I have asked my father, John R. Himes, to post some thoughts on the recent closing of Tennessee Temple University, his college alma mater. At one point TTU boasted an enrollment in the thousands and was a premiere Baptist school. As of a few years ago, it was down to a few hundred, and now it has completely closed its doors, sending its students to Piedmont International University (click here for the news story). Why the drastic change? My father shares his thoughts.
The Demise of Tennessee Temple: A Cautionary Tale of a College
By John R. Himes
In 1976 when I graduated with my BA in Bible, Tennessee Temple College was a wonderful bastion of revival, soul-winning and fundamentalism. Sure, it had its problems. I’ve wondered many times why I did not have to take a course in Baptist history or polity, since it was ostensibly a Baptist school. But overall it was a very exciting place to be spiritually. At its peak, it had an enrollment of 4 or 5 thousand.
The governing church, Highland Park Baptist (HPBC), was large (at one point one of the largest churches in the U.S.) and promoted revival. Its pastor and the president of the school was Dr. Lee Roberson, a man unparalleled in his devotion to holy living and revival. We heard famous sermons such as “Prayer, Asking and Receiving” by John R. Rice, and “Payday Someday” by R. G. Lee, and saw revival with hundreds of students and others crowding the aisles.
Temple also had a wonderful emphasis on world evangelism. There was a missionary conference every Fall, sometimes attended by over 200 missionaries. It was through a missionary from Japan at this conference that God called me to be a missionary. HPBC then supported our ministry for 33 years in Japan, for which I thank God. However, it was through this connection that I eventually began to see a slide in the Christianity of the school and church.
After Dr. Roberson had retired and been replaced by *------* after a short time with another interim pastor, we visited the church on furlough. I thought *------* to be a great preacher, but a strange choice for the job since he was from the GARBC orbit rather than the Southwide Baptist Fellowship crowd with which many Temple graduates fellowshipped. Furthermore, many thought he was a poor administrator, and this turned out to be arguably so.
To me as a missionary the moment that defined the future for Highland Park Baptist Church came when a young missionary from South America showed his furlough slides in a training union and said, “We practice direct evangelism and do not advocate lifestyle evangelism.” Afterwards *-----* rose and excoriated the young missionary for this statement, saying, “All the evangelism we do at Highland Park is lifestyle evangelism.” This not only was rude and dismissive toward the young missionary, but inaccurate, since at that time HPBC was using a robot program to “cold call” people’s homes and deliver a taped salvation message! This event caused me to avoid presenting my furlough report at HPBC for many years after that.
In addition, Tennessee Temple’s treatment of alumni was somewhat cold. It seemed to me that they rarely ever reached out to alumni except to ask for money; twice they offered an alumni directory for sale for $100 (this is in stark contrast to the school I received my MA from, which always keeps me up-to-date and provides a much easier way to keep in contact with other alumni).
As time went on, Tennessee Temple drifted further and further from its alumni, who were largely independent Baptists. One furlough some years ago two friends and I visited the campus and entered the gymnasium where we had spent many happy hours working out. After we exited we were approached by a man who wondered what we were doing there, identifying himself as the new athletic director. When we said we were alumni, and two of us were independent Baptist preachers, he said, “I’m not sure what an independent Baptist is. Please explain it to me.”
That encounter typifies to me the primary reason for the demise of Tennessee Temple. Not too long after that it was announced that the college and church were joining a different ecclesiastical orientation (though still Baptist). Thus, the college left its roots. This process may not cause the demise of a college if it occurs over many years, as witness the fate of a school like Princeton which started out as a conservative Presbyterian school. However, in the case of Tennessee Temple, the process of departing from the positions of the alumni and supporters began shortly after the retirement of its founder, Dr. Lee Roberson.
From the point when the board unwisely hired a man from outside of the base of support of the school, the demise of the school was only a question of time. The final letter to the alumni announcing the news of the “merger” with another school (after said news had been published in the Chattanooga newspaper) sadly noted that in trying to save the school 17,000 brochures and letters were sent to alumni. Less than one percent of the alumni responded.