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"The Importance of Collecting, Preserving, and Disseminating Baptist History"


by Walter B. Shurden

A version of this was presented at

Planning Meeting

Atlanta Airport Day's Inn

March 31,2001

Henri Nouwen, a Catholic who often sounded Protestant and even Baptist, once said something like, "There is no hope for the future as long as the past remains unreceived, unconfessed, and unforgiven." I would also add, "There is no hope for the future as long as the past remains . . . unknown." For the Baptist heritage to be known, someone has to collect it, someone has to preserve it, and someone has to disseminate it."

Three quick and general comments.

I. In my judgment, at no time since the 17th and 18th centuries have Baptist principles and traditions been more important to society than at the beginning of the 21st century. Here are three reasons why I think this is so.

(1). A culture of victimology dominates our lives today. People are shackled today by a sense of what others have done to them. We live in a society of blaming. And who is to blame? My parents, because of my personality quirks; my schools, because I cannot read and write; my church, because I lack a healthy faith, and the list goes on and endlessly on.

Whatever else Baptist spirituality is about, it is about taking responsibility for one's life. We call it voluntarism. It is symbolized in believer's baptism. The Baptist approach to faith and life places responsibility on the individual for choosing, repenting, and opening oneself to the changing power of the Eternal Spirit of God. Blaming is not a part of voluntarism.

(2). Second, we live in a culture of "giantism." Much is being said in a negative way today regarding the excesses of individualism in American life. Robert Bellah's book of several years ago, Habits of the Heart, popularized this theme. Each of us knows the truth of this assertion, I hope.

But, as Walter Wink said in Engaging the Powers, there is a flip side to individualism. Wink contends that we have seen the eclipse of the individual by giantism in our culture: corporations, bureaucracies, franchises, megauniversities, a military mentality, and celebrities. Individuals too often think the only escape from utter insignificance is to identify with the pack.

There is something basically and fundamentally Baptist in saying that where there is no autonomy, there is no authenticity. Is it accidental that it was a Baptist preacher who went throughout urban America teaching inner city kids to say of themselves: "I am Somebody!" I think not.

Baptists have spoken seriously and correctly of the depravity of human nature. But Baptists have also spoken elegantly and enthusiastically of the dignity and worth of the individual. As with so much other theology, you really need to say both things at the same time.

(3). Third, we live increasingly in a culture of "stateism," a circumstance where we witness the erosion of the religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Not since the time of Backus and Leland has this country needed the Baptist witness on soul freedom and a free church in a free state.

From the right extreme of our culture comes the voices of Theocracy, the reinstatement of God over the nation. The only problem is that it is always the god of the theocrat who allegedly needs reinstating. Sadly, some of these misguided voices come from within the Baptist family. Baptists did not talk this way, however, when they were a minority in colonial America. And they should not be talking this way when they are a Protestant majority in the 21st century. Today, we have Baptists supporting faith-based charities, vouchers for private education, and prayer in public schools. And our Baptist ancestors weep for our apostasy.

From the left extreme of our culture comes the voices of radical secularism. One understands the reaction of the right extreme when those on the far left see very little role for religion in our culture and society.

II. The cultures of victimology, giantism, and stateism, call upon us as Baptists to collect and preserve the Baptist tradition.

I want to say a word about the gift--the absolute gift--to the future of those who have been diligent in collecting and preserving our tradition.

I had reason only a few weeks ago to renew my awareness of this gift. Researching and writing a paper on "How Southern Baptists Perceived the Baptist Identity During the World War II Years," I went to the special collections area of our library at Mercer University. Susan Broome and Arlette Copeland are the collectors and preservers of the Baptist tradition in that place. I cannot tell you what a gift it is to go there and research, to have the papers and books you need, to have people who enjoy the helping dimension of doing history.

As a historian, I often think of myself in much the same way that Glen Campbell saw himself as an entertainer. He referred to himself as a "Rhinestone Cowboy." Campbell said he was the one who "rides out on a horse in a star spangled rodeo" and who gets "cards and letters from people I don't even know." Glen Campbell meant that he occupied center stage, and the spotlight focused on him. That's the way it is with those of us who write and speak the Baptist tradition. We get the spotlight. But we could not even get out on a stage (we would not even have a stage!) apart from the gift of those who have collected and preserved the past.

Three cheers for those who work behind the scenes, silently, unostentatiously, faithfully, and gladly in the keeping of our heritage.

III. We have reason for optimism. More is being done today to collect and preserve and disseminate the Baptist heritage than anytime since I had my first Baptist history class in seminary in 1959.

This resurgence in concern for heritage has been stimulated by controversy, by a search for identity, by individuals in state and national historical societies, and by myriad other forces.

Fortunately, this renaissance is coming at a time when we sorely need it.

In an exceedingly helpful article, Charles Deweese chronicles the recent advances in the area of Baptist studies (See Charles Deweese, "Baptist History Moves Forward Despite Obstacles," Baptists Today, 19:9, September 2001, 30-31.) In addition to centers for reaffirming the Baptist heritage at William Jewel College, Carson-Newman College, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the University of Richmond, and Mercer University, new web sites about Baptists are exploding on the net. Some of these are as follows:


Baptist World Alliance Heritage and Identity Commission,;

American Baptist Historical Society,;

Baptist Historical Society,;

Baptist History and Heritage Society ,;

Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies and the Virginia Baptist Historical Society,,

Texas Baptist Historical Collection, ;

Mainstream Baptists,

The above only scratches the surface of creative work in being done in Baptist studies. It is, however, an index of the resurgence of interest in Baptist history, life, and thought. The work of collecting, preserving, and disseminating the intellectual and spiritual legacy of Baptist Christians cannot be carried out by too many people.