Longtime Southwestern Seminary church historian Leon McBeth passed away last week at the age of 81. I never met Dr. McBeth, though I have been around him once or twice at conferences. My own career in theological education began shortly after his had ended. But like anyone interested in Baptist history, I have learned much from Dr. McBeth. His widely adopted textbook The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Broadman, 1987) influenced my personal journey into Baptist Studies at a key moment in my spiritual pilgrimage.
By the time I was a senior at Brewton-Parker College (BPC), I had become very interested in the history, identity, and theology of the Baptists—what I now call Baptist Studies. My interest arose from my own existential struggles with my place in the Baptist world. I came of age in a conservative Southern Baptist congregation in Waycross, Georgia. When I transferred to BPC as a college junior and began taking classes in the Christianity Department, I discovered that most of my professors were not as conservative as I was. The next eighteen months proved to be crucial in forming me into the minister and professor that I am today.
Honestly, I was pretty confused for those first three semesters I was at Brewton-Parker. On the one hand, I was quite certain my home church wasn’t “fundamentalist,” a word I heard a lot at BPC. (I knew plenty of real fundamentalists.) On the other hand, I was pretty sure that my professors weren’t “liberals,” another word wafting through the South Georgia air. (I had read some real liberals, and my professors weren’t that.) My professors had each earned one or more degrees at either Southern Seminary or Baylor University (or both) during the1980s and now considered themselves to be moderates. My home church’s pastor, on the other hand, was a Criswell College graduate who spoke of W.A. Criswell and Paige Patterson with great reverence. Where was my place in SBC life?
I began reading about recent Southern Baptist history in my spare time, trying to get a handle on “The Controversy” that had clearly affected everything around me. I read books by Grady Cothen, Walter Shurden, Fisher Humphreys, and Bill Leonard. I read Paul Pressler’s autobiography. I found articles by Paige Patterson and Al Mohler and read everything I could find written by David Dockery or Timothy George. Though I learned much and began to figure out where I stood in SBC life, I was in danger of having an ahistorical understanding of Baptist identity. I didn’t yet know the wider Baptist story or really even the Southern Baptist story prior to about 1960. This is where Leon McBeth helped me the most.
My senior year at BPC, I took an elective course in Baptist history. Our textbook was The Baptist Heritage. The book provided me with a coherent grand narrative of Baptist history into which I could contextualize my own Baptist identity. One of our assignments in the class was to write a critical book review of a recent work in Baptist Studies. My professor, knowing of my interest in this topic, assigned me Paul Basden’s edited volume Has Our Theology Changed? Southern Baptist Thought since 1845 (B&H, 1994). Basden was a fine historical theological complement to McBeth, helping me to further put together some of the pieces.
What began as a personal struggle to understand my own sense of Baptist identity was fast evolving into a professional calling. In the fall of 2000, just weeks before I married Leah, we were on a date at a restaurant in Vidalia, Georgia. I asked Leah if she could see me as a church history professor whose expertise was Baptist history. She said that she could. I told her I would have to take school more seriously and work harder to make high grades in all my classes. She told me she thought that I could do that (Leah had always thought I was pretty lazy in my academics, and she was right). I told her I would have to earn a PhD after I finished my MDiv. She said she was fine with me pursuing research doctoral studies. I finished at BPC in December 2001, relocated to Southern Seminary in June 2002, and by August 2007 was teaching church history full-time at Southeastern Seminary.
Leon McBeth didn’t introduce me to Baptist history, but he provided the initial scaffolding from which I’ve erected my own teaching ministry. I don’t agree with many of Dr. McBeth’s interpretations of Baptist history, and The Baptist Heritage is now pretty dated, but I still haven’t found a textbook that is as exhaustive as “Big Blue,” the nickname many have given to McBeth’s magnum opus. I have used it in my classes and regularly recommend it to others. If you are a Baptist minister, you really need to have The Baptist Heritage on your shelf.
Dr. McBeth also wrote many other books on such topics as women in Baptist life, Texas Baptist history, and English Baptist writings on religious liberty, in addition to dozens of influential scholarly articles and contributed book chapters. In 2011, Mercer University Press published a festschrift in honor of Dr. McBeth titled Turning Points in Baptist History, edited by Walter Shurden and Michael Williams. The latest issue of the scholarly journal Baptist History and Heritage is also dedicated to Dr. McBeth. If you want to read some of the obituaries and tributes to Dr. McBeth that have been written in the past few days, check out the links below.
“Baptist Historian Leon McBeth Dies” (Associated Baptist Press)
“A Tribute to H. Leon McBeth” (Charles DeWeese)
“Dr. Leon McBeth Dies at Age 81” (Baptist History and Heritage Society)
“Harry Leon McBeth” (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
“Church history professor for 45 years, Leon McBeth, dies at 81” (Southwestern Seminary)