W.C. Fields, a pioneer in religious communications and defender of an uncensored Baptist press, died Dec. 2 at age 96.
Fields, a native of Louisiana, served as a pastor of churches in Louisiana, Kentucky and Mississippi before becoming editor of the Mississippi Baptist Record in 1956. Three years later he was elected secretary of public relations for the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.
He retired from the post in 1987 as vice president for public relations and director of Baptist Press, the denomination’s official news service. With innovations such as setting up a media-style press room at annual meetings of the SBC, he built a network of Baptist journalism professionals trusted by people in the pew and respected by the secular press.
“Our role is to help these folks do a good job,” Fields reflected on his dealings with secular media in a Baptist News Global interview in 2015. “We have to be honest, transparent, trustworthy. Maybe that includes telling them some things Baptists wouldn’t want them to know, but they depend on their sources shooting straight with them.”
When he retired, Fields described a 30-year period beginning in 1949 as “the golden age of the Southern Baptist Convention,” marked by rapid growth in all directions and a unity evidenced by widespread support for Bold Mission Thrust, a 25-year strategic plan to share the gospel with every person on earth by the year 2000.
That vision ended in “tragedy,” he recalled, when “dissension, discord, disagreement, disruptions, disputations and divisions” struck the denomination in 1979. “Never in our history has the devil won such a clear and sweeping victory,” Fields described the turmoil and disarray introduced “by an unrelenting, shameless takeover by a narrowly partisan political group thinly disguised now and then by pious phraseology.”
Fields was describing a movement remembered these days in Southern Baptist Convention circles as the “conservative resurgence.” Led by layman Paul Pressler and theologian Paige Patterson, the stated objective was to head off liberalizing influences in the denomination by seizing control of institutions of intellectual authority.
With an unofficial motto “tell the truth and trust the people,” Baptist Press covered activities on both sides of the controversy in detail, often to the displeasure of conservatives gradually winning majorities on trustee boards overseeing Baptist work, including Baptist Press.
Fields’ successor at Baptist Press, Al Shackelford, was elected by a vote of 32-26, after asking for a year to prove to doubters that he would cover the news in a way fair to the conservative side. Three years later Shackelford was fired, along with news editor Dan Martin, sparking censorship concerns that led to formation of Associated Baptist Press, forerunner of Baptist News Global, in 1990.
Under the title “SBC Journalism: Besieged!” Fields described a “brazen, shameless attempt by fundamentalists to intimidate, bully and undermine Southern Baptist journalists and their publications.”
Quoted by Molly Worthen in Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelism, Fields argued that the campaign to co-opt church media was not merely a political tactic but posed a threat to the core of Baptist identity.
“Our forefathers wisely protected and cherished free access to full information,” he wrote. “That structural freedom is linked to freedom of access to God, to an open Bible, to a divine right to private judgment in spiritual matters.”
Associated Baptist Press honored Fields with the Religious Freedom Award in 2006.
Wilmer Clemont Fields was born March 16, 1922, in Saline, Louisiana. He was married to Rebecca Elizabeth Hagan “Libby” Fields, from 1946 until her death in 2002. In 2003 he married Lawana Jane House McIver, widow of Bruce McIver, the longtime pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. She survives.
Other survivors include a brother and sister, three children, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Fields enjoyed flying power planes and sailplanes, fishing and photography. He traveled in 171 countries and set foot on all seven of the earth’s continents.
Visitation and a celebration of life service will be held at Woodmont Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, on Saturday, Dec. 8. Visitation will be 1-3 p.m., with the service immediately following at 3:00.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Baptist News Global, the Baptist Center for Ethics or Woodmont Baptist Church.
Honoring W.C. Fields
In response to the family’s expressed wishes, we have received inquiries about how to contribute to BNG in memory of W.C. Fields, who died Dec. 2. Years ago, we established the Wilmer C. Fields Legacy Fund, an endowment that supports excellence and integrity in religious journalism as embodied and championed by W.C. Fields. Earnings from the fund help support BNG’s news operation.
If you wish to contribute to this fund, it will honor W.C.’s legacy and help secure the health of an independent news organization of which he was most proud. Click on the “Tribute” option on our secure donation form.
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