A TRIBUTE TO HARRY LEON McBETH (1931-2013)
By Karen O’Dell Bullock
4 May 2013
Harry Leon McBeth, faithful follower of Jesus Christ, beloved champion of the Church, gifted storyteller, and eminent historian, went home to be with the Lord on 29 April 2013. Born on 5 August 1931, and the fourth of eight brothers, Leon was reared on cotton farms in the lower Panhandle of west Texas during the Depression and Dust Bowl years. His parents were Baptists of deep faith who knew the value of hard work and strong family ties. Together they plowed fields, raised stock, reared and buried children, watched the skies, and prayed for rain.
As Leon matured, the preachers and professors who most impacted his life were the “Apostle of the West,” Willis J. Ray, who came to preach a brush arbor revival at the First Baptist Church of Rotan in the summer before his twelfth birthday in 1942, when Leon and his brother Jeff both trusted Christ as Savior. Eddie McMillan, the Texas Tech-trained historian, taught Dr. McBeth’s freshman history class at Wayland in 1950 and ignited his love for the subject. Boyd Hunt preached a revival in Plainview in 1954, and influenced Dr. McBeth to attend Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, where he would come to plant his life for the next fifty years. It was in seminary, however, that two giants impacted his thinking and life the most: T. B. Maston, the Ethicist, who was the leading Baptist voice for Racial Equality in the years just prior to the Civil Rights movement (among other moral concerns and social injustices); and Robert Baker, his beloved Mentor and Teacher, who urged this bright young man, the first in his family to graduate from college, to further scholarship.
In his student days, McBeth served as pastor of several churches in western and central Texas, including the First Baptist Church of Rio Vista (1956-60). In those days Leon was one of a group of several young friends, all rural Texas pastors, who shared the trip into Fort Worth to attend seminary each week, among them Russell Dilday, Jimmy Draper, Jess Fletcher, and Ebbie Smith.
After earning his PhD, he joined the faculty in 1960 and, for more than four decades, he continued to pursue excellence in personal preparation, studying at the University of Texas at Arlington, both Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University in New York, and completing two research residencies in Oxford, England. Although his influence grew with publications and readership through the years, his primary energies targeted the steady stream of students who sat in his classrooms spellbound, absorbing a deep appreciation of their heritage from this gracious, always humorous, sometimes reticent, and ever powerful storyteller. Each student represents the lifetime investment of this quiet, jovial scholar with snow white hair, whose probing questions and willingness to dialogue motivated students toward research excellence and a desire to serve Jesus Christ and His Kingdom.
Dr. McBeth’s spiritual pilgrimage, from his earliest years, developed the convictions that continued to shape and inform his ministry. He championed the voiceless and faceless in his own soft-spoken and gracious way. He asserted that the stories of Baptist women should be included in all expressions of denominational history, so that Baptists might celebrate a more accurate reflection of their faith. He took joy in supporting both women and men seminarians and encouraged the expression of their varied giftedness and callings from God.
He was also was consummate storyteller. He was able to detect the humorous or ironic element within any circumstance and relate it without barbs. He was droll and mischievous; his eyes twinkled as he often delivered a punch line that made his classes howl with laughter. He also valued incisive biographies over generic summaries, for the simple reason that a single biography often best captures the essence of an era, much like a snapshot freezes details of a single event or moment in time. One found in his stories both nobility and frailty combined, comprising human responses to a Holy God, and this inspired renewed commitment and hope. His accounts still captivate readers, who find themselves longing to know more, to travel to his places, to identify with his characters, to delve into their own ecclesial histories as believers in Christ. His love of Jesus and His Church was infectious.
All of McBeth’s publications were written while serving on the faculty of Southwestern. From his earliest research on primary English Baptist religious liberty sources in 1961, to the sesquicentennial history of Texas Baptists in 1998, some thirty-seven years later, his pen was tireless. At the time of his death, McBeth had authored eleven books and contributed chapters to five others. His list of published monographs, journal articles, and formal lectures on topics related to American Christianity and Baptist history number in the dozens. He wrote about education, missions, and religious freedom. He investigated the beliefs and practices of other faiths and church histories. He championed the roles of women in Baptist life – a most courageous and, in the minds of some, an unpopular stance.
The decade of the1980s revealed McBeth’s mature scholarship. Having taught in the classroom for close to thirty years and acquired a reputation for precise, readable historical work, he was invited by Broadman publishers to write a comprehensive study of Baptist history, originally to be part of a designated trilogy of textbooks. McBeth made the conscious decision to set aside pedantry and exhaustive footnotes in favor of producing an enjoyable, general text. Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (1987) was written for lay readers as well as for the classroom. Researched carefully from primary sources and written both chronologically and topically, each chapter was designed to stand alone, a goal crucial for either the casual reader or for college readings-courses or material supplemental to seminary survey classes.
About that same time, he was also asked to write an interpretive history of the SBC Sunday School Board. In August of 1990, however, when the manuscript was already at the typesetters, the Board abruptly aborted the project. In a climate crackling with denominational and political volatility, this volume drew internecine crossfire. At present, Celebrating Heritage and Hope: the Centennial History of the Baptist Sunday School, 1891-1991, the story of one of the most influential entities in SBC life, has yet to roll from a press. However painful this experience was to him personally, McBeth did not cease to write. In the same year that his SSB history was recalled, Broadman published a fifth McBeth book, his Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (1990), the well-received companion to the Baptist history text. Reemphasizing his commitment to the value of primary sources, this hefty tome provides the best single-volume collection of documentary excerpts to support Baptist heritage studies.
He continued to research and write, finishing by the end of the decade the celebrated anniversary volume, Texas Baptists: A Sesquicentennial History (1998), commissioned by the Baptist General Convention of Texas and published by Baptistway Press in Dallas. Thus, while his corpus encompasses a broader sphere, it is fair to assess his principle focus as centered upon and advancing the study of Baptist heritage.
Akin to his conviction concerning the need for sound, biblical exegesis preaching or teaching Scripture, Leon McBeth’s foundational emphasis for historical study was the demand for a balanced reading of the primary documents, convinced that there is no shortcut to good scholarship. He preached and taught across the United States, Mexico, Canada, the Ukraine, Brazil, England, Scotland, Wales, Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy. Besides his love for the local church, he chose to invest his life in institutions and individuals.
McBeth’s participation in, and leadership of, the various historical entities with which he was associated was substantial: he served as chairman of the BGCT Bicentennial Committee (1975-6) and was a member of its Baptist Distinctives Committee; president of the Southern Baptist Historical Society (1977-8); chairman of the SBC Historical Commission (1980-3); a member of the SBC Sesquicentennial Planning Committee (1994-5); former chairman of the Texas Baptist Historical Committee; and a member of the board of trustees of Wayland Baptist University. He was also honored as Distinguished Alumnus of Wayland (1992) and SWBTS (2001), and served on many Baptist editorial boards. Seeking to preserve, foster an appreciation for, and implement Baptist tenets, his involvement over the years enhanced the work of all of these bodies.
Throughout McBeth’s decades of teaching ministry at Southwestern, thousands of his master and doctoral students filled positions of leadership in churches, mission fields, and denominational administration. Furthermore, dozens of students he supervised in doctoral studies teach today in Baptist educational institutions in America and other nations, including most of the women historians employed in denominational life since 1990.
But Leon McBeth was not just an historian-scholar. He was a man with a deep capacity for love and cherished his family. And then, as life brought shadows, Dr. McBeth continued to write and teach and preach during his chapters of sadness. When Miss Ada, his wife of 47 years, suffered an incapacitating stroke in 1997, his devotion to, and tender care for, her was a poignant but vivid expression of his character during her almost five-year illness. He taught everyone who knew him volumes about Christ-likeness. Under the strain of unspeakable grief, compounded by cataclysmic denominational strife, his life continued to reveal the refining touch of God’s grace. Sustained by his life-verse, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13), his patient, gentlemanly disposition remained unaltered and proved the God he served to be trustworthy.
Almost a year after Ada went to be with the Lord, a friend introduced Leon to the vivacious and lovely widow, Thelma Neel, who became a friend and then a dear companion. A Baptist woman of deep faith and bubbly personality, Thelma brought his heart back to life. They fell in love and were married about the time McBeth retired in 2003. He had prayed that God would give them ten years to love and serve God together, and God answered his prayer. As he lived with advancing Parkinson’s Disease in recent years, Leon continued to impress others with his kindness, his positive disposition, his helpfulness, and his still-occasional mischievous humor, delivered with that familiar grin and twinkling eyes.
Those who search for models of Christian dignity and courage in the midst of unrest may find many champions in the pages of Baptist heritage. But Harry Leon McBeth’s journey with God, from a one-room schoolhouse to the teacher of thousands, made of him a most rare example. We are honored to have served with him and to have loved him well. And we offer thanksgiving to God, who shared this Faithful Teacher and Godly Servant with us all.