Jacobs was born on February 15, 1877, in Clinton, South Carolina, at the Thornwell Orphanage, which was founded by his father, the Reverend William Plumer Jacobs. The young Jacobs learned the printing trade at an early age. He earned the B.A. and M.A. from South Carolina’s Presbyterian College, also founded by his father, and graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey in 1899.
After serving briefly in a Presbyterian pastorate in Morganton, North Carolina, Jacobs began to broaden institutional support for the Thornwell Orphanage. He traveled among Presbyterian churches in Georgia, where he first demonstrated his skill as a fundraiser for worthy causes. In 1905 Jacobs began to engage in religious press advertising in Nashville, Tennessee. After a visit to Atlanta just after the race riot there in September 1906, he wrote The Law of the White Circle (1908), a novella based on that incident.
Jacobs returned to Atlanta in 1909 to raise funds for Agnes Scott College in Decatur. Subsequently he sought to establish a southern Presbyterian classical college for white men in Atlanta. His plan was to refound Oglethorpe University, which had been chartered in 1835 near Milledgeville. His grandfather, Ferdinand Jacobs, had served on the faculty of the old institution and had told his grandson about Oglethorpe, which had shut down during the Civil War (1861-65).
In 1911 Jacobs established the Westminster Magazine, a religious publication that promoted the refounding of Oglethorpe University. In 1913 he hosted the “Pan-Presbyterian Jubilee” in Atlanta, bringing together more than 5,000 delegates from branches of the denomination (Northern, Southern, United, and Associate Reformed). That same year he incorporated Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, while launching a four-year campaign to raise funds in Presbyterian churches throughout the South. An Atlanta campaign in 1913, led by civic leader Ivan Allen Sr., bolstered Jacobs’s efforts.
In 1916 Jacobs opened the doors of Oglethorpe University at its present location on Peachtree Road north of the city. He never realized affiliation for the school from the Southern Presbyterian General Assembly. It objected to Jacobs’s partnership with the Silver Lake Park Company, which donated land for the campus. Jacobs and the Silver Lake Park Company thus spearheaded suburban development on the Peachtree Road frontier as water, power, paved roads, and trolley service extended into the area.
Jacobs was a significant contributor to the legacy of James Edward Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia. In 1923 Jacobs journeyed to Cranham, England, where he discovered Oglethorpe’s tomb, after which he unsuccessfully attempted to have the remains brought to Atlanta. In 1932 in London, Jacobs pursued, identified, and purchased for his institution the definitive portrait of Oglethorpe.
As president of Oglethorpe University from 1915 to 1943 Jacobs was known nationally as a maverick promoter and innovator. He achieved an extraordinary record of awarding honorary doctorates, whose recipients included Bernard Baruch, Amelia Earhart, William Randolph Hearst, Walter Lippman, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1931 Jacobs launched his “University of the Air,” one of the pioneer efforts at distance learning that broadcast college-credit courses on the radio. Perhaps Georgia’s foremost millenarian, Jacobs in 1940 sealed the Crypt of Civilization, a time capsule not to be opened until A.D. 8113. In 1943 Jacobs resigned his presidency over a controversy concerning the ill-fated Oglethorpe Medical School. He later published an autobiography, Step Down, Dr. Jacobs: The Autobiography of an Autocrat (1945). He died in Atlanta on August 4, 1956, and is buried in Clinton, South Carolina.