By John Pierce
ATLANTA — Bruce Gourley, a historian, Internet innovator and online editor for Baptists Today, will become executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society (BH&HS) on April 1. He is the former associate director of Mercer University’s Center for Baptist Studies and the owner of the BaptistLife.com discussion forums.
Gourley will work part time from his home in Manhattan, Montana, with periodic trips to Atlanta where the society is currently based.
“(Bruce) is an accomplished writer and Baptist historian,” said Mike Williams, society president and professor at Dallas Baptist University in a letter to society leaders. “He also has an entrepreneurial spirit and the technological skills to lead the society in the 21st century.”
Gourley, a native of Douglas, Ga., is a former campus minister who taught college history courses. He is a graduate of Mercer University, Southern Baptist Seminary and Auburn University where he earned a Ph.D. in history.
He is the author of three books: The Godmakers: The Legacy of the Southern Baptist Convention? (1996, Providence House), Leading the Way For 200 Years: The Story of the First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama, 1809-2009 (2009, BH&HS) and The Capsule History of Baptists (2010, BH&HS).
Baylor University religion professor Doug Weaver, who chaired the search team, said by selecting Gourley the society expressed confidence in its future and that of the Baptist identity.
“Bruce believes that the Baptist story — of historic commitments to principles like freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all — is still important in this increasingly post-denominational world,” said Weaver. “With his passion, tireless work ethic, technological gifts and his ability to relate to younger generations, Bruce is a great choice to lead the society in the 21st century.”
Founded as the Southern Baptist Historical Society in 1938, the society chose independence in 1995 when the Historical Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention — to which the society related — was eliminated as part of the SBC restructuring.
Since 2000, the society has related closely to the then-newly formed Fellowship of Baptist Historians. The society’s name change occurred in 2001 and offices were relocated from Nashville to Mercer University’s Atlanta campus in 2007.
The society has a long history of producing resources on Baptist history and sponsoring an annual conference in partnership with the Fellowship of Baptist Historians. Significant attention was given to resources related to the 400th anniversary of the Baptist movement that was celebrated last year.
Also last year, Charles Deweese retired as executive director after ten years, followed by associate director Pamela Durso’s move to lead Baptist Women in Ministry. Durso, who has continued to assist the society, called Gourley the perfect person to serve as the next executive director.
“Bruce is an established scholar, a published historian and a gifted writer,” said Durso. “He is well known and respected in Baptist circles and is committed to communicating, educating, and interpreting Baptist history for people in the pews as well as for members of the academy.”
In recent years the independent society — dependent upon contributions and revenue from the sale of resources — has faced financial struggles. Baptist historian Walter Shurden of Macon, Ga., provided leadership during the interim period and helped raise funds to ensure the society’s continuation.
Longtime supporters of the society feel that its role in Baptist life remains of great value. Likewise, Gourley said his focus will be on seeing that the best of the Baptist past finds expression in the new ways into the future.
“Broadly speaking, my focus will be on casting the distinctives of 17th and 18th century Baptists — freedom of conscience, religious liberty, separation of church and state, local church autonomy, non-creedal, etc. — as the hallmarks of the Baptist faith that fit well within a 21st century paradigm, resonate both within and without Baptist life today, and are values that are inter-generational,” said Gourley.
Gourley said the society will continue to publish a journal, host an annual meeting and offer varied resources — while making better use of digital film media.
“The society will also make increased use of volunteers and seek new partnerships in terms of publishing and broadcasting Baptist history,” said Gourley.
Shurden, who has known Gourley as his student and colleague, called him “a new treasure for the Baptist people.”
Information on the society and the resources offered is available at www.baptisthistory.org.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.