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Baptist historian Albert Wardin dies at 94

Albert Wardin in 1993. SBHLA photo

NASHVILLE (BP) – Albert Wardin, a prolific historian who helped make the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives (SBHLA) a global hotspot for Baptist researchers, died Nov. 14. He was 94.

A history professor at Belmont University in Nashville for more than a quarter century, Wardin authored more than 10 books along with dozens of scholarly articles and pamphlets. Baptist historian Lloyd Harsch classified him as “the same category of Baptist statesman as [theologian] James Leo Garrett.”

“Baptists Around the World,” which Wardin edited, was among his best-known books. The nearly 500-page reference work includes articles on Baptists in every region of the world, with statistics about churches and the membership of Baptist groups in each region.

“I don’t know of anybody comparable to Dr. Wardin’s understanding of Baptists,” said Bill Sumners, retired SBHLA director. “There are a lot of other good Baptist historians who have a broad scope of Baptists, but no one like him that I know.”

Wardin was a meticulous researcher remembered by friends as focused and driven. His other works included “Tennessee Baptists: A Comprehensive History” and “The Twelve Baptist Tribes in the U.S.A.,” a catalog and statistical analysis of each subgroup of Baptists in America. His bibliography of religious groups in the Russian Empire and the former Soviet Union included 11,000 citations in 17 different languages – “a compendium of every book, article and scrap of paper ever written about Russian Baptists,” Harsch said.

“He wanted to get things done,” Sumners said with a laugh. “When you were around Dr. Wardin, you couldn’t just dilly dally around. He wanted to move things along and finish things up.”

Yet the driven scholar was also a warm friend. His research led Wardin to develop a broad array of friendships across the world and the theological spectrum.

“He was a biblically conservative person, but he was irenic in spirit,” said Harsch, a Baptist history professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary who is working on an update of Wardin’s “The Twelve Baptist Tribes.” “He spent more time trying to help people understand why he believed what he did rather than trying to convince them to join him. He was the uncomfortable friend of many moderates [in the SBC’s denominational conflict] because they said, ‘We know he’s a fundamentalist, but he’s not angry about it.’”

Wardin made a major impact on the SBC’s denominational archives in Nashville, where a research room is named after him. Part of the reason he liked living in Nashville was proximity to the SBHLA. Wardin was instrumental in the library’s acquisition of Primitive Baptist as well as Russian and Eastern European Baptist archival collections. He helped negotiate purchase of the former and paid for it in part with his own money.

“Researchers from across the country and around the world have visited the SBHLA to study these unique materials,” SBHLA Director Taffey Hall said. “The extensive Primitive Baptist and Russian Baptist resources available for research at the SBHLA would not have been possible without Dr. Wardin.”

Born in Portland, Ore., in 1928, Wardin grew up on a dairy farm before earning a bachelor’s degree at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., a master’s degree at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., a bachelor of divinity at Western Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. at the University of Oregon. His doctoral dissertation was the basis for his book “Baptists in Oregon,” which helped launch his academic career.

He was preceded in death by his wife Lucile, who served as dean of women at Belmont. The Wardins were known for their care toward students who came to Belmont from other nations and established an endowed scholarship fund for international students.

The Wardins were longtime members of First Baptist Church in Nashville, where for many years he led a men’s discipleship group described by late First Baptist staff member Rus Roach as a “who’s who of Southern Baptist denominational life.” Wardin was known to read the Bible devotionally in Spanish and Russian “to help him see the world through different eyes,” Harsch said.

A celebration of life at First Baptist will be held Nov. 22 at 1 p.m.

A committed researcher to the end, Wardin’s final days were spent in a nursing home where he was surrounded by folders of research material. But Harsch suspects Wardin may not be finished with his research quite yet.

“If we had to anthropomorphize what he’s doing in heaven,” Harsch said, “he would be working on his next update of ‘Baptists Around the World,’ trying to talk with all the other Baptists who have gone before him to get more research so he could be more accurate in his updated work.”