The Baptist College of Florida
The Baptist College of Florida (BCF) is a private, Level III institution ( Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges), located in Graceville, Florida, 90 miles northwest of Tallahassee, 60 miles north of Panama City, and 25 miles south of Dothan, Alabama. The Baptist College of Florida is a cooperating ministry of the Florida Baptist State Convention and operates under the authority of the convention appointed Board of Trustees. It is the only institution of higher learning supported by the Florida Baptist Convention.
BCF, founded by a group of pastors on September 7, 1943, held its first classes in a Sunday school room in the First Baptist Church of Lakeland, Florida. The educational institution, then named Florida Baptist Institute (FBI), was purposed to provide training for “God-called” men and women who needed seminary-type training, but lacked college degrees. At that time in Baptist life, seminary training was available primarily to students who had earned four-year college degrees. While “special classes” for “the non-college graduate” were offered at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, then known as Baptist Bible Institute, (Annual of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1946, p. 98), Florida ministers would have to relocate to take advantage of the course offerings. Therefore, individuals who felt “called” to the ministry and needed seminary training, particularly those of nontraditional college age who lacked a four-year college degree, had limited opportunite s, particularly in Florida, to receive ministerial training of substantial scope and value resembling seminary education.
Some of the first students to enroll in FBI were WWII veterans and six Seminole Indians (Minutes of Board of Trustees, 1945, October 24). One of the Seminole Indians was Billie Osceola, a “great-grandson of Chief Osceola of Seminole War fame” (Richards,1993, p. 30).
Because the college maintained an “open enrollment” policy and both Baptists and non-Baptists could attend, the institution grew. Two years after beginning classes in some of the Sunday School rooms at First Baptist Church, Lakeland, the college acquired seven acres to develop as a campus (Bennett, 1973, p. 95). A total of twelve buildings, ten of them surplus military property purchased from ADrane Field, a U. S. Army Corps facility seven miles southeast of Lakeland@ were moved to the new campus (Bennett, p. 129).
With the increase in government support of the GED and the emphasis on adult education proliferating across the country (Cohen & Brawer, 1996; Deegan & Tillery, 1985), FBI needed to refocus its attention on ministerial training. Rev. William Smith, who became Dean of FBI on March 7, 1947, helped the institute move closer toward becoming a college. Smith helped the institution redirect its efforts toward a Bible focused curriculum (Walker, 1959, p. 3). “The change to a college-oriented program took two years to effect, but he [Smith] tapped the feeling of the trustees and others that the institute had to be brought back to a Bible-centered curriculum” (Richards, p. 44). A “Doctrinal Statement,” titled “Abstract of Principles,” was adopted for the institute and first appeared in the FBI Catalog, 1948-1949. The statement pointed to the refocused position of the school—to be church-related and to function along theological guidelines (Richards, pp. 44-45). The current catalog carries a revision of the origin al statement. In 1947, the name of the institution was changed to “Baptist Bible Institute of Florida.” The new name was chosen to better represent the nature and mission of the institution. Two years later, the trustees changed the name to “Baptist Bible Institute” (BBI) (Richards, p. 13).
The next few years were difficult ones for BBI. Finances were tight, as they often had been, and two of the founding leaders of the Institute left the state to accept other positions. Some influential people in the state wanted to close the school and others wanted to move the school to the tri-state area (Alabama, Florida, Georgia) of northwest Florida. Under the leadership of President Arthur Stainback (1952-1957), BBI moved to Graceville, Florida. The new campus of 160 acres was secured for $15,000 (Richards, pp. 49-56). During the next several years, BBI developed and expanded its academic program as well as its facilities, faculty and staff. Three-year diploma programs were offered and included emphases in theology, music, and Christian education.
As recorded in the Minutes of the Board of Trustees, April 7, 1975, Dr. James Southerland, president from 1957 to 1977, addressed the faculty about moving to a degree-based curriculum. His paper, “A Case for a Degree Program at Baptist Bible Institute,” was received favorably by the faculty. Degree programs were begun in 1976 by adding a fourth year of study to the existing three-year diploma programs. In 1981, the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accredited the degree programs.
Associate degree programs were added in 1988. Diploma programs declined in popularity and were phased out of the curriculum a few years later. Also in 1988, the name of the institution, BBI, was changed to “Florida Baptist Theological College.”
Curriculum and facilities expanded during the 1990s under President Thomas A. Kinchen. Additional student housing and an assembly center were added as well as new degree programs in elementary education, Christian counseling, and leadership. Initially the education degree was offered in combination with Christian education. Later, elementary education was offered as a separate, single-focused degree. In 2000, to reflect the broadening scope of the college, but still focused on theologically-based Christian higher education, the name of the college was changed again to “The Baptist College of Florida.” Additional degrees have been added to include business leadership, English, history and social studies, secondary education, missions with a concentration in aviation, and two graduate degrees (Master of Arts in Christian Studies and Master of Arts in Music and Worship Leadership). Under Kinchen’s visionary leadership, BCF continues to grow adding innovative programs, athletics, and enhanced facilities.