Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society
Beginnings of the Whitsitt Society

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Beginnings of the Whitsitt Society

By Wm. Loyd Allen, executive director-treasurer

             A scene from the beginning of the William H. Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society remains vivid for me. Late one October night in 1992, I bought gas for my rented car at a dilapidated convenience store in a seedy part of Macon, Ga. Walking in to pay, I noticed a group of rough young men, who were out on the town long after the town offered any wholesome reason to be out. 

 

William H. Whitsitt

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. 

In 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 the SBC. 

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.” 

Shurden invited 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, The Struggle for the Soul of the SBC: Moderate Responses to the Fundamentalist Movement. 

The well-attended 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

The 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.” 

This 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 imperiled legacy. 

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.