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Whitsitt, William Heth (1841-1911) | Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Archives

Name: Whitsitt, William Heth (1841-1911)

Historical Note:

William Heth Whitsitt, Southern’s third president, was born on November 25, 1841, in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1857, Whitsitt entered Union University, where he earned the B.A. and M.A. degrees. Whitsitt served in the Confederate army during the U. S. Civl War.

Following the war, Whitsitt undertook further postgraduate study at the University of Virginia, Southern Seminary, and the University of Berlin. Southern then called Whitsitt back to Greenville in 1872 to teach Hebrew and biblical instruction. Whitsitt’s main subject, however, was church history. Whitsitt married Florence Wallace of Woodford County, Kentucky in October 1881, and their union produced two children, William (b.May 27, 1883) and Mary (b.July 1, 1886). Notable among his early scholarly projects, Whitsitt composed a 1400 page biography of Mormon pioneer Sidney Rigdon, whom Whitsitt saw as the true founder of Mormonism.

Whitsitt composed a 1893 article for Johnson’s Universal Cyclopedia that generated contentious debate within the Southern Baptist Convention, the culmination of years of his personal study and four articles published anonymously in The Independent (1880-81). In the article, Whitsitt argued that the practice of immersion began in seventeenth century England and that Roger Williams's church in Providence, Rhode Island did not initially immerse. Many nineteenth-century Southern Baptists, especially those adherring to the tenents of Landmarkism, held that an unbroken succession of legitimate baptisms from the apostolic era was a necessary basis for the existence of true churches.  In 1895, prior to the outbreak of controversy, the seminary trustees elected Whitsitt the seminary’s third president. After Whitsitt's views on Baptist history became a matter of public knowledge, intense controversy ensued. Whitsitt released a fuller explanation of his views in his 1896 book A Question in Baptist History, but his attempts to clarify his position resulted in further denominational contention. Enrollment fell and many Baptist churches and associations pledged to withdraw support for the seminary. Having lost the support of some of his closest allies, Whitsitt resigned from the seminary in 1899.

Following his departure from Southern, Whitsitt joined the University of Richmond in 1901 as a professor of philosophy and continuing in that role until 1911. He died in Richmond, Virginia on January 20, 1911.


James H. Slatton, W. H. Whitsitt: The Man and the Controversy (Mercer University Press, 2009).

William Mueller, A History of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1959).

Bill Leonard, “Student Life at Southern Seminary,” (Review and Expositor, 1984).

Note Author: Adam Winters

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