Midwestern Seminary professor passionate about Missouri Baptist history, book coming
June 14, 2005
Michael McMullen, associate professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, was recently chosen by the Missouri Baptist Convention to write a book about the history of Baptist life in Missouri. Pathway contributing writer Lee Warren had a chance recently to sit down with Professor McMullen in his office and discuss the project.
Q: Do you have a working title for the book yet? And when is it supposed to be available?
A: The working title is The History of Baptists in Missouri. The target release date is May 2006.
Q: Why does writing the history of the Baptist life in Missouri interest you?
A: Because it’s the story of what God has done in and through His people in the state in which I currently live, work, and teach. So I’m interested to learn about that for myself in detail and to be able to share that with Baptists in Missouri. That’s always been my aim in teaching— to take that which can be deathly history at times and trying to present it in an interesting way to encourage and challenge lots of people.
Q: Why is now the time for a book like this?
A: So much has happened in Southern Baptist life and Missouri Baptist life that it would be a good time to try and give an accurate picture of what has taken place. We’re coming up on two anniversaries. In 1805, the first Baptist church was formed in Southeast Missouri. In 1806, Bethel Baptist Church was formed.
The shame about the anniversary of Bethel Baptist Church is that it started in 1806 and it took on anti-mission ideas and eventually died. If you don’t have missions, then what reason for being does a church have?
Q: Why is it important to record Missouri Baptist church history?
A: Those who’ve gone before us suffered a great deal as Baptists. Under the Spanish, it was illegal to preach. If you were captured in the territory that would become Missouri, then you would be imprisoned. So people would sneak into Missouri—they would come across the river—preach, then go back to Illinois and Kentucky.
The early Baptists suffered imprisonment, persecution, physical injury, and confiscation of property and goods. Many of them were whipped, or flogged, or died in prison. Their suffering is our heritage. It is important that we know the price they paid so we could have religious freedom. We didn’t just happen. We have a history—a heritage. I think it is important that we try and appreciate what people went through.
History provokes in many people a natural resistance. There’s no interest because it’s gone. It’s past. This is a new era. It’s the 21st century. We’re moving on. Things are so different now. There isn’t anything to learn. But I would like pastors to encourage people to read about their history and heritage. God works in the same ways. People are really not that different from those who have gone before. We face many of the same trials and temptations. History is very cyclical. You see that through Scripture.
Q: What changed things for Baptists in Missouri?
A: Once the territory was purchased and became part of America, it opened up to settlers—to Baptists, and to others to come in.
Q: Why do you think that people tend to view history as irrelevant today?
A: There are so many pressures today in everyday living. People are caught up in the moment. There is so much materialism. There is so much living for the now. We don’t look back and we don’t look forward. We don’t think about death. We don’t want to think about that so we put it off. We have long life expectations now. We are much more confident and self reliant. We don’t necessarily see ourselves as dependant as previous generations. A lot of people seem to have a mindset that believes they don’t need God anymore. So we see no real value in history. We are very much people of the present.
One thing I want to address in the book is the constant challenge to remain faithful just as previous generations have been — and to learn from that, to see the dangers of drifting from God and his Word. And from holding doctrines that are not building up the body or true to God’s Word.
Q: Can you give us a brief overview of the book?
A: I’m at the early stages trying to gather material. I would like to try and find any material that people might have of early Baptists—history, anecdotes, stories, family recollections—anything that people might be willing to share. They can send those types of things to me here at MBTS. And if it is particularly precious, they don’t even need to send it, they can call me and I can arrange to examine it.
Q: Has a project like this been done before?
A: Previous histories do exist. We have histories until about 1980. I would like to do it so it’s not dry as dust, but relevant—that there are challenges, stories of individuals, revivals, and persecutions.
Q: Have you unearthed any stories in your preliminary research that fascinated you personally?
A: One of the facts that I came across early on was about John Clark, an early preacher. He was a Methodist and a Baptist. He was preaching in Missouri in about 1798 and he was one of the first Baptist preachers here involved in the establishing of churches. He was Scottish. My Dad was Scottish. Most of my adult life was spent in Scotland. It was almost like it was full circle. This man was involved in the beginning of Baptist work and here I am trying to put together an account of what has taken place here in Missouri.
I also came across a story of a preacher named Jeremiah Vardaman. He was six foot tall, 300 pounds. He was involved in the meetings in 1834 and 1835 when they were talking about establishing the Missouri Conventional—the General Association. This preacher was responsible for at least 8,000 baptisms. He was called a giant of a man and a giant of a preacher. He traveled everywhere preaching and baptizing. They took him to Sulphur Springs when he was ill, and even there in the last weeks of his life a revival broke out as he was speaking to people and he baptized five people. The last two years of his life, he couldn’t stand to preach, so he preached from an arm chair.
Q: What are your hopes for distribution for this book?
A: The primary goal is to put it into the hands of ordinary Baptists in Missouri—to get a book to each church.