By John Pierce
As a college student in the mid-1970s, I sold men’s clothing at Loveman’s — a department store in Chattanooga’s Eastgate Mall. Most of my colleagues were students at Tennessee Temple.
I stood apart with hair dangling over the collar of my brightly colored, wide-collared shirts and leisure suits. The Temple students had the clean-cut look of the ’50s and early ’60s, wearing white shirts, skinny ties and conservative suits — with ample pockets for Chick tracts and flash cards used to aid indoctrination.
More suspect than my white belt, flared pants legs and platform shoes was my membership in a Southern Baptist congregation — where the exclusivity of King James was not taught and date night didn’t include a chaperone and might even involve a motion picture.
(My coworkers would not even join me at the mall theater after work to see Corrie Ten Boon’s The Hiding Place. Tennessee Temple spies, they said, were on the lookout for such restricted behavior.)
Though conservative in my own right, I was not a true believer according to my Temple friends — who were always eager to explain the truth to me using their flash cards and pocket scriptures.
The so-called “Curse of Ham” was their convoluted biblical defense of God’s desire for white supremacy. And “cross-referencing” a couple of verses, here and there, revealed that God could not call a polyester-wearing Southern Baptist kid like me with hair over his ears.
Oddly, I took no personal offense — because I didn’t take these guys that seriously. And while my own worldview was quite limited at the time, it was hard for me to walk in their wingtips. Their stockroom talk of scandalous activities on campus — such as coeds getting demerits for catching sun on their legs up to their knees — brought smiles to my face.
So imagine my shock a few years ago when I ran into my favorite former coworker of the bunch — still selling clothes due to a divorce that took him out of the Temple fold — who proclaimed: “John-boy, you won’t believe this — I’m a Southern Baptist now.”
I laughed loudly and replied: “And you won’t believe this — I’m not one anymore.”
It did seem odd. He and his fellow Temple students had so long argued for the exclusive claims of independent Baptist fundamentalism. And Southern Baptists had no greater loyalist than me.
Those experiences of old came flooding back to mind when I read the recent Baptist Press article about Tennessee Temple strengthening its ties to the Southern Baptist Convention.
It is hard to express how improbable — no, impossible — it would have been back then to imagine that one day Tennessee Temple would become Southern Baptist and I would leave the fold. It would have been less believable than Wrigley Field installing lights someday or that strange new Rocky Horror Picture Show continuing to play in theaters 37 years later.
But it has happened. According to the BP article, Temple’s new president, Steve Echols, is thoroughly Southern Baptist. He even spoke favorably about Lottie, Annie and cooperative mission giving. (I had to read that twice after years of hearing such cooperation demonized in favor of direct support of missionaries.)
Also, he is seeking closer ties between the school and the Tennessee Baptist Convention and will have faculty sign the Southern Baptist-approved doctrinal statement during the spring graduation ceremony, he said.
Tennessee Temple has its roots in Highland Park Baptist Church, a once very large, in-town independent Baptist congregation in Chattanooga. Pastor-President Lee Roberson ran the school with a firm fundamentalist hand from the school’s founding in 1946 until his retirement in 1984.
In the BP article, current President Echols spoke of how Roberson and others left the SBC “as part of the fundamentalist movement and independent Baptist movement.” Yet, this June, Tennessee Temple will have an exhibit at the SBC annual meeting, said Echols, adding that, for Southern Baptists, the school “is a safe place to send your students, theologically.”
Tennessee Temple now appears at SBC meetings. I don’t. I’m not a Southern Baptist — but Tennessee Temple is. Weird. Just weird.
As a philosophy student I learned logical deduction rather than the “Curse of Ham.” So let’s see if some of this can be explained:
I was Southern Baptist and Tennessee Temple was not. Tennessee Temple was admittedly fundamentalist. Though quite conservative theologically, neither the Southern Baptist Convention nor I were fundamentalist. However, the SBC became fundamentalist. So now Tennessee Temple is Southern Baptist and I am not.
That is not to suggest that nothing else — or no one else — has changed. Tennessee Temple, I hear, has moved away from the faulty “Curse of Ham” theory and loosened some of its social rigidity. And I confess to having opened my own mind to ideas that did not reside in that longhaired head of the ’70s — and would not even fit within the SBC of old.
But, again, I just smile. And remember that even the unimaginable can occur over time: the Cubs play home games at night; another generation is learning to do “The Time Warp” again; and the Southern Baptist Convention has turned to fundamentalism.
So Tennessee Temple is proudly Southern Baptist. And I am not. Amazing.
Oh, and I finally gave up the leisure suit a few years ago — and, sadly, that ’70s hair style is no longer an option for me.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.