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'Helping Baptists to know their story'

The 2019 Summer School of the Baptist Historical Society explored Baptists in the 20th Century: its people, places, and principles   

BHSThe Baptist Historical Society gathered at the Woodbrooke Centre, Solihull, to hold its Summer School last week. The school is basically a conference in which women and men gathered to share papers around an agreed theme. 

This year’s theme was Baptists in the 20th Century: People, Places, Principles. It wasn’t the first time a Summer School had focused on the 20th Century; it had been the theme back in 1982. The first Summer School took place in 1968 to celebrate the Society’s Diamond Jubilee, and they have been held ever since.

The Summer School began with a paper from David Bebbington surveying Baptist understandings of the gospel over the 100 years. Not an easy task, but the kind of thing David is very good at doing. Ruth Gouldbourne offered a reflection on the life of Barbara Stanford, perhaps the last Baptist deaconess. This was not just an opportunity to study one life, but also the impact of the Deaconess movement amongst Baptists and ask some wider questions about the place of women within the Union, timely in this period that we are celebrating a 100 years of women in Baptist ministry.

Keith Jones spoke on how Baptists reacted to ecumenism, suggesting that the 1990s were something of a high point for Baptists, and so alongside the history was a challenge for all Christians (not just Baptists) to rediscover something of the hope and vision of those years nearly 20 years on. Ian Randall shared the history of the Robert Hall Society, which was a student group within Cambridge. Like other Baptist student groups at the time it was a place of discovering leadership gifts, doing mission and meeting other Christians.

We welcomed friends from overseas, and Graeme Chatfield from Australia provided an insight into Australian Baptist life through the ministry of Ken Manley. Simon Oxley gave a superb paper looking at how Sunday Schools and other means of Christian education changed, and again asked pertinent questions from this history into how we seek to educate children, young people and adults today. Andy Goodliff presented a paper on the life of Ernest Payne, General Secretary of the Baptist Union, 1951-67 and how he was a forerunner of those amongst Baptists who are happy to see themselves as ‘catholic’ and ‘Baptist’.

Sally Nelson shared about a project she is completing on ministerial formation. Terry Carter, another overseas attendee, in this case from the United States, introduced us to the life of W. O Vaught, a significant Southern Baptist in the last century, and again it provided a means of understanding something of American Baptist life, and in this case, particularly the Southern Baptists.

Peter Shepherd’s paper took us back to the First World War and the impact on one church, Cemetery Road in Sheffield, on those who went to war and on those who stayed behind. In a similar way William Bates offered a paper on one particular church, Hill Street Baptist Church, Swadlincote, again at the turn of the century and how it struggled with theological tensions. Brian Talbot took a broader canvas of Baptist life in Scotland in the 1980s and early 90s.

One final paper was perhaps a highlight. Alec Gilmore, now 91, and a prominent Baptist in the 1960s-80s, looked back at the events of his life and earlier, and how Baptists waxed and waned. This was history first hand and it was a special gift to be able to listen to one who was present at significant moments in the second half of the 20th century. 

In between all these papers were opportunities to share good food, good conversation and moments of prayer and worship. The Society was set up as a means of helping Baptists to know their story and convictions, to understand the challenges, decisions and changes in the past as one source of wisdom and guidance for the present.

Many of the papers will be made available in some format over the next 12-18 months and they would be worth reading. In the meantime, if not already, why don’t you subscribe to the Baptist Quarterly, for a regular dose of Baptist history? In an article in the Baptist Ministers’ Journal in 2002, one Baptist minister  asked the question, ‘Does the future have a denomination?’ Some of us might want to query the word ‘denomination’, but if Baptists are to have a future, I suggest it will be partly dependent on whether we know our story, and do we remain connected to it. 

Membership of the Baptist Historical Society includes a subscription to Baptist Quarterly. For more information and to join the Society, visit  baptisthistory.org.uk.

Report by Andy Goodliff, minister of Belle Vue Baptist Church, Southend 

Baptist Times, 23/07/2019
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