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Preserving Baptist Heritage

April 28, 2011

By Randy Fiedler

Baylor's newest research center not only will help preserve the 400-year global heritage of Baptists, but will provide faculty, staff and students additional opportunities for research and scholarship.

Baylor Regents approved the Baptist Studies Center for Research at Baylor during their Feb. 11 meeting. The center will be established through the Department of Religion.

"We think Baylor is the logical place for this center," Dr. William H. Bellinger Jr., chair and professor of religion and The W. Marshall and Lulie Craig Chair of Bible, said. "Its focus will be on research, and that is our strong suit. We think Baylor can make important contributions."

The center will pull together the hundreds of thousands of Baptist-related research materials -- books, letters, sermons, photos, oral histories and more -- already at Baylor.

"We have a lot of Baptist materials on campus, but the problem is that they're spread all over," Bellinger said. "We're now working on getting an inventory of just what materials we do have here. In the future we will be making a significant effort to become a repository of the papers of significant Baptists that will likely lead to a need for archival space at some point in the future for all of these materials."

In addition to printed materials, the center will seek to assemble a virtual depository of important Baptist documents, photographs, books and other collections. The depository would be an online archive not only of materials digitized from Baylor's collections, but from the collections of libraries and archives around the world that will partner with the center.

"We want to work with other institutions to create a virtual collection because while there are good Baptist materials in many places, the access researchers have to them is not very good as a rule," Bellinger said. "Researchers often don't know where to locate certain items, and if those items are located it's often hard to get access to them. Our long-term goal is to have all of these materials available at the click of a mouse."

Center officials are now working with Baylor University Libraries to digitize documents and build the foundation of the virtual collection.

Baylor's center will be comprehensive in its scope, something that other Baptist study centers so far have not achieved.

"Baptist centers at smaller schools typically try to develop a niche to reach out to Baptists in their local area, and the centers do tend to serve mainly churches in the local areas," Dr. C. Douglas Weaver, associate professor of religion and coordinator of Baptist Studies research, said. "It's all very good work, but it's usually done with limited resources and has a very narrow scope. Our goals are much more ambitious than that. We hope to offer a comprehensive look at Baptist stories in ways that other places can't."

Baylor is the only Baptist university with a PhD program in religion, and that distinctive will allow the center to offer graduate students new opportunities for research and enrichment.

"We will now be able to offer an emphasis in Baptist studies in our PhD program," Bellinger said. "Doctoral students will be able to take courses in Baptist history and theology as well as do some research, with the idea that when they graduate they can teach in the area of Baptist studies. That will be a unique contribution made by this program."

Undergraduate students at Baylor will have new research opportunities as well. Bellinger and Weaver said they'd like to see the center provide courses for undergraduates that would incorporate travel to significant Baptist sites throughout the South and in New England to study Baptist history.

"We also want to be able to provide opportunities for visiting scholars to come to the center to interact with graduate and undergraduate students alike," Bellinger said. "We will have some of these scholars offer lectures on campus, possibly in conjunction with other Baylor departments and research centers. These lectures could have a significant impact on our students, who could meet with people having important voices in Baptist life and catch a sense of future possibilities for themselves."

Center organizers are also considering the creation of an essay contest on Baptist identity and themes that would be open to religion students.

Bellinger said that once funding is secured, the new center will begin adding value to Baptist life, helping Baptists learn more about their denomination's history and pass that history down to new generations.

"This is one of the ways that Baylor can make a contribution to the Baptist future," he said. "We also think that it's a way to contribute to Baylor's efforts at making sure our Baptist heritage is not only a heritage of the past, but also incorporates the living tradition and the current research efforts of the university."

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