Editor’s Note: The Baptist Center for Ethics’ 15th anniversary luncheon, June 22 in Atlanta, honors the legacies of T.B. Maston and Henlee Barnette. This week Joe Trull, a former student, profiles Maston.
The first time I met Thomas Buford Maston is a commentary on his life. I was a new student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, working after classes as a janitor. That day I was emptying trash behind the theology building as the ethics teacher was leaving the building. He noticed me and walked over. Welcoming me to SWBTS, he spent a good five minutes asking questions about my life. I never forgot that encounter.
Four years later, as I began doctoral studies in Christian ethics, Dr. Maston asked me to be his grader and teaching fellow–neither of us knew it would be his final two years of teaching at SWBTS. During that time he was both a mentor and a father-figure. To know the man was to experience his gentle spirit, compassionate love and courageous witness. Many described Maston as “the most Christ-like person I have ever met.” I concur.
The Mastons came to SWBTS in 1920, planning to be missionaries, but the birth of an invalid son confirmed a call to a ministry of teaching. The Mastons cared for their greatly disabled child in their home, though it meant arising every night to meet his needs. Yet Maston referred to Tom Mc as “the greatest blessing of my life.” Maston’s prayer in late life was that Tom Mc precede him in death so that “Mommy” would not carry that burden alone. In the year T. B. Maston turned 90, Tom Mc died—Dr. Maston then died a few months later in 1988.
First and foremost the ethicist lived what he taught. He was the epitome of Luke’s five-word biography of Jesus: “He went about doing good.” He taught with a characteristic twinkle in his eye, often adding a wink to make a point, and always with an urgency in his voice.
Once, when a student couple died in a train-car accident on the way to their church field, Maston put aside his notes for the hour and discussed the age-old question of God, evil and human suffering. The discussion was worth a seminary degree!
Once in a seminar he asked this question: “If you knew that Jesus Christ would be in Ft.Worth this weekend, where would you go to find him? (Pause) You would find Jesus somewhere with someone whom nobody noticed, who needed him!”
Dr. Maston had a special relationship with his students, especially the 49 who majored in Christian ethics. He once showed me a handwritten copy of their names on pad he kept in his vest pocket. “I pray for you fellows every day,” he told me.
The Mastons practiced hospitality toward this group by hosting a dinner each year for them and their spouses. To be in the Maston home on the northeast corner of the campus was a treat–you were part of the family, and Tom Mc with his gutteral sounds of pleasure enjoyed it also.
Dr. Maston wrote a response to everyone who wrote to him, even his critics. I treasure the special correspondence he sent to me–words of gratitude for assistance during an illness in 1962, compliments of my teaching and grading, and even a positive note about my church newsletter columns in 1979.
The abrupt closure of his teaching ministry in 1963 adds another insight. Unlike Henlee Barnette, Maston was no social activist. Nevertheless, when a serious question of Christian ethics arose, he did not keep silence.
A new student center was being built, the entrance highlighted by an extravagant chandelier imported from Europe (the quoted cost was equal to hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s currency).
Though the president insisted “it was a gift,” Maston felt deeply such opulence was a contradiction to Baptist life, the simple lifestyle of Jesus and the ethical teachings of the New Testament. In 1963, to teach beyond age 65 required executive approval. Maston was not invited to continue.
Ironically, Maston then focused on writing, producing 20 of his 29 books (and countless articles) from 1964 to 1987.
Renowned broadcast journalist Bill Moyers, who studied under Maston, comments: “When I’m asked to define Christian ethics, my best answer is Tom Maston. What the Old Testament prophets taught, he lived. He showed us that the theatre of Christian ethics is not the pulpit, the classroom or the counselor’s corner but all of life…. Dr. Maston’s message has gone far beyond the notes that we took.”
Another letter I treasure is more recent–one Bill Moyers wrote in response to my role as editor: “You are doing the Lord’s work. I value every edition of the paper. Dr. Maston would be proud of you.” A high compliment indeed.
Joe E. Trull has been editor of Christian Ethics Today since 2000. From 1985-1999 he was professor of Christian ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, before which he was a pastor in Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma.