized in’47, to remove the college from the town engendered an emotional and economic depression that lasted for some time. Many townspeople, using ad lingo of the day, felt the school had “walked a mile for a Camel.” 

The choice left the Baptist State Convention with the major question of what to do with the campus complex. A committee charged with the task generated numerous ideas revolving around other NC Baptist schools, including relocating Raleigh’s Meredith College to Wake Forest and consolidating Campbell, Chowan, and Wingate as an eastern counterpart to the west’s Mars Hill. However, there was a greater desire and need for a theological school.

Ultimately, in March of 1950, approval was given for the site at Wake Forest to become South-eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. “While the news was wel-come to the college,” wrote Bynum Shaw (The History of Wake Forest College, Vol. IV), “among the happiest to hear it were the merchants and other residents of the town of Wake Forest, who had feared for their economic survival.” Logistical details of the property’s transfer included shared use of the campus by both college and seminary from July 1, 1952 until July 1,1956, the day moving vans would depart the forest of Wake for the hills of Forsyth 110 miles away. 

Special thanks to Beverly Whisnant of the SEBTS Library, and Steve Jones and Beverly Hayden of SEBTS. 

Amy Pierce

Lives in Wake Forest's Mill Village, where she is a writer, minister, and spiritual counselor.