Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Dear Mike Huckabee . . .

Dear Mike Huckabee,

Ever since last week's shootings in Newtown, I've read your quotes all over the media; here's just a sampling of them:
"We’ve systematically removed God from our schools." (UPI)

"We’ve created an atmosphere in this country where the only time you want to invoke God’s name is after the tragedy. . . . we’ve escorted [God] right out of our culture and marched him off the public square." (Huffington Post)

"We don't have a crime problem, a gun problem or even a violence problem. What we have is a sin problem. . . . we've ordered God out of our schools, and communities, the military and public conversations." (Christian Post)
At least we agree on one thing, Mike - that we have a sin problem. A sin problem that has existed ever since the Garden. Even if Adam and Eve had resisted the Tempter and obeyed God to the letter, someone down the line - surely you or I, if not someone long before us - would have come along and brought sin into the world.

But in acknowledging that we have a sin problem, we shouldn't try to deny that the fallenness of our world has brought related specific problems that we should be working to alleviate. Among them are rampant crime; a culture of guns and violence that increases the danger to all of us; and the problems of mental illnesses and social disorders that plague so many and make them a danger to themselves, their loved ones, and others.

Your central thesis, of course, appears to be the removal of God from our public life.

Really, Mike? Do you really think that Almighty God is so easily "removed" from public schools? Isn't his presence apparent in:
  • the life of every child and teacher who has given his/her heart to Christ?
  • the example of every child and teacher who lives her/his faith before others?
  • the behavior of every child and teacher who practices the Golden Rule by not forcing her/his faith on others and by showing respect to those who believe differently?
Children are free to share their faith with classmates, to pray at lunch or even silently in their classrooms, as long as they are not disrupting the normal class routine or creating an atmosphere of coercion or discomfort. But those are restrictions that pertain to any behavior.

So your claim that God has been "removed" from public schools is absolutely false, Mike. There's not an ounce of truth to it. God is still present in the public schools; what has been removed is the use of taxpayer-supported schools for religious practice, teaching, and indoctrination. Again, it's the Golden Rule, Mike. Treat other people's children and grandchildren the way you would want them to treat yours.

Throughout public life, God is wherever there are people who know Him, have Him in their hearts, and live for Him. And people - whether schoolchildren or adults - are going to see God's presence not in some officially imposed religious rites or indoctrination but in God's Spirit giving grace through the lives of His people.

Mike, let's take a serious look at the Christ we both claim to follow and serve.

In this Christmas season, of all seasons, we are reminded of God's gracious gift to us - coming to live among us, in human form, the form of a tiny, helpless babe. A babe born in the most humble of circumstances. Circumstances that were anything but regal. Joseph and Mary were turned away - "no room in the inn" came to them as a harsh rejection as they prepared for the birth of their son. Their only alternative was to lodge with the creatures in the stable. Not the good-mannered, sanitized beasts that appear on our lawns or in our Christmas pageants, but more likely dirty, smelly, and none too happy about having to share their home with this traveling couple. And on top of that, having to give up the manger - the trough that held their food - for this newborn infant? I doubt they gave it up easily. So the Son of Man came to us humbly and lived humbly throughout his life, as the carpenter's son who followed his daddy into the trade. Scripture tells us that he had nowhere to lay his head.

But you, Mike, appear to be insisting on a Messiah wearing a golden crown and imposing political rule on all in the land. Go back and read Philippians 2. The Apostle Paul writes,
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves." (2:3, NIV)

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness . . ." (2:5-8a, NIV)

Or Jesus' very own words in Matthew 20:25-28 (NIV):
"Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Mike, God is still in the public square. But perhaps his presence there should be evidenced more in our deeds than our words. The responsibility is ours as Christians - not to use God to win political points or to use God to demean those who disagree with us - but to live in such a way that Christ's presence will be unmistakeable. The presence of the Christ who:
  • was born in humility and lived humbly
  • taught that the two greatest commandments were to love God and love your neighbor
  • always sought to redeem and never to condemn
And it is certainly not our responsibility to force others to pay lip service to our Lord! As George W. Truett said in his sermon, Baptists and Religious Liberty, delivered from the east steps of the U. S. Capitol in 1920:
"God wants free worshippers and no other kind."
Come on, Mike, let's stop using these tragedies to call for a civil religion that demeans God rather than worships him. Instead, as Christians, let's be the presence of Christ to those who are hurting and, in the name of Christ, look for ways to end the violence that is claiming victim after victim after victim.

Your brother in Christ,
Bill Jones

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Time for Gun Owners to Lead, by David R. Currie

(NOTE: David R. Currie, Ph.D., is a Baptist minister and owner of Cornerstone Builders in San Angelo, Texas, who retired in 2009 after serving Texas Baptists Committed as executive director for over two decades.)

I own over 20 rifles, shotguns, and pistols. We gun owners have insisted on our Second Amendment rights, and we have insisted that those rights be virtually absolute, and have rejected common-sense restrictions on those rights. Tragically, last week 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School paid the price for our unrestricted right to own guns. Now their families grieve for the little ones they love, and we mourn the lives that might have been.

It’s time that we face reality – that our insistence on making those rights absolute makes it easier for disturbed individuals to carry out mass murders. I believe that it is finally time that I, and others who own guns, face some common sense reality and lead in calling for the enactment of effective gun laws that meet the constitutionality test. Gun owners need to lead the effort to stop these horrible tragedies.

Hunting has been an important part of my family for many generations. I have killed deer with my grandfather’s .30 Remington built in 1912 and my father’s .300 Savage manufactured in 1932. Most of my guns are antiques, which I value greatly, that belonged to my father or grandfather. I want to leave my guns to my sons, but I believe we must first change the gun culture in our country for me to do so.

The Second Amendment to the U. S. Constitution reads, “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a Free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

I believe in the Second Amendment and my right to own a gun. But every right is accompanied by obligations and responsibilities. We in America need to have a serious discussion about the kinds of guns that the average citizen should be able to legally own, and what kind of reasonable restrictions should be placed on their sale and use.

Following are some of my thoughts regarding possible common sense regulations. I do not believe that any of these regulations would violate the Second Amendment.

  • Should it be as easy to buy a gun as it is today? I do not think so.
Several years ago, to reward myself for winning a fantasy baseball league, I went to Wal-Mart and bought a .270 deer rifle; after paying, I immediately walked out with the rifle.

It shouldn’t be that easy. Unlike a loaf of bread or gallon of milk, a firearm is a dangerous lethal weapon. No one should be able to just walk right out with a firearm they’ve bought at a gun show or Wal-Mart.

I propose, at a minimum, three requirements:
  1. A reasonable waiting period
  2. Serious background checks
  3. Automatic registration of the gun in a national database
We must work harder to keep guns out of the hands of convicted criminals, as well as mentally incompetent and disturbed individuals. If law-abiding citizens have to go through additional red tape to own a firearm, then so be it. It’s too late to save those 20 children at Sandy Hook, but their deaths will have meaning if we can save others from suffering similar tragedies.
  • Let’s have a reasonable discussion about the number of bullets any firearm can hold without requiring reloading. When I go deer hunting, I usually load three or four bullets. If I need more than that, I probably shouldn’t be hunting in the first place. No individual needs to own an assault weapon or any weapon with a clip that will hold more than five to ten rounds of ammunition. No one needs an assault weapon for civilian purposes.
The bottom line? Sale of assault weapons to civilians – and any such use – should be prohibited.
  • To purchase and own a firearm, an individual should be required to obtain a license and proper training in safe use of the firearm. We require training and licensing to, to list just a few examples, drive a vehicle; sell real estate; or sell insurance. This is because of the potential impact of these activities on other people. So why should we permit an untrained individual to own and use a firearm, which has the potential of causing great harm to others?
To repeat, individuals should be required to undergo training to obtain a license before being allowed to own and operate a firearm.

No one can guarantee the effect of any of these regulations, because gun violence certainly involves many issues besides gun laws, such as mental health; parental responsibility; and the impact of television, movies, and video games in desensitizing individuals to the tragic results of violence. But it is time for a healthy, open, and candid discussion about all of these issues, including gun regulations, and those of us who own and love to use guns need to take part in that discussion with open and caring minds and hearts.

The arguments I hear from other gun owners opposing any regulation of the type and use of firearms do not make sense to me anymore, in light of the circumstances of modern America.

I do not accept the argument that allowing one regulation opens the door to all guns being taken away. We live in a world in which many things are properly regulated. For example, I am a homebuilder and accept, without question, that the homes I build are inspected and held to a reasonable standard of quality. However, regulation of my homebuilding does not prevent me from continuing to build homes; it simply means that I must build them to a standard of quality that any purchaser should expect in a new home. By the same token, to have the right to own a firearm, we gun owners should welcome proper and sensible regulation and required training.

And I have no more patience for the expression, “guns don’t kill people, only people kill people.” If we’re honest, we’ll admit that guns make it easier to kill people, and the type of gun used makes it easier to kill MORE people at once (and harder for the victims to defend themselves).

Dr. Nat Tracy, my Bible professor at Howard Payne University, defined freedom as “glad obedience to authority.” That definition applies in many areas of life. To drive safely, I need to follow reasonable laws designed to make driving safe. To make music, I need to follow rules of melody and harmony. If I want to own and use a firearm, my freedom to do so can and should be defined by our laws in a reasonable and safe manner.

Gun owners should welcome this healthy discussion regarding proper regulation and provide leadership to make it happen.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thanksgiving Blessing: Be Near to Us, O God of Love, by Scott Dickison

Be Near to Us, O God of Love
(based on Psalm 36:5-9)

Be near to us, O God of love, all goodness in your sight.
In you we find the fount of life, Your radiance springs forth light.

Your steadfast love to heaven extends, Your faithfulness the clouds.
The mountains sing your righteousness, the deep your justice sounds.

How precious is your steadfast love, Creator of all things!
All people take their refuge in the shadow of your wings.

We in our hunger feast upon the bounty of your house,
And your great river of delights, we drink from even now.

NOTE from Bill Jones: Be Near to Us, O God of Love was written by Scott Dickison, pastor of First Baptist Church of Christ, Macon, GA. Scott recently completed a 2-year pastoral residency at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. The Wilshire congregation sang Be Near to Us, O God of Love at Scott's Service of Blessing on Sunday, November 18. The Service of Blessing, a Wilshire tradition, was observed to recognize Scott's graduation from the Wilshire pastoral residency program and to ask God's blessing on his future service for Christ. Scott has graciously given his permission for TBC to publish this as a Thanksgiving blessing.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Ron Russey - Gone 33 years but forever present in my life

Thirty-three years ago tonight (funny, it was a Thursday that year, too), I received word that Ron Russey had been killed the night before - Halloween night, 1979 - while on his way from Colorado to lead a family life conference in a church in Texas. Earlier this year, I wrote a post entitled Thank God for the "giants" in our lives. I explained that what I call "giants" are those people who care enough to invest themselves in you, people who make a lasting difference in your life.

Ron Russey was such a "giant" for me. When he died, we had known each other for barely over 10 years. Ron was not quite 32 when he died, so he's been gone longer than he was here. But he made a lasting impact on my life, and I mourn the loss of the many encounters and conversations we would have had through the years had he not left so early.

I entered Oklahoma Baptist University (OBU) in the fall of 1969, thinking I had all the answers. I had grown up in Baptist churches, accepted Christ and was baptized shortly after turning 10 in 1961. In my teenage years, my church youth group and Youth Choir were at the center of my life. In my older teenage years, I became a leader among the youth and was even selected one year to serve as Youth Pastor in the annual service in which the youth led in worship.

From the time I was about 15, all I wanted to do with my life was become a minister of music. Our music minister, Joe Rust, became a friend and mentor to me. He and his wife, Martha, are still dear friends to me today, almost 50 years later.

So I entered OBU on a church music degree program. My faith? It was pretty basic. Looking back, I realize I had never really understood the nature and meaning of faith. For me, it was a set of facts, not to be questioned, not to be grappled with, just to be accepted as they were preached and taught in our church.

Did I have doubts? Yes and no. Yes, I remember having doubts about things like, fine, God created the universe, but how did God get here? and Can eternity really be eternal? I mean, really, world without end? Those kinds of doubts, but they were scary kinds of doubts, and I always quickly pushed them to the back of my mind. Out of sight, out of mind, before any other doubts could enter the room. I never dealt with them, just suppressed them. Never allowed myself to think about what I believed. That was too dangerous.

One of the first people I met at OBU was Ron Russey. I was assigned to a room on the 2nd floor of Section D in the center area of Brotherhood Dorm (down toward Storer Hall, for those OBU grads reading this). It was part of a suite. My roommate was Cary Wood, a junior. The other room of the suite was occupied by the resident assistant (RA) for the floor, Ron Russey, and his roommate, Tim Richardson.

Ron was a senior who, besides being RA, was president of the Baptist Student Union (BSU) that year. The following year, he returned as a 5th-year senior and served as president of the Ministerial Alliance (MA). He wasn't exactly what you think of, however, as a model BSU or MA president. Ron enjoyed drinking with his friends on the weekend, sometimes to excess. In other words, he enjoyed going out and having a good time, and it wasn't always the favored Baptist way of having a good time.

But Ron was serious about serving Christ. He had gone to East Pakistan as a summer missionary. He was very genuine about his service as both BSU president and MA president. He just didn't see any conflict between that and his personal idea of a good time.

Until November 1970, that is.

I lost my faith not gradually but in one fell swoop. One day in Western Civilization class, which was team-taught by a literature professor and a history professor, Dr. Bill Mitchell was teaching Dante's Inferno. As he taught, he uttered the words that forever and radically changed my life: There are no absolutes.

I don't remember the context in which he uttered those words; I'm sure it reflected something Dante had written, not a belief of Dr. Mitchell's. But in that moment, those words burrowed down to the deepest reaches of my mind and soul, and I realized, that's right, I can't absolutely prove any of this stuff I believe. And the bottom dropped out of my faith. Without a doubt, I know (though I can't prove it) that God was in that moment, tearing away the fragile fabric of my "facts" to make room for the faith that He wanted to build within me.

Ron Russey was one of the first persons with whom I shared this awful epiphany. Ron understood my confusion, and he cared. A few nights later, he called a meeting of all of those for whom he was responsible as RA. He confessed that night, in his best colloquial Oklahoma twang, "I ain't been doin' my job good." He went on to further confess that he had some "ethical things" about which he was pretty loose. His attitude, he said, had been that what he did in his personal life didn't affect others.

But my sudden faith crisis had sobered him. He told the guys assembled there about my new struggle and acknowledged that there were others there who were going through similar faith struggles. And he admitted that maybe the Apostle Paul knew what he was talking about when he admonished his readers - in various letters and various ways - to beware of causing others to "stumble," even if it meant sacrificing something "legal" and benign in most circumstances but a "stumbling block" to those in their sphere of influence. Maybe, Ron said, he should clean up his act so that he could better minister to the guys who needed his counsel and heeded his example.

Almost 9 years later, in the spring of 1979, we had been reunited, as Ron and his wife Carol had moved to Longmont, Colorado, where Ron pastored a small church. Joanna and I had moved to Denver 2 years earlier. In April, we went to Longmont to hear Ron preach and to spend the afternoon in their home. As Ron and I talked, he told me something similar to what he had said on that long-ago night in Brotherhood Dorm, that he had "toned down" his behavior of the past, because his ministry to the people of that church was important to him. Ron had no ambition to move to a bigger church or bigger town. Speaking of Longmont, he told me, "This place scares me." He had grown up in the even smaller town of Hobart, Oklahoma. He hated having to go to Denver occasionally - way too big and "scary." Ron was a minister, first and foremost - whether to his church, his friends, or his family.

Back there in 1970, Ron had sympathized with what I was going through. In numerous late-night bull sessions with Ron, Cary, and others, I began to learn how to search for a faith I could call my own. But besides those discussions, Ron pointed me to a man who also became instrumental in my search for faith - Jerry Barnes, pastor of University Baptist Church, across the street from the OBU campus. When Ron was growing up, Jerry had been his pastor in Hobart. Jerry had been a mentor and friend to Ron, and Ron knew that I needed that same influence at this critical time in my life. So Ron suggested that I go see Jerry Barnes.

I went to Jerry and was able to be totally honest, telling him that I no longer believed anything, but that I wasn't giving up, that I wanted to search for an authentic faith - but not my parents' faith, or the preacher's faith, or the Sunday School teacher's faith. No, this time, if I were to find faith, it had to be my own. Jerry invited me to join University Baptist Church. Jerry's preaching was different than anything I had ever heard. It challenged me to the deepest reaches of my soul and mind. Once a semester, I would go in and visit with Jerry in his office, share with him just where I was at this point in my struggle, and Jerry would help me take the next steps on the journey.

But I would never have gone to Jerry Barnes if Ron Russey hadn't prodded me to do so.

Ron was a good friend who cared about my relationship with God and did whatever he could to help me find my own way to God. Whether that meant talking with me in late-night bull sessions, or listening to me when I came to his room after a class, or pointing me to someone else who he knew would care about me just like he did, Ron took the time and effort to invest in my life.

The last time I saw Ron Russey was on Sunday, September 9, 1979. Joanna and I again drove up to Longmont, this time with my parents, who were visiting us. I wanted them to hear Ron preach and meet him. Ron asked me to sing a solo, so I sat on the podium that morning with my friend. Ron's sense of humor - oh, did I forget to mention that he had a wicked sense of humor? - took over that morning as we sat next to each other, sharing a hymnal.

"Jones," he whispered, "while you're singing your solo, don't be surprised if I suddenly get inspired and start speaking in tongues. But don't worry - there's a woman in the congregation who interprets tongues, my wife." So here we are, up in front of God and everybody, and I'm cracking up while we're supposed to be singing the hymn, and everyone's wondering, what's wrong with this guy, why is he laughing? Typical Russey!

Before we left that day, I made arrangements for Ron and Carol to visit us in Denver the following month. Then, the night before they were to visit, Ron called. An unscheduled deacons meeting had been called for the following night, and we would need to reschedule. On the phone, Ron thumbed through his appointments book, listing various upcoming obligations, including the family life conference in Texas. We finally had to settle on November 30. On October 31, Ron's car went off the road on an interstate highway, flipped, broke his neck, and he died instantly.

Ron Russey was one of those essential people that God put into my life at just the right time over the past 40+ years, people whom I owe for the many steps of this wonderful journey on which God has led me since that fateful 1970 day in Western Civ class.

But he was more than that. He was a trusted friend who cared. Joanna and I lived in Colorado for almost 8 more years after Ron died, and I've often lamented not being able to keep going to see Ron and talk about theology, or about Baptist life, particularly the monumental goings-on in Baptist life that had barely begun when he died. Oh, he would have had plenty to say about them. And I have no doubt about which "side" he would have been on, because Ron was always about freedom and grace. He was about ministering freely and authentically to the deepest of human needs.

Even when the giants in our lives are gone, they are still present in our lives, and so it is with Ron Russey. His influence is felt in everything I do, every service I present to Christ.

Thank God for the giants in our lives. Thank God for Ron Russey.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Theology? or Relationship?

What is at the heart of our faith in Jesus Christ?

That's really the heart of the matter when it comes to divisions among Baptists.

Notice I said "divisions," not "differences." Differences are inevitable, Baptist or not. To be human is to be different. Each of us is made in God's image, yet each of us is unique, with our own minds, our own backgrounds, and our own experiences.

For four centuries, being Baptist has meant - to most of us - celebrating our freedom to be different . . . to bring different gifts, understandings, and personalities to worship, service, and fellowship within the Church.

Differences, in other words, are good. Divisions are destructive.

Divisions among Baptists do not result from differences in theology. Now you may need to take a second look at that statement, and you might disagree. But I stand by it. It's not our differences that cause divisions; it's how we handle those differences.

My wife and I are members of a Sunday School class that engages in a vigorous discussion of our theological understandings every Sunday morning, and those understandings are often radically different from one person to the next. In fact, "vigorous" is probably too weak a word to characterize the intensity of our discussions.

But our class is not divided. Our common love for Christ and commitment to His service bind us together, and we work together to serve Him. Our theological differences strengthen our fellowship, because we listen to each other and learn from each other. Again, divisions among Baptists do not result from differences in theology.

Rather, divisions among Baptists result from the priority we give to our theology in expressing and experiencing our faith in Christ. It's not a question of theology; it's a question of the priority given to your theology.

The critical question is:
Is theology - or relationship - at the heart of your faith?

Does your faith depend on having the "right" interpretations of Scripture? Or does it depend on having the right relationship with God's son, Jesus Christ?

If it depends on having the "right" interpretations of Scripture, then we're all doomed. None of us has a perfect theology. None of us knows the mind of God perfectly. None of us can get into the minds of the authors of the Bible to understand all of the nuances of their writing and unerringly unravel the influence of context and circumstances on different Scriptures.

So, many Baptists have decided to trust human leaders to dictate how they interpret Scripture. When we sign away our God-given freedom and responsibility to interpret Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and rely instead on the interpretations of self-appointed biblical authorities for our understanding of Scripture, then we have ceased being Baptist.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1, NIV)

Our differences affect our reading of Scripture, even the things we emphasize. For example, take Galatians 5:19-21 - "The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like."

Now we typically find it easy to hone in on things that aren't a problem for us personally, and "drunkenness, orgies, and the like" fit into that category for a lot of Baptists. But we tend to slide right past "hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy," because those often hit too close to home. So we get leaders pharisaically condemning selected behaviors, but then often find them exhibiting selfish ambition and fomenting dissensions and factions.

I'm not pointing this out to condemn them. To the contrary, I'm citing it to say that they're human - just like the rest of us. They're fallible, just like the rest of us. We should look to leaders for guidance but not for "dictation." And they should not presume to have an infallible understanding of Scripture.

Again, none of us - even those self-appointed biblical authorities - has a perfect theology or a perfect understanding of the mind of God.

"Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face." (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV)

Basing our faith on having the right theology is a dead-end road, and it's a denial of the Gospel.

On the other hand, a right relationship with Christ, though it requires - as does any relationship - constant nurturing and growth, is something that all can attain through repentance, faith, and prayer.

Should the Church be about exercising power and control to ensure that everyone has the "right" theology, as a few leaders define it? Or should it be about recognizing people's God-given freedom to walk closely with Christ?

Is faith demonstrated by dictating theology to people? Or is it evidenced by trusting the Holy Spirit to work within people's hearts and minds? By leaders who rely on their own understanding? Or by leaders who trust God and His people?

Is our faith in creeds? Or in the living Word of God, Jesus Christ?

Is it Baptist to control? Or to cooperate?

Moreover, is it Christ-like to control? Or to cooperate?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A BAPTIST PIONEER: Freeman Smalley, the first Texas Baptist preacher

(Adapted from the TBC Baptist Briefs video series, Texas Baptists Who Made a Difference)

Freeman Smalley, according to the Texas State Historical Association, was born in 1790 in Pennsylvania and grew up in Ohio. He was already a Baptist by the time he enlisted in the army and fought in the War of 1812. After the war, he began preaching, and his church eventually – in 1817 – ordained him to the Gospel ministry.

In 1822, while visiting cousins in Pecan Point, Texas, he preached to the community there, becoming – most historians believe – the first Baptist minister to preach in Texas.

But Smalley didn’t move to Texas for good until about 1848. Two years earlier, his son had moved to a site just south of what is now Round Rock, Texas. So Smalley, Sr., sold his land in Illinois – where he had established a Baptist church in his home in 1834 – and followed his son to Texas.

Smalley preached wherever he could, but he had a hard time holding a congregation in Texas, because he preached against slavery – not a popular stand, to say the least, in Texas at that time.

In 1849, he boldly organized the first antislavery Baptist church in Texas, Union Baptist Church located in Williamson County. Union Baptist Church indeed! Years later, when the Civil War began, Smalley remained in Texas but stood foursquare in support of the union cause. For this, he was robbed, and he lived under constant threat of danger to him and his family.

Today a historical marker stands on the site of Anti-Slaveholding Union Baptist Cemetery in Williamson County near Round Rock. The marker notes that the graveyard has also been referred to as Smalley Cemetery because of its connection to Freeman Smalley’s family, and that it is believed that Freeman Smalley, Jr., was the first person buried there in 1849.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mike Williams: What do these stones mean? (Joshua 4:17-24)

(Presented by Mike Williams, professor of history, Dallas Baptist University, June 8, during the annual meeting of the Baptist History & Heritage Society in Raleigh, North Carolina. I've published it here with his permission.)
17So Joshua commanded the priests, saying, "Come up from the Jordan." 18It came about when the priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD had come up from the middle of the Jordan, and the soles of the priests' feet were lifted up to the dry ground, that the waters of the Jordan returned to their place, and went over all its banks as before. 19Now the people came up from the Jordan on the tenth of the first month and camped at Gilgal on the eastern edge of Jericho. 20Those twelve stones which they had taken from the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. 21He said to the sons of Israel, "When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, 'What are these stones?’ 22then you shall inform your children, saying, 'Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground.'” 23"For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed, just as the LORD your God had done to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed; 24that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, so that you may fear the LORD your God forever."
Throughout history, people have been monument builders. Before even writing, building memorials, monuments, and sacred sites were ways to both preserve history and remind the generations that followed of what had happened in the past. Indeed, even cave paintings, story-telling, and those first writings that became Holy Scripture were monuments in their own ways. Before this story that I just read unfolded, Israel already had its own monuments in the Passover celebration and other festivals instituted as part of the Law of Moses.

In the passage that I just read, Joshua raised this monument to remind the people of Israel of what God had done in their midst and to affirm God’s promise to that generation, reminding them that God was with them in the same way that God had been with their forebears. It was more than a simple reminder of a single event. It was a signature moment in Israel’s history to remind them of God’s care and guidance. We do not know how long that monument lasted, but we do know that the Israelites remembered to tell the story, because it is recorded in Joshua.

As Baptist historians, we are monument builders. We stop along the way to raise markers to remind the generations that follow who Baptists have been but also who Baptists are and who Baptists can be and how God, through good times and bad, has been present with the Baptist branch of God’s family. When we teach, preach, write, preserve, and tell the stories, we are telling the generations that follow our story and their story. We are reminding them that, despite the wilderness wanderings and poor choices that have come along the way, Baptists have a rich heritage that demands that the story be told. Without us, professional and lay historians, librarians, archivists, the story will be lost.

A few weeks ago, in a symposium at DBU, one of our English professors presented her dissertation research on Toni Morrison, the great African-American author. In her presentation, she quoted Morrison’s essay, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” In this essay, Morrison writes, “If you kill the ancestor, you kill yourself.”1

Those words have haunted and continue to haunt me. Our role as historians is to ensure that our ancestors do not die and, therefore, that we continue to live. So, as we continue to do the work of Baptist history, let us remember to raise stones over and over again so that the generations that follow will be reminded of how God has worked in and through these genuine, devout, cranky, ornery, sometimes humble, oft times arrogant, fiercely independent Christians called Baptists and can continue to work through these same people in the present and in the future.

1 Toni Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” in What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 64.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Milestones: Whether baseball or Glorieta, they're really about people

Fifty years ago this week, Daddy took me to my first major league baseball game.

It seems a little strange, I must admit, to write the words "fifty years ago." A half-century! It doesn't seem so long ago that the phrase "fifty years ago" would bring to my mind an image akin to the phrase "back in Bible times." You know, ancient history . . . chariot races . . . people dressed in fig leaves, loincloths, or togas . . . and so on.

But no longer. Now 50 years ago is well within my memory, and I tend to remember dates that are significant to me, though obscure to those around me. Twenty-some years ago, I heard a sermon preached at Glorieta Baptist Assembly/Conference Center on the importance of marking milestones in our lives. How appropriate - Glorieta has been significant in the lives of thousands of Baptists through the years, the site of critical milestones for many.

But back to the events of 50 years ago. In April 1962, Daddy had moved from Dallas Baptist Association to Kansas City, Missouri, Baptist Association, and Mother and I followed in July, after school was out.

Baseball wasn't yet on my radar screen. Oh, Daddy had taken me to a minor league game or two in Dallas - I think it was the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs back then, if memory serves, and I had watched an occasional Saturday afternoon Game of the Week on our black-and-white Westinghouse, with play-by-play from Pee Wee Reese and Dizzy Dean (I still remember Ol' Diz occasionally belting out a chorus of "The Wabash Cannonball"), but baseball had yet to really capture my imagination.

Then we moved to Kansas City, which had major league baseball. In reality, the old Kansas City A's were a poor imitation of a big league team, but at least you could go see some real-live big league players come to town with the visiting team. On July 16, the Yankees came to town, and Daddy took me to see Whitey Ford pitch.

One result was predictable: Whitey Ford mowed down the hapless A's; and the Yankees - with Mantle, Maris, Richardson, Boyer, and company - beat the A's, 3-1. But the other result, if you will, came straight out of left field - for it was that day, as an 11-year-old boy getting his first taste of major league baseball, that I fell in love with the game.

I don't remember a lot about that day, other than how much bigger the baseball field looked in person and Daddy occasionally expressing his disgust with the prices the A's charged for their concessions. It was "highway robbery," he complained, to charge 25 cents for a bag of peanuts and another 25 cents for a Coke. (After all, those were the days when you could get a bottle of Coke from a machine at the "filling station" for a nickel or, at most, a dime.) In years to come, Daddy and I shared many a laugh over his outrage over those 25-cent prices in 1962, which inflation ultimately made seem like a bargain.

That was just the first of many games to come. Daddy and I went to quite a few A's games over the next few years, until Oakland stole the A's from us following the 1967 season. Sorry, 45 years later and I still haven't gotten over it. The A's might have given us a lot of bad baseball, but a bad day at the ballpark beats a good day just about anywhere else.

So those remain special memories, Daddy and me at the ballgame, and occasionally Mother went with us as well. There was one night that I'll always remember. Municipal Stadium, where the A's played, was a converted minor league ballpark in the middle of a low-income inner-city neighborhood. The parking lot was small, so many people parked in the backyards of the folks who lived around there, most of whom charged $2 to $3 a car. An alley backed up to these houses, so after the game you would often have to wait for traffic to clear before you could get into the alley and on your way home.

One night, as we were waiting in our car, a man - having obviously made a trip to a nearby liquor store and become fully "lubricated" - was stumbling around the yard. He looked at Daddy sitting behind the wheel and said, "You folks wanta get outta here?" Daddy replied, "Sure." Our friendly neighborhood drunk then staggered into the alley, put his hand up, pointed to Mother in the front passenger seat, and said, "Everybody stop and let these folks out. This woman is havin' a baby!" All the folks in those cars turned and looked at Mother, who was well beyond normal childbearing age, and started laughing. So did we. And they stopped and let us go!

Through the years, Daddy and I would reminisce about all of the great times we had at the ballpark and all the great players we saw. The time we saw Mickey Mantle up close - no kidding! In 50 years of going to baseball games, it's the only time I ever saw a player, in uniform, go into the stands, and it's still hard to believe it happened, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

It was another Whitey Ford start - this one in 1964. This time, the Yankees pummeled the A's, 9-1. Mantle wasn't in the lineup and, by the 7th inning, the Yankees' 5-l lead with Ford on the mound made it obvious that he wouldn't be needed. Mantle's knees had been a problem ever since he had tripped over a drainpipe and wrenched a knee early in his career, so managers took every opportunity to give the Mick a rest. We were seated down the 3rd base/leftfield line, near the Yankees' bullpen, and there was a gate in the chain-link fence, opening up to the aisle just next to us.

So, late in the game, here came Mickey Mantle, big as life, opening that gate and walking up the steps. Everyone around us was waving at him and yelling for his attention, but he kept walking, looking straight ahead. Just before Mantle passed our row, 7 or 8 rows up, one of the pitchers in the bullpen yelled, "Hey, Mick, where you goin'?" Mantle yelled back, "To get the beer and pretzels," then turned around and continued to the concession stand. Unbelievable that they wouldn't have everything they needed in the Yankees' clubhouse, but this was 1964, and that's what happened. I've never - before or since - seen anything like that.

Lots of good memories. I was away from major league baseball for a few years, as Joanna and I lived in Denver through the late '70s and most of the '80s. But we moved to the Dallas area in August 1987. By that time, the Spurs were long gone, and the Texas Rangers - such as they were - had brought major league baseball to Arlington. Our family had grown to four, with Alison, 5-1/2, and Travis 1-1/2. Mother and Daddy were living in Austin by this time.

So the next year, we started a new family baseball tradition. For the next few years, Daddy came up once a year to go with Travis and me to see the Rangers play his beloved Kansas City Royals. We called ourselves - and our new tradition - "the three Jasons," because all three of us have Jason as our middle name. Travis and I still treasure those memories of going to the ballpark with Daddy.

Of course, Travis and I have gone to many games through the years, repeating the experiences I had with Daddy when I was growing up - even to the point of seeing a lot of REALLY BAD baseball, because the Rangers for many of those years weren't a whole lot better than the A's of my youth. (I've probably watched more bad baseball than any fan in history.)

So now it's 50 years since that first game. Mantle, Maris, and Boyer have been gone for many years, and Ford, Richardson, and Berra long-since retired. But the memory lingers.

This week, I commemorated that memory by taking my son-in-law, Adam, to see the Frisco Rough Riders, because the Rangers weren't in town. True to tradition, the home team lost, 7-4 (our God is gracious, but the "baseball gods" can be cruel). Travis would have gone with us but for one complication - he's a little preoccupied awaiting the birth of his first child, a daughter - who was due that same day - and decided he'd better stay home and wait with Christy.

You see, baseball is important to us guys, but we do know what's most important. (most of the time, anyway)

Well, this has been about baseball, but it's really about more than that. It's about marking milestones in our lives, and it's about what makes those milestones special, and that's people. Whether it's family or friends, it's the people in our lives who make for special memories.

I fell in love with baseball on that day in July 1962, but baseball wouldn't have been nearly as much fun over the years if it didn't mean going to games with my family and friends; calling Daddy up to talk about the players we used to see; taking Travis, when he was a kid, to baseball card shows; or arguing with my best friend, Bob, over the years over which league is the best, American or National (Bob's a Cardinals fan, you see).

Well, here it is Thursday already and we're still waiting for that new granddaughter to make her first appearance, and that brings a passel of other memories and milestones to mind, which will have to wait for another day (maybe next week).

Thursday, July 5, 2012

How Baptists helped to secure religious liberty in America

(Adapted from the TBC Baptist Briefs video series, First Baptists in America: 17th Century; and Baptists Fight for Religious Liberty in the New United States)

In his classic history The Baptist Heritage, Leon McBeth writes that it was in 1639 that Roger Williams founded the first organized Baptist church in America in Providence, Rhode Island. However, only a few months later Williams left the Baptist movement after concluding that his Baptist baptism was not a true baptism because it had not been performed by someone having the proper authority.

But even after Williams broke with Baptists, he continued to take up the cause of religious liberty for all, for which Baptists had vigorously fought ever since the challenge made to King James by Thomas Helwys in 1612 with the publication of his treatise, A Short Declaration on the Mystery of Iniquity.

Faith: Free or forced?
The concept of religious liberty for all people – and its corollary, separation of church and state – was neither common nor popular in Williams’ day. Yet he began preaching this doctrine by the early 1630s, based his new colony on it, and made it a foundational principle of the Baptist church that he founded at Providence.

Williams wrote his earthshaking treatise, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, in 1644. McBeth writes that Williams argued that Scripture and history both prove that the powers of civil officials pertain to civil affairs only and that persecution on religious grounds is a sin. As Thomas Helwys before him, Williams advocated unbridled religious liberty for all people, including "Papists, Turks, Jews, and atheists."

In 1652, Williams responded to an attack by one of his most ardent critics, John Cotton, by writing a second treatise, entitled The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy: By Mr Cottons endevour to wash it white in the Bloud of the Lambe. In it, McBeth tells us, Williams refuted Cotton’s arguments and cited recent cases of religious persecution in the American colonies. In both of his treatises, Williams emphasized the freedom of the soul before God and insisted that this freedom was denied by the uniting of church and state. “All the power the magistrate hath over the church,” Williams wrote, “is temporal, not spiritual; and all power the church hath over the magistrate is spiritual, not temporal.”

In the church, Williams contended, the magistrate had no authority but was simply another layperson. By the same token, in relation to the state, the preacher was simply another citizen. Williams used the two tables of the Ten Commandments to illustrate the separation of church and state. The magistrate, he wrote, may regulate and punish offenses against the second table, those commandments dealing with our relationships with other persons, but not infractions against the first table, those dealing with our relationship with God.

Baptists’ debt to Roger Williams – though he was one of us for only a short time – is incalculable.

Lobbying for liberty
But the battle for religious liberty is fought on every front and in every generation. Over a century later, religious liberty was still at stake as a new nation was being formed. Ironically, Americans who had protested religious persecution in England by fleeing to the New World wound up setting up their own state churches in the American colonies and punishing those who refused to conform. McBeth writes that there were many instances of Baptists being severely whipped; being forced to pay taxes to support the state church; being forcibly deprived of their property; and suffering long stretches in prison – all on account of their Baptist convictions.

But the heart of Roger Williams’ legacy of religious liberty for all people was still beating in Americans – including Baptists such as Isaac Backus and John Leland; as well as nonBaptists such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In 1769, the Warren Baptist Association in Massachusetts created the Grievance Committee, New England’s first formal organization aimed at defending religious liberty in the colonies – or, as McBeth calls it, "the first organized religious lobby in America."

The Grievance Committee’s job was to:
  • gather data on the persecution of Baptists
  • petition courts and legislatures for relief from their judgments
  • push for legislation that would eliminate religious discrimination
In 1772, Isaac Backus – a Massachusetts pastor who became perhaps the greatest Baptist spokesman for religious liberty in America – was named to lead the Committee. From that position, he both spoke and wrote extensively to advance, defend, and publicize Baptist views on religious liberty.

In 1773, under Backus’ leadership, Massachusetts Baptists even practiced civil disobedience by refusing to comply with laws that they perceived as discriminating against them because of their faith. They stopped paying taxes to support the state church and even stopped applying for exemption certificates – which exempted applicants from paying the church taxes but required them to prove that:
  • they regularly attended and supported their own church
  • they lived within 5 miles of their church
  • their church was in good standing with its denomination
McBeth tells us that this strategy of civil disobedience resulted in more progress toward religious liberty in a year than Baptists had made in the previous decade. At the same time that the cry against England of “taxation without representation”  was beginning to gain traction in the colonies, Baptists’ battle cry was a similar one – they were being taxed to support churches they didn’t attend and whose doctrines and practices they didn’t accept.

Colonial legislators – some persuaded that Baptists’ arguments were legitimate and some fearing that Baptists would send representatives to London to argue against the colonial governments – began to acquiesce to some of the Baptists’ demands. McBeth tells us that Backus lived to see Baptists achieve some measure of religious liberty in practice, if not always in law. He struggled unsuccessfully to defeat Article III in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which gave the government some jurisdiction over religious affiliation and practice. However, he deserves credit for helping to achieve ratification – by the Massachusetts legislature – of the federal Constitution in 1789 and, in 1791, the Bill of Rights – including the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom.

Preaching and agitating
But the First Amendment is a story in itself – really many stories. The path to securing religious liberty in the new nation was anything but smooth. One who played a key role in pushing us down that path was John Leland. McBeth writes that Leland, a Virginia Baptist minister originally from Massachusetts, became the primary Baptist spokesman in the South for religious liberty. Leland read widely and was one of the best-informed Baptist ministers of his time. Though he served briefly as a pastor, he spent most of his ministry traveling as an evangelist but also as an agitator against state-supported religion and for religious liberty. During Leland’s years in Virginia, McBeth tells us, he preached over 3,000 sermons and baptized over 1,250 people.

Baptists also received support, in their fight for religious liberty, from some outside the Baptist fold, including James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. In 1784, the Virginia legislature was seriously considering a “general assessment” tax to be imposed on all citizens for the support of religion. A provision permitted citizens to choose the religious group that would receive their funds. However, any tax assessed to support religion – no matter the conditions – violated Baptists’ conviction that church and state must be separate. So Baptists worked to defeat this assessment, even though its passage would have helped them financially.

As the legislature was considering the general assessment bill, James Madison published a statement entitled A Memorial and Remonstrance on the Religious Rights of Man. In it, Madison outlined 15 arguments opposing general assessment and favoring full religious liberty. He insisted that religious matters were properly left solely to the “reason and conviction and conscience of every man”  and that religion should be “wholly exempt”  from the realm of government.

In 1785, Thomas Jefferson introduced, into the Virginia legislature, his “bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.” It included a passage stating that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever . . . nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs.”

Jefferson later cited this bill as one of the three accomplishments for which he most wished to be remembered.

The dissent of the governed
Yet, despite the hearty debates in the colonial legislatures, the new U.S. Constitution – presented to the states for ratification in 1787 – said nothing about religious liberty, which stunned Baptists. Oh, Article VI prohibited the establishment of any religious test for attaining public office, but that was all. In The Baptist Heritage, Leon McBeth writes that this relative silence about religion was apparently intentional, as John Adams had expressed the hope that Congress would stay out of religious matters altogether.

Virginia Baptists’ General Committee unanimously agreed that the Constitution’s failure to guarantee religious liberty was unacceptable. However, a letter written by John Leland on the Committee’s behalf, in 1789, failed to persuade President Washington that explicit guarantees of religious liberty should be added to the Constitution.

At this point, even James Madison was unmoved by the Committee’s concerns. However, Thomas Jefferson wrote from Paris that the people of the United States were entitled to a bill enumerating their rights clearly and, he added, “without the aid of sophisms.”  Among the rights he specified were freedom of religion and freedom of the press.

McBeth tells us that Virginia Baptists’ objection to the omission of overt guarantees of religious liberty was so strong that they mounted a campaign to prevent ratification of the Constitution.

Had their flight from England to the New World been for nothing? Had they simply exchanged one government’s tyranny for another’s? They wouldn’t stand for that!

John Leland wrote a list of ten Baptist objections to the Constitution, centered around the absence of a bill of rights and explicit guarantees of religious liberty, and sent a copy to James Madison. According to Reuben E. Alley’s A History of Baptists in Virginia, Leland initially ran against Madison for Virginia representative to the ratifying convention.

Baptist bargaining
In March 1788, however, Madison paid Leland a visit at his home. For several hours, the two men discussed the Constitution and Baptists' objections to it. By the end of their meeting, they had struck a deal:
Leland would withdraw from the race and throw Baptist support to Madison. In return, Madison promised to introduce a Constitutional amendment to guarantee full religious liberty for everyone.
Upon his election, Madison led Virginia to vote for ratification. In the spring of 1789, shortly after the inauguration of President Washington, Madison introduced, in the U.S. House of Representatives, ten proposed amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, as Thomas Jefferson had initially proposed in his letter from Paris.

After numerous revisions, the First Amendment that we have today was adopted. It begins with two clauses that guarantee religious liberty – the No Establishment clause and the Free Exercise clause. These two clauses total sixteen words:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” 
James Madison had proven to be as good as his word. The new nation was now guaranteed religious liberty, and it almost certainly wouldn’t have come about if not for the convictions and determination of Virginia Baptists.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Daniel Vestal: Laying the foundation for CBF, then building on it

This Friday evening, June 22, at the closing session of this year's General Assembly in Fort Worth, Daniel Vestal will preach his final sermon as executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

This month, Daniel brings to a close his service as CBF's longest-tenured executive coordinator. Patrick Anderson, editor of Christian Ethics Today and a former CBF moderator, will lead CBF on an interim basis while a committee, chaired by George Mason, continues to search for a permanent executive coordinator. On July 1, Daniel Vestal will become director of the new Eula Mae and John Baugh Center for Baptist Leadership.

Daniel and I are not close, though we have spoken briefly with each other on several occasions in recent years, as recently as this past April, when I expressed to him my appreciation for his statement in response to the suggestion by the outgoing CBF moderator that, once Daniel's successor is named, certain CBF hiring practices be "revisited."

In his statement, Daniel responded that he respects those who disagree with him and believes we should be able to cooperate with each other in spite of our disagreements. However, he does not support the suggestion to revisit CBF's hiring policy, because CBF's role, he said, is to serve churches, not dictate to them, and such a change in CBF's hiring policy would put a strain on many partner churches and CBF's relationship with them.

It was a statement that was typical of Daniel Vestal, gracious and at the same time wise and prudent, in my opinion. I was in total agreement (and I have to admit that it's rare that I'm in total agreement with anyone, including my fellow Baptists), and I expressed my full support of his statement.

In past years, however, Daniel and I have also discussed the connection between our families that goes back many, many years. Though I didn't meet Daniel until recent years, I met his father some 56 years ago. In the fall of 1952, when I was just 1-1/2 years old, my family had moved to Montague, a little town located right next to the more well-known town of Nocona, home to legendary boot manufacturers. My daddy, A. Jase Jones - who then was in the midst of his doctoral studies in Christian Ethics, under T. B. Maston at Southwestern Seminary - pastored First Baptist Church of Montague until we moved to Dallas in 1957, where he led Jewish Evangelism work for Dallas and Tarrant Baptist Associations, as well as the BGCT.

I often heard Daddy tell the story of a revival in our little church in Montague in the spring of 1956, preached by Dan Vestal, Daniel's father, who stayed in our home at the parsonage during that week. In fact, I recently found, in Daddy's files, a promotional flyer for that revival, featuring photos of Dan Vestal, in addition to a biography. Unfortunately, I have no memories of that revival or of Dan Vestal being in our home. I had just turned 5 a few weeks earlier, and my attention was usually on Romper Room, Captain Kangaroo, and J. Fred Muggs (the chimpanzee starring on NBC's Today back then), not the visiting preacher! But Daniel's dad was a prominent Baptist evangelist in his day. So our "connection" goes way back.

In 1996, Daniel left a highly successful pastorate at Tallowood Baptist Church in Houston to succeed Cecil Sherman as executive coordinator of CBF. But he was not new to CBF. In fact, he had been the first one to articulate the vision that became the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and then was instrumental in its founding.

The morning after losing the 1990 SBC presidential election in New Orleans, Daniel Vestal addressed a Baptists Committed breakfast. Acknowledging that moderates had lost the battle for the SBC, he told the gathering of more than 800:
What we did was right. . . . We spoke to the issues that are crucial to our day: openness, fairness, missions, trust, and freedom. We resisted a political movement that excludes people from decisionmaking, assassinates people's character, questions people's integrity and commitment to the Word of God. . . . We called for a return to our Southern Baptist heritage: cooperative missions, unity in diversity. (Shurden, The Struggle for the Soul of the SBC, 1993, p. 255)
He then called for a "convocation of concerned Baptists," to be convened and planned by the Baptists Committed organization. Daniel writes of his vision for this convocation in The Struggle for the Soul of the SBC (edited by Walter B. Shurden):
Its purpose would be renewal, and in it we could find ways to cooperate for the cause of Christ. . . . We needed a place to be accepted for who we are, true followers of Christ with a worldwide mission vision, Baptists who believe in the Bible but who also believe in the freedom to interpret it.
On August 23, 1990, Jimmy Allen convened the Consultation of Concerned Baptists in Atlanta, and Daniel Vestal - a humble and soft-spoken pastor - delivered a stirring opening address in which he firmly took a stand for Baptist principles of freedom, integrity, and cooperation - and invited the 3,000 assembled to join him.
We've been driven here by a group of folks who have told us they don't want us to work with them in the cause of Christ. . . . They have not only maligned and libelled good and godly people, but they have caricatured and misrepresented others. They would take away our dignity and our freedom. I, for one, will not allow that to happen to me. I, for one, will not give that up. . . . I am driven here to find a people who will respect me even if they disagree with me, and will allow me to cooperate with them in the grand and glorious cause of Christ.

But do not pity me, for I also choose to be here. I choose because I believe in some principles and precepts that are foundational to my life: the priesthood of the individual believer, religious liberty and separation of church and state, cooperative missions based on the autonomy of every church, congregational polity and moral integrity in decision making. I am first and foremost committed to Jesus Christ.
(For more details on these events, I highly recommend Walter B. Shurden's The Struggle for the Soul of the SBC: Moderate Responses to the Fundamentalist Movement. For a "nutshell" description of these events, based on Shurden's book and other sources, see the three-part TBC Baptist Briefs video series, "Founding of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.")

Six years later, Daniel Vestal took the reins of CBF at a time of great change, and the pace of change has only accelerated in the 16 years since. Changes in Baptist life, changes in technology, changes in worship styles, changes in how churches "do church," a struggling economy that has yet to recover, the aging of the generations that had stalwartly populated both pew and pulpit for so long, and the coming-to-age of the millenial generation that has challenged church leaders to give them good reasons to stay in church as they grew to adulthood.

These changes - and more - challenge today's leaders of every Baptist institution and church, large and small. Most have had to face decreases in financial support and been forced to make painful decisions to survive. CBF hasn't been immune, as it has had to cut back on funding missionaries as well as operational staff. Neither has it been alone; note last week's news that membership in the Southern Baptist Convention had declined for the fifth straight year. It's been tough all around.

But for 16 years, through all of these challenges, Daniel Vestal has provided CBF with stable leadership marked by a consistent commitment to sharing Christ with the world. His is a legacy of strong leadership through humility and generosity of spirit. He explained his vision of the "missional community" in Chapter 6 of his book, Being the Presence of Christ: A Vision for Transformation:
Christian community is a means to an end. It is to represent, serve, and proclaim the kingdom of God. Its goal is not to build up an institution or to enlarge its membership or even to enjoy its own existence. Rather, the purpose of Christian community is faithfulness to God's mission in the world. Its very identity and essence define it as a missional community.
"Faithfulness to God's mission in the world" - that pretty well sums up Daniel Vestal's life and ministry, including his stewardship of CBF as executive coordinator.

So, as Daniel preaches his final sermon Friday evening as CBF executive coordinator, followed by a reception in his honor, we celebrate a life and ministry committed to the Lordship of Christ and the sharing of Christ's Gospel around the world, a life and ministry marked by uncompromised integrity and unshakable commitment to the principles that have undergirded the Baptist movement for over 400 years.

Thank you, Daniel, and God bless you as you turn the page to the next chapter of your ministry and continue to be faithful to God's calling in your life.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

From Raleigh to Richmond: the Baptist History & Heritage Annual Conference

When the Baptist church in Raleigh was organized in 1812 on the second floor of the original state Capitol building, there were 23 charter members—9 white and 14 black. In 1868, there was a peaceful separation of the two groups when the newly emancipated members established their own congregation.
Thus begins the History page of the Web site of First Baptist Church, Salisbury Street, Raleigh, North Carolina. The corresponding page of First Baptist Church, Wilmington Street, adds that,
By 1859 the original membership of twenty-three had risen to 228 whites and 208 blacks, and the Church had relocated several times to accommodate that growth.

In June of 1868, Henry Jett and a delegation of approximately 200 blacks asked for letters of dismissal from the integrated Church to worship as a separate body under the name of the First Colored Baptist Church. Thus began the era of First Baptist Church as we know it today and the beginning of the tradition of black pastors.
Last week, I flew to Raleigh to attend the 2012 Baptist History & Heritage Annual Conference, sponsored by the Baptist History & Heritage Society. Sessions were hosted by both of these historic First Baptist Churches, and participants were privileged to hear the two pastors present the histories of their respective churches.

But that barely begins to tell the story of this conference. This was my second such conference; I attended last year's meeting that was held at Dallas Baptist University. I'm always amazed at the ground covered by the program prepared by Executive Director Bruce Gourley and the Society's Board and its officers.

This year's theme was Baptists and Theology, and keynote addresses were delivered at the three general sessions:
  • Glenn Jonas - "Nurturing the Vision: Highlights from a 200-Year-Old Baptist Church in Raleigh"
  • Bill Leonard - "Conviction and Contradiction: Reassessing Theological Formation in Baptist Identity"
  • Fisher Humphreys - "To Go Forward, We Must First Go Back: Baptist Theology Since 1950"
On Friday morning, 23 papers were presented in breakout sessions. To give you just a taste of the depth and breadth of the subjects covered, here are a few of the provocative titles:
  • John Jasper: Celebrated African American Preacher
  • Deconstructing Hobbs: Theologian-in-Residence for the SBC
  • E. Y. Mullins' Neglected Theological Foundation for Church-State Separation
  • Baptists and Sacramentalism: Engaging Recent Work in Baptist Sacramental Theology
  • Toward a Twentieth-Century Baptist Identity in America: Insights from the Baptist Congresses, 1882-1913
  • Friedrich Schleiermacher's Influence on the Baptist Thought of Harry Emerson Fosdick . . . and Ours
  • Worship Wars: Theological Perspectives in Hymnody
  • Locating Baptist Dogmatics: Defining and Defending Identity in the Absence of a Normative Theology
  • Baptist Ecclesiology from John Clark to E. Y. Mullins: The Personal, the Communal, and the Eschatological
And that's just a small sample of the material covered at this year's conference. If you want to really dig deep into Baptist history - from a variety of perspectives - you need to add the Baptist History & Heritage Annual Conference to your "bucket list." By the way, videos of all general and breakout sessions - including all paper presentations - will be up on the Baptist History & Heritage Society Web site within the next month. Check the TBC Midweek Baptist Roundup in July, and I'll let you know when those videos are available and provide links to them.

During the final session, Fred Anderson, executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society, announced that the 2013 Baptist History & Heritage Annual Conference will be held on the campus of the University of Richmond. Centered on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the meeting's theme will be Faith, Freedom, and Forgiveness.

"Our emphasis," Anderson said, "is on religion in the Civil War, emancipation, and reconciliation in our time." As always, there will be keynote addresses and presentations of papers covering various aspects of the theme. A special feature of next year's meeting will be a panel discussion on the subject of racial reconciliation.

We Baptists have a special heritage that is wide-ranging; the list of those who have contributed to, and influenced, that heritage is beyond what any of us can imagine. If you love our Baptist heritage and want to know more, start thinking about attending next year's Baptist History & Heritage Annual Conference in Richmond, Virginia. In the meantime, go to the Society's Web site at, avail yourself of its many resources, donate, and become a member. Believe me, your understanding and appreciation of your Baptist heritage will soon flow, as the beloved fountain in the old song, "deep and wide."

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wayne Allen stood tall

I read this morning that Dr. Wayne Allen, retired senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Carrollton, had passed away at the age of 82. I never had the privilege of meeting Dr. Allen, but his passing nevertheless moved me.

His obituary gives a broader picture of his life, but the opening passage of an article in the Texas Baptists Committed Newsletter of March 1994 brings into focus the courage and integrity of this man. The article is titled simply, "Wayne Allen Stands Tall," and the passage reads,
Wayne Allen, pastor of First Baptist Church, Carrollton, stood alone as the only Texas trustee on the Southwestern Board to support Dr. Dilday. He deserves our appreciation and respect for his integrity. All of the other Texas trustees voted to fire Dr. Dilday, according to news reports.
As president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Russell Dilday, another man of rare courage and integrity, had refused to stay quiet about his concerns over the insistence of Fundamentalist SBC leaders and Southwestern trustees on carrying out an agenda of power and control at the seminary. So the trustees accelerated that agenda by firing him. When asked the reason for their decision, their chair said that they didn't need a reason, because "We have the votes."

A person's convictions are proven by testing. One of the greatest tests is the pressure to "go along" with the actions of friends and colleagues. Standing against that kind of pressure out of conviction is lonely . . . all eyes are on you, you are isolated, and some who have been your friends may want nothing more to do with you. The TBC article said it well - Wayne Allen stood tall for Christ that day and proved the strength of his convictions. Today he rests in Jesus.

That brings to mind another passage, this one from scripture: "Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Come and share your master's happiness." (Matthew 25:23, NIV)

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Lee Porter, Wayne Ward, and a generation of Baptists caught up in the "Controversy"

This month has seen the death of two faithful Baptist leaders.

On May 17, Lee Porter, a retired editor at LifeWay Christian Resources who served as recording secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention for 25 years, died at 83.

On May 23, Wayne Ward, theology professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville for over 40 years, died at 90 after suffering a stroke.

There's an intriguing thread that runs through Bob Allen's articles for Associated Baptist Press on the lives and careers of these two men.

Allen writes that Porter, as SBC recording secretary in 1979,
"launched an investigation into voter irregularities after conservative standard bearer Adrian Rogers' stunning first-ballot victory over five other candidates to win 51.36 percent of the vote. His investigation found unprecedented political activity but no major voter fraud, yet discovered double registration, churches that exceeded their allowed number and messengers who registered but were not elected by their churches."
As a result of Porter's findings, Allen continues, "Convention leaders took measures to reform the election process including requiring a registration card or written confirmation for messengers to register and closer scrutiny of how many messengers that churches were entitled to send."

Allen writes of Ward that he "spoke at the funerals of many colleagues with whom he served in the decades leading up to the controversy beginning in the 1970s, commonly known as the 'conservative resurgence.'"

The "thread" between the stories of these two men is a thin one, but a significant one.

They are members of a generation of Baptist leaders who were in their prime during the years of the SBC Controversy, referred to as the "conservative resurgence" by one side and the "Fundamentalist takeover" by the other. Members of that generation had friends on both sides of the Controversy. They were called upon to take a stand. Some who disagreed with the takeover architects ultimately broke with them completely, either by choice or by force. (See Exiled: Voices of the Southern Baptist Convention Holy War, edited by Carl L. Kell.) Some stayed and tried to work with them. I found Porter's story especially compelling, because he continued to work with the leadership but - through his position as recording secretary - held their feet to the ethical fire.

Recently, I read a well-meaning op-ed column written by a young seminary student who wrote of her dismay at the continuing split among Baptists. She lamented that Baptists separated "over theological differences."

I appreciate her lament, but I have to say that her understanding is inaccurate. The split was never over theological differences. There were many who were - and are today - willing and ready to worship, serve, and work with other Baptists with whom we have "theological differences." Some call us "moderates." But, more accurately, we are Cooperative Baptists and, for the past 20 years, many of us have worked together as part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which meets this year in Fort Worth from June 20-23. Yes, even we differ among ourselves over some theological issues and scriptural interpretations, but we continue to cooperate on those matters that unify us.

No, Fundamentalists and Moderates didn't separate over theological differences. We separated because those who sought and gained power in the SBC refused to fellowship with, or share leadership with, those who differed with them on a few specified points - some theological and some semantical. This resulted in broken fellowship within churches, among friends, and throughout the community of Baptists.

And it was unnecessary. Baptists have ALWAYS had theological differences. That's part of what makes us Baptist! You know, things like soul competency, priesthood of the believer, religious liberty for all people - treasured Baptist principles, all of which are tied up in the concept of freedom, the freedom that Christ embodied. He promised to send us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is perfect, but we're not, so we understand inspiration differently, we interpret scripture differently, and we think differently. But we should be able to work together to further the cause of Christ.

The deaths - and lives - of Lee Porter and Wayne Ward should remind us of what unifies us - our faith in the risen Christ. Christ never asked his disciples to agree on everything, but he did say that his disciples would be known by our love for one another (John 13:35). We seem to have the same problem that occasionally plagued the original twelve while Jesus was speaking to them - we fall asleep when we should be listening!