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.
“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.