ATLANTA (ABP) — Scholars and history buffs who want to learn more about Baptist history now can do so in one place.
The American Baptist Historical Society dedicated the Samuel Colgate Historical Library and Archives on Mercer University’s Atlanta campus Sept. 27, bringing its vast collections previously housed at Valley Forge, Pa., and Rochester, N.Y., under one roof.
The space also represents something of a reunion for Baptists — who divided over slavery in 1845 and have never reunited. While some questioned relocating the library and archives to Atlanta, particularly with American Baptist Churches USA headquarters in Pennsylvania, Mercer President Bill Underwood said Atlanta was the perfect location, because of the city’s civil-rights history and the personal history of university founder Jesse Mercer.
The Georgia Baptist preacher whose financial contributions helped establish the university in 1833 also made a substantial gift to the American Baptist Publication Society. That, in turn, helped lead to establishment of the American Baptist Historical Society in 1853“
This is a partnership between the leading Baptist research university and the largest Baptist historical resource in the nation,” Underwood said. “I felt from the beginning this partnership could help both institutions advance their missions.”
The building is also the new home for the Baptist History and Heritage Society, which was the successor to the former Southern Baptist Historical Commission. In addition, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship — which was where most in the moderate camp of the Southern Baptist Convention’s controversies of the 1980s migrated — has announced plans to move into the building.Albert Brinson, co-chair of a fundraising campaign for the American Baptist Historical Society, said the move is appropriate. Brinson was ordained at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta by co-pastors Martin Luther King Sr. and Martin Luther King Jr. He said both men thought Atlanta was a natural spot for bringing diverse people together.
"Our relationship with American Baptists makes this a special moment that now, in 2008, we celebrate the opening of the largest center of Baptist history,” Brinson said. “We are a part of that Baptist history. Atlanta is a great place for bringing people together, and we are asking God to bless this place.”
Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA, said the dedication was momentous for those who treasure the nation’s rich Baptist heritage. “This is a significant day for those who have prayed for the unity of the church,” Medley said. “By joining with this storied institution rooted in Baptist life and in the South, it’s another way in which God is healing the divisions, the scars and the wounds of Baptists in the past.”
From a research perspective, proximity to other historical collections at Emory University and Vanderbilt University make the new site convenient for researchers, said Anthea Butler, assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester and a participant in the dedication ceremony. “It’s important for the archives to be in Atlanta because it puts it in great proximity to all the great Baptist research sites in the South, all within a 500-mile radius,” said Butler, a Baptist historian.Trinette McCray, president of the historical society, echoed that proximity is important. “To have our collections together under one roof makes it easy for researchers and history buffs to see our historical documents,” she said. “Atlanta is perfect because it is one flight from almost any city in the country, and researchers and students won’t have to search for documents in two locations.”
The archives hold tens of thousands of artifacts of Baptist history, some from as early as the 1500s from Dutch and German Baptists, according to Deborah Van Broekhoven, the historical society’s executive director. She called the new library and archives an exciting place where learning is still taking place.“We’re always stumbling upon a wide variety of stories,” Van Broekhoven said. “People come from all over the world to use our collections because part of their history is in our archives. Probably the most exciting thing is they tell us more about the story, from different perspectives, because it’s a piece of their own history.”