During the last weekend of March, Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, hosted a celebration honoring the life and work of E. Glenn Hinson, longtime professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who later taught at Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond and Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.
With Hinson in the audience, Loyd Allen, Raymond Bailey, Alan Culpepper, Bill Leonard, Karen Smith and Phyllis Rodgerson Pleasants Tessieri, who had been Hinson’s students and faculty colleagues, gave lectures and described Hinson’s influence on their scholarship. During worship at Crescent Hill on Sunday, Elizabeth Hinson-Hastey included in her sermon insights on Hinson from her unique perspective as his daughter.
In many ways, the weekend was a reunion of the “old Southern Seminary” – a band of alumni, most of whom graduated before the Albert Mohler era, celebrating life beyond their exile of decades past. It was a gift to all who were there.
After serving as moderator for Crescent Hill’s William M. Johnson Lecture Series, I believe the event merits a postscript since the Hinson legacy celebrated in Kentucky literally reaches around the globe. Here are four of the many gifts Hinson has bequeathed to Baptists and the larger Christian community.
- The gift of ecumenism and recognition that we are part of a larger Christian story.
In decades past (and still today), many students arrived on campuses with little knowledge of Christian history. If they knew anything about their Baptist story, it was probably a triumphalistic version and they still knew little or next to nothing about the broader traditions of the faith. It is the legacy of Glenn Hinson that Baptists became more aware of the larger Christian story. He was unique among Baptists, a patristics scholar, and while he added other things to his scholarly repertoire, he never ceased to introduce students to early Christianity.
“Out of his love for the whole history of the church, Hinson embodied ecumenical relationships.”
Out of his love for the whole history of the church, Hinson embodied ecumenical relationships. If you went to seminary and primarily knew and loved only Baptists, you left knowing and loving the church universal. (Who else but Hinson would send me to St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana to take a class on early Christianity with Father Ephraim?)
In his autobiography, Hinson has a subheading: “Catho-Baptist or Bapto-Catholic.” My personal assessment is that Hinson has always been a catholic Baptist, one who loved being Baptist, who affirmed vibrant personal faith, but who also heard the broader call of catholicity and was not afraid to teach his students about Catholic monks or Pope John XXIII and Vatican II. He has been a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.
Hinson describes his identity in even broader terms. He asserts that he is a “Bapto-Quakero-Methodo-Presbytero-Lutherano-Episcopo-Catholic!” And so he is. And his gift of ecumenism to Baptists is a gift that keeps giving.
- The gift of Baptist voluntarism and Baptist dissent.
Hinson’s gift of ecumenism has never overshadowed his role as a committed Baptist. Throughout his six decades of teaching and writing, fundamentalist Baptists attacked him unceasingly, and he surely found more freedom, appreciation and rest in ecumenical environments. Yet Hinson never let go of Baptist identity, even as he modeled how someone formed by their own experience and tradition could also be a committed ecumenist. He argued that the essence of Baptist life is voluntarism. (His unwavering emphasis on voluntary faith and soul liberty stood in direct contrast to the coercive conformity of many of his detractors.) He warned Baptists that they had lost their way and had become “corporation Baptists” with little vibrant personal faith or authentic community. He understands Baptists, and his focus on voluntary faith is a gift that keeps giving.
For his colleagues and students, Hinson embodied and modeled Baptist dissent. He was the recipient of fundamentalist blow after blow (how many times was he asked if Adam and Eve were real people?), but he remained faithful and taught us that dissent was an act of faithfulness. Often his dissent was done with sly humor. After repeatedly being charged with universalist tendencies, he once facetiously remarked that he was inclined to such a position, but ultimately universalism failed because fundamentalists were surely going to hell. In this day and age, faithful dissent is a gift of Baptist DNA that must keep giving.
- The gift of spirituality; the practice of the presence of God.
Many Baptists owe their introduction to the topic of spirituality and the classic literature of Christian devotion through the classes and writings of Glenn Hinson. In 1980, I was a member of the first class that Hinson taught on prayer. Seminarians flocked to his class on the Christian devotional classics. Students learned about Thomas Merton and the Abbey of Gethsemane because of Hinson’s friendship with his “brother” Merton. Students built their spirituality library with Hinson’s books, including A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle (1974), Doubleday Devotional Classics (1978) and The Reaffirmation of Prayer (1979).
“Hinson simply embodied that compelling phrase of Brother Lawrence, ‘to practice the presence of God.’”
For his students, Hinson simply embodied that compelling phrase of Brother Lawrence, “to practice the presence of God.” It was no exaggeration and with a bit of holy intimidation that we said, “When Dr. Hinson prays, you know God is there.” And we really weren’t joking when we thought Hinson had mystical visions of what God wanted (defined another way as powerful prayer).
I’ll never forget hearing some of my students in the late 1980s spout off a list of Baptist “heretics,” a list of names no doubt given to them by their pastors to warn them of liberalism in their classes. When I heard Hinson’s name blurted out by more than one naïve, young fundamentalist, I often responded with something like this: “Do you know him? Did you know he took the time to call a student when his father died? Have you heard him pray? Have you seen him in communion with God, practicing the presence of God? (Of course that last phrase flipped their minds.) If you blindly call Glenn Hinson a heretic, you have no idea of whom you speak.”
Spirituality and the need for spiritual formation, even of clergy – sharing the energizing love of God to all of his students – is a gift that keeps on giving.
- The gift of identity as scholar, minister and teacher.
Last, but surely not least, Glenn Hinson knows who God called him to be. Throughout his long and venerable career, he never forgot who he was. He modeled what it means to be called to a ministry of teaching and scholarship. His ecumenism, Baptist dissent and practice of the presence of God were consistently lived out in the classroom. He wrote for both the academy and the church – a feat attempted less and less in contemporary higher education.
His grasp of subjects was deep and wide. He knew intimately the classics of Christian devotion such as Catholic Thomas Merton, Quaker Douglas Steere and Baptist John Bunyan, to name but three. Who else in Baptist life could write on ecumenism, patristics, Baptist history, spirituality/spiritual formation/spiritual leadership for ministry, ecclesiology, biblical exegesis, peacemaking and worship in scholarly and popular publications?
“He wrote for both the academy and the church – a feat attempted less and less in contemporary higher education.”
And who else was known for lecturing on all these topics (and more) in churches and educational institutions as well as conferences sponsored by a variety of religious bodies? As the Baptist Renaissance Man, Hinson points to the need of lifelong, broad and liberating learning and of devotion to the ministry of teaching.
Hinson is a scholar/teacher, but he has never lost sight of the practical needs of ministry. That has been his identity. The test questions he asked in “Introduction to Church History” demanded rigorous thinking and quality content; but they also revealed the practical application of Christian history to local church situations (something most churches are not prone to see). For example, I recall this test question: “You’re a minister in _____ position, and one of your church members asks you about _____. Answer them based on your knowledge of this issue in church history.” I copied this format when I started asking test questions (as did others who studied with him). I must admit, however, that I never quite got the answer he once received, “You have asked a very good question, Professor. I want to give you a very thoughtful answer. So let me do some research and let’s meet again next week to discuss it.”
Ecumenical and Baptist? Appreciation and commitment to the church worldwide, past and present? Realize the need for lifelong commitment to spiritual formation? Recognize that scholarship that meets the demands of the academy must also have a role in the church? Know that being Baptist embodies voluntary faith and dissent at its core?
To say that Baptists and other people of faith are “indebted” to E. Glenn Hinson is an understatement.
Editor’s note: The 2019 William M. Johnson lectures will be published by the American Baptist Quarterly. For information about pre-ordering a copy, contact the American Baptist Historical Society.