John Stephenson Tanner, Jr.
Baylor Theology Professor, Head of Philosophy Organized Baylor's First Foreign Missionary Program
John Tanner was born October 9, 1869 in Henderson County where he grew up working on a farm and going to school in Comanche. He graduated from Baylor in 1890 and acquired his master’s in 1892 while already being added to the faculty. Coming from a lower class family, Tanner managed to pay his tuition by doing chore work for a local doctor. Tanner also attended the University of Chicago and the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Briefly, Tanner worked as the pastor of a Baptist Church in Harrisburg, Kentucky and by all accounts, his leadership there was phenomenal.
He was permanently added to Baylor faculty in 1896 and taught Hebrew, Greek, Old and New Testament and Math. He was named head of the Department of Philosophy and most importantly to the history of Baylor, Tanner organized the university’s first foreign missionary program. Quickly, Tanner’s name rose to the top of the candidates for the next president of Baylor but he suddenly died of a heart attack in 1901, just one year before Baylor likely would have selected him to succeed President Cooper. Instead, they chose another Waco 92 man, Samuel Palmer Brooks. The school paper published a tribute shortly after his death which read in part,
“He will continue to live in the lives of his students ’til their latest hour, to inspire them with lofty purposes, strengthen them for the conflicts of life, increase their love for a fallen race, and intensify their zeal for the glory of God.”
Though he only taught at Baylor for five years, his legacy is undeniable. During 1920, the students of Baylor erected a special gravestone to memorialize Tanner. His son, John Tanner III, was named all-time President of Baylor’s Class of 1922. He also was named to Baylor’s Athletics Hall of Fame and went on to serve on the Board of Trustees. Since then, four more generations of Tanners have attended Baylor and the family is on the short list of official “First Families of Baylor University.”
The 1920 Memorial Service
In 1920, former and current Baylor students, family members, and faculty dedicated the new gravestone to John Tanner at Oakwood Cemetery:
“Of peculiar significance to an earlier generation of Baylor students were the exercises on the occasion of the unveiling of the John S. Tanner monument. The energetic Christian character of this good man, the literally unconquerable zeal with which, as student, teacher, and preacher, he worked during the twelve years of his connection with the institution, have become a part of the rich tradition of Baylor University. Many of the former colleagues, students, and contemporaries of Professor Tanner, together with the surviving members of his family and numerous friends of the University, gathered in Oakwood Cemetery in the early morning of June 15th to do honor to his memory. There, grouped about the marble shaft recently erected in grateful remembrance by the University, these devoted friends heard the story of John S. Tanner’s life told in beau- tiful and appealing language by the Rev. W. B. Glass, D.D., now a missionary to China, who as a student-pastor in Baylor University knew Dr. Tanner intimately and loved him well.”
An prayer was then given by Joe L. Ward. He was a 92 member, former student of Tanner, and then president of the first ever junior college, Decatur Baptist College. Samuel Palmer Brooks gave a brief speech in which, among other things, he said:
“…nobody works on the campus nor in the halls of Baylor without being influenced by John S. Tanner.”
Following was W.B. Glass’s speech. The full length of the speeches were truly touching and a copy of them is available at our lodge.