Good Baptist historians stick their necks out for the common good and offer a relevant moral witness when it counts. They are a rare breed among the different Baptist academicians and vocational professionals.
As a seminarian 30 years ago, I quickly learned the difference between Christian faith and applied Christianity. I observed that some theologians would rather bypass the evil of napalming Vietnamese in favor if the esoteric points of hair-splitting doctrine. Most Old Testament professors could slide right over Amos without applying the prophetic witness to current events.
Some New Testament professors would rather circumvent Jesus’ moral vision in Luke 4:18-19 and his moral agenda in the Sermon on the Mount than emulate Clarence Jordan. Some preaching professors were more interested in soothing sermons than strengthening the prophetic voice.
Historians like Glenn Hinson were cut from a different faculty cloth. He certainly stuck his neck out for the common good when he took on Bailey Smith, the Southern Baptist fundamentalist, who said in 1980 that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”
Rather than hide from the gathering fundamentalist storm, Hinson ran into the storm. He rightfully said that such talk was “the stuff of which holocausts are made.”
About the same time, Hinson agreed to be the editor of the newly formed Baptist Peacemaker, a publication that began when the right wing favored an escalating nuclear arms race instead of supporting nuclear arms control.
Hinson’s moral witness was consistent and courageous.
Other historians have also stuck out their necks.
Loyd Allen, history professor at McAfee School of Theology, and Doug Weaver, religion professor at Baylor University, were early contributors to EthicsDaily.com, who offered compelling moral critiques from the vantage point of history. Another early contributor was historian Pam Durso, now executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry.
At the 2009 Baptist World Alliance gathering in Ede, Netherlands, with Pierard presiding, Brackney delivered an inspiring paper about Baptists as transformers. He argued that transformational initiatives are a characteristic of the Baptist tradition. He sketched 400 years of Baptist activism, moving from Thomas Helwys’ advocacy for religious freedom to the abolitionist movement, from Walter Rauschenbusch’s social gospel to the civil rights movement.
Baptist transformers gathered recently at the annual meeting of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society (VBHS) and the accompanying convocation of the Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies (CBHS), interconnected organizations housed at the University of Richmond.
Both events focused on peace-bearing. Yes, a historical society held a day-long conference that remembered Baptist peacemakers and explored contemporary peacemaking.
Among the speakers was Karen Bullock, professor of Christian heritage at the B. H. Carroll Theological Institute. Bullock centered one presentation mostly on Robert Cooke Buckner (1833-1919), whom she identified as “most effective social activist of his era” among Baptists.
In her afternoon concluding remarks about the state of Baptist “peace-weavers,” Bullock said: “The sheer volume of their contributions proves that peace-bearing has been strong in the hearts of Baptists across the four centuries of our unique witness in the world. Holistic peace-bearing is still felt by those who labor for righteous justice and sacrificial service in an increasingly self-indulgent society. Their vision still opens doors for practical ministry and stirs us to positive action. Their voices still echo, reminding us to follow Jesus and pursue well-being with God, ourselves and our neighbors, extending reconciliation on behalf of the Prince who is our Peace.”
During her evening presentation, the chair of the Baptist World Alliance’s “Heritage and Identity Commission” pointed out that Baptists played a major role in the adoption in England in 1689 of the Toleration Act that advanced religious toleration.
“By their preaching, teaching and publishing on religious liberty, and by their examples of courage and sometimes heroism under suffering, Baptists wielded an influence out of proportion to their numbers and impacted not only all of England but Colonial America as well,” said Bullock.
She recalled Harry Rushbrooke, an early BWA leader in Europe, who worked for “peace after World War I and during and after the Nazi era in Europe.”
Bullock warned that “Baptists need again whole generations of such men and women – to preach the gospel with integrity, to parent the homeless and hopeless, and to be bearers of peace to a most complex and fractured world.”
When Fred Anderson, VBHS’ executive director and CBHS’ founding executive director, was asked why his organizations would sponsor a 2010 peace gathering, he pointed to his official remarks.
“[B]efore Baptists can move forward with any degree of unity, there must be peace at their center,” he said. “In planning the focus, we began to determine that peace must touch every phase of our existence, beginning with the self and then moving into our churches, communities and beyond.”
Anderson has provided a conference model that other state Baptist organizations, universities and seminaries would do well to emulate – looking at history and addressing social justice issues.
Would that we listened to our good Baptist historians and – like them – stuck out our necks for the common good.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.