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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Courageous Kirby Godsey!

Today, Kirby Godsey (retiring President of Mercer University) will be awarded the William H. Whitsitt Baptist Courage Award. Past recipients of the Courage Award include William H. Whitsitt, Ralph Elliot, Will Campbell, Cecil Sherman, Henlee Barnette, Kenneth Chafin, John Thomas Porter, James M. Dunn, President Jimmy Carter, E. Glenn Hinson, Walker Knight, Walter Rauschenbusch, Molly Marshall, and Jimmy Allen.

Walter B. Shurden
Callaway Professor of Christianity, Executive Director, The Center for Baptist Studies - Mercer University

An essay in honor of R. Kirby Godsey as the recipient of the 2006 William H. Whitsitt Baptist Courage Award

....In 2005 the Georgia Baptist Convention voted to separate itself from Mercer University, allegedly because of issues of homosexuality on the Mercer campus. Most close observers realize that the underlying issue was much deeper. Kirby Godsey, for twenety-seven years, courageously stood at the door of this Baptist University, refusing to permit the right wing of the Georgia Baptist Convention to dominate and control Mercer. The fundamentalists were right, however, about Godsey not being a "basher." His understanding of grace precluded that. At "The Baptist Summit" Godsey made clear that Mercer would be a place of hospitality and grace. He said:

"...Mercer is, and intends to be in the future, a community of respect. That is our character as a university community. That means we will act with civility and r e s p e c t towards all people - fundamentalist and liberal, gay an straight, black and Hispanic. No credentials are required in order to be treated with respect at Mercer. Our boundaries are wide. Our embrace is generous. I trust that we will not respect any person that Jesus would not respect. We will not accept any person that we do not believe Jesus would accept."

Kirby Godsey is an unapologetic Baptist liberal. He is liberal theologically, politically, and fiancially. Fortunately, his liberalism spills over into his living. He lives with grace. It takes courages to be gracious, especially to people who have maligned and slandered you. "Little" people are "little" people because they lack the courage to be gracious in the midst of conflict. Petulance has no room for big-heartedness or the large embrace.

Demonized by the religiosu right in Georgia Baptist life because of his stubborn, courageous refusal to see Mercer University fundamentalized, Kirby Godsey maintains a posture of grace even toward his opponents. At "The Baptist Summit" at Mercer University, after the separation between the Georgia Baptist Convention and Mercer, Godsey spoke of his fundamentalist opponents in this vein:

"Most of you know that I am not a fundamentalist. I can harly spell the word. But I must tell you that I am not worried about the fundamentalists. I simply believe that some of our Baptist friends have lost their way. They have been blinded by the light. They are wandering in three days of darkness that may stretch into a generation. But I believe that ultimately the scales will fall from their eyes."

The Whitsitt Baptist Courage Award has been giving to professors, pastors, and denominational leaders. Except for William H. Whitsitt himself, no Baptist university, college, or seminary president has ever received this award. There is a reason for that. Like cautious and careful ecclesiastical bishops, college and university presidents tend to accommodate rather than leader. Kirby Godsey has lead. For twenty-seven years he has led the resistance to fundamentalism at one of Baptists' best universities. And he has led because of his commitment to freedom. He has led with critical thinking. He has led with grace. We honor the name of William H. Whitsitt by giving this award to R. Kirby Godsey.

The Whitsitt Society, begun on October 9, 1992, was named after the president and professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, William H. Whitsitt, who was forced to resign in 1899. In 1896 Whitsitt published findings that said immersion was introduced into Baptist churches in England in 1641. He was immediately attacked and maligned by those Baptists who asserted the majority opinion that the Baptist church could be traced back to the “New Testament church” (and was thus the New Testament church). Whitsitt’s seminary colleagues were publicly silent, although they privately accepted his research conclusions. Nevertheless, Whitsitt courageously maintained his belief and had to leave the seminary.

For more on William H. Whitsitt and The Whitsitt Society follow this link.


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