By Charles Deweese
Dr. H. Leon McBeth died this week in Fort Worth, Texas. Prior to his retirement, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1962 to 2003.
This professor of Baptist history made an indelible mark on tens of thousands of students and readers. He guided many students through doctoral programs in church history. He wrote voluminously. He lectured widely. And he served as chair of the SBC Historical Commission and president of the Southern Baptist Historical Society. His roles in the history of Texas Baptists are legendary.
As a teacher and lecturer, Leon had an uncanny ability to drive straight to the heart of his topics, to present his material in scholarly, yet popular, fashion, and to inject wit and humor into much of what he said. He possessed a caring personality, refusing to put down students or others who might disagree with any of his points.
Leon produced many of the most important books in Baptist history in the past 35 years. Examples include: Women in Baptist Life (1979) — my personal and cherished copy includes Leon’s handwritten note: “To Charles Deweese, dear friend and colleague in ministry, Leon McBeth, Ridgecrest, 1980;” The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (1987); A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (1990); and Texas Baptists: A Sesquicentennial History (1998).
In 2008, co-editors Michael E. Williams Sr., and Walter B. Shurden released Turning Points in Baptist History: A Festschrift in Honor of Harry Leon McBeth.
In the early 1990s, the Baptist Sunday School Board refused to publish Leon’s official centennial history of that board. That experience opened both his eyes and the eyes of millions of Baptists to the fact that religious fundamentalism was alive and well in the SBC, even to the point of marginalizing the deliberately balanced writings of an excellent Baptist historian.
I gained the wonderful opportunity to get to know Leon personally while I served on the staff of the SBC Historical Commission between 1973 and 1994. During that time, Leon served on the commission’s board of directors from 1976 until 1983, including service as chair.
He also served as president of the Southern Baptist Historical Society in 1978-79. In both capacities, he radiated affirming support for the two organizations and for their staff members. In 1989, the commission presented him its Distinguished Service Award.
Leon’s legacy continues on through students and readers nationwide and worldwide. He epitomized the best that Baptist history could offer because of his wide participation in every facet of this theological discipline. He made friends far and wide.
He understood the issues at stake in denominational discussions. While he at times walked what appeared to be a very careful line, those of us who knew him well know full well that he was one of the true freedom-loving Baptists of recent times; and that he had gained that awareness by studying pivotal documents of our common Baptist heritage.