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100-year-old publishes book

ARKADELPHIA, Ark. (BP)–In the same week, Raymond Coppenger marked his 100th birthday and saw his doctoral dissertation, written more than 50 years ago, published as a book titled “A messenger of grace: A study of the life and thought of Abraham Booth.”

Coppenger, whose son Mark is an apologetics professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., was mentioned by former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee during closing remarks on his Fox News Channel show “Huckabee” Sept. 20.

“One personal note: Happy 100th birthday today to Dr. Raymond Coppenger, retired professor of theology at my beloved alma mater, Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia,” Huckabee said.

“Dr. Coppenger is one of the most brilliant scholars I’ve known, and his Edinburgh-trained intellect was matched by his humble and gracious spirit. As he and his family celebrate his 100 years, I thank him for his investment in my life.”

Coppenger’s family and several hundred others had gathered that weekend in Arkadelphia, Ark., to celebrate a century of life steeped in Baptist academics.

As his son recounted to Baptist Press, Coppenger’s life began in humble circumstances in the mountains of East Tennessee. “His dad worked on the railroad for the timber company,” Mark Coppenger said, “and they would set these little houses off of flatbed cars on the sides for the families of the timber people, and he was in one of those little portable houses that were carried from place to place on train cars.”

Later the family moved to Atlanta, where Raymond Coppenger completed high school and went on to earn an English literature degree at Mercer University in 1933. Sensing a call to ministry, he received a master of theology at Southern Seminary three years later.

Coppenger was a pastor in Newport, Tenn., and Pennington Gap, Va., before serving as a Baptist Student Union director at Auburn University and the University of Kentucky.

“Even though he was a man of the South, he was sent north to Detroit to work as a chaplain in the Ford Motor Company naval works in World War II, and that’s where he met my mother who was a University of Michigan grad,” Mark Coppenger said. “She was a journalism major and worked on a newspaper up there and later went to work for Ford Motor Company naval works.

“They met and were married. They were a great, great team. My mom died in 2000 at age 79. She was an extraordinary woman, very active in Woman’s Missionary Union. They went on mission trips together all over the place.”

After Detroit, the U.S. Navy sent Raymond Coppenger to serve as a chaplain in the South Pacific during the war, and he had made his way up to China by the time it ended. He and his wife Agnes decided to use his G.I. Bill entitlement to further his education at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, a place that interested him because a professor at Southern Seminary had spoken highly of it.

As he pursued a doctorate, the professor assigned to him at Edinburgh gave him a list of potential subjects for his dissertation.

“He said, ‘Here is a Baptist who is a neglected scholar in your denomination, but he has a message that your denomination ought to look over. His name is Abraham Booth. He was a premier Baptist in London, England,'” Raymond Coppenger told Baptist Press.

Booth, who lived from 1734 to 1806, was a leader in England’s Baptist churches and was instrumental in sending William Carey as a missionary to India. Booth wrote several books, the most famous of which is still in print, “The Reign of Grace,” a major study of grace in the Christian life.

“When my wife and I went over, we took three small trunks and a couple of bags. After we had done our one year of research from Edinburgh … we went to Oxford University for the summer term,” Coppenger recounted.

“When we finished there, I took the trunks and bags by train down to Southampton, England. We had bought tickets already for our steamship home. There wasn’t a great deal of flying at that time. So I stored the bags there in the lockup portion of the railroad station while we made a further trip on to Copenhagen, Denmark, for the Baptist World Alliance that year.

“Then we went on to Copenhagen and soon after we arrived and got settled, the steamship company said, ‘We picked up your luggage. We’re ready to go. But we believe we’re one bag short.’ This turned out to be the bag in which I had packed the bulk of our research notes, about 1,600 pages of raw notes that we had gotten approval from our professors as sufficient to write a thesis from if we could get them back safely and sit down and put the thesis together,” Coppenger said.

With the notes on Booth’s life lost, Coppenger appealed to Southern Seminary to make arrangements with the University of Edinburgh to try to replicate the research in the United States. In the process, Coppenger worked with William Jewell College in Missouri, which housed Charles Spurgeon’s library.

He also worked with the American Baptist Historical Society in Pennsylvania and Vanderbilt University in Nashville while he was teaching at Cumberland University in nearby Lebanon, Tenn.

“Dr. Eric Rust was a British professor who had come to Southern Seminary in Louisville, and he was willing to assume a supervisory relationship in my work,” Coppenger said. “I eventually got the thesis finished. My darling wife typed for two or three years off and on. Anyway, she finished the typing of it and Edinburgh granted me a Ph.D. degree in 1953.”

Coppenger went on to teach philosophy and religion at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn., Belmont College in Nashville and Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia.

“He’s actually a quite remarkable handyman too. He pretty well built our house in Arkadelphia,” Mark Coppenger said. “He used student labor in some cases, but he designed the house. He drew up the blueprints and did a lot of the carpentry and stone laying. He actually kept our cars going. He would buy old junkers or cars for cheap and then rehab them and keep them going. So he’s been an auto mechanic for us and a home builder. He’s kind of a renaissance man.”

In addition to Mark, Coppenger has two daughters, Anne, who died of cancer in 2007, and Susan, whose husband is on the board of trustees for the University of Arkansas.

It was more than half a century after the dissertation was completed that the idea of having it published surfaced. Mark Coppenger mentioned it to a colleague, Michael Haykin, who is professor of church history and biblical spirituality at Southern Seminary.

Haykin serves as an editorial adviser for Joshua Press, based in Ontario, Canada, and recognized the value of the dissertation on Booth.

“He was certainly a very significant force in the 18th- and 19th-century Baptist community in the British Isles and in America,” Haykin said. “There had been no real study done on his life and thought but what Dr. Coppenger did as a thesis back in the early ’50s.”

Joshua Press saw it as an ideal opportunity to help rectify an omission in Baptist publications about Booth, Haykin said, noting that the book is intended as a primer on Booth’s ministry and theology.

“Happily for Dr. Coppenger there has not been a lot of research done on Abraham Booth. Normally you let 50 years go by between the work on a thesis and then publishing it and you’re going to have to take account of a significant amount of other research that has been done,” Haykin said. “But there has not been a lot of research done on Booth, which is a shame.”

Coppenger said he is proud to have his dissertation published, and he expressed gratitude for the many people who helped make it possible.

“All in all, it’s been a long time and I’ve had an awful lot of help on it. I’m glad it’s published because I think it is a worthwhile piece of literature,” he said.

When asked his thoughts on turning 100, Coppenger said, “Well, I’m sort of stuck with it. I’m awful grateful to be in good enough health to keep on the go. I’ll take as many days as the good Lord wants to give me.”
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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