Posted 6/29/2017 at 3:10pm. Article by Jennifer Law
“It’s a powerful thing to think about—what one person can do.”
Fred Anderson, executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society, was referring to an influential figure in Baptist history: Luther Rice. The same might be said of Anderson himself, as he approaches his upcoming retirement after 38 years of service with Virginia Baptists.
As the Society’s first-ever full-time executive director, Anderson faced many challenges and saw the organization grow in its size, function, and influence. During his tenure, he served in many positions—historian, researcher, teacher, writer, bookkeeper, and secretary—and the list goes on. He summarizes his primary role, however, simply as “storyteller.”
Fred’s Early Years
“I recently was going through some things and found my old grade-school report cards,” Anderson recalled. “My fourth-grade teacher commented, ‘Freddy talks too much,’ but my fifth-grade teacher was more kind and wrote, ‘Freddy is a storyteller.’ I guess it started way back then, when I was a child.”
He told of how he liked entertaining his brother, sister, and the neighborhood kids by doing circuses, carnivals, and puppet shows. He often played preacher, making them his congregation. Anderson’s talents showed themselves at an early age, yet it would be many years before he practiced some of them in his profession.
Raised mostly by his grandparents in the southern part of Georgia, Anderson never dreamed he’d go to college for a formal education. In high school, he could choose classes in the “commercial course” or the “academic course,” the former being geared toward preparing students for the work force and the latter toward getting students ready for college.
“My grandfather said I should take the commercial course, but he said I should also take the basics for college admissions just in case.” Already, God was preparing him in ways he didn’t realize for the future that lay ahead.
The commercial course included classes in typing, bookkeeping, and shorthand; and while Anderson was the only boy in those classes sometimes, he found them to be perhaps the most valuable courses he took during high school.
“At the historical society, I started out as the bookkeeper. As clerk for the BGAV, shorthand was how I took most of my notes; and it was incredibly useful in doing my research notes over the years. And typing, of course, became the key to using computers, which didn’t even exist when I was in college.”
When Anderson’s grandfather died in February of his senior year of high school, his elementary school principal came to offer her condolences. She told him about a college where he could work his way through.
“She did more than just tell me,” he remembered. “She wrote off for the catalog and application, and then sat at our dining room table and we filled it out. If she hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” His teacher had “seen some worth in the boy,” he said, though at 17 he had never had the ambition to further his education.
That summer, he learned of an opening on one of the work crews at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he was accepted and became a student. He worked his way through college there, majoring in history to become a teacher. He also met his wife, Nancy, at Berry, and the two of them spent their first seven years of marriage team-teaching 11th grade English and history. “I started doing a lot of storytelling then,” Anderson reminisced. “I portrayed some of the historical characters we studied.”
The Making of a Virginia Baptist
“My family has been Baptist for as far back as we know anything about them,” explained Anderson. “One of my immigrant ancestors was a Baptist minister before the Revolution, and all the way down there were Baptist ministers.”
Baptist heritage aside, Anderson believes he would have been a Baptist anyway. “I joined First Baptist Church of Albany, Georgia, my hometown, when I was 12. I went on Sunday nights to Baptist Training Union (BTU) and attended sessions on what it means to be a Baptist, and religious liberty, and things like that.”
After college, Anderson attended library school at Peabody College (now a part of Vanderbilt University) in Nashville. When he completed his library degree, the couple sought employment in Nancy’s home state of Virginia, where Anderson accepted a position as administrative assistant for the Henrico County Public Library system. The Andersons lived in the Ginter Park neighborhood of Richmond and became active members of the former Northminster Baptist Church.
In 1978 Northminster asked Anderson to write the history of their church, which he did using the strength of his own Baptist heritage and formal training as both historian and teacher. The following year, his wife saw an advertisement in the Religious Herald for a new position at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society (VBHS). They were looking for someone in Virginia who was Baptist and had both a history background and a library background, so she encouraged him to apply.
“I wasn’t a part of the inner circle of Virginia Baptists at that time,” recalled Anderson. “In the process of applying, I talked with Dr. Theodore Adams, former pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church and also the Baptist World Alliance, and he encouraged me.
I then met with Dr. Richard Stephenson, who was then the executive director of the BGAV. He told me, ‘I don’t know whether or not it will work out, but if it can work anywhere, it would work in Virginia, because Virginians appreciate history.’”
“It was a real step of faith then,” said Anderson, who became the first executive director the Society had ever hired. Previously they only hired part-time, retired history professors. They’d never had anyone who would go into the field and promote in the churches.
“I looked back and found the financial page from that year,” Anderson said, “and our total income and expenses that first year was $27,000. We had four people working there, and we ended up with $43 to the good at the end of that year.”
The BGAV “stepped up to the plate” according to Anderson and began increasing their allocation through the Cooperative Program. As more members joined and began to contribute beyond membership dues, the Society gained a stronger financial foundation.
When Anderson arrived at the VBHS, it was the oldest and largest organization of its kind. It has since garnered a fine collection of materials and helped churches preserve records and tell their stories. Anderson has personally traveled to congregations across the Commonwealth and supplied resources to churches.
“I felt that the VBHS needed to get out beyond the walls and be out there with the people, or else it would have the danger of being perceived as a club, and I saw it more as a ministry,” explained Anderson. “We coined the tagline ‘A Ministry Through History,’ and I think we’ve proven that it is a ministry to help people understand what Baptists are all about.” Besides the VBHS, there are very few resources that focus on doing that. Baptist Training Union doesn’t exist anymore, so there are not many opportunities or media for what used to be known as Church Training. “So we try to stress the need for people of each generation to know what it means to be a Baptist,” Anderson said.
What It Means to Be a Baptist
Anderson recalled the story of Dr. J. B. Jeter, a great figure in Virginia Baptist history, regarding what it means to be a Baptist: “Dr. Jeter said that if there were no more Baptists, if they all went away, he would still be a Baptist. I think he meant it’s more of a mindset and a philosophy you adopt.”
Anderson believes that this mindset goes back to Baptist beginnings—not just in Virginia, but in England and around Europe. “The Baptists came out of a period of suppression where there was a state religion,” he said, “and they were dissenters to that. At the very core of them, there is a great affinity for freedom in all of its dimensions.”
Anderson continued, “Baptists are a little ornery about that. We even see it in the local churches. They’ve learned how to be cooperative with other folk but are very cautious about personal freedoms for all people, which I think is a remarkable characteristic.” Anderson explained, “They were a minority, and even when they became the majority, they did not want to become the next established church. They thought that freedom of conscience was so sacred that every individual should possess soul freedom, however they felt led to express that.”
Anderson praised Virginia Baptists for their open-mindedness, stating, “They have a Christian temperament about them; while they can think for themselves and debate issues, they are not given to be closed-minded. They don’t say ‘we’re in, and you’re out.’ Even among their own people, the Virginia Baptists have been a very open-minded, progressive group of people.”
Anderson added there are two main themes to Virginia Baptist history: religious liberty and the missions movement. “They had been divided and they struggled to secure it [religious freedom]; they endured persecution, they influenced upper-class Founding Fathers like Jefferson and Madison, and they won that,” he said. “Then along came the missions movement, and they really adopted that, mainly because of the influence of one man: Luther Rice. They are still items of current concern, interest, and support.”
Over almost four decades, Anderson has guided the VBHS in telling stories of Virginia Baptists with the overarching, recurring themes of religious liberty and missions. In his tenure there, he has seen much growth and change in how the VBHS accomplishes its goals. In the 1980s, the VBHS commissioned a mural by renowned artist, Sidney King, which grew to become a 36-panel mural covering the breadth of Virginia Baptist history. “We had no room to display them,” remembered Anderson, “but we kept dreaming and hoping that one day we would have space for them.”
Anderson said “two miracles” happened in the 1990s: a strategic planning committee of the BGAV made it possible for the VBHS to be included in the BGAV budget so they could undergo renovations to their space, and the University of Richmond gave them another floor of the building. For the first time, they were able to protect their collection, keep it secure, and offer public space for viewing and research.
Also during Anderson’s first decade, he began portraying historical characters, which became a hallmark of his ministry among Virginia Baptists. “Jack Patterson, then pastor of Hatcher Memorial Baptist in Richmond, asked if I would come for their 75th anniversary and portray the man for whom the church was named,” recalled Anderson. “I began reading Dr. William Hatcher’s autobiography and biography, and I got captivated. The man had a lot of humor, and he went everywhere to speak. He was the platform master of the 19th century and became known as the Great Baptist Commoner. I got obsessed with him and took him on the road because he was the perfect character to tell our story; his time period and what he did made him the perfect choice.”
Anderson has since portrayed Dr. Hatcher more than 400 times in churches, schools, and other institutions. He also portrayed John Leland, the 18th-century evangelist known for
his advocacy for religious liberty, more than 60 times in various venues.
A highlight of Anderson’s third decade at the VBHS was the opening of the Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies, formed in November 1999 as a new relationship venture between the BGAV and the University of Richmond with the purpose of creating educational resources and offering courses about Baptist heritage. The Center also introduced the Heritage Fellows program, of which Anderson is particularly proud. Through the program, young Baptist scholars work together on special projects directed by Anderson to learn more about Baptist heritage, churches, and related topics. Most recently, the Fellows published a book about their experience forming intentional relationships with students on their campuses who are of different faith backgrounds. Anderson commented, “If we’re ever going to be at one with one another, we have to make relationships and friendships.”
Words of Wisdom
Looking to future decades, Anderson used the lessons of the past to hint at what might be in store for Virginia Baptists. He warned against Baptists becoming “generic” and losing their sense of identity. “In the last several decades, we almost have abandoned even the family name, but it is still a worthy name.”
He encouraged Baptists to engage in meaningful conversations over issues and concerns in order to retain the fine art of discernment. “Being a Baptist does not mean complete uniformity and conformity, and it does not mean checking one’s mind at the door,” said Anderson. “There should be opportunities for dialogue and discussion.”
Anderson stressed that preserving and learning Baptist history is critical. “Living in the most literate of times, Baptists face a danger of spiritual and denominational illiteracy if ‘church training’ by whatever name is not available.” He explained that just as families pass on meaningful, cherished heirlooms, the same can be said for the spiritual family. “There are some principles which have survived the test of time and need to be transmitted to the current generation,” he explained, “and these include a respect for the individual believer, the value of freedom in all of its dimensions, a democratic form of church polity, the importance of separation of church from state, and the overarching value of religious freedom.”
Anderson gains his new title at the VBHS in July 2017: Executive Director Emeritus. As his retirement draws near, he offered some parting thoughts from his 38-year-long perspective:
“I believe that we need to let all of our people know what it means to be a Baptist and what’s characterized them, what are their distinctives and principles, and how we became known as such a progressive tribe among the many different streams of Baptists. I think that even this generation right now needs to appreciate those two great themes that I’ve emphasized: religious liberty and missions. But I’ve found that the secret wealth of Virginia Baptists lies not in our buildings, and not in all of our programming; it’s in the people. We have people who are rich in character.”
Fred Anderson, we as Virginia Baptist express our gratitude to you for preserving and protecting our past, and for being a steward of our future. Thank you for being such an integral part of our secret wealth as a man rich in character and a true servant of God.