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Duke McCall: An Oral History.

with A. Ronald Tonks Brentwood, Tenn.: Baptist History and Heritage Society/Nashville: Fields Publishing, Inc., 2001. 480 pp.

A young college graduate, the 1935 valedictorian and recipient of the General Excellence Medal from Furman University, brought his brand new Ford to a screeching halt on the edge of the crooked, mountain highway on a rainy night. An uneducated mountain preacher had just asked on the radio, "Why not try God?" "Oh God, I am making a mess of my life," prayed young Duke K. McCall, "if you want it, you can have it." Thus began an incomparable ministry among Baptists, spanning the years from 1935 to the present. Privileged in background and education, McCall became, and there is no other way to say it, "a Baptist golden boy" of the twentieth century. Few other people have had more influence over Baptists in the past century than McCall.

At age twenty-five, he served as pastor of the influential Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and at the phenomenal age of twenty-eight he became president of the Baptist Bible Institute (later New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary). In his early 30s, he became the executive secretary of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, maybe the most influential position in the denomination. On September 15, 1951, at age thirty-seven, McCall became the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Retiring from that position only in 1982, he served as president longer than any person in the history of that school. He appropriately capped off his career by serving, from 1980-85, as president of the Baptist World Alliance.

Here in fifteen chapters is a book a number of us have been waiting on for several years. Unless I get clobbered for lack of neutrality in this review, and, even worse, for violating "the truth in packaging law" by feigning objectivity while void of it, I need to disclose immediately my deep admiration for the erstwhile controversial author of this memoir. I served under him on the faculty at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1976 to 1983, the last three of those years as dean of the School of Theology. So some of these "McCall stories" I've heard before, but most of the content of this book is new to me.

As you read this book, keep several facts constantly before you. First, the original version was more than twice as long as the finished product. At McCall's request, the Baptist History and Heritage Society assumed the huge responsibility of taking the longer manuscript and editing it into the present form and length. If you don't find something you were expecting, it may be, of necessity, in the trash bins of the publishers' computers.

Second, this is an oral history and, therefore, a different kind of autobiography. A. Ronald Tonks performed yeoman's work with oral histories while working at the Southern Baptist Convention Historical Commission several years ago. An oral history consists of far more than asking interesting questions. The questions have a context, and they must be rooted in historical knowledge. Tonks knew the history of which McCall had been such a vital part, and Tonks's historical insights, reflected in the quality of his questions, enhance the nature of the book.

Third, and this is most important for the reader to understand, the oral interviews between Tonks and McCall were completed in 1985. Since 1985, the interviews have been in the various stages of transcription and of editing, Of course, an enormous amount of significant history occurred in Southern Baptist life between 1985 and 2001. It was a history in which McCall was very much involved. His assessments of the SBC, its institutions and agencies would be considerably different today than in 1985. For example, he says that the Baptist Press (p. 67) has done a good job. One doubts he would be as positive in 2001 as his 1985 statement in this book would suggest. On the other hand, his statement about Charles Stanley's presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention illustrates in another way the anachronistic character of some of McCall's comments in the book. One must understand McCall is speaking in 1985 when he says that "Stanley operating as the president of the Southern Baptist Convention is a fraud and a disgrace" (p. 414). At several places in the manuscript, McCall "updated" his assessments, and he did this with the use of brackets, usually at the conclusion of an answer to one of Tonks's questions.

Fourth, take seriously McCall's disclaimers near the beginning of the book. "This record," wrote McCall in the preface, "is my off-the-cuff memory. Undoubtedly, I sometimes remember to advantage, and sometimes I mis-remember details. The record, however, is an accurate report of my memory of the things we reviewed" (p. 10). McCall warned that "any historian who uses any of these remarks as a resource is hereby charged to be a good historian and to verify his data and check the accuracy of some of these statements" (p. 10). His admonition concerning historical methodology should be taken seriously.

Well, what does McCall remember? Some will turn quickly to the chapters on the 1958 controversy at Southern seminary and the firing of the thirteen professors, while others will want to know what McCall said about the fundamentalist-moderate controversy in the SBC during the 80s. Let me urge you to read the book from start to finish for context and tone and continuity. Candidly, there are a few parts of the book that will be of limited interest to some readers. I dare to predict that few graduates, faculty, or staff members of Southern during the McCall years will find it boring.

McCall remembers his upbringing, his southern culture so saturated with its racism. He remembers being a pastor, something which, in some ways, he never quite escaped. He remembers fondly his brief time at Baptist Bible Institute (New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) and bringing young professors Penrose St. Amant and Frank Stagg to teach there. Later, both St. Amant and Stagg would spend important years working alongside McCall at Southern Seminary. He remembers his years at the Executive Committee and his efforts to solidify the SBC through the implementation of the Baptist Press and the Baptist Program.

Some of his memories, like all of our memories, are sad, even close to confessional. Of his conflict with the faculty and the 1958 firing of the professors at Southern, he said, "This was not a quarrel between demons and angels, with one side representing the angelic and the other the demonic. It was a group of demon-possessed human beings who were doing utterly unbelievable things to one another, to the cause of Christ, to Southern Seminary, to students, and to other faculty members" (p. 205).

Here you find McCall's memories of Southern Baptist events and people. He recalls the denomination's struggle with ecumenism, racism, the adoption of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, and the emergence of Pressler and Patterson. His memory of his encounter with Paul Pressler is vintage McCall. Reading his memories of Louie Newton, R. G. Lee, J. D. Grey, and his personal descriptions of Adrian Rogers and Bill Hull, among others, is a bit like listening in on his telephone conversations.

Within these pages you will find more than a half century of invaluable Southern Baptist history, some of which you will not find recorded in official histories. You will also find what Duke McCall thinks about leadership, retirement, the gospel, and a host of other issues. My only regret is that we could not have ended up with all 1,200 pages.

Walter B. Shurden, Callaway Professor of Christianity and director of the Center for Baptist Studies, Mercer University, Macon, Georgia.
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Author:Shurden, Walter B.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
Words:1287
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