FORT WORTH, Texas – H. Leon McBeth, distinguished professor of church history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for 45 years, died April 29 in Fort Worth. He was 81.
McBeth was honored by the Baptist History and Heritage Society this spring with a festschrift (a volume of writings contributed by different authors as a tribute to a scholar) in its Baptist History & Heritage journal. The publication was placed in the mail the same week as McBeth’s death.
His 1987 text The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness – also called “the big blue book” – became used widely in Southern Baptist seminaries and other academic settings.
“Anyone who sat in one of Dr. McBeth’s classes or seminars can verify that he also set the standard as a master storyteller,” Michael E. Williams, dean and professor of history at Dallas Baptist University, writes in one of the festschrift articles.
McBeth earned a doctor of theology degree in 1961 from Southwestern and a bachelor of divinity degree there in 1957 after earning an undergraduate degree at Wayland Baptist University in Texas in 1954.
He began teaching at Southwestern as a doctoral student in 1958 and was elected to the full-time faculty in 1960.
McBeth received distinguished alumnus awards from Southwestern in 2001 and Wayland in 1992 and the Baptist General Convention in Texas’ George W. Truett Award for Excellence in Ministry in 2001. He was honored with a 2008 festschrift from Mercer University Press.
In addition to The Baptist Heritage, McBeth’s other books include A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage; Texas Baptists: A Sesquicentennial History; Women in Baptist Life; and The First Baptist Church of Dallas.
McBeth’s book on the history of the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources), however, was never published. His Celebrating Heritage and Hope history of the board’s first 100 years, written under contract, prompted extensive deliberations among editors of then-Broadman Press, BSSB administrators, trustees and attorneys whether it accorded balanced treatment to conservatives and moderates during the 1980s. The trustees’ then-chairman called it “unbalanced”; McBeth called it a “balanced interpretive history.”
McBeth had chaired the trustees of the SBC’s former Historical Commission and was president of the Baptist History and Heritage Society.
A native of the Texas panhandle, he was pastor of churches in western and central Texas in his early ministry.
McBeth was preceded in death by his first wife, Ada Miller McBeth, and a son, Mark. He is survived by his wife, Thelma Grace McBeth; a daughter, Ruth Ann Rugg; two sons, Jerry and David; 12 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
His funeral was May 4 at University Baptist Church in Fort Worth, with burial at Greenwood Memorial Park.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Compiled by Baptist Press editor Art Toalston, with reporting from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.)