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Once A Baby-Faced Conservative Revolutionary, Al Mohler Is Now An SBC Institution

By Bob Smietana
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The Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr. speaks to a forum as the new president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1993. (Video screen grab)

Not long after he’d been named president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, the flagship seminary of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, R. Albert Mohler Jr. stood in front of the student body in the school’s chapel to take questions.

The room was tense. More than a few students, not least the women who had come to the seminary to train to be pastors — were unhappy that the board had elected Mohler, the 33-year-old editor of a Georgia Baptist paper, with no experience in running any institution, never mind a school with nearly 2,000 students.

During the Q&A session, one of the students asked how Mohler would supervise faculty members who were much older and presumably wiser than he was.

“I intend to age,” he said, provoking laughter and cutting some of the tension.

Thirty years later, Mohler has kept his promise. “That’s one of the most faithfully fulfilled pledges ever made by a human being,” said Mohler, 63, in a recent interview.

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The Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr. speaks to a forum as the newly selected president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1993. (Photo courtesy of SBTS)

For three decades, Mohler has been one of the most influential leaders among Southern Baptists and the broader evangelical movement, explaining their theology to the outside world and promoting conservative values often at odds with societal trends. Mohler runs an op-ed section at World Magazine’s website, helping to shape evangelical views on morals, faith and above all politics. (A never-Trumper in 2016, he supported Donald Trump four years later.)

When Rick Warren, founder of Saddleback Church in California and a legend among Southern Baptist Convention megachurch pastors, challenged the denomination’s ban against women pastors at this summer’s annual meeting in New Orleans, it was Mohler who was selected to go toe-to-toe with Warren. Mohler won the day.

Yet Mohler’s outspoken views and penchant for controversy can overshadow another truth about the longtime leader. His seminary is thriving at a time when Christian higher education is in turmoil and many other seminaries are selling off their campuses or consolidating and the number of students pursuing Master of Divinity degrees plummets.

“He is one of the most-omnicompetent people I know,” said longtime friend Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Akin, who worked at Southern in the early years of Mohler’s tenure, attributes his former boss’s staying power to a combination of a relentless work ethic and a very thick skin. Mohler has also proved himself capable, Akin said, of digesting theological tomes while managing the often complex finances and egos of a major educational institution.

It’s these skills, rather than the mere passage of time, that have made Mohler the second-longest-serving president in Southern’s history, outdone only by Duke K. McCall, who led Southern from 1951 to 1982— a record Mohler plans to surpass.

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R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, speaks at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting at the Ernest N. Memorial Convention Center in New Orleans, La., on June 13, 2023. (RNS photo by Emily Kask)

Mohler is also one of the longest-serving seminary presidents in the country, according to 2020 data from the Association of Theological Schools. Only 2% of seminary leaders have been in their roles for more than 20 years, while half have been in their roles for less than five years.

Mohler’s longevity is “highly unusual,” said Chris Meinzer, a senior director and chief operating officer for ATS.

And Mohler’s school is extraordinarily successful. Southern had 3,348 students in the fall of 2022, making it the second largest in the country, according to ATS, after Liberty University’s John W. Rawlings School of Divinity.

In the mid-1990s, however, things were not so rosy. 

Mohler had been one of the lieutenants of the so-called Conservative Resurgence, a theological and political revolt in the SBC that wrested control of the denomination from its formerly moderate leadership. That included installing conservative leaders in the SBC’s institutions, including Southern, which before Mohler’s tenure had championed women pastors and allowed space for professors to question doctrines such as Young Earth creationism.

As a student in the 1980s, Mohler supported women pastors, and in 1984, he and other students placed a full-page ad in the local newspaper claiming that God was “an equal opportunity employer.” But a meeting with legendary Christianity Today editor Carl Henry led Mohler to change his mind, he later recalled.

At that meeting, Henry told Mohler that he’d regret his support for women in ministry — which sent Mohler off to the seminary library to research the issues.

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The Rev. Billy Graham, left, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr. (Photo courtesy of SBTS)

“I ended up staying up until I could figure this out,” he said during a 2010 chapel service. “Somewhere between Carl Henry saying what he said to me and the dawn of the next day, my position had completely changed.”

But his change of heart toward women pastors cost him students. Three years after he became president, attendance had dropped by some 700 students and took nearly a decade to recover.

Mohler said that when he took office, he expected pushback.

The school, he said, had strayed from its theological foundations and was out of touch with what most Southern Baptists believed. “We are talking about the reorientation of an institution that was already, you know, more than 100 years old,” he said. “It was not a small course correction.”

If Southern has regained its momentum under Mohler, the politics have not necessarily gotten easier. Historian Bill Leonard, the founding dean of Wake Forest Divinity School and a former professor at Southern, said that the conservative takeover narrowed the room for differing opinions in the denomination. Then, once the more moderate Southern Baptists left, the conservatives turned on each other.

“There may come a time when there are only two Southern Baptists left, and each will think the other one is a liberal,” said Leonard.

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The Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr. participates on a panel during the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in Nashville. (RNS photo by Kit Doyle)

Making Leonard’s point, Mohler played a role in the high-profile departure of Warren this summer and, two years ago, in the exit of the prominent Bible study teacher Beth Moore, who dissented from the SBC’s support of Trump. Yet Mohler has come under fire himself in recent years from the denomination’s extreme right, whose members claim Southern promotes “woke ideology” by talking about issues of race.

Leonard, who has known Mohler since the 1980s, when the future seminary president was his student, said Mohler’s conversion to the conservative viewpoint was genuine, but it was also a pragmatic decision.

 “When he got nominated for the presidency, it appears he decided which way the wind was blowing for him,” said Leonard.

But the real key to Mohler, his former teacher said, is his personal ethical streak, which has made him equal parts a reformer and a company man. “He’s not a flamethrower,” said Leonard. “He believes in institutions.”

Leonard said Mohler’s personal ethics have helped him to persevere when many other Southern Baptist leaders have fallen in recent years. 

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R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. (RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks)

During a recent interview, Mohler agreed with that assessment, saying he was an unapologetic institutionalist. As if to illustrate the point, he said that while he and Leonard have very different understandings of what it means to be a Baptist and even of how to interpret the Bible, he called his former professor one of the “best classroom teachers” he ever met. “I still respect and appreciate those who taught me, even when we disagree,” he said.

Mohler also paid tribute to his predecessors, including McCall and Roy Honeycutt, whom he succeeded. Honeycutt, he said, disapproved of the direction Mohler planned to take the seminary — and yet was gracious to Mohler during the handover. “He was unfailingly a man of character and graciousness and I am thankful for that,” Mohler said.

Despite his longevity, Mohler said he knows that both the denomination and the seminary face challenges as organized religion declines and institutions fall out of favor.

“It’s a humbling moment for the Southern Baptist Convention and for evangelicalism,” he said. “A denomination that found an awful lot of confidence in constantly growing is now going to have to explain what faithfulness looks like when we are not.”

Mohler said he has no plans to retire in the short term.

“I want to continue to be useful to the kingdom and to this institution,” he said. “And I want to be at some point a cheerleader for whoever follows me.”

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.

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14 Responses

  1. He didn’t just flip flop to support Trump, he selected a Christian nationalist who served in the Trump Admin as his top student intern.

  2. Mark Gunderson, regarding your boogeyman pejorative “Christian Nationalist”…which do you despise more? True Bible believing Christians or those who don’t support America-hating groups like ANTIFA?

    1. First, William Wolfe has done panels, debates, and written articles in defense of Christian nationalism. It’s not a boogeyman pejorative, it’s how he self-identifies.

      Second, what does ANTIFA have to do with the evangelical church? Do you see a lot of ANTIFA, or support thereof, in your church pew?

    2. Craig first of all false dichotomy. Those are not the choices before us when it comes to Christian nationalism.
      In fact Christian nationalism rejects biblical truth and the way of Jesus.

  3. Hi Craig neither, doesn’t have to be either/ or. Christian nationalism is not Christianity as far as I am concerned and will irreparable harm to the cause of
    Christ. While I applaud Christian men and women who are in office, I don’t want to live in a Christian run village or city, historically it doesn’t work well and people like Doug Wilson frankly scare me.

  4. Thanks Tricia and Chuck. I appreciate your patience and sincerity. I see different people pouring different meaning into the term “Christian Nationalism” as it best fits their agenda. The media seems to use it as a pejorative label for anyone who take a stand for Biblical truth. I shouldn’t let that anger me but it often does. I don’t have a high opinion of either Doug Wilson (his soteriology) or Donald Trump (his moral depravity) but I’ll always vote for the pro-life candidate. (Democrat or Republican) Innocent lives hang in the balance.

    1. Craig – I appreciate your respectful reply to Tricia and Chuck, particularly your acknowledgement that you get an angry reaction to pejorative labels. I’d like to draw your attention to how your angry reaction led to you throwing out the same pejorative labeling you despise: Not everyone who has a problem with Trump or Christian nationalism hates America, supports ANTIFA, or likes killing the unborn.
      Let’s be careful not to do that which we hate.
      I say that as someone who is “in the gray” on a lot of my positions and dislikes being accused of all the above because I do not support Trump or believe in Christian nationalism.

  5. Last one and I’m out. Mark, you asked if ANTIFA or like thinkers are in my church. My church is doctrinally sound and conservatively evangelical but the answer to your question is “I don’t know”. Such people usually maintain a low profile until they voluntarily leave or expose themselves and are asked to leave. Luke 4:33-36 tells us about a demon possessed man in the very synagogue where Jesus was teaching! How long had the demon possessed man been attending before he revealed himself for who he was? I don’t know but I know there are countless tares sitting in evangelical pews and even worse, these tares have assumed leadership roles and are weakening and poisoning these churches. Examples abound. Praise Jesus for a remnant-all by His grace.

  6. Not a fan. The guy’s a Calvinist, which I consider a doctrine that has nothing to offer but self-congratulation to a self-identified elect and despair to everybody else.

  7. “Thirty years later, Mohler has kept his promise. “That’s one of the most faithfully fulfilled pledges ever made by a human being,” said Mohler, 63, in a recent interview.”

    That is a very impressive claim, and who is he comparing himself to in the Bible?

  8. Isn’t Mohler a big Trump fan?

    I know Trump called Ron DeSantis’s 6 week abortion ban in Florida as “horrible”…. meaning as it is too restrictive…. boy has Trump changed his tune…

    I thought abortion was the big issue with evangelicals and Mohler….. so let’s see if integrity is important with evangelicals going forward…

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