The Atlanta Constitution from Atlanta, Georgia on May 4, 1997 · 102
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The Atlanta Constitution from Atlanta, Georgia · 102

Atlanta, Georgia
Issue Date:
Sunday, May 4, 1997
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SPORTS FINAL A 1 4 Sunday, May 4, 1997 NEWS The Atlanta Journal The Atlanta Constitution Around the South Wake Forest to open moderate seminary By Chris Burritt , Staff writer inston-Salem, N.C. If Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest University's new divinity school, ever wants a lesson in moderation, he can drop by Shorty's. The campus coffeehouse sells beer at night, but bartenders limit drinking to keep students from getting drunk. ' ' Leonard's job isn't going to be so easy, the 51-year-old Baptist minister and scholar is walking a fine line, theologically and practically, as he plots a moderate course for Wake Forest's divinity school. 1: Describing himself as "radical" on issues such as race and religious freedom, Leonard is trying to respect Wake Forest's Baptist tradition. He is fending off conservative barbs, including some from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C, birth-l place of Wake Forest University more ? than a century and a half ago. j Scheduled to open in the fall of 1999, , Wake Forest's divinity school will recruit students who want to pastor Baptist and other mainline churches but don't like ) the conservative views at Southern Baptist Convention seminaries, ji Wake Forest's is the latest of a dozen ' programs springing up nationally in reaction to the conservative takeover of ; the Southern Baptist Convention. Two in Atlanta are Mercer University's School ;' of Theology and the Baptist studies pro- gram at Emory. University's Candler j School of Theology. i "You try to develop a divinity school ! that is a bit nomadic," said Leonard, a I scholar of slight build surrounded by f, books in his office in the back of Wait Chapel. "You need to move quickly in i response to the issues facing the I church." f In the chapel's foyer, Wake Forest's first president, Samuel Wait, and his wife j stare sternly from dark portraits, a sharp " contrast to Leonard's attire of jeans,' . tweed jacket and green-and-black run-jrring shoes. i Students, Leonard said, will learn in a ' relaxed environment where they will be . jfree to ask questions in the private university's liberal arts setting. Still, ? they'll study a core curriculum of Chris-I tian history, preaching, pastoral care and spirituality, he said. As plans for the divinity school came together in recent years, Wake Forest Provost David Brown recalled that administrators and alumni concluded j that "we need to be putting ministers in j the pulpits . . . who are as well educated las the lawyers we are putting in the ' courtroom and the doctors we are putting in the operating room. ) That approach strikes some critics as cNo-Hellers' give -author a taste of what they believe Religious group angry, says label is derogatory By Chris Burritt STAFF WRITER Gray, Tenn. For four years, author Howard Dorgan traveled the backroads of Appalachia getting to know a tiny group of Primitive Baptists with a peculiar view of hell. Now the flames are licking at him. Dorgan $ new book about Primitive Baptist Universalists, who have been dubbed No-Hellers, has put the plain-spoken Appalachian State" University professor on the hot ii ff-J X 1 r seat. He has miffed some of the same worshipers he befriended in visits to their simple, emotion-filled churches. The title of Dorgan's book, "In the Hands of a Happy God: the 'No-Hellers' of Central Appalachia" (University of Tennessee Press, $34), has stirred old fears and resentments among congregations hidden in the hills of Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia. Church members detest the label No-Hellers, dating to the 1920s, because they consider it derogatory and inaccurate. Some are incensed that the publisher insisted on putting the label in the book's title and that Dorgan didn't protest loudly enough to prevent it. "They had a comfortable, secluded .world, and this notoriety has made them nervous," Dorgan said one recent Sunday, after visiting Hope Primitive Baptist Church near Gray, Tenn. "Some people feel so contemptuous of their theology." f Durhanrl2res Ml ' , . . A,iii: ,W 4U IMS' perhaps a bit too secular, even though Wake Forest University has never been affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina started the school in 1834, and today the ties between Wake Forest and the state convention are informal. "What kind of divinity school can you have in an atmosphere of multicultural-ism where all of the religions are assumed to be more or less equal?" said theologian Ralph C. Wood, who resigned this spring from Wake Forest's religion department after 26 years. No-Hellers believe in hell. But, rather than a fiery place where bad people go when they die, the group believes in hell on earth. When people sin, God punishes them by making their lives miserable. So, to No-Hellers, clean living is more pleasurable than sin, which leads to the ultimate punishment, death. "There are people who say these old Baptists do not believe in punishment," , elder Willard Owens told worshipers at Hope Primitive Baptist Church. "But we know right and wrong. When we do right, we are given. When we do wrong, we are punished." No-Hellers believe that all people good and bad are destined for heaven. That's because Jesus Christ suffered and died for mankind's sin, setting the stage for God's reconciliation with everybody who has ever lived, starting with Adam and Eve. Meanwhile, Dorgan writes, "The deceased are only sleeping, caught in an endless, peaceful, insensate time warp, until Resurrection restores them to a union in heaven with God, Christ and the total human family." Dorgan, 64, who once considered the Methodist ministry, finds comfort in the No-Hellers' beliefs because "it includes the whole human family in the rewards of heaven. I think these people are right-spirited in their theology." But, he said, the view is heresy among many Primitive Baptists and others who adhere to the traditional Christian view that hell awaits sinners who don't repent and seek God's forgiveness. Dorgan speculates that the No-Hellers' theology began creeping into Appalachia around 1820, when New England Universalists moved into Kentucky and spread their theology that a loving God had prepared a place in heaven for everybody. The belief reached into Tennessee and, f i f W. I " it ft i fUr 1 L 1 - i iyHahA. fx&Lu. y j a., ...... . i A $m'lM. .llf;I.I I . V. Qcei A'S'it'l'.MV.:. ... . ?. ''. 1 y;;i 1 P3 jay. Separate worlds: Bill Leonard (left), 51, a Baptist minister and scholar heads up the new multidenomina-tional Wake Forest seminary. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson says Leonard's approach to teaching theology and training ministers is inconsistent with Baptist beliefs.- Special Wood, who has taken a post at Samford University in Birmingham, said he is bothered by the gradual "diminution of the Christian witness" in Wake Forest academics and campus life. Beer drinking at Shorty's, he said, "does not concern me, but not praying to God in Christ's name does." Leonard said he hopes to steer Wake Forest's divinity school clear of theological frays, especially the long battle that split the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant denomination. "The worst thing we can do is start a I V , V i if ' , . f " . MIKE ROMINGER Special Howard Dorgan is on the outside in more ways than one: The Appalachian State University professor wrote a book about the Primitive Baptist Universalist church, including this one near Elizabethton, Tenn., upsetting members with its title. around 1900, began influencing some Primitive Baptist congregations. In the 1 920s, an association of Primitive Baptist churches in Tennessee and Virginia split on the issue, creating Hellers and No-Hellers. The latter label stuck and, for decades, has dogged Primitive Baptist Universalists. They fear that Dorgan's book and its title will draw unwelcomed attention to their roughly 1,000 members in 64 scattered congregations. I Ocean DALE E. DODSON Staff Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University will be at the heart of the new divinity school, set to open in 1999. Special I'1 " f CHRIS BURRITT Staff 'seminary based on this old dispute," Leonard said. "I do not want to bring another generation of ministers into this dysfunctional cycle that has challenged Southern Baptist life for 20 years." But Southern Baptists are taking note of the buildup of moderate divinity schools. Paige Patterson, the 54-year-old president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C, questions whether there's enough demand for ministers to support the schools. Once one of the Southern Baptist Convention's most liberal seminaries, "They are really concerned about those people who go to church down the road, who may have broken away years ago on that very issue," Dorgan said. "Now they fear that a somewhat larger world will start showering them with condemnations, too." The discord offers a glimpse into a subdenomination that shuns publicity, even as televangelists reach millions and some big-city congregations number in the thousands. "The world is trying to grow their churches; we are not," elder Willard Owens said. "We take the ones God sends us." That helps explain why the subdenomination avoids attention, especially when it recalls its contentious past. Owens helped Dorgan with the book, and he still considers him a friend. But Owens criticized the book's title as "an attention-getter. We don't want to be branded with this." "Some may see what I did as rank commercialism," said Dorgan, explaining that he did not object strongly when the publisher insisted on including "No-Hellers" in the title. He said he couldn't avoid using the term in the book because the group is widely known as No-Hellers in Appalachia. "I am sensitive to the fact that I am a nosy busybody in their lives," said Dorgan, the author of three other books about Appalachian religion. Dorgan stumbled upon the No-Hellers in 1992. His research is the first to examine the group. Dorgan was confused at first because No-Hellers share many of the conventional views of Primitive Baptists. They practice many of the old traditions, such as the slow, mournful line-by-line singing of standards such as "Give Me That Old-Time Religion." Southeastern is now strictly conservative. Under Patterson, who helped oust liberals from power in the convention, Southeastern contrasts sharply with Leonard's vision for Wake Forest University's divinity school. Leonard believes women should be ordained as ministers. That's based partly on his belief that the Christian act of baptism "means everybody is free," including women who want to preach. "I learned that from Baptists, not the women's movement," said Leonard, who was raised in Decatur, Texas. . "I think everybody should own at least one," Patterson quipped when asked about women. ? He noted that more than 200 of Southeastern seminary's approximately 1,500 students are women. They are training to be missionaries, children's ministers and counselors but not ordained preachers. "The vast majority of Southern Baptist women have no desire to be in the pulpit," said Patterson, citing the admonition in 1 Timothy 2:12 that women not be permitted to teach or have authority over a man. , ; Compulsory chapel is a distant memory at Wake Forest University, but it's a daily requirement at Southeastern seminary. One recent morning, Jerry Rankin, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Foreign Mission Board, urged students to sign up for foreign missions because Christians are called to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the "uttermost ends of the earth." People who don't hear and believe Jesus Christ's teachings "are going, to hell because the Gospel is a mystery to them," Rankin said. "I believe God is going to hold us accountable for every person who does not have an opportunity to hear." Leonard's views of the afterlife have been shaped by his daughter's physical disabilities. "I am not interested in the Pearly Gates and places full of fire," he said. "I am interested in wholeness, justice and peace." Patterson described Leonard's beliefs as "Dalmatian theology." "He does not take the Bible to be true in every respect," Patterson said. "If the Bible is only inspired in spots and you are inspired to spot the spots, then it is inevitable that anything that makes you morally or ethically uncomfortable you will jettison." ' . ! The existence of so many denominations shows that the Bible is open, to interpretation, Leonard said. : "All of us wear glasses when we read Scripture and participate in the life of the Christian church," Leonard said. "One of the things that separates me from Paige Patterson is, I admit that and he does not." ; Weekend after weekend, Dorgan visited the Primitive Baptist Universalist : churches, gaining the trust of elders. ; They shared with Dorgan what little was written about their theology. They filled in the rest in long talks in the church yards and across the kitchen table in . their homes. Dorgan took hundreds of black-and-white photographs, capturing river baptisms, impassioned "carried-out" preaching, and foot washings, a rare practice ' inspired by Jesus washing his disciples' feet at the Last Supper. When the publisher decided on the book's title last fall, Dorgan informed church leaders, and the protests started. At Easter, he mailed elders a copy of the book's cover, a mistake, he later realized. One Sunday last month, Dorgan visited Hope Primitive Baptist Church, northwest of Johnson City, Tenn. He shook ; hands, hugged necks, bowed his head during prayers, as he's done many times before. Over the years, he wrote, "The celebrants seemed so determined to pull me into their world of joy." He delivered a copy of the book to Hope church. He had removed the cover, hoping somehow to obscure the title, as it circulated among worshipers in the rising heat, described by one as "hot ; enough to roast a 'tater." ; Some of the same people who ' embraced Dorgan during the three-hour seryice criticized him later. Elder Keith Bowers said he was surprised by the disharmony, but that he believes it will pass. ! Dorgan skipped the fried chicken arid ham, the potato salad, the orange poundcake served after church services. "I ; have no doubt that I am going to get back in these peoples' good graces," he said, "but it is going t take time " 1

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