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The history of Southern Baptist History, 1938-1995.

Because of the dissolution of the Southern Baptist Historical Commission effective June 19, 1997, the Southern Baptist Historical Society was forced to reorganize under a new charter. In light of the recent restructuring, the history and mission of the society take on new significance as the organization redefines its vision for the twenty-first century. The story of the Southern Baptist Historical Society reveals the struggle of a determined minority to preserve the history of Southern Baptists and to educate the denomination concerning its past. (1)

From the founding of the society in 1938 until the present, its leaders and members have asked the question: How can we communicate the importance of Southern Baptist history? The first serious effort on the part of Southern Baptists to preserve their history occurred in the form of the Committee for the Preservation of Baptist History founded in 1921. This first committee labored for twelve years with few measurable results and disbanded in 1933 after the death of its chairman, Adoniram Judson Holt. But it was W. O. Carver, longtime professor of missions, at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, who urged the convention to revive its commitment to historical work. In 1936, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution that established a second Committee for the Preservation of Baptist History (CPBH) and instructed the committee to create a
 program of action, whereby Baptist historical materials may be assembled
 and made available for research and whereby articles, books, and courses of
 study shall be issued, to the end that a just appreciation of the labors,
 the sacrifices, and the constructive leadership of our Baptist forefathers
 may be awakened among us, and the record of their achievements preserved to
 generations unborn. (2)

Thus, the committee embarked on the noble task of educating "generations unborn" with virtually no funding, no staff, and with very little interest from the denomination at large. As one Historical Commission pamphlet explained: the committee "not only had to discover Southern Baptist history, but had also to persuade Southern Baptists to care something about it." (3)

The task was not an easy one. A society pamphlet noted that "very few of our churches and very few of the members of these churches have realized the importance of the work they were doing and the history in the making of which they were sharing." (4) Baptists are slow to show concern for Baptist history for several reasons. First, Baptists have never been "a silent people. (5) Denominational controversies threatened Baptist harmony even in the 1930s. (6) The majority of Baptists simply did not, and do not, want to "resurrect old ghosts." (7) The stream of anti-intellectualism in Baptist life ran against the efforts of professional historians to gather and preserve Baptist history. This anti-intellectualism, when combined with the strong emphasis on missions and evangelism, produced an action-oriented denomination with little interest in scholarship or reflection. Much of the work of the committee and the society was to awaken the historical consciousness of Southern Baptists.

The committee attempted to promote interest in Baptist history by reminding Southern Baptists of the lessons of Christian history and explaining the power of history to shape the present and future. The committee stated in 1937 that "we have a ... holy tradition of loyalty, heroism, sacrifice and blessing in the course of Christian history; but we have not properly appreciated and interpreted that tradition and heritage." (8) The committee insisted that "large emphasis needs to be placed on our history. Its proper interpretation will serve to give us [a] sense of position and of direction; and will help us to appraise our resources and define our responsibilities under God." (9) Again in 1939, the committee asserted: "we are deeply convinced that Southern Baptists must become far more history-minded than we now are, and must arouse ourselves to an active interest in discovering, collecting, preserving and using the materials of our history, so glorious under God's grace, if we are to discern and meet the far more glorious destiny in service of the Gospel." (10)

Because the committee was dependent on year-to-year appointments from the executive committee, members soon began to dream about a more permanent organization. On May 13, 1938, the Committee for the Preservation of Baptist History encouraged the founding of the Southern Baptist Historical Society with W. O. Carver as president. The society was an independent organization comprised of individuals interested in Baptist history. Members of the CPBH served as the society's directors. At nearly the same time, the CPBH began working with the Sunday School Board to create a commission for "procuring the writing and publication of a history of Southern Baptists by 1945." (11) W. W. Barnes agreed to write the first comprehensive history of Southern Baptists in 1940, although due to the long illness and subsequent death of his wife, Barnes did not submit the book for publication until 1952. After revisions, it was published in 1954.

In spite of the progress of the committee and the founding of the society, Baptist historical work floundered. The committee report of 1946 lamented that "we now have three distinct approaches to the matter of the discovery, collection, preservation, and use of our Baptist history materials." (12) These three approaches consisted of the Committee for the Preservation of Baptist History, the Southern Baptist Historical Society, and a small History Commission formed to promote the publication of a denominational history. Carver and others believed the work could prosper under a more centralized system. "It is our judgment and hope," they reported, "that it might seem wise for the Historical Society to be adopted by the convention as its agency for the work of this field." (13) In 1947, the CPBH disbanded and turned its work over to the Southern Baptist Historical Society. In that same year, the SBC recognized the society as a permanent agency. A society pamphlet explained that "the convention thus substituted the Society for its Committee for the Preservation of Baptist History." (14)

Even with new agency status, the society struggled. After eleven years of labor, the annual report lamented that "no more than one in a hundred of our Southern Baptists has much active concern in this." (15) The society reported in 1950 that its officers had served the previous year "without financial remuneration" and with only the help of two part-time secretaries. For the work to enlarge, the society officers felt they needed more support from the Cooperative Program budget. (16)

Furthermore, leadership of the society discovered that the society's charter did not conform to the requirements of the Convention's constitution and bylaws. In light of the financial and charter problems, the Executive Committee of the SBC approved the founding of the Historical Commission in 1951. The work of the Historical Society was transferred to the commission and the society was reorganized as an auxiliary to the Historical Commission, SBC. The commission named Norman W. Cox as the first executive secretary. Cox resigned as pastor of the First Baptist Church, Meridian, Mississippi to head the Historical Commission. He served in this capacity until 1959, then was succeeded by Davis C. Woolley. After Woolley's death in 1971, Lynn Edward May Jr. took over the leadership of the commission. May retired in 1995 after thirty-nine years of service with the Historical Commission--twenty-four as executive director.

From 1951 to 1995, the society operated in connection with the Historical Commission. The commission took over the publishing, programming, preservation, and promotion of history among Southern Baptists. Society members could simply relax, receive their publications in the mail, and attend annual meetings.

In 1953, one of the dreams of the society's founders came true. Carver had envisioned a "great library" in Nashville "with an administrative staff adequate for carrying forward all the work which rightly [would] devolve upon the Society." (17) The Dargan-Carver library was dedicated in Nashville on June 16, 1953. The Dargan Memorial Library of the Sunday School Board was combined with the commission's collection previously housed in Nashville. The society's collection bore the name of W. O. Carver in honor of his tireless efforts to preserve Southern Baptist history. (18) In 1963, the Dargan-Carver library moved to the first floor of the Sunday School Board Building. Twenty-two years later, the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives opened on the fourth floor of the new SBC building at 901 Commerce Street, Nashville occupying over 10,000 square feet of space.

Composition of Historical Society

The society has changed dramatically over the years. From 1938 to 1947, it was based in Louisville, Kentucky, and its collection was housed in the library of Southern Seminary. Although the members of the Committee for the Preservation of Baptist History served as vice presidents for the society, the SBHS was considered to be an entirely private entity during this time. It shared the task of preserving history with the Committee for Preservation and with a History Commission in charge of publishing (different from the Historical Commission).

From 1947 until 1951, the society operated in a different capacity. The second charter granted in 1947, filed in Kentucky, recognized the society as an official agency of the Southern Baptist Convention. The officers of the society were listed as president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer. The society had a board of directors composed of one director from each state within the Southern Baptist Convention and seven additional directors located in or near the society headquarters. The 1947 constitution noted that while the society had been located in Louisville, Kentucky since 1938, it would be moved to Nashville as soon as the Sunday School Board could provide the space. (19)

The founding of the Historical Commission in 1951 ushered in a third era in the life of the society. From 1951 until 1995, it operated as an auxiliary to the Historical Commission. A board of directors comprised of three members-at-large and the officers of the society oversaw the organization's work. The members-at-large were selected for their "expertise, experience, and/or interest in Baptist history for a term of three years." The officers--president, vice president, and secretary-treasurer--were elected annually for a one-year term. (20) At that time, the society covered the basic annual meeting expenses of the directors and officers. In addition to the board of directors, an advisory committee served the SBHS. This committee consisted of one society member from each state in the Southern Baptist Convention and two members-at-large. This group acted as a membership promotion committee and served as liaison between the SBHS and the Historical Commission. (21)

Publications of the Society Membership in the SBHS presently includes subscriptions to the journal Baptist History and Heritage and the newsletter Baptist Heritage Update. Through these media, the society endeavors to keep Baptists abreast of issues in their history. In August 1965, the first issue of Baptist History and Heritage was published jointly by the Historical Commission and the Southern Baptist Historical Society. The first editor, Davis C. Woolley, asserted that the journal's purpose was to "translate the scholarly ideas and concepts of Baptist history into language of the lay historian." (22) His editorial in the first issue stated that the journal was "dedicated to the pursuit of historical information that will enable Baptists to understand themselves, to appreciate their past, and to discover historical perspectives for the future." (23) Initially published semiannually, the journal now appears three times a year.

Baptist Heritage Update, issued in the spring of 1985, was published by the Historical Commission for members of the society. Editors of the Update from 1985 to 1995 included Charles Deweese, Shellyn Poole, and Kim Alley Medley. The stated goals of the Update were to:

(1) inform [members of the society] of current developments and plans for the future in the history work of Southern Baptists and occasionally of other Baptists.

(2) to present biographical profiles of persons working in Baptist history.

(3) to interpret current issues, concerns, trends or developments in Southern Baptist life via a historical perspective.

(4) to promote services and market products relating to Baptist history.

(5) to present practical, how-to guidelines for doing the work of Baptist history.

(6) and to alert you readers to new Baptist history publications. (24)

The Update has repeatedly provided practical information on gathering, preserving, and using Baptist history in local churches. Articles on doing oral history, writing church histories, maintaining a church archive, and articles like "The Pastor as Church Historian," (25) and even one called "Watch Video Tapes and Learn About Baptists" have been included. (26)

In addition to the practical "how-tos," Baptist Heritage Update boldly sought to interpret current events in the light of history during tumultuous times. In the decade from 1985 to 1995, the column called "My Interpretation" featured articles on "The Dangers of Fundamentalism," "The Dangers of Liberalism," "Resources for Reconciliation," the "Peace Committee," "Pastoral Authority," "Women in Ministry," I and "Women and Freedom." These article titles published during the tense days of denominational controversy reflect the integrity and tenacity of the historians who worked at the commission.

After 1989, this column gave increasing attention to the Historical Commission's importance. Slayden Yarbrough wrote an article in 1993 entitled simply: "Why Do Southern Baptists Need the Historical Commission?" In light of recent changes in the status of the commission and the society, his answers bear repeating. Yarbrough listed four main reasons for the Historical Commission: (1) for collecting and preservation, (2) for publishing products, (3) for the annual meeting programs with the SBHS, and finally (4) for its historical mission. By interpreting the past, the commission "joins other SBC agencies and other Baptist bodies to challenge us to do our best in ethics, religious liberty, missions, stewardship, theological education, evangelism and other vital areas." (27) It seems that the commission was still fighting W. O. Carver's battle to raise the historical consciousness of Southern Baptists.

Position and Direction

Although the function of the society and its relationship to the Southern Baptist Convention shifted markedly from 1938 to 1995, the purpose of the society has remained constant. Its focus has continued to be on gathering, preserving, and publishing Baptist history so that Baptists might "know and utilize their heritage." (28) The society's founders believed that history could provide Baptists with "a sense of position and direction." (29) They were committed to helping Baptists become more "history-minded." (30)

Today more than ever, we as members of the society must decide how we can best communicate the importance of Baptist history. Perhaps it may be helpful to consider a more basic question. Why do we need the Southern Baptist Historical Society? In Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, Mark Noll attempts to answer a similar question. Why should we study Christian history at all? Noll responded with four reasons. First, "studying the history of Christianity provides repeated, concrete demonstration concerning the irreducibly historical character of the Christian faith." (31) In other words, to study church history is to "continually remember the historical character of Christian faith." It is to take seriously the events of the incarnation and the notion that we are colaborers with God.

A second contribution of church history "is to provide perspective on the interpretation of Scripture." Church history also provides a caution. Time can provide perspective on those interpretations which were fraught with distortions.

Third, Christian history can serve "as a laboratory for examining Christian interactions with surrounding culture." Noll used the example of the plight of the church under various political regimes. Baptists provide an excellent case study for church-state relations, both in the past and in the present.

Finally, Noll contends that the study of church history can be useful "in shaping proper Christian attitudes." For example, it may help us discern what things should be crucial in the church's mission and allow us to reserve our passion for the elements of our faith which deserve our utmost commitment. Church history should make us humble as we understand that who we are today is in many ways the gift of those who have come before us.

The Southern Baptist Historical Society is profoundly important for helping to communicate the treasure of Baptist history to the denomination. If Noll's reasons are applied to Baptists, thon Baptist history can remind action-oriented believers that God acts through history. Baptist history also bears witness of a people who have struggled with Scripture. The struggles of the past can provide inspiration-and perhaps caution--for the pitfalls that lie ahead. Southern Baptist historians, more than ever before, are examining the interaction of faith and culture. The lessons of history can help Baptists navigate the relationship between religion and culture with dexterity in the future. Finally, Baptist history helps believers in the endeavor to define the church's mission to the world. A clear view of history can prevent the church from expending its energies on inconsequential things. Chester Schwor once said we "shouldn't get angry about things that just don't matter." History at its best refuses to let us ignore the elements of our faith that matter most. Why do we need the Southern Baptist Historical Society? Our faith depends on it.
William Owen Carver 1938-52
Richard N. Owen 1952-54
Bailey E Davis 1954-58
Richard N. Owen 1958-68
Mrs. Ollin J. Owens 1968-70
George Gaskins 1970-71
Spencer B. King, Jr. 1971-72
E Wilbur Helmbold 1972-73
Rollin S. Armour 1973-74
R. A. McLemore 1974-75
Walter B. Shurden 1975-76
John S. Moore 1976-77
Stan B. Rushing 1977-78
H. Leon McBeth 1978-79
Paul D. Brewer 1979-80
W. Morgan Patterson 1980-81
David O. Moore 1981-82
J. Glen Clayton 1982-83
Robert G. Gardner 1983-84
John R. Woodard 1984-85
Flynn T. Harrell 1985-86
J. M Gaskin 1986-87
Carolyn D. Blevins 1987-88
Lee N. Allen 1988-89
G. Thomas Halbrooks 1989-90
Adrian Lamkin 1990-91
Earl Joiner 1991-92
Fred Anderson 1992-93
Hargus Taylor 1993-94
Albert Wardin 1994-95
Rosalie Beck 1995-97
Alan Lefever 1997-99
Merrill M. Hawkins Jr. 1999


(1.) John S. Moore's article, "A 50th Anniversary History of the Southern Baptist Historical Society, 1938-1988," Baptist History and Heritage 23 (April 1988): 3-13, is a thorough resource for the history of the first fifty years of the society.

(2.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1936, 103.

(3.) Judson B. Allen, History is For Everybody (Nashville: Historical Commission, Southern Baptist Convention, 1955), 3. Historical Commission vertical file, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

(4.) "Southern Baptists and Their History" (Nashville: Southern Baptist Historical Society, ca. 1949). Pamphlet in Historical Commission vertical file, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

(5.) Walter Shurden's Not a Silent People (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1972) discusses the history of Southern Baptist controversies.

(6.) Many Baptists were aware of the controversies swirling around Professors Toy and Whitsitt at Southern Seminary in the 1870s and 1890s, respectively. Meanwhile, the Fundamentalist controversies of the 1920s and the image of J. Frank Norris loomed large in Southern Baptist memory.

(7.) Allen, History Is for Everybody, 4.

(8.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1937, 84.

(9.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1937, 85.

(10.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1939, 117.

(11.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1939, 116.

(12.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1946, 128.

(13.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1946, 128.

(14.) "Southern Baptists and their History" (Louisville: Southern Baptist Historical Society, ca. 1949), 1. Pamphlet in the Historical Commission Vertical File, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This pamphlet was most likely written by W. O. Carver to be distributed by the society.

(15.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1949, 347.

(16.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1950, 381.

(17.) "Southern Baptists and Their History"

(18.) John S. Moore, "A 50th Anniversary" 8.

(19.) Constitution of the Southern Baptist Historical Society. No date is listed on the Constitution, but it is assumed by a reference to a "committee of nine appointed in 1946" to study the charter, that this is the 1947 constitution.

(20.) Moore, "A 50th Anniversary History," 8-9.

(21.) Moore, "A 50th Anniversary History," 9. In 1995, the society underwent still another transition with the dissolution of the Historical Commission.

(22.) Woolley quoted in James E. Wood, "Baptist Journals," Baptist History and Heritage (1966), 57.

(23.) Baptist History and Heritage 1 (August 1965): inside front cover.

(24.) Baptist Heritage Update: 1 (Spring 1985): 2.

(25.) Baptist Heritage Update 4 (Summer 1988), 1.

(26.) Baptist Heritage Update 9 (Fall 1993), 1.

(27.) Slayden Yarbrough, "Why Do Southern Baptists Need the Historical Commission?" Baptist Heritage Update 9 (Summer 1993): 5.

(28.) Moore, "A 50th Anniversary History," 10.

(29.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1937, 85.

(30.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1939, 117.

(31.) Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Baker Books: 1997), 15. all

Carol Crawford Holcomb is assistant professor of religion, University of Mary-Hardin Baylor, Belton, Texas.
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Author:Holcomb, Carol Crawford
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 1999
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