Ralph Beeson’s Orthodox Philanthropy

  • Religion
  • 1988

Ralph Beeson was legendarily cheap when it came to his own needs. 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 home, 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 at Samford as a tribute to his father. Knowing that its future clergy would mostly hold low-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 schools 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 dean, “Now, Timothy, I want you to keep things orthodox down there.” Moreover, “I want you to train pastors who can preach.” Thanks to the donor’s clear guidance, a quarter-century after his death the school remains richly evangelical, and known for turning out excellent sermonizers.

Methodist by upbringing, Beeson was married to a Baptist and became Presbyterian—so his divinity school, though located at a Baptist university, welcomes all Christian faiths. That same eclecticism is on display in the school’s architectural centerpiece—the beautiful Hodges Chapel. It combines classical Palladian and colonial American designs, pairs the cruciform footprint of a Catholic cathedral with a traditionally placed Protestant pulpit, and employs Renaissance-inspired art to celebrate Christian historical figures. Only in America does one find this kind of generous religious mix.

Upon his death in 1990, Beeson also left $39 million to Asbury Theological Seminary, a prominent evangelical graduate school in Kentucky. That gift doubled Asbury’s endowment and funded the creation of new academic programs and seminary buildings. Though the two recipients of Beeson’s beneficence have differences, they are united in their commitment to Christian theological education that is orthodox but ecumenical, and consistently excellent.