Oklahoma Baptist University

Gritz Speaks to Oklahoma Baptist History, Heritage

Dr. Paul Gritz, professor of church history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, presents the 19th annual J.M. Gaskin Lecture in Baptist History and Heritage on Monday, Oct. 4.

How can multiple conflicting interests among people be tied into a unified endeavor? Dr. Paul Gritz, professor of church history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, answered the question of how Baptists –- who historically have been defined by division rather than unity –- overcame the improbability facing them to create a unified Oklahoma Baptist convention and university at the turn of the 20th century.

Gritz spoke during the 19th annual J.M. Gaskin Lecture in Baptist History and Heritage on Monday, Oct. 4. His first lecture, titled “OBU: One Baptist University for Oklahoma,” focused on the “traumatic romance” of the parties leading up to the formation of a single Southern Baptist university in the Sooner State. His evening lecture was titled “OBU: A Heritage Center for All Baptists in Oklahoma.”

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An atmosphere of feuding and fighting existed from the very beginning of Oklahoma, Gritz said. Conflict arose between the relocated five civilized tribes and the despised anglo leaders, but also within the tribes and other groups. A rivalry also existed among the existing Baptist groups in the state, one representing the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board and another in favor of North American Baptist’s civil society.

The Baptist General Association of Western Arkansas and Indian Territory was established in 1876, but some people wanted a separate Southern group to be established in Indian Territory to compete with any opposition from the “Yankee North.” Also, the Southern Baptist boards did not support Native American missions, so proponents sought support from North American Baptists.

“The individual early Baptist associations and conventions had to determine how they would relate,” Gritz said.

They also would need to determine if they could agree on higher education endeavors, he said.

In 1901, Oklahoma Baptist College was established in Blackwell, Okla., in Kay County. In 1903, Southwest Baptist College was established in Hastings, Okla., and later moved to Mangum, Okla. However, many in Indian Territory were not keen on the need for Baptist-affiliated higher education. One group tied with the Northern society aiding a college in Indian Territory which later became Bacone College in Muskogee, Okla.

Financial crises forced Oklahoma Baptist College to close on Aug. 12, 1913. Southwest Baptist College also closed its doors permanently the same year. A few years earlier, during a meeting in 1906, Oklahoma Baptists made an alliance which would lead to another Baptist University –- one which would endure more than a century. After the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma was formed in Shawnee, the city was also selected four years later as a neutral site for Oklahoma Baptist University.

The city donated 60 acres of land to help secure its selection as the site for the new school, which was launched in 1910. Still, problems plagued the birth of OBU, including financial woes. In 1912, the university entered “suspended animation” until 1915, when it reopened despite a period of bitter struggle in the BGCO.

“Two stalwart giants,” Gritz said, entered the scene to stabilize the BGCO and OBU: Dr. Andrew Potter, executive secretary-treasurer of the BGCO, and Dr. John Wesley Raley, who would become the longest tenured president in OBU’s history. The efforts succeeded, as the convention and the university still are strong today.

Gritz specializes in Baptist and Free Church studies for Europe (Anabaptism in the 1500s), England (General and Particular Baptists in the 1600s), and America (New Lights – Separate and Regular – Baptists in the 1700s). He has taught in master’s courses and doctoral seminars since 1983.

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