The Making of a Christian Historian


Baylor University historian Barry Hankins tells his story:

“I was born to be a point guard; but not a very good one.” I wish I had written that line. It certainly sums up my college basketball career. But as you can see it is in quotation marks. It comes from one of my favorite authors, Pat Conroy. Before I read any of his novels—Prince of TidesThe Great SantiniLords of Discipline, or Beach Music—I read his memoir, My Losing Season, about Conroy’s role as point guard of the 1967 basketball team at The Citadel. The quote is the first line of the book.

I came to Baylor as a junior transfer in the fall of 1976 precisely because I had grown up in cold, cold Michigan dreaming of playing basketball at a Division 1 university in a warm climate. Recruited by no D-1 schools out of high school, I went to a small denominational college that offered me a scholarship, Spring Arbor College. There I became friends with a classmate from the Detroit area who was Baptist and whose parents wanted him to transfer to Baylor. In February of 1976, he came to Waco for a campus visit and returned to Spring Arbor with eight Baylor t-shirts for his friends and reports of 75-degree weather. That night I walked to the college library, found a copy of Peterson’s Guide to Colleges and Schools, looked up the address of the Baylor Admissions Office, and sent off for an application. My main goal was to make the basketball team, and after sitting out the required transfer year, I did. My claim to athletic fame at Baylor was that I guarded Vinnie Johnson in practice. Vinnie was an All-American who went on to a long and productive NBA career, winning two championships, fittingly with the Detroit Pistons, my childhood team.

So, it was basketball that led me to Professor Bill Pitts’s church history class, where I was a not-very-good point guard masquerading as a religion major. And something happened. I got the academics bug, at least enough to do well in my major courses, even as I floundered in subjects I mistakenly thought irrelevant to my life goals. I planned to go into the ministry, but eventually came to believe that the call I felt on my life was to teach, not preach.

Coming to that realization, however, took time. After undergrad, I returned to my hometown of Flint, Michigan, and for a year took a position as Youth Activities Director at a large, downtown Presbyterian Church. I then attended Fuller Seminary, where once again I had a sterling church history professor, James Bradley. In my first and only year at Fuller, I made the final decision to go the academic route, with the goal of becoming a college teacher. I returned to Baylor for an M.A. in Church-State Studies, then headed to Manhattan, Kansas, to study at K-State with Robert Linder. When I entered the K-State history Ph.D. program in the fall of 1983, I had one goal: teach history on the college level, preferably at a Christian liberal arts college where I would have ample opportunity to teach American religious history and have an impact on the intellectual development of Christian young people. By the time I left K-State three years later as an ABD, I knew I would never be satisfied if I were not a regularly publishing historian as well as a classroom teacher. Through skilled and intense mentoring Linder had instilled in me a love for research and writing in addition to teaching and mentoring

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