SBHLA”s Sumners honored upon retirement

ST. LOUIS  In 1979, Bill Sumners visited Nashville for a meeting of the Society of American Archivists and paid a visit to Southern Baptists’ denominational archives while he was in town.

As he stood in the Baptist Sunday School Board’s Dargan-Carver Library, the precursor to today’s Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, he remembers thinking, “This is really where I want to be” professionally. There was no job opening at the time. But eventually his dream was fulfilled.

Now, 37 years later—and after 33 years of service to Southern Baptists—Sumners retired July 29 as the longest-tenured director of the Southern Baptist Convention’s library and archives since its establishment in 1953.

The SBC’s Council of Seminary Presidents, which oversees SBHLA, honored Sumners June 15 at the SBC annual meeting in St. Louis, giving him and his wife Donna a certificate of appreciation along with a trip to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons.

Sumners “has watched over our history and our heritage,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Council of Seminary Presidents. “… Thirty-three years is a long time. It’s enough time that Bill Sumners has not only been able to record the history. He’s been able to make some of it and watch it happen as well. And 33 years of service is never to go without thankfulness and gratitude wherever it is found in the cause of Christ.”

After serving as archivist at the Dargan-Carver Library from 1983-88, Sumners became SBHLA archivist in 1988 and director in 1990. SBHLA moved its holdings out of the Dargan-Carver Library in 1985, and Sumners oversaw both collections for three years before transitioning to fulltime work with the library and archives.

Under Sumners’ leadership, the archives have expanded from a modest collection to 12,000 linear feet of archival material, including 8,000 linear feet of records from SBC entities and 4,000 feet of manuscript material from Baptist pastors, evangelists, missionaries and organizations.

“He has made this the best place to conduct research on Baptists,” said Taffey Hall, current SBHLA archivist and Sumners’ successor as director upon his retirement.

A campaign to digitize SBHLA holdings has made available online all SBC Annuals, all Baptist Press stories from 1948-1996 and all issues of Tennessee’s Baptist and Reflector newsjournal from 1835-1939 and 2000-2008. 

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