By David Roach
ST. LOUIS (BP) — In 1979, Bill Sumners visited Nashville for a meeting of the Society of American Archivists and paid a visit to Southern Baptists’ denominational archives while he was in town.
As he stood in the Baptist Sunday School Board’s Dargan-Carver Library, the precursor to today’s Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, he remembers thinking, “This is really where I want to be” professionally. There was no job opening at the time. But eventually his dream was fulfilled.
Now, 37 years later — and after 33 years of service to Southern Baptists — Sumners is retiring effective July 29 as the longest-tenured director of the Southern Baptist Convention’s library and archives since its establishment in 1953.
The SBC’s Council of Seminary Presidents, which oversees SBHLA, honored Sumners June 15 at the SBC annual meeting in St. Louis, giving him and his wife Donna a certificate of appreciation along with a trip to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons.
Sumners “has watched over our history and our heritage,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Council of Seminary Presidents. “… Thirty-three years is a long time. It’s enough time that Bill Sumners has not only been able to record the history. He’s been able to make some of it and watch it happen as well. And 33 years of service is never to go without thankfulness and gratitude wherever it is found in the cause of Christ.”
‘The best place’ for Baptist research
After serving as archivist at the Dargan-Carver Library from 1983-88, Sumners became SBHLA archivist in 1988 and director in 1990. SBHLA moved its holdings out of the Dargan-Carver Library in 1985, and Sumners oversaw both collections for three years before transitioning to fulltime work with the library and archives.
Under Sumners’ leadership, the archives have expanded from a modest collection to 12,000 linear feet of archival material, including 8,000 linear feet of records from SBC entities and 4,000 feet of manuscript material from Baptist pastors, evangelists, missionaries and organizations.
“He has made this the best place to conduct research on Baptists,” said Taffey Hall, current SBHLA archivist and Sumners’ successor as director upon his retirement.
A key moment for Sumners’ expansion of the SBHLA collection came in 1985, when the SBC building moved from its former location on James Robertson Parkway in Nashville to its present location at 9th and Commerce. He surveyed SBC entity records kept in the old building’s basement and was permitted to have all the records he requested, doubling the size of the denominational archives overnight.
Another expansion occurred in 1997, when the SBC’s Covenant for a New Century reduced the number of convention entities from 19 to 12 and records of some closed entities were transferred to SBHLA.
The archives contain most correspondence and minutes on file from the International Mission Board and its precursor organization, the Foreign Mission Board. Sumners said there is more material from the North American Mission Board and its precursor, the Home Mission Board, than any other entity.
Among Sumners’ favorite collections is the papers of J.M. Frost, founder of the Sunday School Board. It contains letters from Lottie Moon, Annie Armstrong and others.
“Everybody who was anybody was going to write J.M. Frost about what was going on in the convention,” Sumners said. “… The quality of the people corresponding with J.M. Frost was always kind of illuminating to me.”
Sumners also enjoys the papers of Una Roberts Lawrence, an HMB and Woman’s Missionary Union staff member, because of the broad exposure they provide to early 20th-century Southern Baptist missions. The papers of Samuel Starnes Day, a missionary to India, Sumners said, include his correspondence with Adoniram Judson, one of the first international missionaries from America.
In recent years, Sumners has acquired the papers of Emmanuel McCall, an African American pioneer in race relations within the SBC, and Richard Land, former president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
A campaign to digitize SBHLA holdings has made available online all SBC Annuals, all Baptist Press stories from 1948-1996 and all issues of Tennessee’s Baptist and Reflector newsjournal from 1835-1939 and 2000-2008.
But more than archival collections, Sumners said he values the people he’s come to know through his work.
‘Do it together’
For instance, he credits the late Sid Smith, a consultant with the Sunday School Board’s Black Church Development department and later a staff member with the Florida Baptist Convention, with helping him “gain an appreciation of the African American Baptist heritage.” At Smith’s urging, Sumners, who is white, joined the Black Southern Baptist Denominational Servants Network.
“Sid taught me more than an appreciation for African American Baptist history,” Sumners said. “He taught me the understanding of servanthood and how denominational work must be done with an attitude of service.”
Sumners also fondly remembers interviewing former president Jimmy Carter about his faith and serving as vice chairman of a planning committee for the Baptist Heritage Celebration in 2007 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the first Baptist association in America.
The five-year planning process for the Baptist Heritage Celebration was difficult because it involved numerous Baptist groups with significant differences in their theology and practice, Sumners said. The experience was rewarding, however, because it underscored his conviction that “while the differences among the folks called Baptists are serious, our commonality is rooted in our shared history, and we need to join in celebrating that heritage, and if possible do it together.”
In retirement, Sumners plans to travel and spend time with his three granddaughters. Throughout his career, he said his opinion of the SBC’s denominational archives persisted: It was always where he wanted to be professionally.
“I don’t know if I ever envisioned staying here forever,” he said. “But I must confess, I never looked for anything else.”