Archives track Southern Baptists' road to diversity

Baptist Press
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Posted: Aug 06, 2013 4:52 PM
NASHVILLE (BP) -- In the 30 years Bill Sumners has served as an archivist and director of the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, the Southern Baptist Convention has changed to reflect the diversity of the age.

The change is reflected in the history recorded in the archives chronicling Baptists from the 1600s to today, from when African Americans were enslaved to the election of Fred Luter as the SBC's first African American president.

The archives are vital to telling the story of how the SBC progressed from the past to the present, Sumners said.

"Certainly as we look at the changing picture of who Baptists are ... what Baptists were in 1960 and what they are in 2013 is very different," Sumners said. "Well, how did we get there? What was the process? Who are the folks who moved us in that direction to be who we are today ... not that we're perfect but that we have come a long way from where we were to where we are now.

"We want to be sure that those stories, those events, those people are documented in our story," Sumners said. "Because of that it makes us understand who we are today. And that's always been true. We don't understand who we are unless we understand who we were before and how we got to where we are today."

That's why Sumners and a small staff of four have worked to grow the collection from a few boxes of correspondence to what he calls "the most extensive, diverse and accessible collection of Baptist material in the world."

"The major thing that we've been able to do is to create our place as the denominational archives. When I came in 1983 ... we had some of the early missionary correspondence, and that was about all we had as far as say denominational archives," Sumners told Baptist Press. "We had about 50 boxes of missionary correspondence. Everything else was personal papers and things like that."

Sumners is adding to the collection oral accounts of the integration of African Americans into Southern Baptist life and has documented recordings featuring Floyd Craig, former Christian Life Commission member; Elgia "Jay" Wells, former LifeWay Christian Resources' director of black church relations; W.C. Fields, former SBC vice president for public relations; Richard Land, former president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Carlisle Driggers, former executive director of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, and Emmanuel McCall, who served on the Home Mission Board and developed Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's black studies program.

"Generally, I have interviewed individuals I had access to. We would like to do more, but time and resources are limited," Sumners said.

Sumners joined the SBHLA as an archivist when the collection was part of the Dargan-Carver Library, jointly operated by the SBC Sunday School Board and the Historical Commission. The archives were relocated to the new SBC Executive Committee building when it opened in 1985, and Sumners became director six years later. He began early in his tenure to build the collection, beginning with various SBC records.

"Now we have just a sizable collection of material that document certainly the early work of our mission, our foreign mission efforts and our home mission efforts, plus the entities that have gone away and the ministry that they provided," Sumners said.

"It's important as a denomination for us ... to understand our history, how we got to where we are today, and you can't understand where we are today unless you go back and figure out what Baptists have gone through in the past," Sumners said. "You know, why are Southern Baptists so committed to religious freedom? In order to understand that, you have to go back and look at what Baptists were going through in our colonial times.

"While we were concerned about the separation of church and state, we have to understand there were times in America we had a state church. Baptists reacted very strongly against that and that legacy has continued until today," he said. "Certainly religious freedom is a trademark."

The archives include thousands of books, annuals of Baptist associations and conventions, comprehensive files of Baptist newspapers, audio and video recordings, photographs, pamphlets, archival records, manuscripts, microfilm reels of Baptist historical materials, and an environmentally controlled rare book room featuring rare Bibles dating from the early 1600s.

"Researchers can look on our online catalogue, look at our finding aids, and just have a really good feel of what we have here, whether it's in our periodical, microfiche, archives, our book collection, pamphlets our recordings," Sumners said.

"The thing that we have tried to do here, and the thing that I have stressed on our staff," he said, "is that our role in the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives is one of service and of course that's what the Gospel talks about anyway about being servants, and we take that role very seriously."

The SBHLA serves SBC churches and entities, hosts onsite researchers from several religious denominations and disciplines and awards small research grants annually.

Sumners encourages and assists churches in archiving their history.

"We want to be sure churches have some help to do that task," he said. Several aids to help churches are listed on the archives website, www.sbhla.org, under the "helps" tab.

Sumners expands the archive annually. In the 2011-12 fiscal year, he added nearly 6,000 items, including periodicals, books, pamphlets, photographs, microfilm reels, audiovisual items, electronic resources, annuals and archival collections. He's working to make the archives pan-Baptist, including materials from many Baptist groups.

Sumners expresses joy in managing the collection.

"To me that's just an incredible feeling to know that God has put me in this place to do this task and to do it for a long, long time," he said. "I can't imagine doing something different."

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' staff writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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