By Grace Thornton
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
It was the talk heard round the world, the day that Gilbert Guffin had a conversation with an auto mechanic in Walker County.
The mechanic — Edmond Eddy — also was a preacher. Not a pastor, he said — just a preacher.
“I feel I have been called to be a pastor, but all I am is a preacher, and I am a poor one at that,” Eddy said. “I can’t be a pastor because I don’t know how.”
That conversation stuck in Guffin’s brain, and it wasn’t long before he was teaching the first Baptist Seminar class with the sole purpose of training preachers like Eddy.
As the story goes, 19 students gathered for that first class in September 1942. Some of them had never been inside a college before, and one of them had been taught to read by his wife, according to Samford University’s Ministry Training Institute (MTI), which grew out of that class.
Kevin Blackwell, MTI executive director, said, “It’s a pretty cool story — a really rich history.”
What was happening in Walker County caught the attention of Harwell Davis, then president of Howard College (now Samford), and it wasn’t long before he asked Guffin to move the class to Howard instead and expand it to reach the entire state.
“He (Guffin) moved from his pastorate at First Baptist Jasper to start the Howard Extension, which became the Samford Extension, which became MTI,” Blackwell said.
And it became the model that the Southern Baptist Convention encouraged colleges and seminaries to spread to offer training to as many as possible.
And spread it they did.
By September 1947, 21 extension centers were in operation across the state. By 1952 there were 44.
“As far as we know, what Gilbert Guffin started was the oldest extension work in any higher education in the U.S. — not just Baptist, that’s generally speaking. No one else was doing it, secular or spiritual,” Blackwell said. “It was kind of a watershed moment for academics in general. The program grew to national prominence.”
That’s why when Scott Guffin, pastor of Liberty Park Baptist Church, Vestavia Hills, recently found a brown notebook in the bottom of his dad’s office closet, he knew pretty quickly that it was significant.
“My dad passed away back in February, my brothers and I got together with my mom to go through his office,” Scott Guffin said. “It was filled to the brim with decades’ worth of stuff.”
His dad’s first BB gun was there. So were elementary school textbooks from the 1920s.
And so was a little brown notebook with “Roll Book” written on the front.
“It didn’t look old to me, but when I opened it up, it said it was from the Baptist Seminar and it was dated 1946,” Scott Guffin said.
He realized it was actually his grandfather’s.
“I remembered that what he started with the Baptist Seminar became the Howard Extension,” he said.
So he called Blackwell and said, “I’ve got something I know you’re going to want to see.”
It was a historic find, Blackwell said.
“The book … actually precluded the actual Howard Extension courses,” he said. “It’s from the year that the Howard College board of trustees voted on the extension program and announced it to the convention.”
So, naturally, he called it a privilege to share the book with messengers at the Alabama Baptist State Convention annual meeting Nov. 15 during Samford’s report at Eastmont Baptist Church, Montgomery.
“It’s extremely newsworthy,” he said, because of what it started.
But, he added, the extension program hasn’t forgotten where it came from.
As Scott Guffin was reading through the names written in his grandfather’s roll book, he saw one that looked a little familiar.
“There’s a guy in my church whose last name is Banks, and I knew he had family at First Baptist Jasper,” Scott Guffin said. “Greg Banks — he’s a doctor here, we’ve been friends over the years, he’s operated on my wife and he was part of the pastor search committee that brought me to Liberty Park.”
So the name M.D. Banks caught his eye.
“I sent Greg a text and said, ‘Are you related to anybody named M.D. Banks?’ And he said, ‘That’s my grandfather — why?’”
Turns out M.D. Banks was an itinerant preacher in Walker County, kind of like Edmond Eddy. Banks planted churches. And he took classes from Gilbert Guffin.
“It’s just so amazing,” Scott Guffin said, “all the crazy connections that you have in life, and how crazy is it that the guy who was responsible for bringing me to this church, our grandfathers knew each other.”
Not only that, he said — they were part of making history.
For more information about MTI, visit www.samford.edu/programs/ministry-training-institute.
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