In 2004, Walter and Kay Shurden – longtime professors at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia – made a gift to the Baptist Joint Committee to establish an annual lecture series. A signature event of the BJC, the Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State are still going strong more than a decade later.
On March 27-28, BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman will deliver the 2017 lectures, which will be at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina. A familiar voice in Report from the Capital, Hollman has been part of the BJC staff since 2001, and she also serves as an adjunct professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center.
We asked Dr. Walter Shurden, known to many as “Buddy,” to tell us more about the impetus that led to the lectures and how he and Kay feel about the series that bears their names.
What led you and Kay to establish this lecture series?
I walked out of my first course in church history at seminary almost 60 years ago convinced and certain that religious freedom is one of the basic human rights. Deny religious liberty and oppression prevails; refuse freedom of conscience and people suffer. Religious freedom is a justice issue. It alleviates suffering. It gives wings for soaring. It helps us become more fully human. Kay believes this even more than I do, so we decided to pitch in on the issue.
This year, BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman is delivering the lectures. What does she bring to the table?
Holly exudes a contagious passion for religious liberty. She excites because she is excited about freedom issues. She knows the difference between religious freedom for a few and religious freedom for all. A lawyer with nuanced insights into the complicated issues of religious liberty and the separation of religion and government, she is also a Baptist marinated in the tradition of Roger Williams, John Clarke, Isaac Backus, John Leland, James Dunn and Brent Walker. Kay and I have wanted Holly Hollman to present the Shurden Lectures for several years, and we are delighted that she will do so in 2017.
You’ve spent a career in education, including establishing these lectures and continuing as a “minister-at-large” for Mercer. Why is education so important to you?
Education transforms. It has changed Kay’s life and my life. We have watched with delight as it has changed others. But when a people grow up where religious liberty is a given, it is hard to keep them from yawning at the idea. We want these lectures to be a can opener for minds and souls indifferent, insensitive or closed to the preeminent value of religious liberty. We deeply hope that religious freedom will be seen as a liberating practice, not simply an arid theory.
Why did you decide to create these lectures in partnership with the Baptist Joint Committee?
The BJC, one year older than I am, has a track record. All of its life the BJC has proclaimed that one of the ways we love God is to “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” All of my life the BJC has been preaching that freedom of conscience is God’s will for creation. The BJC is not simply a Baptist thing; the BJC is a human thing. It does not matter whether you are Baptist or Buddhist, Methodist or Muslim, Assembly of God or atheist, the BJC is a guardian of God-given freedoms for ALL of our children and grandchildren.
You are the author of some of the seminal works on being Baptist, including “The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms.” What about the Baptist message is important for people today?
Baptist spirituality, the way the Baptist people have envisioned the religious life, is rooted in the freedom to believe according to conscience and to serve freely according to the commands of Christ. Because Baptists claimed that rarified freedom for themselves, they have been willing to grant that freedom to others. Freedom of religion is at the heart of Baptist spirituality.
This will be the 12th installment of the Shurden Lectures. How does it feel to see the event continue after more than a decade?
Kay and I have often said to each other that providing this lecture series is one of the best things we have ever done. We are enormously grateful for the careful stewardship the BJC has shown with the lectures, and for the quality, character and commitment of the presenters. We are thankful the BJC and the lecture series will outlive us.