Lowering my eyes to
avoid their stares, I saw a little fan of $20 bills sticking out of
my suit-coat handkerchief pocket. Stuffing them back down, I noticed
more cash poking out of my coat’s side pocket. Securing that out of
sight, I walked into the store to pay my bill, all pockets bulging.
June 1990, a decade-long struggle for control of the Southern
Baptist Convention (SBC) ended in victory for a group less keen to
study and preserve their Baptist heritage than those they ousted.
Eventually, under the new leadership, the SBC voted to abolish its
Historical Commission in 1994.
Long before this
event, history work among Baptists in the SBC had been compromised
by denominational infighting. In the early 1980s, the History
Commission’s hopes to produce the third update of the excellent
Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists stalled in disagreements over
who would write articles reflecting the decade of controversy.
The SBC Sunday School
Board hired internationally renowned historian Leon McBeth, longtime
professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, to write its
history. A few trustees vetoed the publication of McBeth’s
manuscript, which had passed all other levels of the approval
process; they deemed the book too negative about recent changes.
The Board had all existing copies of the manuscript, save one,
shredded; the sole survivor was placed in a vault for safekeeping.
My story intersected
this tide of change in the fall of 1989 when The Southern Baptist
Theological Seminary (SBTS) hired me to teach in its church history
department, which consisted of Glenn Hinson, Bill Leonard and Karen
Smith. I was coming home; Hinson and Leonard had supervised my
dissertation on Southern Baptist spirituality.
In April 1990, the
trustee board of SBTS became Fundamentalist-Inerrantist in majority.
When I departed the faculty in the fall of 1992, I was the senior
member of the department I had joined three years before. Though
none of us were fired, all left as a direct result of changes within
In this atmosphere of
transition, historian Walter B. (Buddy) Shurden, then chair of the
department of Christianity at Mercer University, became concerned
that the stories of leading Moderate Baptists, those on the losing
side of the denominational controversy, might go unrecorded. In
October 1992, he hosted in Macon a conference called “The History of
the Moderate Movement.”
spokespersons for Moderate institutions to give an account of their
respective histories to an audience of Baptist historians. Mercer
Press published those presentations in 1993 under the title,
Struggle for the Soul of the SBC: Moderate Responses to the
conference pointed to at least two facts: First, parts of historic
Baptist heritage, including soul freedom, separation of church and
state, antipathy to creedalism, and local autonomy, were at best
marginalized and at worst scorned by the SBC’s new leadership.
Second, a remnant of
Baptists remained committed to this endangered Baptist heritage.
Talk in the halls led to the hope that the conference might have the
critical mass to start an organization to further the Baptist
heritage represented by those gathered in Macon.
Shurden suggested a
few of us get together for lunch to make a proposal at the last
conference session. We decided a monetary commitment was the best
way to test the waters for serious intent among the conference
attendees. We agreed to make the pitch for a new organization with
a purpose vaguely stated as having something to do with continuing
the conference’s emphasis on historical engagement with the
traditional Baptist heritage.
The committee’s report
was presented and I collected names, addresses and donations as
tokens of approval for the gestating organization. Cash and checks
made out to me were the currency of commitment, there being no
official repository for funds. As I drove away from Mercer’s campus
late that night, I had $1,000-2,000 stuffed in my suit pockets and a
rented car almost out of gas.
I made it safely to my
room that night the money was deposited shortly thereafter. That is
what I remember about the founding of the Whitsitt Society, but in a
brief time we had established a name, a checking account, officers
and a plan for an annual meeting.
A worthy namesake
resulting Baptist Heritage Society is named after William Heth
Whitsitt, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
until his resignation in 1899. He was forced out after publishing in
1896 the following conclusion to his careful historical study of
primary sources in the British Museum: “…Immersion was introduced
[in Baptist churches] in England in the year 1641.”
was contrary to the majority opinion of Baptists at the time.
Whitsitt’s enemies, including the primary media of the day, the
state Baptist newspapers, attacked him. His academic colleagues at
SBTS, who privately accepted his findings, kept public silence.
Whitsitt stood fast, declaring his book contained “proofs that are
irrefutable.” Today, Whitsitt’s views regarding immersion baptism
are virtually unchallenged. He spent his last decade teaching at
Richmond College (University of Richmond).
The word ‘Heritage’ in the Society’s
title is significant. The events in Macon a decade ago gave birth
to no professional historian’s society focused on the academic
minutia in a narrative of past events. Rather, a heritage society
began, formed to keep, display and proclaim a valuable though
The Whitsitt Society’s first president
was neither clergyman nor professional historian. He was Baptist
layman and journalist Walker Knight, founding editor of the national
news journal, Baptists Today.
Note: The Whitsitt Society is no
longer active, having ceased to exist in 2012.