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.”