The Index: deep roots as it looks to 200th birthday in 2022

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I was walking the streets of Washington, D.C., last April and thoroughly enjoying all the monuments and plaques in that monumental city. One of the more unique and humorous I saw more than once jokingly said, “On this spot in 1795 (or 1840 or 1903…) absolutely nothing happened of any historical importance.”

On this walk I was seeking out a very important plaque just a block or two from Pennsylvania Avenue, that grand artery that runs from the White House to the U.S. Capitol building. As I approached the site, now a nondescript brick building since the original has long been demolished, my heart swelled with a sense of pride.

 It was on this site that, in 1822, The Columbian Star was founded by prominent Baptist Luther Rice. Its purpose was two-fold; first, it was a national effort to encourage support for the early missions endeavors of Rice’s friends like Adoniram and Ann Judson and to promote the newly established Columbian College (now George Washington University).

A trip to a historical marker is never complete without a selfie. JOE WESTBURY/Index

The Southern Baptist Convention would not be launched for another 23 years but Baptists were a pretty mature group of believers with a loose sense of common identity. The backbone of this group of churches – still with no organizational structure – was the Association, the first which was founded 115 years earlier in 1707. That’s when a group of 5 independent churches in Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Delaware formed the Philadelphia Baptist Association.

It was a novel concept. Every few years the churches would gather to share information on how “to be a witness and transforming association for Jesus Christ.” Eventually other churches would band together throughout the Eastern Seaboard for meetings of fellowship and inspiration.

I would like to think that Rice’s founding of the newspaper was a logical attempt to capitalize on the desire of those churches to work together for the furtherance of the Gospel. Other small Christian newspapers, privately owned, were occasionally sprouting up, struggling, and fading off the scene. This time it would be different.

Rice’s linking The Star with a university was unique in that it promoted an institution that could provide both secular and theological training in a holistic framework. In short, it provided education from a biblical worldview. The Star was the avenue to promote both higher education and theological training.

As stated on our website under the Our History menu, student James Knowles served as first editor of the newspaper published at 925 E Street, just around the corner of what is now Ford’s Theater. The paper found a good audience much to the credit of Rice who often traveled to the South to promote its readership. Among those most supportive was Rice’s good friend, Jesse Mercer of Georgia who was one of several owners who eventually purchased and brought the paper to our fair state.

W.T. Brantly, a highly respected minister in Augusta, became editor in 1827 after accepting the pastorate of Philadelphia’s First Baptist Church. The newspaper’s name was briefly changed to The Columbian Star and Christian Index to better communicate its intent. Then, beginning with the Jan. 1, 1831 issue, the masthead was shortened to the name the newspaper has carried for most of its long and rich history, The Christian Index.

And that is why I sought out that historical marker and stood, with a certain amount of journalistic awe, at 925 E. Street. The Columbian Star is regarded as our great-grandfather of sorts and our link to the past. It launched that sacred commitment to churches that we pursue to this day – helping inspire pastors and laity of to be better stewards of that heavenly light, “a treasure in jars of clay” or “earthen vessels.”

In fact, that is one of my favorite Bible verses found in 2 Cor. 4:7: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Now we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this surpassing great power is from God and not from us. We are pressed on all sides, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair, persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”

In 1996, Index Editor William “Bill” Neal lead a Baptist heritage tour to the nation’s capital which included the unveiling of a plaque celebrating the paper’s 175th anniversary. The marker can be viewed at 925 E. Street near the Hard Rock Cafe, across the street from the FBI Building, and around the corner from Ford’s Theater. INDEX ARCHIVES PHOTO

That, in a nutshell, is what The Index is all about.

• It is the bearer of that shining lightthat is being carried in fragile, human, clay vessels.

• It seeks to inform and inspireboth pastors and laity.

• It seeks to focus our churches on that good work that is so beautifully described in 2 Tim. 3:17.

• It serves to createa bond, a sense of unity and family, among the Georgia Baptist churches throughout our state.

• It seeks to share information about how congregations both large and small have found creative ways to incarnate the Gospel in their community. In a way it serves as a petri dish where ideas are born and shared and ideas can cross pollinate.

• It is Georgia-centric, focusing first on reaching the 7,600,000 unchurched in our state and then spreading throughout the world through Mission Georgia, our state missions offering.

The Index, now recognized as the nation’s oldest continuously published Christian newspaper, has been at the forefront of that multi-faceted commitment. It will celebrate its 200th anniversary in just 3 years at the dawn of 2022.

Under the capable administration of Executive Director Thomas Hammond you are going to notice an even stronger commitment to partner with and undergird the work of pastors. That first step is being launched today by Editor Scott Barkley with an occasional series of informal interviews, titled “Sitting down with …” pastors across the state. His first profile is with Denver Harris, pastor of Cross Roads Baptist Church in White.

The Index traces its roots to The Columbian Star, a forerunner which later changed its name to The Christian Index. INDEX ARCHIVES/Index

This new and creative series will serve to introduce pastors to each other – and just as importantly to laity – to help readers understand the trials and successes which pastors encounter in what is frequently a difficult calling.

Pastors are the gatekeepers of the local church, defending the faith and leading the congregation to disciple new believers. We at The Index, under the newly minted editorship of Barkley, are committed to being one of the top channels of information to undergird their ministry.

For the past 197 years The Index has repeatedly changed size, location, content, and ownership. We are now entering our third year as a completely digital product, produced online at no charge to readers. We are on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. We owe recently retired Editor Gerald Harris a debt of gratitude for moving the paper from a struggling print edition to a successful internet presence on January 1, 2017. Today we have more validated online readers than any other state Southern Baptist publication, as verified through Google Analytics.

Since Jesse Mercer moved The Index to Washington, Georgia, and gave it to the Georgia Baptist Convention in 1840, no other publication has been charged with telling the Good News among Georgia Baptist churches. Editor Barkley, our new Content Editor Myriah Snyder, and I look forward to 2019 as another opportunity to partner with our congregations in a fresh, new, and highly energized commitment.

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