Looking into the past can provide great perspective, which allows
for the development and understanding of themes, and how they unite over
the course of a lifetime. In the life of James Simmons, several things
are prevalent throughout his life: his love and interest in God, and
his understanding of the importance of education.
James Simmons was born in southern New York State along the coast,
in Dutchess County in 1826. His conversion to Christianity happened
during his teens before he went off to Madison University to prepare for
college. Soon, he transferred to Brown University where he graduated
in 1851. To put himself through school he did janitorial work. Around
this time, James Simmons married Mary Eliza Stevens, who was a Quaker
and from a family of some means. After graduation from Brown he spent
several years studying theology at the Newton Theological Institution,
and very early the themes of Christianity and education begin.
As he was enrolled in the seminary, he simultaneously was also the
pastor of Third Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island until 1857,
when the family moved to Indianapolis. In Indianapolis, now Rev.
Simmons held the pastorate at the First Baptist Church and in 1861 moved
back east to become pastor at the Fifth Baptist Church of
Philadelphia. In 1867 he was appointed as corresponding secretary to
the American Baptist Home Mission Society. This period of his life was
heavily defined by his work with the church, and his ideals of education
took a bit of a backseat for a time, but that would soon change.
Beginning in 1869, Rev. Simmons was elected to the post of
corresponding secretary for the Education and Southern Department, where
education and Christianity came together again. Over the next several
years, Rev. Simmons helped found seven different schools, most of which
had the goal to educate the new population of freed African-American men
in the post-civil war South. It is at this point that Dr. O.C. Pope
recommended to the first Board of Trustees the name of Rev. James B. Simmons. In 1891, Rev. Simmons visited Abilene and met with the group what wanted to start the college.
After meeting with the Abilene group, Rev. Simmons agreed to
donate $5,000 to the cause and also presented a Foundation Agreement,
which was a statement of philosophical and spiritual viewpoints. Rev.
Simmons wrote frequently to the President and Board of Trustees until
his death in 1905, with many of the letters surviving today, which are
housed in the Research Center for the Southwest.
Rev. James Simmons began his journey with both Christ and
education at an early age, and followed them throughout his life. He
also managed to combine both ideals, and worked to further the causes of
each, by creating Christian colleges. The quote on his headstone reads
“His constant plea was ‘Let us beseech Christ daily to use our schools
for His world-wide conquests.”