On the Importance of Local Church Histories

I recently finished reading my friend Glenn Jonas’s excellent history of the First Baptist Church of Raleigh, North Carolina. The book, titled Nurturing the Vision: First Baptist Church, Raleigh, 1812 –2012 (Mercer University Press, 2012) tells the story of one of the more influential churches among Baptists in the South. I highly recommend it for those interested in Baptist history, local church history, or the history of Raleigh. You can also watch a plenary session Jonas gave at the 2012 annual meeting of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, which was based upon the book.

Over the years, FBC Raleigh has cast a long shadow over Baptist life in this region, including such storied ministries and institutions such as the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, The Biblical Recorder, Wake Forest University, Meredith College, and Southeastern Seminary. Many of her pastors have been state and national denominational leaders. As a general rule, most of the pastors over the past century were also highly educated; many of them also served at one time or another on a seminary or college faculty. In fact, two former pastors, Sydnor Stealey and Randall Lolley, are also former presidents of Southeastern Seminary. The church’s membership has included important state and national politicians, journalists, university administrators, and key business people.

FBC Raleigh is a congregation that has been characterized by a strong commitment to denominational missions, ministry in a downtown, urban context, and moderate-to-progressive views on theology and social issues. It was among the earliest Southern Baptist churches to elect women to serve as deacons and later ordain women to vocational ministry. Since at least John Lewis’s tenure as pastor from 1960–1987, the church’s pastors have been very active in moderate Baptist life. The church is no longer affiliated with the SBC, but remains involved in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Jonas’s history is especially helpful because it situates the FBC Raleigh story in the larger stories of Southern Baptists, North Carolina Baptists, and the city of Raleigh. Local church histories haven’t always done a good job of contextualizing their stories in this way. Readers learn about all the topics you’d expect: pastors, building programs, ministry initiatives, significant milestones, etc. But historians in particular will appreciate the chapters that discuss how FBC Raleigh weathered key events such as the various wars, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Conservative-Moderate Controversy in the SBC.

As I was reading Nurturing the Vision, I was reflecting on a recent trend that I celebrate. In the past decade or so, a number of very good local church histories have been published. Unlike most books of this genre, these histories have been written by professional historians who are also committed Baptists. Like Jonas’s work, these histories not only tell the church’s story, but they also make an important, often underappreciated contribution to Baptist Studies. They aren’t hagiographical studies, but at the same time the books are sympathetic to their subject, which is appropriate for a work of this nature (and understandable—the authors are paid by the churches to write the histories!).

In the preface to Jonas’s book, the respected Baptist historian Walter Shurden argues, “In the future, Baptist historians probably should spend far more time on local rather than global history. The latter is almost impossible to do correctly, but the former is manageable, so helpful, and serves to correct our generalizations about our spiritual family.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s my hope that this renaissance of local church histories continues. Not nearly as many churches publish histories as was the case a generation ago, and that’s a shame. I would urge churches, especially older congregations, to consider investing the time and resources in publishing quality, well-researched histories. They will not only do a service to their own congregations, but will also do a service to historians as well. The same goes for local associations, state conventions, and various denominational ministries as well.

If you’re interested in reading some good local church histories, in addition to Nurturing the Vision, I’d recommend the following books: Greg Wills, The First Baptist Church of Columbia, South Carolina, 1809 to 2002 (Fields, 2003); C. Douglas Weaver, Second to None: A History of Second-Ponce De Leon Baptist Church, 1854–2004 (Fields, 2004); Robert A. Baker, Paul J. Craven, and Marshall Blalock, History of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina, 1682–2007, 325th Anniversary Edition (Particular Baptist Press, 2007); Scott Culclasure, In Every Good Work: A History of First Baptist Church Greensboro, North Carolina (Fields, 2009).

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  1. Miles Mullin   •  

    Thanks for the post, Nathan. You are correct in all your points. Beyond Baptist life, a well-done local church history can be used to illumine larger trends in American religious history as well…

  2. dr. james willingham   •  

    Every Baptist Church needs someone to write its history in order for future members as well as the public to perceive, recognize, and appreciate its contributions for the sake of Christ. Knowing how African Americans treasured their membership in the days of slavery, I wrote a prospectus for a doctoral dissertation on the Baptists & Slavery at Columbia Univ. in NY in 1971. The value that could have been involved in that work was brought home to me one day as I viewed a tombstone in a family cemetery near on of our historic churches. It told how a member of that church had been excommunicated for protesting the treating of African American members of the church as equals. It surely did not escape the attention of the African Americans that they were referred to in the minutes and in conversation as Black Brother ___ or Black sister ____. They imbibed the same teaching as the Whites. Think what it meant to know that God looked upon them as His children. And could it be thaqt Zeph.2:111,12 points to the reality taht God might make African Americans the template for the spiritual Israel of God and the force for the renewal of Western and even World Civilization?

  3. Roger Simpson   •  

    Dr. Finn:

    Based upon your blog I ordered the book “Second to None — History of Second — Ponce de Leon”. This is a church that I have been aware of for decades.

    This book helped me to fill in a lot of blanks in my own mind regarding the trajectory of one of the larger Baptist congregations in the South and the direction it has taken in the last half of the 20th century.

    One of the questions I ponder is what is going on now — a couple of decades after the Conservative Resurgence / Fundamentalist Takeover {choose your own description) — on both sides. For example, are “old wounds” healing or is the division becoming more institutionalized over time? Looking at anecdotal evidence I don’t detect any effort to bury swords and build on a common Baptist Heritage of cooperation.

    Since neither “side” is making too much progress it might make sense to see if some old wounds could be patched up to allow more cooperation.

    I guess I’m naïve to think that it would be possible to come up with a BFM 2014 [or some other document or memorandum of understanding] which would facilitate a thawing in relations between SBC and CBF congregations. If such a thing was to happen I don’t know who would make the first move and I don’t know what that move would be.

    I think there is a difference between “inerrancy” and “authority”. However, I don’t necessarily think that difference is stark enough to justify the resulting train wreck.

    Roger Simpson Oklahoma City

  4. PJ Tibayan   •  

    Any good advice in what to record throughout the years for an eventual church history to be written?

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