Tom Nettles on new Boyce biography: Q&A, part II

Communications Staff — June 11, 2009

Editor’s note: Tom Nettles is the author of a recently released biography on Southern Seminary’s founding president, James Petrigru Boyce, titled, “James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman” (P&R). Nettles has served as professor of church history at Southern since 1997, and in his career of more than 30 years as a Baptist historian, Nettles has written or co-written nearly a dozen books on Baptist history. Part I of the interview may be accessed here:

QUESTION: How many years did it take you to write the book?

TOM NETTLES: I have been working on it since about 2001 if memory serves. I have been working at it six or seven years and then I worked at it almost non-stop from the last sabbatical I had until I turned it in to the publisher in February of this year. More research could have been done. This is not an exhaustive job of research. There were so many primary sources, I could still be researching and writing. But you reach a point that you have to put it together, you’ve got to finish it. I hope that it is built upon a sufficient sampling of primary sources in order to be an accurate and helpful book, but I won’t pretend that it is utterly exhaustive by any means.

Q: You have written numerous important books on Baptist history throughout your career. Where does this one rank in terms of importance and/or personal fulfillment?

TJN: Frankly, this was the hardest one to write and I tried to back out of it a lot of times. Part of it was because I had never written a full-length biography. I like biographical history, but I had written many short things in which the material is readily available and I’ve not had to flesh out an entire life. I was intimidated with the whole idea of trying to write a biography from beginning to end and deal with the sorts of sources that you need to be able to uncover. I was intimidated by the process, but I also love Boyce and was determined, to the degree that I was able to do this, to make sure that I was at least accurate and gave something of the ethos of who Boyce was. I want people to like Boyce. It was satisfying because this was something I was contracted to do and it was suggested to me—it is not something I thought of like every other book I have written—and it represented a particular passion I had. Being able to bring this to fruition and to actually begin to believe that it was important before I finished, I think it may be the most satisfying book that I’ve done. I’m happy that is finished, but I’m also happy that it is out there. I am interested to read back through it myself to see if I still like it! In some sense it was the most difficult, but in the end it was probably the most satisfying.

Q: What do you hope readers will gain from such a comprehensive examination of this great Southern Baptist leader?

TJN: I hope the people who read it will be encouraged by it. I wanted it to be honest, of course, but I don’t see a lot of flaws in Boyce…I think he was an admirable and likeable person and generous to a fault. I hope that I have communicated that this is someone you can admire and like, that this is someone you can benefit from, that this someone you can look to, though he is sinful and recognizes his sinfulness, and nevertheless see as a model. I think he could say what Paul said, ‘Follow my example.’ I also hope it will contribute in some way to helping sustain Southern Seminary in its present course—that the literature that is produced this year, including Greg Wills’ history of the seminary and Michael Haykin’s work on Basil Manly and other works that are going to be out, will create something of a historical perception and perspective, an interpretation of the school, that sets it even more solidly on the foundation that Boyce perceived for it. So, I hope it can help perpetuate the reformation that has been going on for a couple of decades now.

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