Adopting resolutions of appreciation for men and women rotating off the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary board of trustees usually is a routine matter. But things were different on April 20, 1994.
As John Michael completed 10 years of service and came forward to receive a written copy of his resolution, fellow trustees rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation. When Michael returned to his seat, a longtime seminary vice president whispered in his ear that he had never before seen a trustee receive that kind of praise. “They have honored you, and you deserve it,” he said.
Who was John Michael? And why had he earned such an ovation?
Elected to the board as a 28-year-old Kentucky businessman, Michael was, at the time, the youngest person ever to serve as a Southern trustee. Though uninvolved in the budding Conservative Resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention, he began to notice a drift toward theological liberalism at the convention’s oldest seminary.
In his early days of trustee service, Michael stood nearly alone against the drift, drawing rebukes from seminary president Roy Honeycutt—who declared “holy war” against SBC conservatives in a sermon less than three months after Michael’s election—as well as moderate trustees and faculty. Michael bore his share of unfavorable coverage from Baptist and secular media outlets, too. When fellow conservatives began to join Michael on the board, he was at times reduced to tears by what he viewed as their tendency to compromise, and he wondered if Southern would ever return to the orthodoxy of its founders.
But it did. Now, Michael’s memoir A Stand for Truth offers an inside look at how trustees maneuvered between 1984 and 1994 to secure Southern’s return to biblical fidelity.
During and after Michael’s trustee tenure, Southern students would ask him to tell “war stories” from his service, he told the TEXAN. “Invariably,” the students would say, “Wow, we didn’t know about any of this … you need to write a book.” After years of shrugging off the requests, Michael and his wife Harriet obliged, producing the 720-page memoir due out Jan. 15 by Olivia Kimbrell Press. Harriet has authored seven other books since launching her writing career in 2010.
David Miller, a conservative who began serving on Southern’s board in 1989, called the seminary’s theological transformation “the greatest demonstration of the providence of God in my lifetime” and credited trustees “of great resolve” like Michael with effecting the change.
“Baptists owe them a debt of gratitude they can never repay,” said Miller, an Arkansas evangelist.
Michael’s first major battle as a trustee came in 1986 when the SBC Peace Committee—an ad hoc committee tasked with determining the source of controversy in the convention—raised questions about theological views espoused among Southern’s faculty. Honeycutt responded to the Peace Committee’s questions about 14 faculty members, including himself, in a report Michael viewed as a “cover-up” of their unbiblical views.
Yet moderates comprised a majority on the board, and trustees voted 41 to 11 to affirm Honeycutt’s handling of the matter and declare that all faculty members were within The Abstract of Principles, the seminary’s original confession of faith which predates the Baptist Faith & Message. (Southern’s charter requires professors to “teach in accordance with, and not contrary to” the Abstract.) Michael’s objections landed him a rebuke from Honeycutt.
Despite the setback, Michael continued to pursue change at Southern. He voiced objections to theology professor Molly Marshall-Green’s apparent belief that people could be saved without explicitly placing their faith in Christ, and to ethics professor Paul Simmons’ pro-choice views on abortion, among other controversial faculty stances.
All the while, more conservatives joined him on the board each year as the Conservative Resurgence progressed. Messengers elected conservative SBC presidents each year, who in turn appointed conservative members of the Committee on Committees, who in turn nominated conservatives to serve on the Committee on Nominations, who in turn nominated conservative trustees at Southern and the other SBC entities.
Among conservative trustees at Southern was Colorado pastor Jerry Johnson, who came on the board in 1989 at age 25 and is the subject of a full chapter of Michael’s memoir. Johnson had done extensive research on the theological views of Marshall-Green, Simmons, Honeycutt and other professors. In 1990 he drew on that research in an article for the conservative publication The Southern Baptist Advocate titled “The Cover-up at Southern Seminary.”
Moderates responded to the article by attempting to expel Johnson from the board, but he survived thanks in part to procedural maneuvering by Michael.
“John Michael was the key” to an eventual 70 percent turnover on Southern’s faculty, said Johnson, who went on to serve as dean of Southern’s Boyce College, president of Criswell College and president of the National Religious Broadcasters. “He was conservative before conservative was cool on the board … He was an activist. He was bold. He was brave.”
In addition to his victories, Michael acknowledges missteps in his memoir, as when he disclosed sensitive information about the seminary in a 1991 interview with the Indiana Baptist newspaper.
Michael had requested that a formal warning be issued to church history professor Glenn Hinson, whose writings seemed to suggest Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead and that Jesus lacked consciousness of his own deity. Michael told Honeycutt he would not alert the media about his warning request unless asked about it. But when asked an open-ended question about Hinson, Michael told of the request and the revelation was published in the Indiana Baptist. The disclosure provoked a “scolding” of Michael by Southern’s trustee officers.
The book’s closing chapters recount Michael’s initial hesitancy when Albert Mohler was presented as the candidate to succeed Honeycutt as president in 1993. Mohler’s youth and inexperience at age 33 were among Michael’s concerns, as well as his former service on Honeycutt’s staff. But Mohler’s theological stand and leadership vision won Michael over, and he signaled his support to other conservative trustees looking to him for leadership.
Mohler was elected and has fulfilled his promise to hire only faculty who would teach in accordance with the Abstract. Southern has granted degrees to more than 11,500 students during his tenure, a third of all the institution’s graduates since its founding in 1859.
Dorothy Barker, a Texas conservative who served on Southern’s board from 1986-1996, told the TEXAN the seminary was “veering off the track of truth of the Scripture” and “would have been no longer a Baptist seminary” had trustees like Michael not turned it around.
Michael “was a very good trustee, very vocal, very well informed,” said Barker, a member of First Missionary Baptist Church in Morton, Texas. “He knew where he stood, and he knew how to articulate it.”
Since rotating off the board in 1994, Michael has remained supportive of Southern. He is thankful for the seminary’s unapologetic stance for biblical inerrancy today and hopes Southern Baptists will never forget the story of its turnaround.
“History tends to repeat itself,” he said, “and each generation has to stand for truth. You can’t just assume what was is always going to be, and if you don’t pay attention, then this stuff is going to repeat itself.”