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The Whitsitt Society: Preserving an Imperiled Heritage

What do Ralph Elliott, Henlee Barnette and Cecil Sherman have in common? Or Ken Chafin, James Dunn and Glenn Hinson?

Most Baptists familiar with “the controversy” in Southern Baptist life the last few decades recognize these leaders for their roles in opposing fundamentalism and in affirming soul freedom and religious liberty.  <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
But how about Will Campbell, John Porter and President Jimmy Carter, who have also epitomized what it means to be Baptist? During the last decade, each of these Baptist stalwarts has received the Courage Award of the William H. Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society.
 
The Whitsitt Society, begun on October 9, 1992, was named after the president and professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, William H. Whitsitt, who was forced to resign in 1899.
 
In 1896 Whitsitt published findings that said immersion was introduced into Baptist churches in England in 1641. He was immediately attacked and maligned by those Baptists who asserted the majority opinion that the Baptist church could be traced back to the “New Testament church” (and was thus the New Testament church).
 
Whitsitt’s seminary colleagues were publicly silent, although they privately accepted his research conclusions. Nevertheless, Whitsitt courageously maintained his belief and had to leave the seminary.
 
Historian Walter Shurden, commenting on the naming of the Whitsitt Society and its annual Whitsitt Courage Award, said, “Whitsitt’s name and this award stand as monuments to Baptist bravery to Baptist individuals who have lived out the gospel ideals of freedom and faith in the face of any and all would-be tyrannies.”
 
The driving forces behind the creation of the Whitsitt Society were Walker Knight, Loulie Lattimer Owens Pettigru, Walter Shurden (the current president) and Loyd Allen. 
 
Allen, the current executive-director, observed that “the word ‘heritage’ in the society’s title is significant. [The group] is no professional historian’s society focused on the academic minutia in a narrative of past events. Rather, a heritage society began, formed to keep, display and proclaim a valuable though imperiled legacy.” 
 
The Whitsitt Society meets every June, though autonomously, at the site of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly. Programs have focused on topics such as Baptist freedoms, Baptists and church-state separation, Baptists and the Civil Rights movement, and the future of Baptists. This June’s theme will be “Baptists: Advocates for a Free Press?”  James Wall of the Christian Century will be a guest speaker.
 
As the Whitsitt Society celebrates its 10th anniversary at its annual meeting in Fort Worth (June 27th), Walker Knight will appropriately receive the Courage Award. Throughout his work at the Home Mission Board of the SBC and as founding editor of SBC Today, Knight was a journalist of “perfectly consistent integrity.”  He was also the society’s first president and journal editor.
 
The current issue of the Whitsitt Journal highlights Knight’s career and the history of the Whitsitt Society.
 
Doug Weaver is professor of Christianity and chair of the religion and philosophy division at Brewton-Parker College in Mt. Vernon, Ga. He is also editor of the Whitsitt Journal.
 
For information about the Whitsitt Society or the 10th anniversary issue of the Whitsitt Journal, contact Doug Weaver.