Baptist historian Leon McBeth dies

He was a longtime church history professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and widely published author.

By Bob Allen

H. Leon McBeth, a Baptist historian and scholar who authored nine books, died April 29 at age 81.

leon mcbethMcBeth, retired chair of the history department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, received numerous awards for his contributions to Baptist history, including a Festschrift, Turning Points in Baptist History, in which colleagues paid tribute to his life’s work.

His books included The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness, published in 1987. In 1990, the Baptist Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention – since renamed LifeWay Christian Resources – contracted with him to write an interpretive history for the publishing house’s 100th anniversary.

McBeth wrote the book during a year-long sabbatical and was paid $18,000 for his work, but after seeing the final version the agency’s board of trustees halted publication. Some trustees reportedly believed the book was biased against conservatives, and specifically too sympathetic to the agency’s moderate president at the time, Lloyd Elder.

The Sunday School Board retained copyright and the book was never published. Media reports labeled it censorship. McBeth stood by the manuscript, calling it “a balanced interpretive history of the first 100 years of the Baptist Sunday School Board."

McBeth grew up in Plainview, Texas, and graduated from Wayland Baptist University, where he later served as trustee. He earned his master of divinity and doctor of theology degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

McBeth’s funeral is set for 11 a.m. Saturday, May 4, at University Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Burial will be in Greenwood Memorial Park, and visitation is 6-8 p.m. today at Greenwood Funeral Home.

McBeth was a member of the Baptist History & Heritage Society and the 1989 recipient of the society's W. O. Carver Distinguished Service Award.

“His life and work profoundly inspired and impacted many of us,” Bruce Gourley, the society’s executive director, said in an e-mail Thursday night to members.

Gourley called it fitting that the Spring 2013 Baptist History & Journal edition mailed to society members just this week is a tribute to McBeth. Gourley said the society will also pay tribute to him at the group’s upcoming annual conference, May 20-22 in Richmond, Va.