SWBTS Legacy: E.D. Head
Eleven-year-old E.D. Head felt his father’s strong embrace and his bearded cheek pressed against his own as his father poignantly whispered, “I’m glad you surrendered to Christ tonight.”
His father had perfectly stated what the young E.D. Head had just done on this spring evening in 1903. Convicted during a revival service in Arcadia, La., the eventual third president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary had given his life to the Lord in unconditional surrender. From then on, the driving force of his life became: “What does God want me to do?”
What followed was a life characterized by obedience, faith, and godliness. As a pastor, evangelist, author, professor, seminary president, and man of God, Head obeyed the Lord’s call, trusted Him with a sincere faith, and sought to love his neighbors with selfless compassion. In so doing, he ushered Southwestern Seminary into a new phase of its history, keeping the fires of its founding fathers alive while promoting faith and trust in the Lord during a time of unprecedented enrollment and financial security.
Eldred Douglas Head was born in 1892 in Sparta, La. Following his profession of faith in Christ at the age of 11, Head became an ardent preacher-evangelist, sharing written sermons with friends, leading prayer meetings in the park, and preaching to all who would listen from a cotton gin or in the woods.
“From the beginning of my Christian experience, there was nothing for me but the ministry,” he said.
Head earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Baylor University and a Master of Theology and Doctor of Theology from Southwestern Seminary. He proceeded to teach at Baylor in such subjects as Old and New Testament survey, the life and literature of Paul, and missions and evangelism. He also pastored multiple churches in Texas, including the First Baptist Church of Houston from 1932-42.
In his first sermon at FBC Houston in September 1932, Head provided a glimpse of his heart for the Lord, for which he would later become well-known. Preaching on Genesis 22:18, Head shared that “the way of peace, joy, and happy fellowship is the way of obedience to God’s voice.”
Such obedience would lead Head to resign from his pastorate 10 years later in order to succeed L.R. Scarborough as the third president of Southwestern Seminary. Head made this resignation with some reluctance, having greatly enjoyed shepherding his congregation, but he nevertheless sensed that God’s call was clear.
“I have never felt for one moment that I was capable of serving as president of Southwestern,” Head later said. “All I have done is to follow the path of God’s leading.”
Head’s first meeting with the faculty as president took place on July 3, 1942. Though little was done in the way of business, L.R. Elliott, secretary of the faculty, recollected, “[Dr. Head’s] friendliness, humility, religious earnestness, skill in presiding and his vision won the hearts of all present.”
During his inaugural address later that year, Head affirmed his pastoral heart and Kingdom focus, declaring, “Let me summon every one of you, redeemed by the blood of Christ, impassioned with a holy urge, to evangelistic conquest, committed wholly to the infallible and unimpeachable Word of God, devoted to the patronage of the highest scholarship, to His riven side, His cross of atoning sacrifice.”
“God helping us, we will not fail this beloved seminary,” he continued, “neither those who have gone on before us, nor our glorious denomination which trusts us, nor this broken, disillusioned world so sorely in need of the anchorage which can be found only in Him who can never fail, even Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Head’s 11-year presidency saw great advancements in the life of the seminary. He began his tenure at the tail end of the Great Depression, when the entire country had returned to economic prosperity following the outbreak of World War II. So, in just his second year as president, Head announced to the Faculty Council that the seminary had funds to pay off its debt. A thanksgiving service was held in November 1943, and former president L.R. Scarborough was invited to burn the final note.
Head also promptly began the process of restoring faculty and staff salaries to their pre-Depression levels. As inflationary trends increased, Head made this an item of discussion among trustees nearly every year. In a similar manner, he made efforts to restore and repair student housing in Fort Worth Hall and Barnard Hall.
These renovations were more important than ever due to the enormous increase in the size of the student body between 1942 and 1953. Enrollment in the former was 734; by 1953, it had grown to 2,160, an increase of more than 180 percent.
Acknowledging this immense growth, Head reported to the Southern Baptist Convention one year that the professors lectured not to classes, but to “congregations.” This increased enrollment was certainly encouraging, says historian Robert A. Baker, but it “strained to the limit the ability of the school to assimilate a large number of new students from widely divergent backgrounds and training.”
One means of keeping up with the growing enrollment was the addition of new faculty. In Head’s 11-year presidency, the faculty grew from 23 to 42 full-time members, an increase of roughly 83 percent.
Furthermore, Southwestern Seminary built two new buildings during Head’s tenure: the B.H. Carroll Memorial Building, which housed, among other things, classrooms, the seminary’s library, and a new chapel auditorium; and Price Hall, which would house the School of Religious Education.
When plans for these buildings were first announced, Head declared, “The epic history of Southwestern reveals the guiding hand of God from its very beginning to its victorious present. Under the spell of this vision so splendid, let us dedicate ourselves and our resources unto its complete realization.”
Two years later, as construction of the buildings neared completion, Head, in similar manner, reported to the SBC, “But whatever the achievements and successes, trials or defeats, may this institution never lose sight of Him whose providence made it possible and whose hand now guides its destinies.”
Maintaining his focus on people over the institution itself, Head continued, “With all our building, may the buildings never become bigger than the professors or the students. May we never go up on masonry and down on manhood or true intellectuality and spirituality.”
Beyond these large-scale developments in the life of the seminary, Head also worked in less visible ways. For example, as Baker states, he “began the orderly transition from the somewhat informal administration of the school to the development of a well-structured body of trustees and a more efficiently organized faculty.” Furthermore, reflecting his compassionate heart, he made efforts to recognize the contributions of those who rarely saw the spotlight.
In 1948-49, for example, the Southwestern News magazine carried a series of brief articles on six administrative staff members, some of whom had served since the early 1910s, including the school’s nursery supervisor and the bookkeeper for the business office. Head personally wrote these articles, Baker says, “reflecting the kind of gracious and thoughtful spirit that characterized him.”
Head also occupied the Chair of Evangelism, or “Chair of Fire,” during his presidency. Across his first eight years at the seminary, he taught thousands of students in the classroom, encouraging a fresh zeal for evangelism. In 1950, Head stepped back from teaching responsibilities in order to focus more fully on administrative matters, but he continued to produce scholarly resources for students, including a revision of Scarborough’s With Christ After the Lost, which provided instruction and encouragement for the evangelistic task.
After suffering a heart attack late in his presidency, Head received the news that he would be bed-ridden for weeks and out of the pulpit for a year. Displaying his steadfast faith, Head tapped his chest and said to a friend, “I have no doubt but that somehow this is in God’s plan, and I still believe in Romans 8:28.”
Though Head eventually returned to his responsibilities, he soon sensed that just as the Lord had called him to resign the pastorate and assume the presidency, so now the Lord was calling him to step down from Southwestern Seminary. Head resigned after the spring 1953 semester, assuring his final graduating class of his confidence “that the Lord who has always led and revealed His will, will still lead on and make known His will.”
Ray Summers, then a professor at Southwestern Seminary and a close personal friend of Head, noted that such a sentiment was common for this man of God, perfectly encapsulating the driving force of his obedient, faithful, and godly life. This was further reinforced by a quotation on the flyleaf of Head’s Bible: “What is it that God keeps on bringing before you? Obey the vision! Perform the duty! Keep the commandment! Make the sacrifice! He who keeps the vision gets greater ability to see, and he who refuses increases his blindness.”
Head eventually regained his health, and in ongoing surrender to God’s call, he spent the rest of his life preaching, teaching, and writing. Until the death of this compassionate, godly man in 1964, “there was nothing for [him] but the ministry.”