One of God’s unique gifts to Baptists in the last half of the twentieth century was a short Louisiana Frenchman with the distinctive name of Penrose St. Amant (pronounced “San Amaw”).
He gets my vote for the most versatile leader in theological education among Baptists in the last half of the twentieth century.
Serving on the faculty of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the 1940s and 1950s, St. Amant, a church historian, was one of the two major voices (Frank Stagg the other) in shaping that school for many of the years of the last half of the twentieth century. St. Amant became Dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1959. Skillfully and caringly as an administrator, he put that school on its feet after one of the most serious internal crises in its history. Throughout his years at Southern, he also served as the David T. Porter Professor of Church History.
A man from Gonzales
In 1971 St. Amant left Southern Seminary to become President and Professor of Church History at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Ruschlikon, Switzerland. With his characteristic class and abounding versatility, this short man from Gonzales, Louisiana, bridged cultures, divergent points of view, and Baptist pluralism in Europe as he had in America. In 1977 he returned to the United States and ultimately to Southern Seminary where he became senior professor of church history. St. Amant also taught at the following Baptist seminaries in his “retirement” years: Southeastern, Golden Gate, Southwestern, and New Orleans.
After a lifetime of pouring himself into Baptist theological education, Penrose St. Amant died at seventy-nine years of age on November 19, 1994, at “Tree Tops,” his beloved home in Diamondhead, Mississippi. One of the tragedies of the takeover of the SBC by fundamentalists is that leaders now dead such as Dale Moody, John Carleton, John Steely, T.B. Maston, and Penrose St. Amant will be forgotten ”or intentionally ignored ”by the very denomination to which they gave their gifts of mind, body, and soul. Those of us who were in their debt must not let this happen! Their names as well as their legacies deserve to live among Baptists of the future.
I hope those of us who sat under the voices of these incomparable people of God will put our money where we say our affections are and establish appropriate memorials to their lives. The officers and board of directors of the William H. Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society have made a small start. After conversations with Jessie St. Amant, Penrose’s widow, and with her blessing, the Whitsitt Society has established an endowed lectureship called “The Penrose St. Amant ‘Lectureship on the Baptist Vision.”
Planned as one of the major addresses at the annual meeting of the William H. Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society, the St. Amant lecture will bring before Baptists some of the major interpreters of Baptist life on an ongoing basis. The Whitsitt Society will seek an inunediate endowment of $1 0,000 and a long range endowment of $25,000 for the St. Amant lectureship.
Those who knew and loved Penrose will understand the appropriateness of this endowed lectureship. It is appropriate, first, because Penrose was known more as a brilliant lecturer than as a writer. He charmed classes at six theological institutions with hi~ dramatic flair, his comprehensive sweep of Christian history, and his balanced interpretation of the Baptist heritage.
An open Bible, an open mind
Second, it is appropriately named “The Penrose St. Amant Lectureship on the Baptist Vision.” Penrose, while an astute student of the Baptist heritage, always wanted that heritage embodied in the present and the future. He had a dialectical vision of what being Baptist meant: it meant an open Bible and an open mind; it meant the Lordship of Christ and the competency of the individual soul before God; it meant biblical faith and believer’s freedom; it meant certainty and mystery; it meant personal faith and public witness; it meant a love for denominational roots and a commitment to Christian ecumenism; it meant historical consciousness and contemporary hope.
A vision worth saving
It is a “vision” of being Baptist that is worth saving. It is a vision worth investing in.
I hope Penrose’s students, especially his graduate students who benefitted from his expert supervision and guidance, will step forward with some $1,000 and $500 gifts to launch this memorial.
I hope Penrose’s faculty colleagues who were recipients of his genuine friendship and authentic caring at the various seminaries he led will say “Thank You” with a major gift.
I hope lay people in Europe and America who were inspired by his teaching, preaching, and living will help us remember this saint from Gonzales who became a world Baptist leader.
I hope that the members of the Whitsitt Society who share Penrose St. Amant’s vision of the Baptist heritage will help endow this remembrance even if they never knew Penrose.
This article was reprinted with permission from the January 1995 Whitsitt Journal.