Portraits – J.P. Boyce


Portraits – J.P. Boyce
Any good student of Baptist history knows that the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in Augusta, Georgia in 1845. Few realize however that the real genius of that convention was born a year later with the conversion of a theology student at Brown University. While the Southern Baptist Convention was born in 1845 it was grounded in the mind and heart of James Petigru Boyce.
James Petigru Boyce was born in Charleston, South Carolina in January of 1827 to Amanda and Ker Boyce. Ker Boyce was among the wealthiest men of South Carolina and exerted great influence over the affairs of his day. Amanda Johnston Boyce came from a strict Presbyterian family but had been brought to Christ through Basil Manly Senior, the pastor of First Baptist Church. In God’s providence, Amanda’s baptism came one year before the birth of her son, James. 1 God’s sovereign hand can be seen even in the way that Boyce’s mother came to Christ. Days before her conversion Basil Manly’s son had died from a disease. It was through the sermon that Manly preached after his son’s death that Amanda Boyce was saved. On this fact John Broadus comments:
„And who would have thought that Mrs. Boyce’s little boy, near the same one as the one he had lost, was in the course of Providence to preach Basil Manly’s funeral sermon.” 2
After two years of education at The College of Charleston, James headed off to Brown University in Providence Rhode Island. At Brown, Boyce sat under Francis Wayland, one of the great leaders of the Triennial Convention. 3 Both Wayland’s theology and teaching methodology made a profound influence on Boyce for the rest of his life.
Francis Wayland was not only a great theologian but he had pastor’s heart. He prayed often and deeply for students at Brown who had yet to openly profess Christ as Lord and Savior. In 1846, Boyce went home to Charleston for Spring Break with the conviction of God resting heavily upon his heart. So it was that James Petigru Boyce came to the Lord and was baptized by Richard Fuller in his home church. Boyce had been a great man before his conversion but now he was a changed man. One of he professors at Brown, a Dr. Guild, noted:
„He returned to college a changed man. He at once joined the religious society, and with characteristic energy and zeal engaged in efforts to promote a revival of which his conversion may be regarded as the beginning.” 4
In 1849, Boyce headed for Princeton where he would study until 1851. By the mid eighteen hundreds, Princeton University had become the bastion of Old School theology in America graced by the likes of Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge. Like most Baptists of the south, Boyce was already a committed Calvinist when he arrived at Princeton. It was there, however, that he found the Scriptural and philosophical foundations for those doctrines. It was under men like Charles Hodge that Boyce came to see the majesty of God and the depth of His grace. From then on he was committed to helping others know God in His fullness.
Timothy George notes that J.P. Boyce was „consumed with the greatness, majesty and grace of the Sovereign God, the Lord of heaven and earth.” 5 Years after Princeton a student of Boyce’s recalled a Sunday afternoon conversation among some students at Southern Seminary:
‘We heard the greatest sermon of our lives today.”
„Who preached it?” „Jim Peter” (Boyce)
„What was his text?” „God” „What was his theme?” „God”
„What were the divisions of the discourse?” „God”
That was the man 6
After pastoring for two years at the First Baptist Church of Charleston, Boyce was called to be professor of theology at Furman University. His inaugural address there stands as perhaps the most important moment in the early formation of the Southern Baptist Convetion. One should never underestimate the long-term impact that educational institutions have on denominations. It is in the schools that the next generation of preachers, missionaries, and teachers develop their beliefs and commitments. Boyce’s address, now known as the Three Changes laid the groundwork for generations of believers in the Southern Baptist Convention and for theological education in general.
Timothy George identifies the outline of these Three Changes that Boyce proposed as follows: 7
Openness: Seminary students up to this time were required to have a College education in the classics before entering graduate work. This prevented men who had not had the advantage of such an education from being Seminary trained. Boyce proposed a seminary that had no such restrictions.
Excellence: While the classics should not be required this did not mean that scholastic laziness was acceptable. Baptists should produce the best-trained men in the world for the cause of Christ.
Confessional Identity: There should be a set of doctrinal principles that all students and professors adhere to. More will be said about this later.
Boyce’s message on the changes that should take place in theological training was not an academic wish. Instead it was a vision planted by God which would take root in Greenville, South Carolina in a place called Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. „Boyce’s bold initiative took root in humble circumstances. Southern Baptists’ first seminary began classes on October 3, 1859, in a borrowed building with 26 students and four professors – Boyce, John A. Broadus, Basil Manly, Jr., and William Williams. The early faculty brought untiring commitment and sterling academic credentials to their duties. They held degrees from schools such as Princeton, Brown, Harvard, and the University of Virginia.” 8
The third point of the Three Changes was a call for a standard creed which teachers must adhere to. This took shape in the Abstract of Principles of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary which is used to this day. Commenting on this requirement at Southern, Boyce said:
„The theological professor is to teach ministers, – to place the truth, and all the errors connected with it, in such a manner before his pupils that they shall arrive at the truth without danger of any mixture of error … He cannot do this if he have any erroneous tendencies, and hence his opinions must be expressly affirmed to be, upon every point, in accordance with the truth we believe to be taught in the Scriptures.” 9
Baptists are often called a non-creedal people. But to claim such shows an obvious ignorance or ignoring of our heritage. It is true that we believe in the Priesthood of the Believer but believers are not independent from each other. We have a duty of love to maintain the doctrines once handed down by faithful witnesses. This is what J.P. Boyce was committed to.
No sooner had Southern Seminary gotten off to a start than the War Between the States erupted. Both Boyce and Broadus became chaplains to the Confederate Army. As a state senator, Boyce had been firmly opposed to secession. Like most Southerners, however, he supported his state once the action was taken.
Once the war was over, Boyce and the other professors met in Greenville to consider their prospects for the seminary. Things could not have looked worse. The effects of the war have been well documented. Families that had been prosperous contributors before the War were left with less than nothing. Wealthy businessmen found themselves saddled with impossible debts. The seminary struggled on for six more years until a decision was made to move to a more stable area. So in 1872, Boyce and his faculty moved the school to Louisville, Kentucky where it remains today.
J.P. Boyce was a man of deep doctrinal convictions. His good humor and gentle spirit were coupled with a tenacious desire to uphold the truth. Sometimes he could reprimand other’s faulty thinking with a bit of a joke. It was well known among the students that Dr. Boyce was quite the seamstress. Once at a Southern Baptist Convetion, a colleague lost a button. Boyce offered to sew it back on. When thanked for the kind act, Boyce replied, „Ah, Brother – I only wish I could mend your theology as easily.” 10
There were times that a joke was not enough to end a doctrinal straying. One sad chapter in the life of Dr. Boyce and the seminary was the problem with Professor Toy. It became apparent that Toy was teaching doctrine contrary to the Abstracts. Like others of the day. Dr. Toy had become enamored with the Higher Criticism of Germany leading him to deny the full inspiration of Scripture. After much effort to turn Toy back, he was finally moved to offer his resignation. Boyce was on no witch-hunt however. It hurt him deeply to see his friend leave the narrow road and take off on the broad road. At one point, while standing next to Dr. Toy, Boyce raised his own arm and said, „Oh, Toy, I would freely give that arm to be cut off if you could be where you were five years ago, and stay there.” 11 After leaving Southern Seminary, Toy went on to teach at Harvard, becoming a Unitarian and denying the divinity of Christ. There was another who recognized Toy’s straying from the truth. Her name was Lottie Moon. She had been in love with Toy but broke it off, unwilling to marry one who denied the truths of Scripture.
After many years of service, J.P. Boyce died in Southern France while on his only trip to Europe. The legacy he left behind was immense. He understood, as his contemporary Charles Spurgeon in England did the danger of a people of God not having the proper theological moorings. Like Spurgeon, Boyce often lamented the inroads that Arminianism was making on Baptist life. He saw the fate that awaits the Church when it trades the sovereignty of God for the sovereignty of man. Boyce also warned against the dangers of hyper-Calvinism that had taken root among Baptist in the south in the form of Primitive and Hard-Shell Baptists. He was a Calvinist who was so committed to evangelism that he offered the Seminary grounds to D.L. Moody when he brought his tent to Louisville.
A Jewish Rabbi A. Moses wrote of Boyce at his death:
„This deep humanity and sympathy made Dr. Boyce, as nearly as a mortal man can be, an absolutely just man … He would not have been rude to anyone, even if he had tried … Had he turned his attention to politics, what a Senator he would have made! What a President! If he had been thrown among savages, he could have tamed and civilized them, for he was a born leader of men … He was a God-fearing, a God-seeking, and a God-loving man. Before I came to Louisville, I knew Christianity only in books, and it was through such men as Boyce that I learned to know it as a living force … God grant that Christianity may long to continue to produce such men; for men like Dr. Boyce ring heart to heart, and draw us all toward that goal of which we have only glimpses – that is, God, and the Kingdom of Righteousness forever.” 12
Take some time to read Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology at the Founders Web Site. Be sure and use your back button to return to The Baptist Page.
1 Baptist Theologians by Timothy George and David S. Dockery, Broadman Press, 1990, p. 249.
2 Memoirs of J.P. Boyce by John A. Broadus, A.C. Armstrong and Sons, 1893, p.9.
3 Baptist Theologians, p. 250.
4 Memoirs of J.P. Boyce, p.46.
5 Baptist Theologians, p. 262.
6 Boyce and Broadus: Founders of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, by David M. Ramsay, p.4.
7 Baptist Theologians, pp. 252-53.
8 History Of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Web Site of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
9 Memoirs of J.P. Boyce, p. 139.
10 Ibid., p. 49
11 Ibid., p.264
12 Ibid., pp. 347-48.

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