BUIES CREEK, N.C. — George Braswell grew up “marching to a different drum” and, at 77, he still does.
Braswell — a highly-regarded Baptist expert on world religions — spent much of his early life on the “wrong” side of the railroad tracks in a small Virginia town, according to his recently-released memoir, Crossroads of Religion and Revolution. As a teenager, he earned his undergraduate degree at Wake Forest University — then located in Wake Forest, N.C. — and met his wife, the former Joan Owen. Twice while in Wake Forest, he lost jobs because he stood up to managers who were cheating their customers.
After completing their degrees, the young Southern couple set out for the North, where he studied Christian missions at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
Though he explored interests in medicine and baseball, Braswell eventually became pastor of Cullowhee Baptist Church in the mountains of North Carolina where he says the couple had some of the most fulfilling years of their lives. Amidst the race riots of the early 1960s, African and Native Americans were serving through this college town church.
In the summer of 1966, the Braswells took their youth to Ridgecrest Conference Center for its annual Foreign Missions Week. There they began a journey of exploring overseas missions service. Their first inquiry was discouraged by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Foreign (now International) Mission Board because Braswell had graduated from Yale, not a Southern Baptist seminary, which he was told was a prerequisite for missionary appointment.
But one letter of refusal was not enough to keep Braswell from following the path he felt was God’s will; he pursued it further and the mission board approved his appointment without additional work at an SBC seminary.
Continuing to “march to a different drum,” the Braswells were the only two out of 100 missionaries assigned to the Middle East; they would be the first Southern Baptist missionaries to Iran.
Following appointment, the Braswells went back to Ridgecrest for missionary orientation, a 16-week boot camp of intensive cross-cultural and life-skills training. Attendance at the numerous learning sessions was mandatory. At one point, Braswell felt he had to get away. He and a fellow missionary skipped classes and played golf. A stranger at the course offered to pay their way and play with them. The stranger was Billy Graham, the budding evangelist who was already rising to world recognition. Braswell and his friend were reprimanded by the director of missionary orientation but became the envy of everyone at Ridgecrest.
In Iran, their family would be among a handful of Americans among millions of Iranians, an expanded version of his experience as a minority in Emporia, Va., where he grew up among African-Americans. He taught English and world religions (minus Islam) to Muslim clergy at the University of Teheran. He also was associate director for university relations at Armaghan Institute, a Presbyterian language and cultural center across the street from the campus.
In his autobiography, Braswell says that being a professor was a highly-respected occupation and they were doubly welcomed because he was an American professor. “My family and I felt the safest in Iran of any place we had lived,” he wrote.
While serving there from 1968 to 1971, they were able to start Bible studies and other witnessing opportunities. “Christian minorities in Iran during my residence lived basically under the protection of the Shah’s government and the laws of the land,” Braswell wrote. Some of his friends would become martyrs when the Shah was deposed.
While home on an extended furlough, Braswell enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned a master’s degree in cultural anthropology and at the same time earned a doctor of ministry degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest.
The Braswell family was back in Iran for only seven months when he received a call to come back to Southeastern to teach missions and church history. Before he left, however, he had a very unusual experience. As part of his teaching responsibility at Damavand College, a Presbyterian college for women, he became acquainted with many female Muslim students. One of them invited him to a Sofreh, “perhaps the heart of the religious world for Iranian women,” and he went to the all-female gathering and observed from a distance. His other varied religious and cultural experiences had been among men.
In 1974, he returned to Southeastern to teach and started work on a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, graduating in 15 months. Thirty-one years later, he retired as distinguished professor emeritus of missions and world religions, never having signed the controversial 2000 Faith and Message SBC doctrinal statement. This was long after many of his friends had left the school because of changes in administration but only weeks before he started teaching at Campbell University Divinity School as senior professor of world religions.
The theological controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s and ’90s had not boxed him in; he continued to “march to a different drum.” In his memoir, he compares some of the happenings in the last quarter of the 20th century in SBC life with the revolution in Iran.
In 2007, Braswell founded the World Religions and Global Cultures Center at Campbell, a one-of-a-kind missions learning experience, where students are taught world religions and are trained and given opportunities to teach churches and individuals. More than 1,000 students have been through his world religions courses and more than 100 have taken the intensive teacher training courses.
“This center has been a culmination of a life given to the understanding of and a gospel witness to the world’s tribes and nations,” says Andrew Wakefield, dean of Campbell University Divinity School.
Of all Braswell’s life experiences, the hardest was losing his 14-year-old granddaughter to cancer. “The death of my granddaughter, Dana, with cancer at the age of 14, remains unanswerable for me,” he writes.
Braswell says the most universal cultural attribute in all societies might be death. “Everyone dies. Some die too young. I know.” But in the midst of his pain, Braswell says he remembers the pain of Jesus who made the choice to die on the cross for the salvation of the world.
Crossroads of Religion and Revolution is published by Xulon Press and may be purchased there or at other major book stores. Profits from the sale of the book through Xulon will be donated to the World Religions and Global Cultures Center at Campbell.
Irma Duke ([email protected]) is director of church relations at the Campbell University Divinity School.