Luther Rice University, a college and seminary located in Lithonia, in DeKalb County, provides instruction for students who plan church-related careers. Affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, the school is named after Luther Rice, a nineteenth-century Baptist missionary.
A New England native and originally a Congregationalist, Rice converted to the Baptist faith in 1812. He spent the next several decades traveling across the country, converting new members to the church. Rice believed in mission work overseas and raised large amounts of revenue for the early Baptist missions in Burma (also known as Myanmar) and India. Rice frequently appealed to Baptists in Georgia for funds and during his tours through the state often stayed with such prominent Baptist leaders as Adiel Sherwood and Jesse Mercer, for whom Mercer University in Macon is named.
The roots of Luther Rice University, originally called Luther Rice Seminary, lay just across the Georgia border in Jacksonville, Florida. In 1962 Robert Gee Witty, pastor of the Central Baptist Church in Jacksonville, organized an effort to form a seminary. The intent was to create an alternative school for Southern Baptists who believed that their denominational schools were drifting away from a conservative past. In June of that year, the state of Florida granted a charter for the school, and Central Baptist Church provided the facilities for classes to meet. Staffed entirely by Southern Baptist pastors, by 1964 the school had ninety-four students and sixteen part-time faculty members.
Beginning in 1970 the school began to purchase and construct several buildings to house classrooms, administrative offices, and a library. By 1976 Luther Rice Seminary proved successful enough to employ a full-time faculty. In 1988 a church in Lithonia donated its entire building and property to Luther Rice Seminary. Within three years the entire school moved from Florida to its new campus in Georgia. In 2004 the school’s board of trustees changed the name of the school to Luther Rice University.
Luther Rice University has experienced several leadership and academic changes since its founding. From 1962 to 1968 a board of trustees appointed part-time presidents to fulfill the administrative tasks of the institution. In 1968 a full-time presidency was created, and Witty became the first president of Luther Rice. As of 2017 four additional presidents have served since Witty’s retirement in 1982.
In 1979 Luther Rice was reorganized into two schools, one an undergraduate Bible college and the other a graduate-level seminary. The school offers eight degrees: a Bachelor of Arts in religion; a Master of Arts in apologetics, biblical counseling, Christian studies, leadership, or ministry; and a master’s or doctorate in divinity. As of 2017 Luther Rice had 1,336 students, the majority of whom were enrolled in the graduate curriculum. Of the students enrolled that year, over 70 percent were male.