Three Christian bishops based in Birmingham, Alabama, are nearing the end of their tenure.
Last month, Kee Sloan, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama announced his intention to retire at the end of 2020. His successor will be elected by the diocese earlier that year.
Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, who serves the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, will reach the end of her second four-year term in the fall of 2020. United Methodist bishops normally do not serve in one area longer than four years, so a new bishop is likely to be assigned at the conference of the Southeastern Jurisdiction in the summer of 2020.
Yesterday, a Facebook post by the Cathedral of Saint Paul drew attention to the fact that Robert J. Baker, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama, will become seventy-five years old on June 4, 2019. At that point he will submit his resignation to the pope. It is not known when his replacement will be named. Often Catholic bishops serve many years after turning seventy-five. In some cases their resignation is accepted immediately. Baker could be the first of the three to step down, but most likely will be the last. In any case he will have served in Birmingham longer than the others having been installed on October 2, 2007.
Other bishops with headquarters in the Birmingham area include Teresa Jefferson-Snorton of the Fifth Episcopal District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and Harry L. Seawright of the Ninth Episcopal District of the American Methodist Episcopal Church.
When introducing students to Judaism, one text I always discuss is the Shema, the passage of the Torah that is the centerpiece of Jewish daily prayer. It begins at Deuteronomy 6:4 with the words “Shema yisrael,” or in English, “Hear O Israel.” It then continues
The Lord is our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9, New Jewish Publication Society translation
The Shemaconcludes with the recitation of Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41. In class we usually just focus on the words in Deuteronomy 6.
When we discuss the commandment to “bind them as a sign on your hand” and “inscribe them . . . on your gates.,” I mention that this has shaped the traditional Jewish practice of wearing small boxes containing scripture (tefillin) during daily prayer and hanging a container containing it (a mezuzah) on the door post of homes. I also mention that it has shaped the front gate of their own university.
Samford’s Main Gate
The university, then known as Howard College, moved to its new campus in Shades Valley in 1957. Promotional drawings show that a gate such as graces the main entrance was part of the master plan.
However no gate was built until after the college became a university by acquiring Cumberland School of Law and was renamed, in 1965, in honor of the chair of its board of trustees, insurance executive Frank P. Samford. In gratitude for honor, Mr. and Mrs. Samford donated front gate bearing the school’s new name.
When the Alabama Baptist State Convention was debating what to rename the university, the leading rival to “Samford University” was “Alabama Baptist University.” The vote for “Samford” at the Alabama Baptist State Convention was close, 593 to 512. Perhaps as a nod to those who preferred the longer name, and definitely to reflect the school’s close tie to the convention, the new gate included the phrase “An Agency of the Alabama Baptist State Convention.”
In the late 1980s, President Thomas E. Corts grew troubled by these words. He explained in his memoir, “lawyers had taught me that ‘agency’ has special legal consequence, and the Convention would likely not want to position itself to accept ascending liability.” Convention leaders agreed and Corts replaced the agency sign “with the best quotation I could think of, a foundational statement, the statement Jesus made in response to the question: ‘What is the great commandment?'” (Corts, Legacy of Gratitude (2007), 34).
The famous passage appears three times in the New Testament. Given sign’s relatively small size, Corts chose the most concise version, Luke 10:27. “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself” (Luke 10:27, King James Version).
I jokingly tell my students, that the change is testament to the fact that if you want displace Baptists at Samford, you have to use the Bible. Indeed given how Samford redefined its relationship to the convention in 1994 and again in 2017, a change in the sign would have had to come, even without Corts’s concern with “agency.”
The Shema vs. The Summary of the Law
Perhaps to support the change, Corts often referred to the passage as “the Shema,” thus emphasizing its root in Deuteronomy 6 and its commandment to write God’s words “on your gates.” Referring to the passage as the Shema, however, causes confusion to those who know Hebrew or the Jewish tradition. As we’ve seen “shema” is the simply the Hebrew word for “hear,” and the passage on the gate and in the Gospel of Luke does not begin, “Hear, O Israel.” Also while the commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” is esteemed in Judaism just as much as it is in Christianity, it is not part of the Shema. It comes from Leviticus 19:18. Among Christians, the passage on the gate is more commonly referred to as the Greatest Commandments or the Summary of the Law.
Given the fluidity of biblical tradition, the three gospels each differ from Deuteronomy and each other in either the number, the names, or the order of the human faculties to be used to love God. Deuteronomy 6:5, “heart, . . . soul, . . . might.” Matthew 22:37, “heart, . . .soul, . . . mind.” Mark 12:30, “heart, . . .soul, . . . mind, . . . strength.” Luke 10:27, “heart, . . . soul, . . . strength, . . . mind.” (These and all the quotations of scripture in this article are from the King James Version.)
When Dr. Corts had a silver mace made for the university in the early 1990s, he inscribed on the cylinder at the base of its head these words: “And thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, . . . And thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. Mark 12:30-31.” Yet, this is not an accurate quote from Mark in the King James Version. Mark includes “mind” between “soul” and “strength.” The mace omits it.
The explanation of the mace that has often appeared in the program for commencement exercises states that “the cylinder bears the Shema,” yet provides the words of the Shema as “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” (Commencement Program, December 2014, p. 3). In Mark 12, Jesus does begin his recitation of Deuteronomy with “Hear O Israel,” but those words do not appear on the cylinder.
The authors of the commencement program, knowing that “the Shema” is on the mace, correctly identify the opening words of the text in the Jewish tradition but by so doing wrongly identify the words on the mace. Using the Hebrew name is a nice acknowledgement that Jesus’ greatest commandments are from the Hebrew Bible. But giving the word Shema a different meaning than it has in the Jewish tradition by including Leviticus 19:18, and omitting much else especially, “Hear O Israel,” sows confusion.
The Belltower Logo and Deuteronomy 6:5
Fortunately, the habit of refering to the commandments on Samford’s gates as the Shema seems to have run its course. Attention instead has focused on the link between the first commandment on the gate and Deuteronomy 6:5. In the 2009 revision of the university’s belltower logo, the hands of the clock were positioned at 6:05 in reference to Deuteronomy 6:5. In explaining this fact Inside Samford (Spring 2016, p. 20) said that it was Deuteronomy 6:5 that was inscribed on the gate, quoting it correctly from Deuteronomy (but incorrectly from the gate) as “heart, . . . soul, and . . . might.” In Seasons, President Andrew Westmoreland also said it was Deuteronomy but the quote he provided was actually Matthew’s version “heart, . . ., soul, . . . mind” (Spring 2016, p. 2).
Since the front gate cannot be accessed by pedestrians and the scripture cannot be safely read by motorists on Lakeshore Drive it is not surprising that various understandings of what is on its sign have emerged. The version Corts chose seems best for a university since it includes “mind” and emphasizes it by placing it last. The hands of the clock could be set at 10:27 in reference to the actual text from Luke that is used, but at that angle the hands of the clock might be more distracting from the logo’s clean lines.
Founded in 1842 or 41?
Careful viewers of the photos of the gate above may have noticed that originally the gate said “Founded 1842,” but that now it has been altered to read “1841.” Indeed the fact that the final “1” in the 1841 looks different than the first suggests that the final digit has been altered even without seeing earlier photographs.
Howard College held its first classes in January 1842 and the year 1842 appeared on its seal which can still be seen in the tympanum of Davis Library or the marker near the library at the site of the flag pole given to the school by the class of 1964.
The State of Alabama, however, granted Howard College its charter on December 29, 1841. This 1841 date was used on the 1955 cornerstone for Samford Hall in 1955.
During the administration of Dr. Corts, the date on the seal and on the gate was changed to 1841 in keeping with the common practice of universities and colleges to claim as their founding date the year in which they were chartered, not the year in which they first held classes. At inaugurations and other ceremonial occasions, universities are often listed in order of founding, thus by claiming the 1841 date, Samford is now ahead of other schools founded in 1842 including the Citadel, Ohio Wesleyan, Villanova, Willamette, and, most notably, the University of Notre Dame.
Feb. 21, 2019: Statement that the gate originally had no functional gates across the roadway has been removed. I’m grateful for correspondence from David Henderson, class of 1971, informing me that there was some kind of gate used to enforce curfews for female students while he was a student. In his 2007 memoir, Dr. Corts mentions that early in his presidency there were no functional gates until they were installed in the early 1990s.
This June Baptists and Roman Catholics will hold major conventions at at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC), separately. There are two national meetings of Baptists and a diocesan meeting of Catholics. While the meetings are not at the same time, it will be unusual to have a trio of major religious meetings in the same complex in the same month.
The national meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will be held at the BJCC in the middle of June and at the end of the month the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham celebrate its fiftieth anniversary by holding its first-ever Eucharistic Congress in complex. I expect this is the first time Birmingham has seen so many major religious gatherings in one month.
This will be the first time that the SBC’s annual meeting has been held in Birmingham since 1941. According to a 2010 study, Alabama was second only to Mississippi in the percentage of people who were adherents of Southern Baptist churches (29.1%, Mississippi was 30.5%). This helps explain why the SBC has not meet here, many recent meetings have been in cities where Southern Baptists are not numerous so that Baptists can use the opportunity to bring their witness to that city. Other meetings have been in Southern cities with better transportation connections than Birmingham.
Over all this is the forth time the SBC annual meeting has been in Birmingham. The other meetings occurred in 1891 and 1931. The 1891 meeting is memorialized by a sidewalk marker at the northwest corner of First Avenue North and Eighteenth Street. The marker commemorates the creation at that meeting of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board, now known as LifeWay Christian Resources.
The convention met in O’Brien’s Opera House which was located on this corner. The auditorium was built in 1882. It operated for almost thirty years before being closed in 1911. Four years later it was razed. and razed in 1915. Some of its bricks were reused to build a gymnasium at what is now the University of Montevallo (“O’Brien’s Opera House,” Bham Wiki). The opera house’s former site is now a parking lot.
The week following the Southern Baptist Convention, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will hold its General Assembly from June 17 to 21. The CBF was formed in 1991 by Baptist churches dissatisfied with the way the Southern Baptist Convention had been transformed by conservatives over the preceding fifteen years. It is unusual for the CBF to meet in the same city as the SBC. I am not sure how they both ended up in Birmingham this year. The CBF has been to Birmingham twice before, in 1999 and 2003.
Just a week after the CBF assembly ends, the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama of the Roman Catholic Church will hold its first Eucharistic Congress on June 28 & 29. The event will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the diocese. It was separated from the diocese of Mobile on June 28, 1969. It is a significant date because June 29 is the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Saint Paul is the patron saint of the Birmingham diocese. With June 29 falling on a Saturday in this anniversary year, it is an ideal time for the celebration.
The schedule for the congress has not been released, but the dioceses’s Alex Kubik explains eucharistic congresses typically “include a procession with the Eucharist in a public setting, a significant amount of time for Eucharistic Adoration, significant availability of the sacrament of reconciliation, talks and catechisis on important matters of faith, and a Holy Mass with the bishop or bishops with all in attendance.” The announced speakers include the papal nuncio to the United States, the bishop of St. Augustine, Florida, and Scott Hahn, a popular Catholic professor and author.
The theme for the congress is “The Eucharist and Missionary Discipleship.” While Alabama is #2 in terms of Southern Baptist affiliation, it is #46 in Catholic affiliation among the fifty states. Only 4.2% of Alabama residents were adherents of the Catholic church according to the 2010 study. This helps explain the missionary theme. Of course in terms of overall religiousness, Alabama is a national leader. In 2010 it had the third highest rate of religious adherents among its residents, trailing only Utah and North Dakota. So if the number of Catholics grow here, it may well be that other groups, such as Baptists decline. It will be interesting to see if any of these meetings leave a lasting mark on the city.