Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University

January 7, 2015

I’ve set myself a goal: I want to grow up before I retire. And as my retirement looms in the not too distant future – five or six years from now – I guess it’s time to get a move on. Thankfully, I have a pretty good idea of what being “grown up” means to me: being as much like Roland Bainton as possible.

Dr. Bainton was born in England in 1894, but his family moved to the United States in 1902. He took degrees from Whitman College (BA, 1914) and Yale Divinity School (YDS) (BD, 1917; PhD, 1920). He was raised as a Congregationalist, but after declaring himself to be a pacifist, he affiliated with the Quakers and volunteered to work with the American Friends Service Committee for international reconciliation. Upon completing his doctorate, he was hired to teach Greek and church history at YDS, and spent his entire career there. During his academic career, he wrote over thirty books, the best known of which was Here I Stand, a biography of Martin Luther that has sold over a million copies and is still in print.[1] When I first met him in 1974, he had already been an emeritus professor for a decade. But he was still exceptionally active and involved in campus life, riding his custom-built 15-speed bicycle from his apartment to his downtown office every day, and often taking seminarians for long hikes on his wooded property near New Haven. “Roly,” as he was affectionately known, died in 1984 at the age of 90, universally loved and respected.[2]

I have no illusions that I will ever come anywhere close to being as distinguished a scholar as Dr. Bainton. But that is not the way in which I want to be “like” him in my golden years. To illustrate the quality of his that I most want to emulate, I would like to share a story.

One of the cherished customs at YDS in the 1970s was the annual Christmas Dinner. It began with the entire community – faculty, staff and students, together with their families – meeting in the common room for hors d’oeuvres and drinks, and then proceeding into the refectory for an elegant four-course meal. After the figgy pudding, we’d all troupe to Marquand Chapel for the night’s entertainment: the singing of carols and the recitation by Dr. Bainton of the Martin Luther Christmas Story.

Back in 1947, Dr. Bainton had published a selection of excerpts of Luther’s sermons on the biblical infancy narratives – the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Journey of the Magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents, and the Presentation in the Temple.[3] The book sold well – and also remains in print to this day. Eventually, someone had the inspired idea of asking Dr. Bainton to deliver some of these excerpts as an after-dinner speech at the YDS Christmas Dinner. This, too, was an instant hit and became a regular part of the program. Nor did Dr. Bainton ever disappoint. He always spoke from memory in his spellbinding baritone voice. For an hour we tweed-jacketed American academics put aside our commentaries and concordances and were magically transformed into simple Saxon peasants, thrilling to the Good News of the Incarnation and trembling at the Reformer’s thunderous challenge to celebrate it, not with sentimental devotion toward Baby Jesus, but by caring for the poor and the oppressed – Christ incognito – in our own midst!

I first heard Dr. Bainton’s recitation in 1974, when I was a first-year seminarian. I was away from campus the following year, but heard it again in 1976, when I was a middler. Now it was 1977, I was a senior, and I was very much looking forward to what I knew would be my last time to hear it – and perhaps, given his advanced age, what might be his last time to deliver it. As usual, the festivities began in the Common Room. The wait staff circulated with the obligatory platters of stuffed mushrooms and toast points. The faculty “presided,” as faculty inevitably do, surrounded by their students, all hoping to be noticed. And I was hoping to be noticed too, although at that moment, nobody was noticing, and I was standing alone, feeling awkward, and looking around uneasily for some little circle of acquaintances to join. Then I saw Dr. Bainton.

In an hour or so, he would be standing before the assembled crowd, perhaps 400 strong, delivering Luther’s sermonic commentary on the birth of our Savior. Was he holding court, as well he might have been? No. Was he worrying whether, at the age of 83, he still “had it”? No. At that moment he was playing ring-around-the-rosie with five or six faculty brats, blithely indifferent to the pomp and circumstance all around him. And it wasn’t as if he was trying to ignore his colleagues and students – an effort which, had he been making it, would only have been a slightly more refined instance of the posturing and pretense of the rest of the crowd. He was simply dancing, spryly and joyously, heedless of any need to appear dignified, and thereby revealing the true dignity that comes from inner freedom and self-possession. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, and I knew immediately that I wanted to be like that when I grew up. I still do.

Let me add one footnote to this reflection: John Wesley once admonished his preachers to “beware of clownishness.”[4] Might it be said that Dr. Bainton had transgressed that admonition? No, but it’s important to see why not. “Clownishness” is calculated attention-mongering, silliness for show. It is the self-conscious attempt to appear un-dignified, presumably as a way of escaping stuffiness and affectation. There is something repugnant about people who, in their effort to seem dignified, succeed only in being pompous; but there is something equally repugnant about people who, in their effort to avoid pomposity, indulge in stage-managed tomfoolery and artificial spontaneity. For in truth both stratagems amount to the same thing, the desire to craft a public “image” that supposedly conforms to some ideal of professionalism. What was so wonderful about Dr. Bainton’s capering with the children was his utter unselfconsciousness, his complete freedom from any concern about who might have been watching or what they might have been thinking.

I hope someday to achieve that state of unselfconsciousness. But when that day comes, if it ever does, I certainly won’t be writing meditations like this one. I’ll be playing with the kids.

[1] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Signet Books, 1950; frequently reprinted).

[2] For details, see his delightful autobiography: Roland H. Bainton, Roly: Chronicle of a Stubborn Non-Conformist, ed. Ruth C. L. Gritsch (Yale University Divinity School, 1988?).

[3] Roland H. Bainton, ed., Martin Luther’s Christmas Book (Augsburg Books, 1947).

[4] “Minutes of Several Conversations between the Rev. Mr. and Charles Wesley and Others; from the year 1744, to the Year 1780” [a.k.a. “The ‘Large’ Minutes, E and F, 1780, 1789”], in The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, Vol. 10: The Methodist Societies; The Minutes of Conference, ed. Henry D. Rack (Abingdon, 2011), Q.37.20, p. 918.

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