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Attendees sing during a special chapel asssembly at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn.
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‘A great, joyful sense of closure’

For Harding School of Theology, it’s the end of an era after 66 years in Memphis.

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MEMPHIS, TENN. — Before the preacher stepped to the pulpit, the crowd seated in wooden pews at Harding School of Theology stood to sing.

The hymn before the lesson — “Our God, He Is Alive” — rose in volume and intensity, a crescendo of emotion befitting the moment.

“What a way to go out!” professor emeritus Dave Bland quipped as he came forward to introduce the speaker, Matt Love.


Related: A new vision for urban ministry training in Memphis


“Amen!” responded the roughly 150 souls gathered in Pittman Chapel — once the living area for a wealthy Memphis family.

As the influential ministry training school prepares to relocate this fall to Harding University’s main campus in Searcy, Ark., students, alumni, faculty and staff came together to celebrate its past — and pray for its future. 

Bob Turner, pictured at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn., preaches for the White Station Church of Christ.

Bob Turner, pictured at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn., preaches for the White Station Church of Christ.

“Personally, I feel like this is awesome,” Bob Turner, lead minister for the White Station Church of Christ in Memphis, said of the recent three-day reunion. “I think it’s been a great, joyful sense of closure.”

In his sermon, Love — a 2019 Harding School of Theology graduate who preaches for the Beebe Church of Christ in Arkansas — recalled his seminary days fondly.

“Those were exhausting days, as many of you know personally,” said Love, who will join Harding School of Theology’s faculty in Searcy. “But they were also holy days, set apart by God.

“Chapel was like the holy of holies,” he added. “It was the center of rigorous scholarship and heavy thought.”

“The Mansion” was — and is, for a little while longer — the most recognizable building on the 13-acre campus.

Officially known as the E.H. Ijams Administration Building, the 40-room, three-story Georgian mansion served as the home of E.L. King, the property’s original owner, until the graduate school moved to Memphis in 1958.

Over the past 66 years, the seminary at 1000 Cherry Road has trained more than 1,800 graduates and 4,700 students, according to “Near the Banks of the River,” a new collection of essays edited by Mark E. Powell and Steve Cloer.

Those graduates serve in 47 states, 20 foreign countries and every continent except Antarctica, notes the volume published by Regnum Media, an imprint of the Center for Christian Studies.

“When Harding School of Theology began in the 1950s, it launched a new level of commitment to forming preachers, ministers and scholars to serve the church.”

“When Harding School of Theology began in the 1950s, it launched a new level of commitment to forming preachers, ministers and scholars to serve the church,” said Carson E. Reed, a 1988 graduate who serves as dean of the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University in Texas. “HST’s pioneering work has made significant contributions to the Stone-Campbell tradition of churches and led the way for other institutions to follow.”

Jim Martin earned his Doctor of Ministry degree at Harding School of Theology in 1985. After nearly three decades in congregational ministry, he  returned to the seminary as its vice president in 2014.

“In Churches of Christ, this was the Marine Corps boot camp for so many years,” Martin said. “It was rigorous, and yet there was just such care for students. 

“It’s just a mix of emotions,” he said of the transition. “I guess for me, as much as anything else, there’s a lot of thankfulness.”

"The Mansion" at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn., has served as the ministry training school's administration building.

“The Mansion” at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn., has served as the ministry training school’s administration building.

‘A historic day’

A metaphorical earthquake — not unlike the real tremors that struck the Mid-South region in the early 19th century — hit Harding School of Theology in Memphis last summer, as Cloer describes it in “Near the Banks of the River.”

In an Aug. 5, 2023, announcement, Harding President Mike Williams revealed what he characterized as “a historic day for Harding as we make graduate theological education accessible to more people globally.” 

The university’s board of trustees approved Williams’ “vision for maximizing Harding School of Theology’s Kingdom impact” the previous day.

Harding University touted its plan to reduce the cost of a credit hour for all graduate programs in theology from $740 to $100. In a later statement, Williams cited his desire to address “an epidemic shortage of ministers and its profound impact on the Kingdom.”

Near the end of its original, 225-word announcement on its “transformative move to impact the Kingdom,” the university noted that the restructuring would mean transitioning Harding School of Theology to the main Searcy campus, about 115 miles west of the Memphis property.

The Memphis faculty and staff — most of whom won’t make the move to Searcy as they seek new jobs — got the news by telephone the night of the board’s decision.

Harding University President Mike Williams speaks during his 2022 inauguration ceremony in Searcy, Ark.

Harding University President Mike Williams speaks during his 2022 inauguration ceremony in Searcy, Ark.

‘Suspicious of theological education’

The move to Searcy will mark a return to where Harding School of Theology started in 1952.

The seminary relocated to Memphis in 1958 after church leaders’ purchase of the Georgian mansion and surrounding property for a Christian elementary and high school, which the leaders asked Harding to take over and run, Powell writes in “Near the Banks of the River.” The university renamed the K-12 school Harding Academy and “viewed the mansion as an ideal location for the new graduate school.”

“Churches of Christ were suspicious of theological education when Harding began its programs in the 1950s,” Powell notes. “Detractors feared that graduate theological education would inevitably lead to liberalism, the professionalization of ministry, and a loss of mission zeal.”

In fact, the Harding University faculty rejected Bible department head W.B. West Jr.’s proposal to begin a three-year graduate program — today called the Master of Divinity — on the Searcy campus, according to the book. West and George Benson, Harding’s president at the time, did not need the faculty’s support for the stand-alone branch campus in Memphis, and Harding’s board approved the plan by one vote.

For at least 35 years, “a sizable group has wanted to move HST back to Searcy,” according to Powell, dean and professor of theology at the seminary.

“As long as I’ve been here — for 22 years — people have been talking about, ‘The school could move to Searcy one day,’” he told the Chronicle. “But when it actually happened, it was just — it still feels surreal.”

Mark E. Powell, dean and professor of theology, has taught at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn., for 22 years.

Mark E. Powell, dean and professor of theology, has taught at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn., for 22 years.

Attendees applaud a speaker at a recent reunion at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn.

Attendees applaud a speaker at a recent reunion at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn.

‘Hard … to invest in Memphis’

Enrollment on the Memphis campus peaked at 282 in 1982. 

However, that number fell steadily in recent decades, hurt by competition from other Christian universities starting theological graduate programs — and by the rise of online educational opportunities.


Related: Harding School of Theology set to leave Memphis


This past fall, Harding School of Theology counted 112 for-credit students, school officials said. But only 16 of them were local students, not including those who audit classes. 

Ethan and Skylar Bilbrey, with one of their children, at the recent reunion at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn.

Ethan and Skylar Bilbrey, with Cedar, at the recent reunion at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn.

“HST has done well financially thanks to the generosity of our donors and income from our endowments,” Powell writes in the book, “but deferred maintenance, unused space on the Memphis campus, and available space on the Searcy campus makes it hard for a school like Harding University to invest in Memphis.”

Ethan Bilbrey, a 2018 graduate who traveled to Tennessee for the reunion, calls the relocation to Searcy “disappointing.”

“Like a lot of alumni, we understand why it’s happening, but we also believe the process was done very poorly,” said Bilbrey, who preaches for the Richfield Church of Christ in Minnesota.

Still, he prays that Harding School of Theology will thrive — even after it leaves Memphis.

His wife, Skylar, plans to enroll in the seminary’s online Master of Arts in Old Testament program through the Searcy campus.

“The thing that I appreciate is that the cost is going to come down per credit hour, which makes it possible for my wife to pursue that degree for her own growth,” Bilbrey said. “We pray that God is going to use this transition for his glory and the good of the church.” 

Sassy Smothers prays during a recent reunion at Harding School of Theology in Memphis Tenn.

Sassy Smothers prays during a recent reunion at Harding School of Theology in Memphis Tenn.

Jim Martin, right, vice president of Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn., chats with Garrett Best, an alumnus who serves as chair of the Department of Bible and Ministry at York University in Nebraska.

Jim Martin, right, vice president of Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn., chats with Garrett Best, an alumnus who serves as chair of the Department of Bible and Ministry at York University in Nebraska.

‘Forever may she stand’

At a final luncheon before the reunion ended, attendees sang Harding School of Theology’s alma mater, which begins:

Near the banks of the river that flows thru our land is a school for Christian service; forever may she stand.

She welcomes all who hear the call of ministry and love, and so we sing her praise to God who reigns above.

Leon Sanderson, who earned three degrees at the seminary between 1963 and 2007, wrote the music for the song and led the crowd in singing it.

Before the singing, Martin — who plans to work through Aug. 31 and then take a few months to assess his future — offered a closing prayer.

“Oh Lord … we pray for Harding School of Theology and its future, for its mission and for your work in whatever form that will be,” he said to God. “We put our confidence in you, both for our ministries today and the future of this school tomorrow.”

Attendees visit during a recent reunion at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn.

Attendees visit during a recent reunion at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn.

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

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Filed under: Christian universities Churches of Christ Harding School of Theology Harding University Memphis Memphis Area Churches of Christ Memphis Tennessee minister shortage National News People Searcy Searcy Arkansas seminary theological schools Top Stories

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