Conservative Baptists should celebrate their heroes quickly

Artisans with the Don Young Glass Studio

By Alan Bean

According to a front page, above-the-fold, article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has launched a twelve-year project that will see 69 heroes of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention celebrated in stained-glass.

This ambitious enterprise follows hard on the heels of a 20-minute documentary produced this year to consecrate the 20th anniversary of R. Albert Mohler’s role in the conservative takeover of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville Kentucky.

My initial reaction to all this eulogizing of faith heroes, most of whom are still with us, was distinctly negative.  It seemed tacky and a bit presumptuous.   Shouldn’t we wait for the verdict of history?  Don’t we normally reserve stained-glass windows for genuine heroes of the faith who are acknowledged inside and outside the limited circle of our faith tradition?

I do recall seeing E Y Mullins, a Southern Seminary president who died in 1928, incorporated into a “great cloud of witnesses” set of stained-glass windows in Louisville’s Highland Baptist Church; but Mullins was celebrated worldwide as a Baptist Statesman, inside and outside his denomination, and appealed to conservative and moderates alike. Besides, I suspect a few decades separated his death and the creation of the window.

W.A. Criswell

On reflection, though, I think Paige Patterson and his Southwestern colleagues are making the right move at the right time.  The concerted antics of men like Patterson, Bailey Smith, Adrian Rogers and W.A. Criswell may appear glorious, bold and compelling to the good people within the fundamentalist wing of Southern Baptist life.  But to virtually anyone outside that particular tribe, the conservative resurgence looks like a ruthless power-play accomplished by manipulating fear and ignorance.

No one outside the tribe is going to celebrate these men, so they might as well celebrate themselves.

Moreover, Patterson et al were right to move quickly.  The verdict of history will not be kind.  It is hard to imagine Baptists fifty years hence remembering these folks or rejoicing in their strong-arm tactics.  Folks like Joseph McCarthy and Theodore Bilbo (the race-baiting Mississippi Governor) had their day, but no one is building monuments to their memory.

At least, I hope not.