John A. Broadus was born on January 24, 1827 in Culpepper County, Virginia.
Broadus was born to great parents. Though his mother was not baptized until late in life,
she educated all of the children as best anyone could in those days. John’s father was
Major Edmund Broadus. Major Broadus was a farmer, teacher and often time state legislature.
There was no more respected leader and Christian in the whole county and his name was known
far and wide.
Through his early years Broadus had an education that was typical of the era. Sometimes he was schooled
at home for lack of a school near enough to attend. At other times he was educated in a boarding school
run by his uncle, Albert G. Simms. John was what people today would call “a normal red-blooded American male.”
When Broadus was sixteen, a protracted meeting was held at the Mt. Poney Church. One night while attending
the meetings a friend came to him and quoted: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me. And him that
cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” “Can’ you take hold of that?” pleaded his friend. John did take
hold of that and received Christ as His Lord and Savior. His life was never the same after that!
John’s love for souls and his zeal for sharing the gospel was born almost the same time he was born again. A
few months after his conversion, the pastor invited members to share Christ with those who were unconverted in
the meeting. Broadus had never attempted to share his faith before but decided to give it a try. He went to a
young simple-minded mind by the name of Sandy. Sandy was converted and never missed a chance to come to Broadus
later and say, “Howdy, John? thankee John.” Broadus told of this experience throughout his life and often would add,
“And if ever I reach the heavenly home and walk the golden streets, I know the first person to meet me will be Sandy,
coming and saying again: ‘Howdy, John? thankee John.’” This sympathetic side of John Broadus became the genius of
his preaching. He was a man who was grounded in the great doctrine of Scripture but was also moved with deep compassion
for the people who needed those truths so desperately.
In his late teens, Broadus took up teaching as a means of supporting himself and preparing for his further education.
Then in 1846, he entered the University of Virginia. The school founded by Thomas Jefferson was considered the best
educational institution in the United States at the time. There he joined the Jefferson Society, a debating club and
gained his skills as an orator and defender of ideas. University life was a happy time for Broadus. He grew in stature
both as a student and a follower of Jesus Christ.
While still a student at the University of Virginia Broadus preached his first sermon. Charming simplicity became a
hallmark of the preaching John A. Broadus. Years later, in spite of his great theological training, his preaching retained
a simplicity that drew people to it. He often later warned his seminary students not to flaunt their education. He knew it
was a much harder task to present the deep truths in simplicity than it was to dazzle people with one’s much learning.
Shortly after his father’s death in 1850, Broadus was ordained as a Baptist minister and soon married Marie Harrson.
Once again, Broadus took up teaching and also became the pastor of the Charlottesville Baptist Church in Charlottesville,
Virginia in 1852. Later in that same year God visited the Charlottesville church in a mighty way. During a protracted meeting
there were 40 professions of faith with 23 baptisms. This was a revival of a different ilk than what many think of when there
is such a move of God. Broadus wrote of the meetings: “Our meetings were very quiet and solemn; and there was frequently felt
a realizing of the Divine presence…”
By 1855, Broadus had left the Charlottesville Church to become chaplain at the University of Virginia. While enjoying much
of the work, Broadus often found himself growing weary at times of the spiritual dryness exhibited by many of campus. During
the following years, he along with other close friends began to develop a vision for a new seminary for Baptist in the South.
Finally in June of 1857 they met as a formal committee to finalize their commitment to this great calling. Meeting in Louisville,
Kentucky that day was J.P. Boyce, Broadus, Basil Manly, Jr., E.T. Winkler, and William Williams. Together they developed a
plan for establishing a new seminary that they hoped would one day become a great theological university founded on a belief
in the authority of God’s Word and a commitment to Biblical evangelism.
Broadus and his wife, Marie, returned to pastor the Charlottesville Baptist Church for a second time. These were high times indeed.
The seminary was beginning to seem to be more than just a dream and the church had acquired a parsonage for the young couple. They
and three children moved in with great anticipation for what God before them. As in years gone by, the cloud of death came over
Broadus during one of his brightest moments. Just months after moving into their new home, Marie Broadus fell ill and died within
only a week’s time. As she lay dying, Broadus’ 26 year old wife whispered, “Tell me about Jesus.” She left him with three girls,
Eliza, Annie, and Maria, the youngest being only a year old. Broadus was grief stricken and tempted to lay it all aside. God had
other plans and sent encouragement through church members and friends. There was still much to do and God was not through with
John A. Broadus!
On May 1st, 1858, Broadus attended the Educational Convention in Greenville, South Carolina and the Southern Baptist Theological
Seminary was formally established. Four professors were named: John A. Broadus, J.P. Boyce, Basil Manly, Jr., and E.T. Winkler.
In January of 1859 Broadus married Charlotte Eleanor Sinclair gaining a trusted helpmeet and a mother for his three girls. A
few months later Broadus said farewell to his beloved church and prepared for the first semester at the seminary in Greenville,
South Carolina. God had blessed in many ways during his pastorate at Charlottesville. During his ministry there, Broadus baptized
241 precious people including a young lady by the name of Lottie Moon. Now, however, God had something new for him to do.
At the same time an institution of Christian learning was being formed, a storm cloud was brewing that was about to change the
world as all in the South knew it. We do no service to history or to our subject by ignoring some realities. It seems probable
that John Broadus was a slave owner. Broadus displayed that strange and ironic mix of many Virginia Southerners of his time.
Like Robert E Lee, he owned slaved and yet longed for the day when he would no more. He was no defender of the institution of
slavery. He even wrote a rather favorable review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to his wife in which he said: “It is exceedingly well
written, having some passages of rarely equaled power, and being altogether, as a far as I can judge, a very remarkable book.”
Broadus had no desire to see the Union dissolved but he also reflected the sentiments of many Southerners toward Abraham Lincoln.
He knew that if Lincoln was elected as President of the United States that South Carolina would surely succeed and Virginia
would be soon to follow suit.
War did come and it nearly ended the life of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before it even began. Though not officially
a chaplain, Broadus traveled many miles preaching to the Confederate troops. Stonewall Jackson personally sought him out to
preach to his army. Through a mutual friend General Jackson wrote, “Tell him that he never had a better opportunity of preaching
the gospel than he would have right now in these camps.” Throughout the summer and fall, Broadus preached to the Army of North
Virginia with Robert. E. Lee and his generals in attendance on many occasions.
At last the war was over but one could hardly say that things returned to normal. Civilization as the South had known had ceased
to exist. The economy was ruined, outside forces ruled the political scene, and people in general had little will to rebuild
their lives and fortunes. It seemed that the future held little for this devastated land. The seminary was in no better shape.
Could the founders of the school even hope for its reopening? When Broadus, Boyce and the others met, discussion turned to
the possibility of not even reopening. To that Broadus replied, “Suppose we quietly agree that the Seminary may die, but we’ll
die first.” Finally the Seminary relocated in Louisville, Kentucky and slowly grew until it was a viable theological institution.
In 1870 Broadus published his book, On the Preparation and Deliver of Sermon. That work became an almost instant classic
and is used to this day as primer on homiletics and sermon preparation. That work along with his preaching began to broaden the
horizons of John A. Broadus. Christians in New York had come to know of Broadus and invited him to preach in New York City.
Calvary Baptist Church of that city even asked Broadus to come and be their pastor; which he declined. On several occasions
the little professor from Virginia shared a meal with Henry Drummond and Dwight L. Moody. He was “Mr. Baptist” in America.
The same year as the publication of his book John D. Rockefeller helped to finance a trip for Broadus to Europe. While in
England Broadus visited with Bishop Ellicott, and professors Lighfoot, Westcott, and Hort. During this trip Broadus also had
opportunity to attend The Metropolitan Tabernacle and hear Charles Spurgeon preach.
On his return to the States there was much work to be done at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Though things were better
in Louisville than Greenville it was still a struggle. Finances ran low often and the professors were overworked with the
immensity of the task. Many seminaries were going the way of modernism and that influence even touched their faculty.
John Broadus had friends among many denominations but he was thoroughly Baptist. A pamphlet published by the American Baptist
Publication Society called The Duty of Baptists to Teach Their Distinctive Views, illustrates this fact.
Broadus makes the point in that pamphlet that a Baptist preacher should not avoid standing strongly for distinctively Baptist
doctrines. He argues that too many have shied away from such preaching because of the accesses of a few.
While thoroughly evangelistic, Broadus had no problem in defending the doctrines of grace. He wrote: "The people who sneer
at what is called Calvinism might as well sneer at Mont Blanc. We are not in the least bound to defend all of Calvin's
opinions or actions, but I do not see how any one who really understands the Greek of the Apostle Paul or the Latin of
Calvin and Turretin can fail to see that these latter did but interpret and formulate substantially what the former teaches."
Doctrine is important to every age of the church. That is why Broadus said, “Brethren, we must preach the doctrines; we must
emphasize the doctrines; we must go back to the doctrines. I fear that the new generation does not know the doctrines as our
fathers knew them.”
Broadus had a high regard for the Bible. Edwin C. Dargan, who himself wrote a history of preaching, wrote that Broadus had
a “profound personal belief in the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible … his reverence for the word of God was one
of the deepest feelings of his nature.” That high view of the Bible gives a desire to interpret correctly. One of his maxims
was “Be willing to let the Scripture mean what it wants to mean.”
Though he was a premiere theologian, Broadus was first and foremost a preacher of the Gospel. He wrote: “In every age of
Christianity, since John the Baptist drew crowds into the desert, there has been no great religious movement, no restoration
of Scripture truth, and reanimation of genuine piety, without new power in preaching, both as cause and as effect.”
Broadus was constantly teaching his students to realize the importance of preaching.
On March 16th, 1895, God called his faithful servant, John A. Broadus, home to his final reward. It is hard to estimate
the significance of the preacher’s life on Baptists around the world. Just three years earlier Broadus’ great counterpart,
Charles Spurgeon had gone on to be with the Lord and now Broadus’ life was stilled as well. There can be little doubt
that the two of them stand as the most powerful force among Baptists in the last 200 years. When Thomas Armitage published
his HISTORY OF THE BAPTISTS in 1887, he placed an embossed portrait of John A. Broadus on the cover as the representative
Baptist. No Baptist in America in the 19th century was held in higher esteem than Broadus, and rightly so.
It is said that Spurgeon pronounced Broadus as the “greatest of living preachers.” Had he occupied the pulpit of a church
in New York City he may have been remembered that way. Instead, Broadus dedicated his life to instilling the passion of
deep, Biblical, doctrinal, and vibrant preaching into the hearts of a generation of Baptist preachers who helped to
change the world. Perhaps Broadus has already heard those words in heaven, “Howdy, John? thankee John.”
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