Trails blazed by Baptist pioneers in ethics have grown over from neglect, and new scouts are needed to “beat out the pathways” for this generation, an ethicist told the Baptist History and Heritage Society.
William Tillman, professor of Christian ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology, participated in a panel discussion on “Frontiers in Baptist Ethics” at the society’s annual meeting, held May 22-24 at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas.
Tillman described two 20th century professors of Christian ethics–Henlee Barnette of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and T.B. Maston of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary—as “scouts” and “pioneers” in Christian ethics who helped Baptists engage the culture.
“We need them, or their kind, more than ever, because–as a friend has insightfully observed–the pathways grow over. The frontiers reappear with each succeeding generation,” he said.
Tillman said teaching about Christian ethics is “on the wane” in Southern Baptist Convention-supported seminaries. At the same time, he noted, few of the “moderate” seminaries and divinity schools created in recent years have made Christian ethics an educational priority.
“Both Barnette and Maston have understood that the pathways can grow back over,” Tillman said. “The basic landscape remains the same. Issues of money, sex and power—which cover the landscape—are ever with us.”
“Another point of identification for Barnett and Maston is that human nature is such that ethical matters have to be revisited,” he said. “Our sense of ethical direction has to be retuned and resharpened from time to time.”
Tillman described Maston and Barnette as “identifiers of ethical topography,” who were able to “communicate the lay of the land” to people in the pews of Baptist churches. They contextualized and interpreted the ethical insights of Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr for Baptists in the South.
Maston and Barnette influenced generations of Baptist leaders, not only through their prolific writing both for scholarly and popular audiences, but also through their seminary classrooms. Maston taught at Southwestern Seminary from 1922 to 1963, and Barnett taught at Southern Seminary from 1951 to 1977.
“They had ways of getting into your convictional DNA,” Tillman said. “They operated as encouragers, inspirers, investors in the future. They stirred in others the passion they felt.”
Another speaker, David Stricklin, associate professor of history and chairman of the division of humanities at Lyon College in Batesville, Ark., described the contributions of Martin England on what he called “the far frontiers” of Baptist ethics.
“In the annals of Southern Baptist history, few persons covered themselves with more distinction in the areas of racial justice, civil rights and peace activism than Martin England,” Stricklin said. “And few labored in these areas with greater anonymity.”
England and his wife, Mabel, served as Northern Baptist missionaries in pre-World War II Burma. After the Japanese army overran Burma, the Englands returned to Louisville, Ky. There England met Clarence Jordan.
“The two of them realized they shared a dream of creating an intentional community in the southern United States based on modern agricultural economy, a commitment to biblical ethics, and a dream of racial reconciliation for the South,” Stricklin said. “They and their wives moved to Sumter County, Ga., bought some land, and started Koinonia Farms in 1942.”
The Englands left Koinonia to return to Burma, but they were forced to return to the United States due to health concerns in 1953. England went to work for the Northern Baptists’ Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board. Technically, his job was to serve as American Baptist field representative meeting the needs of Northern Baptist ministers and missionaries who retired and were living in the South.
“His covert assignment was to be a minister to persons who got into various kinds of trouble as part of the struggle for civil rights for African Americans in the South in the 1950s and ’60s,” Stricklin said. “He often appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, to visit people in jail, help their families, and do whatever he could to help without calling attention to himself.”
England secured a life insurance policy for Martin Luther King Jr. when he was considered a bad risk, carrying the policy in his coat pocket for months before one of King’s aides convinced the civil-rights leader to sign it.
The central theme of England’s ethic—learned from the Kachin people of Burma as they left the worship of tribal chieftains to follow Jesus–was “the ongoing requirement of believers to avoid ceding spiritual authority to earthly figures instead of to God,” Stricklin observed.
Estelle Owens, professor of history at Wayland Baptist University, examined the racial justice commitment of Bill Marshall.
After serving as director of youth programs for the Baptist General Convention of Texas and personnel secretary for the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, Marshall became president of Wayland Baptist University in 1947. In May 1951, he led the school to admit African American students into its classes, dormitories and dining hall.
“Wayland thereby became the first four-year liberal arts undergraduate college–public or private–in the former Confederate South to be so integrated,” Owen noted.
“Throughout his life, Bill Marshall fought racism and bigotry. He stood up to be counted when the easiest course would have been to go along with the prevailing mores of his day. A true Christian pioneer in the area of race relations, he was one good man who would never stand idly by and allow evil to triumph.”
Ken Camp writes for Texas Baptist Communications.