John R. Sampey: 1929-1942

John R. Sampey

John R. Sampey

John R. Sampey, Southern’s fifth president, was born on September 27, 1863 in Lowndes County, Alabama. Raised in a Christian home, Sampey declared his faith in Christ at eleven years of age. While still a teenager, Sampey entered Alabama’s Howard College, graduating in three years as valedictorian of his class. Sampey then pursued studies at Southern, where his abilities attracted the attention of the faculty. In 1885, recently married to Annie Renfroe, Sampey began teaching, guiding seminarians through classes in Greek, Hebrew, and Homiletics. After Annie’s death in 1925, Sampey married Ellen Wood.

Sampey joined the Old Testament faculty early in his career and soon became chair of the department. He taught for fifty-eight years at Southern, the longest tenure in Southern’s history, and did so while serving as a part-time pastor of various local churches. Sampey worked happily alongside fellow teacher A. T. Robertson. The prolific writers engaged in a running gamesmanship over publishing. In his memoirs, Sampey recalled Robertson’s habit “of telling me when his Short Grammar of the Greek New Testament was translated into another European language. When a neat copy of [Sampey’s] The Heart of the Old Testament in Chinese arrived, I took it to Dr. Robertson’s office and laying it down on the table remarked quietly, “Robertson, if you wish your books to be read by the human race, have them translated into Chinese.” (1)

Following the death of President E. Y. Mullins in late 1928, the seminary’s Board of Trustees appointed Sampey as acting president and unanimously elected the sixty-six-year-old scholar as Southern’s fifth president in May 1929. With the help of treasurer Gaines Dobbins, President Sampey led Southern through the Great Depression of the 1930s. By reductions in faculty salaries and a restructured financing plan for the campus, Southern survived desperate trial. Sampey enlisted his fellow faculty members in the administrative work of the seminary and brought a steadying influence to the school.

He had a similar effect on the SBC. A three-time president of the convention, Sampey often gave the convention sermon. Frequently a featured writer, Sampey filled the pages of SBC literature with Sunday School lessons, cultural assessments, and devotional material. He was also active in the Baptist World Alliance.

Sampey supplemented his teaching with evangelistic preaching. By giving his vacation time to the gospel task, he was able to travel the world as a seasonal evangelist. In Rio de Janeiro in 1925, Sampey preached to a large group on the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. He later shared that when he “quoted the passage setting forth the substitutionary sufferings of the Servant of Jehovah, He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities,” the voice of my interpreter cracked. At the close of the service he explained that he was won to faith in Christ by the verses I quoted.” (2) The president had both a heart for instruction and a heart for the lost. He devoted himself to each and left a faithful legacy to the seminary. He died in retirement on August 18, 1946.

(1) John Sampey, Memoirs of John R. Sampey, 139. (2) Ibid, 190. Sources: William Mueller, A History of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1959. John Sampey, Memoirs of John Sampey, Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1947.

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