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The Ethics of Baptist History

Sixth in a series:

How should we Baptists treat our history?

We can approach Baptist history in various ways. We can read it for pleasure, to advance our knowledge or to prepare for a test. We can use it to find justification for positions we have already taken or to find arguments against positions other persons have taken. We can revise it to make certain that it supports our agenda. We can censor it, take it out of print or burn it because it presents stories or views that we find unsettling or that we do not like. Or we can pretend that certain elements of history simply do not exist. Examples of all the above exist in the Baptist experience.

We can view history as a teacher. We can search hard for the causes, developments and consequences of history. We can investigate the implications of history. We can draw lessons from history. We can also allow history to address contemporary issues. We can let history show us how to serve as advocates for important causes. And many Baptists, though not enough, do these things extremely well today.

In his new book, Thirteen Moons, released in the fall of 2006, Charles Frazier, winner of the National Book Award for his 1997 book, Cold Mountain, allows his chief character, Will Cooper, to say: “History in the making, at least on the personal level, is almost exclusively pathetic. People suffer and die in ignorance and delusion” and that “To live is to suffer.” That contrasts sharply with the apostle Paul who claimed, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21, RSV).

Frazier’s (or Cooper’s) comments sound remarkably similar to those made by Thomas Wolfe, who claimed in a letter to his mother in the early 1900s that “the underscheme of all life is tragic” and in his famous work, Look Homeward, Angel, that “all our life goes up in smoke. There is no structure, no creation in it, not even the smoky structure of dreams.”

Ironically, both Frazier and Wolfe were born in Asheville, N.C. The fact that Asheville is also my hometown is a major reason why I have read their books. But I disagree with comments in their books that question the significance of history and life, since the redemptive element is largely missing from such comments.

How should we Baptists view our history? The following comments by two noted Baptists show indisputably that Baptist history has enormous value and potential.

Helen Barrett Montgomery, president of the Northern Baptist Convention, claimed in 1922 that “We Baptists may be proud of our history. We are trustees for great principles, never more needed by the world than now. Let us not betray them.”

Fifty years later, in 1972, Penrose St. Amant, professor of church history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote: “A deeper sense of history, paradoxically, will sharpen our Baptist sense of mission and will also open up a larger creative dialogue both among us and with the Christian community outside our own heritage.”

Baptist history has had some crossroad experiences in recent years. Some Baptists have treated it with disdain, such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s elimination of its Historical Commission. Some seminary professors of church history have decided that John Calvin is more important that John Leland. Some state conventions have de-funded or cut funding for valuable historical collections and programs. And what about LifeWay Christian Resources’ refusal to publish its own centennial history because trustees objected to its failure to support LifeWay’s fundamentalist agenda?

On the other hand, wonderful new and continuing history programs do and have done excellent work. Consider, for example, The Center for Baptist Studies of Mercer University, The Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies on the campus of the University of Richmond, and the Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society. Through thick and thin, some state Baptist history programs have remained strong in such states as Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas, among others. Judson Press, Mercer University Press, Smyth & Helwys, and the University of Alabama Press, among others, have produced superb books in Baptist studies.

And let’s not forget the history programs related to the Baptist World Alliance Heritage and Identity Study Commission, the North American Baptist Heritage Commission, and Seventh Day Baptists, among others. And Cooperative Baptist Fellowship programs nationwide have registered strong interest in Baptist heritage.

Lessons for today: Careful attention to Baptist history resides at the heart of any legitimate effort to understand Baptist identity. Baptist churches should incorporate into their teaching and preaching ministries a healthy respect for the values of Baptist heritage.

Charles W. Deweese is executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society in Brentwood, Tenn.