By Timothy George
William Edward Hull, who died in Birmingham on December 10 at age 83, was a remarkable human being and one of the most consequential Baptist leaders of the past century. Over the past five years, he struggled courageously with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), a journey he described with precision in pulpit and print and with remarkable self-disclosure. He continued to work right up to the end, publishing seven books during his last seven years for the Hull Legacy Series. Just a few weeks ago, I received from him, along with a personal note, a copy of his book of sermons on the Apostles’ Creed. I had hoped to see him once again, to say thanks and to tell him what he already knew: how much I admired and appreciated him and to share a prayer together. Alas, time ran out, as it does and will for all of us.
I first met Bill Hull at Southern Seminary soon after I had joined the faculty there in 1978. He was back for a visit, having concluded his long service to that institution as professor, dean, and provost. Several years before, he had moved to Louisiana to become pastor of Shreveport’s First Baptist Church. But Bill’s name was still much in the air at Southern as the prospective heir apparent to Duke K. McCall as the seminary's next president. As it turned out, that job went to one of Bill’s former classmates, Roy L. Honeycutt, Jr. Who knows how the history of that school, or of Baptist life more generally, might have turned out differently had Bill Hull been president of Southern during the eighties and nineties? Later, Bill would write a book, The Seminary in Crisis
, about the leadership trajectories of McCall and Honeycutt.
From his church base in Shreveport, Bill Hull remained active in SBC life, most notably in his service on the SBC Peace Committee. This was an effort to bring moderates and conservatives together in a time of widening denominational conflict. Hull's work on this committee was criticized from both sides. Conservatives thought he was tilting things too decidedly in a laxist direction, some of his fellow moderates accused him of making too many concessions to the so-called fundamentalists. At the end of the day, peace did not prevail in the SBC, and the schism that many had feared became a reality. But Bill's desire to be a bridge builder was laudable, and one he never regretted.
In 1987, Samford University president Thomas E. Corts recruited Bill Hull to become the provost of his alma mater. Six months later, in response to a remarkable gift by Ralph Waldo Beeson, the university decided to establish the first-ever divinity school on a Baptist-related university campus. This was incredulous enough, back in those days, but even more so were the stipulations of the gift: Beeson Divinity School was to be "Christian, Protestant, Evangelical, and Interdenominational." Whatever gifts I might have brought as a young scholar-theologian to the task of organizing such an enterprise, experience in academic administration was not among them. Bill, on the other hand, had great experience in this arena and generously provided his expertise to me and to our fledgling faculty. During his tenure as provost, Beeson became accredited with the Association of Theological Schools, graduated our first students, constructed and dedicated Divinity Hall and Hodges Chapel, and launched our Doctor of Ministry program. In 2003, Bill and his son, Dr. David Hull, collaborated on a Beeson D.Min. seminar titled “Strategic Leadership.”
In the years after his retirement as provost, I came to value Bill's friendship even more. Our friendship did not demand agreement, and we differed on many things, but always in a spirit of candor, collegiality, and mutual respect. We were genuinely interested in each other's projects and shared openly about these. In his study at home, Bill had one of the most comprehensive filing systems I have ever seen. On one occasion, when I was preparing for a dialogue with a noted scholar at Princeton University, Bill showed up in my office with a dossier of almost everything this person had said or done over the past fifty years!
Bill Hull was an arresting preacher, a gift that went back to his calling to the ministry as an undergraduate and his forays as a student preacher among Alabama Baptist churches on "Howard Day." His preaching was always thoughtful, engaging, and strategic. Among Bill’s best sermons, in my view, were those that drew theological and spiritual lessons from great figures in Christian history including St. Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He also preached a series of fascinating sermons on voices beyond the church including noted literary figures Wendell Berry (whose home church in Kentucky Bill once served as pastor), Annie Dillard, and Frederick Buechner.
While Bill Hull was always willing to describe his personal experience of faith, his preaching as a rule was more biblical and thematic than confessional. However, one major exception to this was “The Darkness that is Light,”
a sermon he preached at Mountain Brook Baptist Church in 2008, soon after he was diagnosed with ALS. It is one of the most moving sermons I have ever heard, especially his description of the reality of life in two worlds. I can think of no greater epitaph than these words from Bill’s last sermon:
The ultimate issue, therefore, is whether we inhabit one world or two. Beyond all the kingdoms of the Caesars is there a kingdom of God? Is there a realm both of the natural and of the supernatural? Of the physical and of the spiritual? Of the temporal and of the eternal? Of the seen and of the unseen? When we pray, are we actually talking to someone other than ourselves? Whence cometh those whispers of conscience that prompt us to view some things as good and others as evil? Why do strange iconoclasts called prophets risk rejection and even martyrdom to demand a more just social order? Why are so many people incurably religious even when others are completely indifferent or downright hostile?
At present, the notion of two worlds is under fierce attack in the name of secularism, naturalism, and empiricism. Launching the charge in the nineteenth century were Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud, all of whom viewed religious claims as wishful projections of the human imagination. Now we have the “new atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris with their aggressive efforts to ridicule the consistent witness of Scripture and the church for more than three thousand years.…Which brings us straight to the utterly crucial issue of Jesus. For here was a person who lived simultaneously in two worlds every day of his ministry. He could take the most commonplace experiences of earth and, in a parable, show their affinity with the kingdom of God. For him that heavenly realm was “at hand” (Mk. 1:15), pressing into the most obscure corners of life yet not fully present in all its power. Because the two domains overlapped, as it were, he lived in earth’s present but out of God’s future and called his followers to do the same. Yet for what scientists might call an explosion of altruism all he got was a criminal’s death by a frenzied mob on an obscene cross.
And so the choice is clear. If there are not two worlds, then Jesus was wrong in his most basic assumptions about spiritual reality as the modern skeptics allege. While pondering that issue, I attended the funeral of a friend at which the congregation was asked to sing “God Be With You” while the family departed the sanctuary. As the refrain repeated the phrase “Till we meet at Jesus’ feet,” I at first wondered if the song were hopelessly out of date in a day when we are so deep into autonomy and equality that we never think of sitting at anybody’s feet. But as I gradually gave myself to the message of the text, I realized that I know a great deal about what it would be like to sit at Darwin’s feet to discuss natural selection, or at Marx’s feet to discuss dialectical materialism, or at Nietzsche’s feet to discuss the will to power, or at Freud’s feet to discuss the ego and super-ego. By the time the song ended, I concluded that I would rather spend eternity at Jesus’ feet than with any of these other choices offered me in this life.
Having studied the likes of Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and the other savants of modernity/postmodernity, Bill opted to spend eternity sitting at the feet of Jesus. I imagine that he is there now, like Mary of Bethany, lost in wonder, love, and praise.
is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and chairs the Doctrine and Christian Unity Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.