Eclectically Orthodox

Ralph Waldo Beeson was legendarily cheap when it came to treating himself. Once, when given some new corduroys, the insurance executive turned them down on account of already owning a pair. At his modest house just south of Birmingham, he often chose not to operate the air conditioning during brutal Alabama summers, saying it “costs a fortune to run that thing.” But just down the hill from his house, he had a view of Samford University—to which he was nothing but generous.

As a 29-year-old life insurance salesman, Beeson had poured his savings into the stock of his company, Liberty National, just after the crash of 1929. The bet paid off handsomely, and he cashed in for $100 million in the 1980s. From that windfall, he gave $70 million to create a new divinity school (a tribute to his father) at Samford. Knowing that its future clergy would be unlikely to hold high-paying jobs after graduation, Ralph went to great lengths to ensure that the seminary would be affordable. As a result, tuition is held to just a fraction of what comparable seminaries charge, even though the student body is capped at 180 to maximize teaching quality.

Beeson aimed for much more than just affordability, though. He told the founding (and current) dean, “Now, Timothy, I want you to keep things orthodox down there.” Moreover, “I want you to train pastors who can preach.” Thanks to Ralph’s clear guidance, 23 years after his death the school remains theologically orthodox and evangelical, and deeply grounded in the theology and discipline of the Protestant Reformation.

At the same time, Beeson Divinity School is distinctive in reflecting its donor’s Christian eclecticism: Ralph, a former Methodist, was married to a Baptist, and had become Presbyterian. Likewise, the divinity school, although located at a Baptist university, is interdenominational. That eclecticism is on display in the school’s architectural centerpiece, the beautiful Hodges Chapel (a gift from one of Beeson’s closest friends). It combines Palladian classicism with colonial American design, the cruciform footprint of a Catholic cathedral with a traditionally placed Protestant pulpit, and employs Renaissance-inspired art to celebrate Christian historical figures. The kind of generous mix one finds only in America.

This article originally appeared in the summer 2013 issue of Philanthropy magazine.