The more I find my interests turning towards institutional and public history, the more I appreciate people like Jim Spickelmier, who passed away last Wednesday following a long battle with cancer.
Jim had a rich and varied career serving Bethel College and Seminary (now Bethel University) and the churches of the Baptist General Conference. After graduating from Bethel, he taught school in Tanzania for two years as an early member of the Peace Corps. Having added a master’s degree from Princeton Seminary and pastored Baptist churches in New York and Connecticut, Jim returned to Bethel, where he served as campus pastor (earning his doctorate from the University of Minnesota along the way), administered programs for the seminary, and ended up as vice president for seminary development.
Jim became Bethel’s campus pastor in 1975 (just a few weeks before I was born, as it happened). In an interview with the student newspaper, The Clarion, “Pastor Jim” spoke of being shepherd to a growing, diverse community:
We’ll try to cross spiritual barriers… I don’t want to get boxed in or isolated. In other words, I don’t want a spiritual clique. I hope to get to know athletes, art students, the studious ones… just to be open to everyone.
In that interview Jim acknowledged that his hire presented a unique concern: his wife Carole was the daughter of Bethel’s long-serving president, Carl Lundquist. But his father-in-law played no role in the hire, and Jim decided that the time was right to return to his alma mater: “Bethel is unique. There is a lot of support for each other.”
Just before he died, Jim and Carole finished their book on Carl. Previously, they co-edited three histories of the BGC and/or Bethel: Five Decades of Growth and Change: The Baptist General Conference and Bethel University, 1952-2002 (now available as a free e-book from the Bethel Digital Library), its follow-up, New Century, New Directions: The Baptist General Conference/Converge Worldwide, 2001-2010, and A Time of Transformation: Bethel Seminary, 1982-2012. Here’s how Carole and Jim defined the value of such institutional histories in the Editors’ Note to Five Decades:
God works in history. His chosen way to reveal himself in the world was to begin working with the Jewish people, and through them show the whole world his righteousness, power and love. God’s supreme act of self-revelation was in the sending of his son. We know the nature of God by reading the story of Jesus. So, history is vital to Christians.
In recent years Jim also contributed several articles to The Baptist Pietist Clarion, whose editor, G.W. Carlson, called his friend “the driving force for the expansion of publications about BGC history.” G.W. emphasized that the Spickelmiers’ work reminded us of the value of “denominational historical memory” (critical to any discussion of “Who we are and who we should be”), encouraged “an intergenerational conversation,” and simultaneously witnessed to the Christ whom Jim loved and served.
As part of his commitment to preserving the heritage of the BGC and Bethel, Jim was a tireless advocate for The History Center: Archives of the Baptist General Conference and Bethel University. Its archivist, my colleague Diana Magnuson, paid tribute to Jim:
Jim was an integral part of the work that I do at the History Center. His history with Bethel and the conference is long, varied, and incredibly rich. He knows everybody. He knows how Bethel and the conference work. We were in constant contact face to face, e-mail and texting. He was enormously encouraging to me both personally and professionally. Because of his indefatigable work on behalf of the History Center, it is a stronger place than when he began. His passing leaves a huge hole for me, and I will have to redouble my efforts to keep the pace that he set for us as a History Center and archive.
Jim was not a historian by training (update: Diana checked, and Jim was a History major in college, so we’ll happily claim him), but without his tireless work for the History Center, there’s absolutely no way I could undertake my research into the history of Bethel and how it might suggest a Pietist approach to Christian higher education. Moreover, I admire how he channeled his energies into convening and facilitating conversations about Bethel, bringing others into dialogue rather than insisting on his own voice being front and center.
Peace be to his memory.