From the Shoe Shop to the Hallowed Halls of Oxford: Accomplishing the Unexpected
In the fall of 1976, I enrolled as a freshman at Furman University. I wouldn’t have made it without the help and encouragement of Jim Pitts. He not only encouraged me to apply for early admission, which meant I knew where I was headed by December 1975, but he introduced me to the folks who would help put together the financial aid package that would make it all possible. Even then, Furman was expensive for students from families of humble means. Of course, my experience was not unique. Jim did this for countless students over the years. It was what he did. He helped students, especially ministerial students from Baptist backgrounds, find their way to Furman and all that it offered.
I was fortunate to spend four years at the university during what I consider to be Furman’s golden age. It is hard to imagine a more wonderful group of mentors and teachers than religion faculty L. D. Johnson, Jim Pitts, T. C. Smith, Theron Price, Joe King, Edgar McKnight, Albert Blackwell, and others. I had respectable grades in high school but was not a stellar student. My first few terms at Furman were less than spectacular from an academic perspective. I think it was religion professor Bob Crapps who first referred to me as a “late bloomer.” Initially, I thought it was an insult, but later came to wear it as a badge of honor. I can’t think of how many times I’ve subsequently talked to students, faculty, and college administrators about never counting out a late bloomer! Along the way, Jim was always there, encouraging, prodding, dragging me into things. Bloom, I did.
At Furman I was encouraged to do study abroad. The year before, I had traveled with my Pastor, mother, Memommy and a group from Washington Avenue to the Holy Land and Greece. My mother and grandmother paid for the trip because they thought it was important for me to experience this spiritual pilgrimage to the land of the Bible. It was a life-transforming experience for a kid from my background. So, it was natural that I chose for my study abroad to travel with chaplain and religion professor L. D. Johnson and history professor Jim Leavell to Israel, Jordan, Italy, and France. When I graduated from Furman the cost of that term abroad was the only student debt I had–$1,200. And I didn’t even have to pay it back until after I had completed three additional degrees, with no interest accruing over those years. Those trips ignited my interest in the Middle East which would influence me to focus on Hebrew and the Old Testament, eventually taking me to the University of Oxford for doctoral studies.
Although a religion major, it was at Furman that I fell in love with philosophy. I took every philosophy class I could and lacked only one or two for a double major. My favorite was a class on Existentialism by a young professor who required us to read Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. The book made an enormous impression on me. While an oversimplification of Heidegger, my takeaway was that you only authentically live when you realize that one day the gift of life will end. Life is a previous gift. Only when you accept that one day, you’ll die can you let go, and make the most out of the miracle of life. Or as Heidegger said, If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself.” This has been a guiding principle of my life ever since. Time is fleeting, a precious gift.
Heidegger also said, “Anyone can achieve their fullest potential, who we are might be predetermined, but the path we follow is always of our own choosing. We should never allow our fears or the expectations of others to set the frontiers of our destiny. Your destiny can’t be changed but, it can be challenged. Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one.” I’ve often said the worst thing you can ever do to me is waste my time. And the saddest thing that anyone can ever say is that you wasted your life. Life is God’s gift to us, what we make of our life is our gift back to God. That belief has guided me and influenced me throughout my life.
I remember many times sitting in the Chaplain’s Office at Furman in the lower level of the student center. Jim Pitts was famous for interrupting conversations when he would say, “come on, walk with me.” Of course, you couldn’t say no, and the next thing you knew you would be all the way over on the other side of campus. The aggravating thing was, you never got to talk that much during some of these walks because inevitably he would be stopped several times along the journey, drawn into conversations with others. Jim loved people and never ceased to give himself to them. He was pastor to the campus, including faculty, staff, and students. Despite this recurring on our many jaunts across campus, I don’t think I ever turned him down when he said, “walk with me.”
As a conservative student in a swiftly developing state of transition, conversations with Jim took the edge off what otherwise might have been uncomfortable for me or too difficult to comprehend or consider. He was certainly a big part of the journey I was traveling. I arrived at Furman fully understanding loving God with all your heart and soul. At Furman, I learned how to love God with your mind. Jim was always making connections. He introduced me to other students who were on the same journey. But he also introduced me to interesting people and their ideas. My time at Furman included interactions with Will Campbell, Tony Compolo, and Millard Fuller, to mention only a few. It included a trek with Jim to Koinonia Farms to learn about Clarence Jordan and to Americus, Georgia to learn about Habitat for Humanity. Later Smyth & Helwys would become the publisher of the Cotton Patch Gospels by Jordan as well as Milliard Fuller’s classic, The Theology of the Hammer, both because of Jim. My private personal Furman journey was something that I probably couldn’t fully comprehend at the time, but Jim was the constant mentor and friend for the duration of this rite of passage.
Four years flew by. During my senior year, I was called upon to help younger students at earlier points in their journeys. I remember a reception for prospective religion majors where I was asked to attend and engage with aspiring Paladins. One conservative young man, who reminded me of myself just a couple of years before, asked me the question, “Tell me, are the religion professors here pre- or postmillennialists?” Not knowing how to answer, I put the question to T. C. Smith, chair of the religion department, who was also at the reception. T. C. chuckled and told me, “Just tell him I don’t know. We haven’t voted on it yet.” By that time, I was capable of laughing at T. C.’s answer. I’m not sure if that student ever enrolled at Furman or not. But I know Jim would have done everything he could to get him there.
Soon after arriving at Furman, my church offered me the chance to work on staff. I eagerly accepted as I looked up to my pastor as much as anyone. I was ordained by Washington Avenue in 1977, just 19 years old. But my interests and understanding of faith was developing in new and significant ways. My pastor understood this and one day called me in to say that a small, struggling church was looking for a minister. He thought I should talk to them, and I suspect he thought this opportunity might help me decide about the direction I would take following Furman. I served the Maple Heights Baptist Church during my senior year. It was a struggling church in a transitional neighborhood, in significant decline, but I found it rewarding to help the aging congregation as they attempted literally to keep the doors open. I remember organizing a revival while there, with a different speaker for each service. Jim brainstormed with me ideas for making this meaningful for the church. One of the speakers was L. D. Johnson. I felt bad having this legend, former First Baptist pastor, and now Furman chaplain and religion professor speak to a congregation of 25 people. L. D. was gracious and offered no complaints other than to express concern about the burden that was on my shoulders attempting to lead this congregation to any kind of healthy future.
During my senior year, following long conversations with Jim, L. D., and others, I determined that my education would need to continue. Despite being a late bloomer, I aspired to earn my doctorate and to teach and work in higher education. The life of the mind had captured me, heart and soul. Jim and L. D. had a connection with an alum who worked at Harvard Divinity School, so I made contact, visited Cambridge, and decided to apply for their M.Div. program. Unfortunately, Harvard didn’t appreciate late bloomers in the same way Furman did at the time. I was devastated when my application was rejected.
Jim and L. D. were there to console me. Their advice was to go to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, which had a great reputation for preparing students for doctoral work at prominent institutions. This, of course, was before the struggle for the soul of the Southern Baptist Convention had fully turned to all-out war. Furman awarded this late bloomer the Baggot Award as the outstanding religion major for my senior year and I graduated in June 1980. Three months later I found myself on the campus of Southeastern, ready for the next stage in my journey. And as I left Furman for that transition, I knew it was with the prayers and support of my Furman friends and faculty mentors.
Seminary Student and Book Publisher
Jim and L. D. were right. Southeastern was a great option for me. My very first seminary class, at 8:00 in the morning, was Hebrew with B. Elmo Scoggin. Under the influence of Scoggin, and my Old Testament survey professor, John I Durham, I fell in love with what would become my academic discipline. I took every Hebrew and Old Testament class I could. T. C. Smith had retired from Furman the year I graduated. We found ourselves together again at Southeastern where he agreed to teach for his first few years of “retirement.” T. C. became my Greek professor for three years. He and Ellen became dear friends. After two and a half years I graduated with my M.Div. with Languages degree in December 1982.
During the summer of 1982 I traveled with Elmo Scoggin to Israel, participating in an archeological dig at Tel Dan, at the Israel/Syrian/Lebanon border. Unluckily for us, while on the plane to Tel Aviv, Israel invaded Lebanon to deal with insurgents who had been lobbing Katyusha rockets over into Kiryat Shmona, where we were meant to stay for the summer. Our dig was being conducted by the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem under the direction of famous archaeologist Avraham Biran. Because of the conflict we were moved to Aroer in the Negeb for two weeks. We stayed in Beersheba rising early to excavate because of the heat of the arid desert. After a couple of weeks, we were cleared to head north to Tel Dan for the remainder of the summer. In the evenings we sat out on the lawn at Kfar Giladi, a kibbutz near the Lebanon border, watching Israeli helicopters fly back into Israel from Lebanon. On Friday afternoons, we would finish early so that we could catch the bus to Jerusalem before the Sabbath began. After a couple of days exploring the ancient city, we would take the bus back to Kiryat Shmona for another week of digging.
Having finished my M.Div. early, I decided to stay on at Southeastern for a research degree, the Th.M., thinking I would be better prepared for doctoral studies. For another two and a half years I continued my study of Hebrew and the Old Testament. I served as Fellow to Professor Scoggin and grader for his classes including Hebrew, which I had come to love.
While at Southeastern, I worked part-time at radio stations, including a stint at WPTF, a 50,000-watt AM station in Raleigh, where I was a DJ, news reader, and producer of weekend public affairs programming. This was a huge advancement from my time at the gospel radio station. On weekend nights Jim would report listening in, catching the “skip” of WPTF radio waves all the way down in Travelers Rest. And I served several churches. Thinking that I might one day return to teach at Southeastern, my ambition at the time, I followed the advice that if you were going to teach seminary students, you should have experience serving a church.
An interesting development occurred when Jim Pitts and I went into “business” together for the first time and my entrepreneurial instinct presented itself. As a student I encountered what every aspiring academic eventually experiences, a frustration with not being able to find books that are out of print. There was a great second-hand theology bookstore in Wake Forest, run by Dick Stevens. Stevens Bookshop was a place where I spent countless hours searching for and buying books that would become the early core of my academic library. One day I fell upon the idea of starting a business that would give new life to exceptional out of print books. I discussed the idea with one of my seminary friends who had similar frustrations, William Benton. And of course, I discussed it with Jim who was eager to support the idea. Together the three of us started Chanticleer Publishing, which was initially operated from my Southeastern dorm room with boxes of books in every available space including beneath my bed.
While we published several out-of-print books, selling them through Steven’s Bookshop and ads in various theological journals, we eventually published a new work for the annual Southern Baptist January Bible Study. In fact, it was the last book Chanticleer published under our ownership. In 1985, The Way of Faith, Words of Admonition and Encouragement for the Journey Based on the Letter to the Hebrews, edited by James M. Pitts, was published. Among the contributors was Cecil Staton, alongside the names of Glenn Hinson, Chevis Horne, Thorwald Lorenzen, David Matthews, Edgar McKnight, Dale Moody, T. C. Smith, Frank Stagg, and others—all respected Baptist ministers and academics. It was my first published book chapter, encouraged by my friend Jim. We sold Chanticleer to Dick Stevens that fall when I prepared to leave Southeastern for the next part of my journey. We didn’t make a lot, but we didn’t lose our $500 investments either! That experience would come in handy a few years later when another publishing venture was formed.
While working on the Th.M. degree, eventually I was called to serve Trinity Baptist Church in Arcadia, North Carolina as pastor. Trinity was a young church, and I gained a lot of experience, guiding them through the process of building their first new sanctuary and Christian education space. While there I continued my classes, research, and writing. But it was clear that I was headed towards a doctoral program. The question was, where? What would be the best next step? I harbored a great desire to return and teach Hebrew and Old Testament at Southeastern Seminary.
As 1985 began, I was preparing all my applications for doctoral programs. My friend, Gene Lockaby was pastor of First Baptist Church, Enoree, South Carolina. He asked me to visit and lead a study of the book of Psalms for their annual January Bible Study, something that occurred at Southern Baptist churches across the country each year. I accepted. It was one of the most fortuitous events of my life. On a Sunday morning following the worship service, a beautiful young woman was standing in the line of church members speaking to the guest speaker as they left the sanctuary. There I met for the first time Catherine Davidson.
After the service I remarked to Gene and his wife Carol that I would sure like to meet Catherine. Carol went into match-making mode and by Wednesday evening she invited Catherine over after the service to meet the guest teacher. We had our first date on Friday night, and that was it. I traveled to Enoree most weekends thereafter courting the woman who would be the love of my life and my best friend till this day. Catherine would also visit Arcadia some weekends, supporting my work at Trinity Baptist Church. We discussed the fact that I was headed to a doctoral program and what that would mean. By the late Spring, literally a few months after meeting, I asked Catherine to marry me, and she accepted. We found ourselves attempting to figure out the best way forward under the circumstances.
I didn’t realize that being turned down by Harvard would become such an academic motivator, but from the time I met Old Testament Professor John Durham, I secretly harbored a desire to go to Oxford, where he had received his doctoral degree. I think somewhere in the back of my mind I thought if I was turned down by Harvard, I’d show them by going to the mother school!
Jim always told me that challenges and adversity often led to better things. He always reminded me that we wouldn’t be the person we’d become without all the aches and pains and scars that we all carry with us. He encouraged me to be proud of my personal journey, being a late bloomer, but persevering to accomplish the unexpected. John Durham had agreed to write a letter of reference for me to Oxford, where he was known by the Old Testament faculty. It is not too much to say that in those days Southeastern had a great reputation for preparing students for academic excellence in doctoral programs far and wide. Durham had sent students to both Oxford and Cambridge over the years. I applied to several schools in the United States as well as to Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of London. But when the letter arrived from Oxford inviting me to matriculate and become a member of the university, I knew there was no other place for me. Thus began a love affair with this ancient and wonderful university that continues till today. As I prepared to leave for Oxford, Durham gave me one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received. He said, “Cecil, at Oxford there will be lots of people smarter than you, but no one will work any harder than you.” Jim, however, had given me the reinforcement over several years that a first-generation college student from humble means and a conservative Baptist background and even a late bloomer can aspire to attend Oxford and possess the potential for success.
Getting accepted at Oxford was one thing, but the big issue was how would I pay for the requisite three years at Oxford? Of course, my parents were of great help and sacrificed to support my academic ambitions. But there were other fortuitous people and events. At Trinity, I had met one of the most remarkable laypersons I’ve ever known. Lois Leonard Brinkley was a widowed schoolteacher who was one of the stalwart leaders of this small Baptist congregation. It was our custom to have lunch at least once a week, and she served as a proof-reader for my Th.M. thesis.
I remember being uneasy the day I had to tell her that I would leaving Trinity to go to Oxford. She was very supportive, however, and to my great surprise asked me, “How much does it cost to attend Oxford?” Oxford in those days was no more expensive for an overseas student than doctoral programs at private universities in the United States. It was going to cost me about $12,000 per year to attend Oxford. There were no scholarships for students initially though there were some grants and programs available for students once there. When I told her about the costs, she immediately said to me, “Cecil, I want to pay for one of your years at Oxford.” I was shocked. Lois had no children of her own but had essentially adopted me while I was her pastor. When I left for Oxford, it was with an irrevocable letter of credit in my pocket for $12,000. But she was also shrewd. I could not access her money until my second year at Oxford. I guess she wanted to make sure that I was committed and that I had skin in the game. She was a remarkable person, who I remember and celebrate as one of those special people who made such a difference in my life.
In the fall of 1985, I left for Oxford. Catherine stayed behind. We decided that we would get married in the summer of 1986. This would allow Catherine to finish an M.B.A. degree at Clemson that she was well into. Otherwise, she would have lost that work.
The separation of that year was difficult. But I determined to return to the states after each term to allow us to see one another, and it allowed me to commit every minute of my first year in Oxford to my work. We wrote to each other every day that year. We still have most of those letters, written on thin aerogram paper. It took at least a week for a letter to be delivered between England and the U.S. Keep in mind that this was before email. Catherine’s father did allow us to have a brief telephone call each Saturday morning. I would go to a phone box in my college, Regent’s Park, and call collect. At the five-minute mark, the call was over! International calls were very expensive in those days.
At Oxford I was a member of a small college, technically a permanent private hall of the university, that was historically connected to Baptists and the free-church tradition in England. Baptists were dissenters, as the state church was the Church of England, or Anglican Church. Barry White, a prominent Baptist historian, was principal of Regent’s. There I became friends with Rex Mason, the Old Testament tutor, and with Paul Fiddes, who taught theology and would follow White as Principal. Regent’s was kind to me. Once Catherine arrived the following year, they made a flat available to us. I purchased the principal’s former car, a gold Renault, from the College near the end of my first year. I knew we would need one once Catherine arrived. We paid £900 for the car and referred to it as the gold bomb. Catherine drove the car to work at the Oxford Regional Health Authority, where she was an accountant, for almost two years. We also drove the car all over England, Wales, and Scotland, selling it two years later for the same £900.
At Oxford, I was fortunate to be assigned to the Revd. Professor Ernest W. Nicholson who served as my major professor. Nicholson was originally from Northern Ireland, but after studying at Trinity College, Dublin, made his way to Cambridge and then Oxford where he was Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture and Fellow of Oriel College. I was fortunate because Nicholson was “the” Professor of Old Testament within the University. He was a world-class scholar and author of several important and influential books. Unlike American universities, at that time there was only one “Professor” of a subject at Oxford, with other teachers, referred to as Dons, having the rank of Reader or Lecturer. Additionally, there were special named professorships associated with certain disciplines, such as the “Regis Professor of Hebrew.”
Nicholson liked Americans. Not every Oxford professor did. I had friends who shared horror stories of how their major professors would barely speak to them until they proved themselves academically. Nicholson was gregarious, fun to talk with, and often invited his students to his home for dinner, including copious amounts of wine. When I arrived in Oxford, it was suggested that I write to Professor Nicholson to let him know that I had indeed taken up residence in Oxford. He wrote back quickly suggesting a time for our first meeting. This would have been late September 1985.
Although founded in London in 1810, Regent’s was a relatively new Oxford related college, having only moved to Oxford in 1927, and formally licensed by the University in 1957. I remember walking to Oriel College for my first meeting with Nicholson, climbing the stairs to his rooms, walking into a large room filled with shelves of books, and comfortable chairs. I had been prepared by John Durham for this rite of passage. It was inevitable that after pleasantries Nicholson would ask me what I wanted to study at Oxford, or more specifically what I wanted to research leading to a thesis. One of the worst things you could ever do was say, “I don’t know.”
I was prepared, largely because of the research I had done for my Th.M. thesis at Southeastern. I was interested in theophany in Old Testament narratives, or stories of God’s appearing to the patriarchs and others in the stories of the Hebrew Bible. I began to describe this to Nicholson, pointing out how those stories were used by those who wrote or put together the narratives to introduce moments of tension within the stories. Nicholson jumped up from his chair, ran over to a shelf to get a copy of the Hebrew Bible to see for himself what I as describing, and then looked up at me and said, “Let’s do it.” I never met any other student who described such a quick process of discovering a topic for a D.Phil. thesis. We never deviated from this original plan except to further refine the scope of my work.
I was prepared, but I was also fortunate. For this reason, I was able to plan for my research from day one. Typically, I wrote a chapter of my thesis during the break before term and would research for the next chapter during the term. I met with Nicholson once or twice each term to present those chapters, get his input, then edit and refine. With this disciplined approach, I was able to finish my thesis and complete my work in less than three years, unusual in the Oxford system. Nicholson was a good friend, cheerleader for my work, and although the imperfections were all my own, it was far better for his gentle guidance along the way.
Two years after I left Oxford, Nicholson became Provost (head of house) of Oriel College, a position he held until retirement in 2003. I remember visiting Oxford during that time and having tea in the Provost’s lodgings at Oriel, a special treat. Later, he would serve on the editorial boards for some of my academic publishing projects. He was a dear friend. Sadly, Ernest, as I finally grew to call him, died from cancer at age 75 in 2013. I was so fortunate that my life intersected with this gentleman, friend, and enormously important Old Testament scholar, mentor, and teacher.
Throughout my three years at Oxford, Jim Pitts was a constant voice of encouragement from back at home. As the Baptist battles began in earnest, Jim kept me updated on all that was occurring. Before email and cell phones were ubiquitous, I frequently put coins into those traditional English red box phones to talk to Jim for a couple of minutes. On my infrequent trips back to the states, we always met to discuss my progress, potential next steps, and employment possibilities. Of course, the news from the Baptist front was not encouraging.
After my first Oxford year, I returned to the states for my wedding with Catherine Davidson. Naturally, Jim was the officiating minister. At Oxford, for the first time in my educational career, I was not allowed to work to support myself. Fortunately, their quirky rules allowed my new wife, Catherine, to work and support our stay, which was of great help. It was a special blessing and joy to be a full-time student. Because of what was going on in Baptist higher education and at the seminaries, I was motivated to get back to the states and get a job. I was fortunate to receive Oxford’s American Scholarship from Regent’s Park for achievement during the first year of research as well as Oxford’s Overseas Research Student Award which allowed me to pay the fees of a UK student rather than the higher fees for foreign students. I finished my D.Phil. in record time, submitting my thesis in less than three years.
At Oxford we became close to other American couples who were also there pursuing degrees. We lived frugally but found opportunities to travel as much as possible. During my first year, I often walked past a travel agent’s office advertising trips from London to New York and return on the Queen Elizabeth II, the crown jewel of the Cunard Line. Stopping to inquire, I found out that a student fare was available and that it was not much more than the normal airfare. I determined that this would be a great honeymoon journey for us following the wedding.
A week after our wedding, Catherine and I flew to New York, journeyed from the airport to the harbor on the other side of Manhattan, and boarded the QE II for our journey to England. One of the advantages of this was that there was no extra charge for the trunks we were taking to England with Catherine’s clothes and all that we needed to set up our home in Oxford. I’ll never forget being shown to our “stateroom.” The student fare gained us a very small room on the lowest level of the ship, well equipped for our honeymoon with bunk beds. In fact, when the steward opened the door to our room, we could hardly walk in because all the trunks had been placed there before we arrived. He kindly suggested, “Take what you need for the journey, and I’ll store the rest until our arrival in Southampton.” We had a wonderful five days crossing the Atlantic in steerage on the QE II! Years later, for an anniversary, we would cross the Atlantic again on the QE II, this time in a proper stateroom, even taking the Concord back to New York from London.
For our first wedding anniversary we decided to do something adventurous, booking a trip to the Soviet Union and Prague. This was before the Iron Curtain fell in 1991. We stayed several nights in Moscow, took an overnight train to Leningrad, before flying to Prague on an Aeroflot flight. On another occasion we flew to Spain during the winter, driving a car through the Castile area visiting Madrid, Segovia, Siguenza, Avila, and Toledo, staying in wonderful paradores, historic hotels.
On another occasion when my parents were visiting, we took a ferry from Dover to Belgium for a long weekend visit. But more important than any of those trips, we fell in love with England, Scotland, and Wales. During the two years we were there together, we visited every county at least once, and made two lengthy country wide tours in the gold bomb, £900 car. I worked diligently during the week while Catherine worked as an accountant at the Oxford Regional Health Authority utilizing the skills she acquired in her M.B.A. program. But the weekends were Catherine’s, planned out in detail, usually including a visit to a stately home and a visit to the tea shop for afternoon tea. Alternatively, we traveled by bus or train to London to see shows in the West End, visiting the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square, or to visit museums and other tourist attractions. It was during those years that we truly became the anglophiles that we have been throughout our lives.
In the summer of 1988, we returned home. Catherine cried. We both would have stayed in England if there had been a way to do so and make a living. But the Baptist battles made getting a job seem more important. In October, we returned to England with my mother for graduation in the historic Sheldonian Theatre of Oxford, the same place I had matriculated, becoming a member of the University in 1985. After graduation, my mother treated us to a weekend in Paris to celebrate our time in Oxford, and the success of my degree.
Although I had applied for teaching jobs at several Baptist related institutions, nothing materialized. I had some initial conversations with Morris Ashcraft, dean at Southeastern, about returning to teach while I finished writing my thesis. Yet one of my darkest days while at Oxford was when I received his letter telling me that President Randall Lolley was resigning and that the Southeastern I had known was over. Every institution, in one way or another, was dealing with Baptist battles. Even before returning home, I began the search for an appropriate position at Baptist related colleges and universities. I specifically remember a trip to Baylor for an interview where my Furman, Southeastern, and Oxford credentials made me appear too “progressive” as they sought to deal with the conflict in Texas. I’ll never forget sitting in the office of then Baylor President Herb Reynolds, part of the interview gauntlet. He asked me whether I believed there was a literal hell, or some question like that. I told him that I was fine trusting the fate of non-Christians to the hand of the loving God revealed to us in Christ. That obviously wasn’t the answer he was seeking. I didn’t get the job. They seemed afraid of their shadows and anticipated a tumultuous future with Texas Baptists.
I didn’t make the cut at Wake Forest University, further along in their independence, as I was too Baptist for a department that was seeking to spread its wings. The former chairman of the religion department was a friend and attempted to help me, but I’ll never forget the call to tell me that he was unsuccessful. He told me quite candidly, “If you were a woman, a Muslim, or Jewish you might have had a chance. But a white male with a Baptist pedigree just didn’t cut it any longer.”
And the one that hurt the most was a rejection by my beloved Furman. I suspect the department there was also ready to move beyond late bloomers and head in a different direction, like Wake Forest. Many of the old guard from the golden age were gone. Furman would eventually jettison its South Carolina Baptist connections. What Jim Pitts said to say to me about all of that is probably better left unwritten. Later he was fond of saying that Furman had developed institutional Alzheimer’s, abandoning any of the virtues of its historic past and service to the best of the Baptist tradition. Years later, I would take my oldest son to Furman for a tour when he was considering where he would go to college. I remember the student who led the introduction to Furman making light of the institution’s Baptist heritage saying, “That was in the past. You don’t have to worry about that any longer!” As the prospective students prepared to get on the bus for their tour, however, he enthusiastically said, “Make sure we don’t forget to show you our Buddhist temple here on campus.”
We came home in the fall of 1988, and I had an Oxford degree, but no job. The Baptist battles were being waged in earnest and were at their final disheartening stages when what had produced me and allowed me to make my way to Oxford was either changed forever or destroyed for good. But Jim Pitts would come to the rescue yet again.