LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–James Hefley, the first key chronicler of the Southern Baptist Convention’s conservative resurgence, played a major part in inspiring Joni Hannigan to pursue Christian journalism, Hannigan said in placing Hefley’s papers at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
Hannigan, managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness since 2002, donated dozens of boxes containing interview notes and correspondence from the 70-plus books by Hefley and his wife Marti prior to their deaths in 2004.
After a 40-year career as freelance writers, the Hefleys settled in Hannibal, Mo., where they taught at Hannibal-LaGrange College and founded a small publishing company. It was there that they first encountered Hannigan, whose husband John came to the college to pursue a call to ministry. Though she was raising two young children and working, Hannigan’s desire to write led her to enroll in one of Jim Hefley’s writing classes.
Beginning with that class, Hannigan developed a friendship with the entire Hefley family that led to holidays spent together, Christian discipleship and journalistic mentorship. Eventually James and Marti began referring to Hannigan as their “tall daughter” and took her in as one of their own.
Through six years of living in Hannibal, Hannigan became the first full-time employee of Hefley’s Hannibal Books publishing company and, with his encouragement, began writing news articles for the Hannibal Courier-Post and the school’s newspaper and yearbook.
Hefley also introduced Hannigan to the world of Southern Baptist journalism, taking her to the SBC annual meeting in San Antonio in 1987 to show her the convention’s inner workings. The following year, she accompanied Hefley to the annual meeting again and this time wrote an article about the gathering for the Courier-Post.
After several years of attending the annual meeting with Hefley, Hannigan began writing first for the Indiana Baptist, then for Baptist Press, and became managing editor of the Witness in 2002.
In addition to learning about journalism under Hefley, Hannigan also learned from reading his “Truth in Crisis” book series that the SBC of the mid-1980s was headed in a distressing direction.
“I remember distinctly reading through The Truth in Crisis, volume one,” Hannigan recounted. “I remember sitting in the middle of my bed in our little house in Hannibal and reading about what was then called the Christian Life Commission and reading about its … pro-choice position on abortion and being utterly flabbergasted.”
Hannigan remembered shedding tears over the CLC’s stand on abortion and committing as part of her own journalistic work to inform readers about pro-life issues. She covered a pro-life rally in St. Louis as a volunteer and, to her surprise, Courier-Post editors chose her story and photo to run on the front page above the fold. Nearly 20 years later she provided comprehensive coverage of the Terri Schiavo case as a disabled Florida woman starved to death when a court ordered her feeding tube removed.
Through the rest of their lives, Hannigan maintained a close relationship with the Hefleys. After she spent nearly six years teaching high school English and journalism while continuing to write on a part-time basis, both Hefleys encouraged her to pursue a full-time position at a Baptist state paper.
When it became apparent that both Jim and Marti faced imminent death, they told Hannigan they wanted her to care for their personal papers. After the they died, she prayed and thought for four years about where to deposit the papers. Then Southern Seminary and its president, R. Albert Mohler Jr., came to mind one morning in early 2008.
“I said, ‘You know what … I trust Dr. Mohler. I think Southern Seminary can handle these archives. They’re one of our oldest, most respected seminaries in the Southern Baptist Convention. What better place to have the record of the conservative resurgence.”
That very day, Hannigan saw Mohler at a pastors’ conference at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., and told him she wanted Southern to have the Hefley papers.
Beginning in 2008, the Hefley papers are on loan to Southern for 25 years. After that time, the files will become the seminary’s property.
Released by Baptist Press in Nashville, Tenn.