Heritage Column for March 17, 2005
By Fred Anderson
Last week this column told about the many Virginia Baptists who attended the first Congress of the Baptist World Alliance, which was held in London in 1905, and the large contingent of Virginians who were present for the Golden Anniversary Congress of 1955. It was at the 1955 meeting that a Virginian, Theodore F. Adams of First Baptist Church, Richmond, was elected president of the BWA.
James B. Walthall, the resident historian of the Richmond church, was a young 25-year-old innocent abroad for the exciting meeting in 1955. His memories of the trip are as clear as if it were last week instead of 50 years ago. He remembers the names of his hotels, the names of the strangers with whom he conversed on the plane, what he saw and what he felt.
For several years before the trip, Dr. Adams had been planting the seed that the young man might consider joining his tour group, which would visit the Continent and London. He began to suggest that Jimmy, as he was and is known by so many Richmonders, might go along with his own son, John, and together the two young men could be in charge of baggage.
“Dr. Adams had a theme when he was talking it up,” recalls Jimmy Walthall. “He would say, ‘Think about it; think that you can go; and think on it a lot and you will!' ” The pastor was persuasive. Dr. Adams suggested that he talk with others who were going and catch their enthusiasm. Mrs. Adams gave advice about packing for a long trip. “She would select all the clothing she planned to take on the trip and then invite the women to see what she had chosen and say, ‘Well, you are going to see these clothes a whole lot on the trip so don't get dressy.' ” Esther Adams became a seasoned traveler and used to say that a traveler should put out everything he or she wanted to take and then only take half of it.
Jim Walthall saved up his vacation time for two years until he had enough for the trip; but he would not have enough time if he accompanied the group by ocean liner. He made arrangements to fly and got to Paris before the group.
He remembers that he left home in a July heat wave in Richmond, wearing only light clothing; and soon wished that he had listened more to Mrs. Adams' lectures on what articles of clothing to pack. (She used to advise that travelers wear a light sweater over a blouse or shirt so that you could adjust to the temperature.)
It was a wonderful time for a young man to be abroad. In Paris, he learned that the American embassy was hosting a Fourth of July party and off he went. The group was in Paris for three nights and the young man thought about going to see the Folies-Bergere. “Dr. Adams did not control us. I went and asked him about the Folies and he said that anyone was free to do whatever; however, he had planned for the Baptist leader of France, a man who had done so much to rescue Jews in the war, to come and speak to the group.” Jimmy Walthall never got to the Folies! He did spend two hours in Louvre; and at that time, security was not tight and he could walk up and touch the Mona Lisa.
Berlin left a definite impression. It was not that long after the war and the central part of the city remained leveled from the bombings. He remembers seeing German women scrapping off the mortar on bricks so it could be re-used.
The Richmonders had to get to London before the opening of the Congress so that Adams could work on BWA business. After 50 years, Jim Walthall can still remember “all the talk going on about the election of president.” He recalls that the talk in the halls was between two Baptists from the United States: Adams or Louie D. Newton of Georgia, who was a vice president of the BWA. Some favored Adams because they thought that with his Northern Baptist background and Southern Baptist pastorate, he would be able to appeal to more people.
The sessions were held in Royal Albert Hall, which the young Richmonder noticed needed cleaning and painting. When the nominations committee reported, it stated: “The work of this committee was arduous. It was carried on in the finest Christian spirit. They had their differences of opinion which were freely and frankly expressed, but they had reached agreement on unanimous nominations.”
When the chairman moved that Dr. Adams be elected, the motion was seconded by none other than Louie D. Newton and it carried unanimously. Walthall remembers: “The election was not done with political hoopla. It was very quiet in the hall. I cannot even remember that people even applauded.”
James B. Walthall made other trips with Dr. and Mrs. Adams. “I learned so much on those trips not only about people and places but also about Dr. Adams and Esther and they were two beautiful people.”
In reviewing the Golden Jubilee Congress book from 1955, most, if not all, of the personalities who addressed the body are dead and gone. After all, at the time they already had reached an age of maturity.
One name in the whole listing of the minutes is still around 50 years later and still holding the same office and still living at the same address. She did not address the body but she did send personal greetings. Her name is Queen Elizabeth. She is the one person whom Jimmy Walthall did not meet in London!
Fred Anderson is executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and the Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies. He can be reached at P.O. Box 34, University of Richmond, VA 23173.