Michael Justus is not a native Georgian but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a sense of pride for what his adopted state has accomplished for the Kingdom. From a one-time outsider looking in with a fresh set of eyes, he wants to be sure that Georgia Baptists don’t take that heritage for granted.
Justus serves as chairman of the Georgia Baptist Historical Commission and oversees an 18-person committee charged with keeping that past alive and well. That’s because he knows that without an appreciation of where you have been, you really can’t understand where you are and where you need to go. He teaches that history provides a benchmark through time, whether that passage is that of an institution such as a church or denomination or an individual.
“Without sounding trite, the past is prologue; it helps us understand what God has done and will continue to do in our midst in the future. History is not static, it is a continuum through time,” he explains.
If that sounds a little academic, it is. Justus serves as the dean of the Conrad Grebel School of the Humanities at Truett McConnell University.
Oh, and he also serves as a history professor at the Cleveland school tucked away in the north Georgia mountains.
The native Tennessean teaches a variety of histories, mainly World, American, Modern American, Civil War and Reconstruction, and of course … Georgia. He always finds a way to weave Christian and Baptist history through the eons of which he guides his students.
Teaching tomorrow’s leaders about their past
Justus maintains that it’s important tomorrow’s leaders know how the Church influenced the world for good and, when it lost its way, how the world suffered. That direct correlation is important in understanding who we are as Americans and as believers.
He’s even used some historical videos in his classes produced by the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, especially one on Georgia Baptists and the Civil War.
Justus knows exactly when his appreciation for Baptist history began. The knowledge was ingrained in him as a young teen attending Church Training in his home church. That’s when he learned stories about Luther Rice, Lottie Moon, and the many Baptist distinctives which set Baptists apart from other faith groups.
“I am a product of Church Training. What I learned then influences what I do today at the university and in my pastorate at Glade Creek Baptist Church in Mt. Airy,” he continues.
A never-ending walk through time
Justus likes to talk about time – about history – being a continuum with no beginning and no end. It does not know months, days, or years but is constantly moving forward. He says that Georgia Baptists are part of that continuum, riding along in a constant transition as societal pressures come to bear on how they express God’s presence in the world.
“Georgia Baptists have a good and godly heritage. We need to honor that and build upon it as we move into tomorrow. By looking at where we have been, we learn over and over again that God, who has been faithful in our past, is just as faithful today and will continue to be faithful in the future” he observes.
Standouts in that Georgia Baptist history are luminaries like Lottie Moon who, though not a Georgia native, found spiritual nourishment at Cartersville Baptist Church. The fertile soil of her Georgia sojourn propelled her to be Southern Baptists’ first woman missionary to China. Her legacy raises more than $20 million annually for international missions.
The Southern Baptist Convention itself was birthed in Augusta at First Baptist Church. Since its founding in 1845 it has grown into the nation’s largest evangelical denomination.
A ‘rebooting’ for enhanced ministry to Georgia Baptists
The Historical Commission is going through a “rebooting” that will eventually give it a larger presence among Georgia Baptists. Justus says its primary responsibility is to encourage the local church, associations, and Georgia Baptists as a whole to preserve and learn from their history. Their very identify is at stake, he adds.
Some of that history is stored at the Georgia Baptist Mission Board’s Missions and Ministry Center in Duluth. The Board’s Historical Archives, working under the auspices of the Georgia Baptist Historical Commission, serves as the guardians of over 275 years of Georgia Baptist history. State Missionary Dana Sharitt helps catalog and archive the materials.
The collection includes items from pulpits to Civil War letters written by Georgia Baptist soldiers. Church offering plates and pulpit chairs rest in a corner.
“History enlightens us on the missions and ministries that God has entrusted to us. Our purpose is not to worship our past but to learn from it,” the soft-spoken educator says.
“Throughout the Bible we are encouraged not to forget the past. The Historical Commission works to assure that we remain faithful to that admonishment.”