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Seminary to house Hefley papers

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The research files of the first key chronicler of the Southern Baptist Convention’s conservative resurgence have found a home at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

The James and Marti Hefley Papers, which contain interview notes, correspondence and firsthand documentation of the leftward turn in SBC entities during the mid-20th century, have been given to the seminary by Joni B. Hannigan, managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness and a longtime friend of the Hefleys. Prior to their deaths in 2004, both Hefleys told Hannigan they wanted her to deposit the papers in a secure location and ensure that future researchers would have access to the raw materials from the 70-plus books they had written.

“I don’t think that I can overstate the significance of the collection for future researchers who will study at or visit Southern Seminary,” said Jason Fowler, archives and special collections librarian at Southern.

“The conservative resurgence in the SBC happened before the Internet became influential. In a time when communication was not nearly as instant as it is now, Hefley’s ‘Truth in Crisis’ series was one of the main vehicles for alerting conservatives at the grass-roots level about events taking place within the SBC. In a sense, he documented the conflict within the SBC while it was unfolding,” Fowler said.

Though Hefley was perhaps best known for his works on the SBC’s conservative resurgence — the six-volume Truth in Crisis series, concluding with “The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention” — he and his wife also penned such works as “By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century,” winner of a Gold Medallion from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association in 1980, and a biography of Wycliffe Bible Translators founder William Cameron Townsend. Jim Hefley also wrote a biography of President Jimmy Carter. His account of growing up in the Ozarks, “Way Back in the Hills,” is still in print, with more than over 60,000 copies sold.

The Hefleys worked as freelance writers for 40 years, traveling to more than 50 countries to research their books and articles. Jim Hefley was known as a master storyteller who could tell vivid tales of presidents, preachers, astronauts, athletes and activists.

After graduating from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas at age 17, Hefley earned a master of divinity degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of philosophy from the University of Tennessee. Before his writing career took off, Hefley planted churches and preached.

In 1985 the Hefleys founded Hannibal Books, a small publishing company in Hannibal, Mo., where they settled. In Hannibal, the Hefleys also earned one full-time salary for each teaching part-time at Hannibal-LaGrange College.

It was at Hannibal-LaGrange where they first encountered Joni Hannigan, who had enrolled in one of Jim Hefley’s writing classes. Hannigan developed a friendship with the entire Hefley family, and Jim and Marti took particular interest in mentoring her. Both were strong influences on her during the conservative resurgence within the SBC.

“They inspired me,” Hannigan said of the Hefleys. “They mentored me. They encouraged me, believed in me and gave me hope, challenged me.”

But the relationship was not one-way; the Hefleys fondly referred to Hannigan as their “tall daughter.” Moreover, when it became apparent that both James and Marti faced imminent death, they told Hannigan they wanted her to care for their personal papers. Hannigan recounted Marti Hefley as saying, “There’s a lot of people who talked to Jim and told him important things. You probably have more knowledge of what’s in there than I do.”

Following the deaths of the Hefleys, Hannigan said four years of thought and prayer led her to choose Southern Seminary as the place to house the documents.

“It the oldest and one of the most respected seminaries in the Southern Baptist Convention. What better place to have the record of the conservative resurgence.”

Greg Wills, professor of church history and director of the seminary’s Center for Study of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the Hefley files will be a valuable collection for researchers.

“James Hefley uniquely documented the [SBC] controversy. He wrote a six-volume history of the controversy, and they drew from his experience as a popular author and journalist,” Wills said.

“I do expect that the presence of his own research, documentation, interviews and correspondence with the principles in the controversy will undoubtedly make this a remarkably valuable collection for research related to the controversy.”

Cyndi Taylor, the Hefleys’ daughter, said the collection shows the impact her parents had on the numerous people they studied and interviewed.

“It’s not just a bunch of stuff,” Taylor said. “It’s a bunch of lives — individual lives. And they’re all ones that Jim and Marti touched, every one of them. And it gives hope that, ‘Hey, I can maybe touch one life.'”
David Roach is a writer for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.