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Baptist historian W.R. Estep dies; ‘scholar of scholars’ among accolades

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–One of the most prominent church historians in Southern Baptist life, whose work threw a spotlight on Baptist origins and church-state issues, has died.

William R. Estep Jr., 80, distinguished professor of church history emeritus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, died Friday, July 14, at his Fort Worth, Texas, home.

Funeral services for Estep will be at 10 a.m. Friday, July 21, at Gambrell Street Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

Estep served at Southwestern from 1954 until his retirement in 1990 and continued to teach until 1994. During that time, he wrote numerous works on subjects including Baptist and Anabaptist history, religious liberty and world missions. Some of his most well-known works include “The Anabaptist Story,” first published in 1963; “Renaissance and Reformation;” and his history of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board (now the International Mission Board), “Whole Gospel, Whole World.”

James Leo Garrett, Southwestern distinguished professor of theology emeritus, said Estep’s work reflected “a combination of the competence and diligence of a first-rate scholar with good teaching ability and an interest in students and the life of the churches.”

With his many roles as a scholar, churchman, family man, preacher and teacher, Estep “represented the best of Southwestern,” Garrett said.

“He was a remarkable professor and a wonderful teacher,” said Clyde Glazener, pastor of Gambrell Street Baptist Church, where Estep had attended. “He was a model of what it means to be a responsible part of the family of faith.”

Glazener, president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, said that when he attended Southwestern he wanted to take church history under Estep and Robert Baker because of their reputations as “very fine teachers.” Glazener took Baker for the first half of church history and Estep for the second half.

“I found him to be very demanding as far as academic involvement was concerned. The classes were a gift,” Glazener said.

Estep had a way of making church history come alive so that one almost forgot to take notes, he added.

Estep was born in Williamsburg, Ky., Feb. 12, 1920, and came to Christ when he was 10. Raised by relatives after his mother died during a flu epidemic, Estep went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from Berea College in 1942, a master of theology from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., and a doctor of theology from Southwestern in 1951. He married Edna Alice McDowell in 1942 and they had six children.

During his pastoral ministry, Estep served churches in Kentucky, Oklahoma and Texas. In addition to his service at Southwestern, Estep also taught at Baptist seminaries in Los Angeles, Houston, Colombia, Switzerland, Spain, Peru, Canada, Illinois and Hong Kong.

In total, Estep wrote or edited 21 books. He also held positions in several organizations centered on church history, including the American Society of Church History; the Conference on Faith and History, which he served as president; Southern Baptist Historical Society; the Texas Baptist Historical Society; and the Historical Committee of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

It was in the study of the 16th-century Anabaptists and their influence on the development of Baptist history that Estep made his most significant contribution, Garrett recalled.

Estep held the belief that “you can’t understand Baptist origins without studying Anabaptists,” Garrett said. “He was always probing the Anabaptist side of the story. He helped to broaden understanding of Baptist origins.”

Works like “The Anabaptist Story” and “Anabaptist Beginnings” “helped clear up distortions about Anabaptists,” Garrett added.

“Anabaptists made central to the whole movement a lifestyle of discipleship based upon the example and teachings of Jesus Christ,” Estep said in February 1999. “Without Anabaptists, we’d be hard pressed to know who we are or what we believe as Baptists.”

“Estep was one of the four leading American scholars on Anabaptism in the 20th century,” Garrett said. “The others are George Huntston Williams of Harvard, Franklin H. Littell of Temple and John Howard Yoder, the Mennonite of Notre Dame.”

Jim Spivey, associate professor of church history at Southwestern, remembered Estep as a man of piety and servanthood, a mentor, a “scholar of scholars” and a person of courageous identity.

Southern Baptists have produced very few scholars of Estep’s caliber, Spivey said, placing Estep among the ranks of T.B. Maston, W.T. Conner, Harvey E. Dana and Robert A. Baker.

“Dr. Estep really lived his faith,” said Spivey. “He really modeled the life of Christ.”

Spivey recalled that his very first class at Southwestern was in church history under Estep. Since that time, Estep has been an example of faith and courage, he added.

“I always saw a heart for the Lord in him,” Spivey said. “He always very diplomatically but courageously stood up for his faith without compromising his integrity.”

Estep was a firm proponent of the historic Baptist principle of church-state separation, a stand that, Spivey noted, is currently unpopular even in some Christian circles.

Though many consider Estep’s texts on Anabaptist history his most scholarly contribution, Garrett recalled that Estep himself regarded his history of the Foreign Mission Board as possibly his most important work. Estep was a ham radio operator and used that medium to keep in touch with missionaries.

Estep was also a pastor’s friend.

“He was someone you could go to and bounce concerns off of and get a straight-up answer,” Glazener said.

In an interview in 1990, Estep said that his teaching ministry had been an investment in students to help them understand what being a Baptist was about.

“It’s so important for students to have a knowledge of church history to help them understand who they are, religiously speaking,” he said.

Estep donated his library to Southwestern Seminary and the Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary, Cochrane, Alberta.

In addition to his wife, Estep is survived by his son, William Merl Estep; daughters Rhoda Elaine Macdonald, Mary McDowell Morgan and Lena Jan Gipson; and nine grandchildren.

He was preceded in death by a daughter, Alice Ann Estep, and a son, Martin Andrew Estep.

Donations can be made in Estep’s honor to the Library for Historical Work in the acquisition of Anabaptist materials at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, P.O. Box 22000, Fort Worth, TX 76122.
(BP) photo to be posted in the BP Photo Library at www.sbcbaptistpress.org. Photo title: WILLIAM R. ESTEP JR.

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  • Cory J. Hailey