In 1979 when I began my work at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society, I discovered several large wooden packing crates, full of crumbling file folders. They were the papers of George White McDaniel, a prominent minister — pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond from 1905 until his death in 1927 at age 51 and president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1924-27. The pa-pers had never been touched.
We blew away the dust and sorted the papers and then they waited. I have been keeping a “bucket list” of projects and the McDaniel papers were on that list. Finally, the papers became a priority. An associate arranged the papers, year by year, and made an inventory of the subjects. And I began to read some 25,000 letters to and from McDaniel.
It was not long before I was hooked. I began to identify correspondents, to understand relationships and to delve into the issues mentioned in the letters. Before long, I was absorbed in the world of George White McDaniel.
Born in Texas in 1874, he was orphaned as a teenager and reared primarily by an older sister. He went to Baylor University, where he came under the influence of B.H. Carroll, one of the foremost Baptist leaders of the age. The young man lived under Carroll’s roof and the Baptist leader became a father substitute. In time, George fell in love with one of his professors, Douglass Scarborough, and they were married.
From Baylor, he entered the pastoral ministry and soon went to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for training. He returned to Texas and quickly became one of the most sought-after young men for churches looking for pastors.
He was courted by the Richmond church. Some individuals warned him not to leave Texas for Virginia — too conservative, too hide-bound and reluctant to change. B.H. Carroll wrote a lengthy letter counseling him how to determine a sense of call and urging him, in the end, to remain in Texas, where he surely in time would become one of the leaders among the Baptists.
There was a problem within the Richmond church. They had two members in leadership roles who also were in the liquor business and the Texan would not consider the call until something was settled about these two men. When the issue was resolved, he accepted and began a new life in Richmond.
It was not long before Mc-Daniel became a rising star in the Virginia Baptist sky. He received speaking and preaching engagements across Virginia. He became involved in denominational life on the state and national scene. And soon he was widely known among Baptists.
After reading a few thousand letters, I began considering them as a basis for a new biography of the man. His widow had written a sentimental biography published soon after his death, but I wanted to tell the story of the public and private sides of the man. And there was enough material in the collection to put flesh on the bones.
I filled 12 large notebooks with research and from the notes began to write the story. Ultimately it took 500 pages to tell about his life and times and the Virginia Baptist Historical Society has just published the biography under the title My Dear Doctor Mac. It covers so many issues and concerns — Prohi-bition, Protestant-Catholic conflicts and evolution. It even tells about a public debate between McDaniel and a young college coed on whether or not the younger generation was “going to the dogs.”
The letters made fascinating reading. There were some from very prominent individuals — governors and senators, captains of industry, denominational statesmen — and there were many from ordinary folks in search of help: pastors seeking a new church, people in dire need, prisoners hoping for parole. A pastor’s wife in North Carolina wrote asking for a suit of clothes for her husband.
McDaniel became embroiled in a conflict between the Southern Baptist Convention’s newly-formed Annuity Board and a separate and older minister’s relief organization formed by Virginia Baptists. The leader of the latter organization was a prominent member of McDaniel’s church and at times there were fireworks.
McDaniel took upon himself several great challenges at the same time: attempting to save the SBC from near bankruptcy as well as division over the evolution controversy and campaigning to raise funds and relocate the Richmond church. Through exhaustive work he managed to do both but at a great personal price. Even while afflicted from a stroke, he masterfully healed SBC division, and after reams of speeches and sermons by people on both sides regarding evolution, he saved the day with one single paragraph.
He led First Church to relocate based upon a substantial pledge from a wealthy member. When the member fell upon hard times, a wider appeal was needed. Mc-Daniel lived to see foundations in place but never to occupy the pulpit in the new building. He died of another massive stroke.
You cannot spend a year reading every letter to and from an individual in his lifetime without becoming obsessed. I learned that McDaniel had two great joys — evangelism and fox hunting, not necessarily in that order. I learned the names and personalities of his numerous dogs. I learned about his wife, Douglass — her many denominational and church accomplishments as well as her catalog of illnesses; about his daughter, Mary, a woman of abilities; about his son, John, a challenge in his growing up years.
George White McDaniel, once a household name and now practically forgotten, lives again through My Dear Doctor Mac. To order a copy, send $20 plus $1 for sales tax plus $4 for shipping and handling to VBHS, P.O. Box 34, University of Richmond, VA 23173. Be prepared to be drawn into his life and times.
Fred Anderson (fred.anderson @vbmb.org) is executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and the Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies.