MARS HILL — “I challenge Mars Hill to keep its roots firmly implanted in the noble Baptist history,” said J. Dixon Free, as he gave the message during Mars Hill College’s observance of Baptist Heritage Day Oct. 7.
President Dan Lunsford said Baptist Heritage Day is a tradition at Mars Hill College which honors the legacy of the Baptist families in Madison County who founded the college.
“As an institution founded by mountain Baptists, it is important to celebrate and remember the beliefs and tenets of the faith of our founders,” he said. “We also have a responsibility to educate ourselves and our students on that heritage; in part so we can continue its emphasis.”
According to campus ministry associate Debra Huff, Mars Hill College celebrates Baptist Heritage Day for reasons which celebrate the past as well as the present.
“We want to honor our roots and those who contributed to making this college what it is today,” she said.
In his message during the Oct. 7 convocation, Free called the Baptist roots and heritage of Mars Hill College “valuable things.” But in clinging to a Baptist heritage, Free, a trustee and alumnus of Mars Hill College, also urged students, faculty and staff to understand what it means to be a Baptist and to make that choice based on knowledge of true Baptist beliefs.
“I choose first to be Christian and second — with knowledge — I personally choose to be Baptist,” he said. Free included all denominations when he said, “Most people don’t really know why they are what they are.” He said that most people choose their denomination based on the denomination of their parents — not necessarily because they agree with denominational beliefs.
The year 2009 will make the 400th anniversary of Baptists as we know them, Free said. The anniversary hails back to leaders of the protestant reformation like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys.
He suggested that there has been a departure from the original principles on which the denomination was founded, and he believes this is because Baptists themselves are not aware of the denomination’s founding principles.
There are “good reasons for being part of the Baptist family,” Free said. Some of the traditional beliefs that characterized Baptists from the beginning, he said, were the beliefs of academic freedom, church autonomy and the “priesthood of the believer,” the doctrine that believers are responsible to God for their beliefs as individuals — not as congregants under any spiritual authority of church governance.
Baptists traditionally have supported the separation of church and state, according to Free. He expressed disagreement with any attempt by Baptist leaders to align with a particular political party.
“When the wall of separation (between church and state) comes down, the church loses,” he said.
On the subject of baptism, Free said that his personal history included three baptisms — as an infant, after his conversion in a nondenominational church, and after he joined a Baptist church.
“You’ve probably never known anyone more baptized than me,” he said.
After having studied the matter in scripture, Free said he is convinced that believer’s baptism by immersion is biblically correct as denominational doctrine.
“But I really don’t believe God cares how wet we are,” he said, referring to other denominations’ practice of baptism through “sprinkling.”
Free quoted preacher and theologian John Claypool, another Mars Hill College alumnus, in saying that Baptists, by and large, have been people who sought truth. According to Free, in 1963, Claypool gave a sermon in which he said: “The song says, ‘If I’m dreaming, let me dream on, and Claypool that night shouted, ‘No, no. If I’m dreaming, wake me up, ‘cause I want to know the truth.’”
Church autonomy has always been important in seeking truth for Baptists. Free said that, in a varied career in ministry, he had “seen the importance of responsible freedom for individuals and churches.” But he was careful not to advocate a freedom without foundation. “Led by the Holy Spirit, and principles of scripture, we must find our way,” he said.
Even when Baptists disagree over doctrinal points, “we need to learn to respect each other and in some ways cooperate in getting the light out in this world,” he said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Buckner is media relations coordinator at Mars Hill.)