Monday, July 15, 2019

Remembering Paul Simmons

When he died in March of this year, Paul Simmons was called an “outspoken Baptist ethicist” and “a lightning rod at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for advocating a woman’s right to abortion” (quotes from this article). I remember Paul as a Christian gentleman, a brilliant scholar, and a friend since 1955.
Introducing Paul
Paul D. Simmons was born in Tennessee on July 18, 1936, so this Thursday is the 83rd anniversary of his birth.
Paul matriculated at Southwest Baptist College (SWBC, now SBU) in the fall of 1954, and June and I met him a year later when we became students there. He was one of the “big men on campus,” and one of the upperclassmen at the junior college whom I admired the most.
After graduating from SWBC in 1956, Paul finished his college work at Union University in Tennessee, earned two degrees at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, and then in 1969 completed his Ph.D. degree in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Kentucky.
Paul was an instructor in Christian Ethics at SBTS while a graduate student and then joined the faculty there in 1970, receiving tenure in 1975 and promotion to full professor in 1982. Ten years later the trustees of SBTS began to work on ways to remove Simmons from the faculty.
In January 1993, Paul took “early retirement” (at the age of 56!) from SBTS. After a few years teaching in Louisville as an adjunct professor, he then taught 20 years as Clinical Professor of Family & Geriatric Medicine at the University of Louisville, retiring at the age of 80. (Click here for his obituary.)  

Introducing Paul’s Book
In addition to numerous scholarly articles for various publications, Paul was the author of three major books, the first of which was Birth and Death: Bioethical Decision Making (1983).
That book was published not long after the beginning of the “conservative resurgence” (a.k.a. “the fundamentalist takeover”) in the Southern Baptist Convention. In the early 1980s, the Religious Right began a strong anti-abortion campaign, and because of the position Paul propounded in his book he increasingly came under attack.
“Abortion: The Biblical and Human Issues” is the third of six cogently written chapters. In the initial chapter, “Bioethics: Science and Human Values,” Paul clearly states the two basic assumptions underlying his research and writing. “The first is that the Bible not only is relevant but is indispensable for Christian ethical understanding.”
Then, “A second major assumption is that there is no irreconcilable tension between the Bible and modern science” (p. 21).
The second chapter is “The Bible and Bioethical Decision-Making,” and Paul asserts at the end of that chapter, “The starting point for all Christian ethical action is in the person’s relationship to Christ” (p. 63).
I certainly agree with Paul’s two assumptions as well as his key emphases in the second chapter--and one would think that most contemporary Christians would also. Nevertheless, partly because of the sixth chapter in his book, Paul was, deplorably, driven away from his tenured faculty position by the ever-increasing conservatism of SBTS.
Reconnecting with Paul
In January 2011, June and I drove to New Orleans where I attended the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics. One of the highlights of that conference was seeing Paul again and the three of us having a meal together.
He was the same sincere, sweet-spirited person we had known 55 years earlier at SWBC, and we deeply enjoyed having conversation with him again.
So, we were greatly saddened when in March we heard of Paul’s passing, and we remember him with abiding appreciation for the fine man and good scholar he was.


  1. The first comments received this morning were from a Thinking Friend who is also a good friend of mine at Rainbow Mennonite Church. Here is what he wrote,

    "thank you Leroy for this blog. While I don't know this man, I am confronted daily with family members who are of the right-wing of the SBC. I frankly do not understand it and find it terribly upsetting so it was great to read of this man who seems to have embodied a different ethical view than what is now espoused by that organization."

    1. Yes, Paul's views were different from what has been most common at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for decades now, but he was very much "mainstream" in the 1970s and the early 1980s, and he represented the type of theology/ethics that was predominant when I was a student there the first half of the 1960s.

  2. About 10 minutes after received the comments posted above, I had an email from Thinking Friend Greg Hadley in Japan. Greg grew up in Southern Baptist churches in Missouri, but he has lived in Japan for many years now. Here are his kind comments:

    "Thank you for sharing this gentle and touching post. . . .

    "What the convention did to you and to Paul Simmons (and to others, least of all, to me) was unkind and traumatizing. I respect your fortitude and enjoy your blog posts, through which you reach a lot of people for good."

    1. Thanks, Greg. I appreciate you reading this new blog post and responding with kind words about me and a true/important evaluation about what happened to Paul and many others, including you.

  3. Next are comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard, who is a Lutheran.

    "Thanks, Leroy, for bringing to our attention this fine scholar and gentleman, Paul Simmons, who will be deeply missed. And congratulations on having now written 750 blogs. I may have read as many as half of them, all challenging and thought provoking.

    "I should read Simmons' book on bioethical decision making since I am very much interested in different ethical systems. Simmons was a courageous man to challenge the hijacked SBC on the issue of abortion. He should certainly be admired for that.

    "I too agree with Simmons' two major assumptions."

    1. Thanks, Eric, for reading and responding to this blog article. My guess is you have read far more than half of my blog articles and have commented on a sizeable percentage of them, and I much appreciate your reading and responding so regularly.

      Yes, even though it is over 35 years old now, Paul's book is still very much worth reading, and I found it helpful when I recently re-read the first two chapters and the chapter on abortion.

  4. I remember the furor over his views. I read Paul's book at Midwestern (late 80s) and was openly criticized by students for carrying it with me/reading it between classes. The mere sight of it sent people into apoplexy! I would ask people why they were upset...if they knew what his views were. They often said they didn't need to know. They'd been told.

    Thanks for the remembrance of your classmate, Leroy. I'm sure it's hard to lose them.

    I admit I don't read everyone, but your blogs are always a wonderful source of reflection and inspiration. Thanks for all the time you devote to it. Congratulations on this milestone of 750. Blog on!!

    1. Thanks, David, for sharing your experiences with Paul's book at Midwestern Seminary. As you may remember, I taught at Midwestern Seminary in the 1991-92 academic year, and I don't remember the issue of abortion coming to my attention then--but I had no particular reason to talk about bioethical issues in missions classes, I guess. The confrontation I had with the conservative students then was over the issue of women in ministry.

    2. David, thanks also for your encouragement to blog on.

  5. Just a few minutes ago an email came to my Inbox with the following comments from Thinking Friend Michael Oldmsted, who was a Southern Baptist pastor and then a pastor and leader in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missouri.

    "I wish there were more insightful and gracious voices in our Baptist world these days. You make me wish I had known Dr. Simmons. He reminds me of those wonderful professors I studied under at Southwestern [Seminary], men who were friends in ministry and encouragers beyond my student days. So many treasures are slipping away."

  6. A local Thinking Friend, who is also a Baptist, shares this brief comment:

    "I had him as an ethics prof at Southern in about 1972...really neat guy! Glad to be filled in on his life. Thanks!"

  7. Here are splendid comments from Thinking Friend Tom Nowlin in Arkansas:

    "Thank you, Leroy! I knew there was a friendship, but didn’t realize you, June and Dr. Simmons went back so far.

    "When I went to Southern Seminary in 1984 I had just recently been separated from the US Navy Submarine Service as a conscientious objector. When I announced my decision to my command aboard the Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) submarine USS Nathan Hale (that I could no longer support the mission of the ship), I set into motion what would become a lifelong quest for ethical understanding and social activism that continues to this day, a deep passion I attribute in large part to Dr. Simmons.

    "After my announcement, I found it mystifying and surreal that the US Navy thought it necessary to submit me to a series of psychiatric assessments to determine my sanity. After all, it wasn’t me willing to indiscriminately annihilate the lives of millions of human beings, mostly non-combatants, of the Soviet Union with the 48 nuclear warheads aboard our submarine. And we were just one submarine among fifty FBMs.

    "Needless to say, raw from this experience, having been tested by a labyrinth of US Navy official scrutiny, and having produced the best possible argument with my to date education, I threw myself into the study of ethics under Dr. Simmons. I will simply say, he lit a fire in me that burns bright today. When I think of Dr. Simmons many positive attributes come to mind. He was a scholar of absolute impeccable integrity and honesty. His class lectures remain memorable to me, so well organized, and with such diversity of thought, and always with allowance for discussion. He didn’t teach just what he thought, as some I believe assumed/assume. He made you think through everything just as he obviously had and did.

    "I well remember the book you mention, The Bible and Bioethical Decision-Making, but, if memory serves me correctly (I am not at home with my library), there was another book he edited and from which he taught the various ethical systems of thought. Dr. Simmons taught me how to deconstruct and reconstruct ethical argument. He examined each topic through multiple ethical lenses. When one finished a class, you knew the various ethical views and each of their premises and presuppositions. With this approach and analysis you were now able to deconstruct the various ethical positions and reconstruct your own. He was truly a scholar AND educator. He was one of those rare intellectuals gifted in both areas. And, as you say, he possessed such a gentle and loving disposition.

    "I could say so, so much more but will stop here."

    1. Thank you so much, Tom, for sharing your personal experiences and how your life was impacted by Paul Simmons. I was hoping for some comments such as yours, but yours were even better than I had hoped for.

      Perhaps the other book you remember was "Issues in Christian Ethics" (1980), which he edited.

  8. Thank you, Leroy, for a kind remembrance of Dr. Simmons. He is on my ‘short list’ of SBTS profs. [Dan Aleshire, Bill Leonard, Tim Lines, Molly Marshall, Paul Simmons, Frank Tupper (apologies to the many other great profs of the 1980s!)]

    He evaluated my class work always according to his high standards; but in conversations beyond the classroom, he always made me feel like a ‘colleague in thinking’: the mark of a true educator.

    My wife, Candy, considers him her favorite prof. I think in large part because he recognized her excellence and encouraged her interest in ethics as a church music student.

    A decade or so later (when he was a University of Louisville prof) he led a study (at Candy’s request) on LGBTQ awareness for the congregation where she was Associate Minister. As always in my memory, he was the consummate educator and pastoral presence for such a study and conversation!

    Thanks again, Leroy, for prompting our appreciation and for providing an opportunity to express it.

    1. Thanks, Dick, for your comments; I much appreciate them.

      I never knew Dan or Tim and scarcely knew Frank, although I have heard a lot about him through the years. But I have no trouble understanding why Paul, Bill, and Molly would be among your most respected professors.