Boyce, Broadus and the Doing of Church History

I have been working through the life of James Petigru Boyce (1827-1888) by his close friend John A. Broadus (1827-1895), just reprinted by Solid Ground Christian Books as A Gentleman and a Scholar: Memoir of James P. Boyce (2004). It is a tremendous study, exhaustive and rich with Broadus’ comments on the life and times of Boyce. I suspect the time is ripe for a new biography of Boyce, especially with the sesquicentennial of the founding of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary upcoming in 2009. Here is one priceless comment by Broadus on the teaching of Church History. He is in the midst of discussing the great sacrifice made by Boyce in 1872, for theological reasons, of giving up his favourite subject, Systematic Theology, to his colleague William Williams to teach. William Williams taught as Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government. In his ecclesiological convictions, though, Williams believed that immersion in a Paedobaptist congregation or immersion by the Campbellites was a valid baptism. Understandably, there were objections to this view, and Boyce, knowing that his own views on the issue were more mainstream offered to switch teaching responsibilities. It was a great sacrifice, not least, because Broadus says, church history is “a subject so vast, and demanding boundless reading” (A Gentleman and a Scholar, 227).

How true this is! Whenever someone tells me that they would like to study church history among the traditional curricula of theology, I urge him to consider this truth about church history: it is “a subject so vast, and demanding boundless reading.” You must be a reader and be prepared to attempt to survey the vast picture. Quite a challenge!

And even more so now than when Boyce took it up. Why so? Not only do we have another 150 years of church history, but also because the breadth of methodological tools have increased. In that day, the focus was very much “a history of ideas and institutions” approach. But today an historian must be familiar with tools of sociological and cultural analysis. Who is sufficient for such things?