RALEIGH, N.C. (ABP) — A ceremony honoring retired Baptist state newspaper editor R.G. Puckett for a lifetime of journalistic achievement is scheduled May 1 at Ardmore Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Puckett, who worked as a Baptist journalist longer than any person in the 20th century, is being honored by Associated Baptist Press with the Greg Warner Lifetime Achievement Award in Religious Journalism.
A pastor at heart, Puckett never expected a journalism career. Yet, after being elected in at age 25 to edit the Ohio Baptist Messenger, he went on to serve as associate editor of Kentucky’s Western Recorder, then as editor of the Maryland Baptist for 13 years and finally 16 years as editor of North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder before retiring in 1998.
Puckett was a founding board member of Associated Baptist Press. He described July 17, 1990, when Al Shackleford and Dan Martin were fired by Baptist Press, the catalyst for forming the independent news service, as “the saddest day of my entire journalistic career.”
Covering Baptists from their golden age of numerical growth and harmony through controversies over race relations, women in ministry, biblical inerrancy and finally a strong shift to a theological and political conservatism, Puckett, 78, saw Baptist newspapers mature from devotional and promotional journals to instruments covering and interpreting hard news in the expansive denomination.
Puckett said he admires groundbreaking Baptist journalists like W.C. Fields of Baptist Press, E.S. James of the Texas Baptist Standard, Reuben Alley of Virginia’s Religious Herald and John Jeter Hurt, who edited both the Christian Index in Georgia and the Baptist Standard. Yet he claims as mentor C.R. Daley, the legendary editor in Kentucky, with whom Puckett served as associate 1963-66.
Daley’s consistent calls for improved race relations in an era when the nation was still figuring out how to treat all men equally and white churches often denied membership to blacks drew constant heat.
Puckett remembered Daley’s editorial following the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in which four girls were killed as the most important thing Daley ever wrote. Puckett said he considers himself privileged just to have handled the galleys of that editorial and committed it to the press.
Puckett credited Fields with making Baptist Press a respected news service and creating a positive image nationally for Southern Baptists who, until then, were often treated as a regionally limited caricature of religion.
Fields, 89, ranked Puckett among “those remarkable, ambidextrous, amphibious journalists who move through trying, challenging situations with courage, confidence and effectiveness.”
“He has the energy and intelligence that have made him a trusted colleague and friend for 50 years,” Fields said. “If he didn't exist, I think we would have to invent him.”
After 36 years of helping to write the first draft of Southern Baptist history at their rowdiest, Puckett remains more than a casual observer. He laments the trend of Baptist newspaper editors to play it safe while the convention is throbbing with change.
“Self-policing is basic to being a Baptist,” Puckett said. “A hierarchical system and monolithic mentality exists in so much of the world. If Baptists succumb to that, they will no longer be Baptists.”
After several pastorates in his native Kentucky and one in Ohio, Puckett became editor of the Ohio Baptist Messenger 1958-61. Then he followed a seminary classmate’s pastorate in a tough situation in Dunedin, Fla. He stayed long enough to realize his heart was in Baptist state newspapers and he returned to his hometown of Louisville to serve with Daley. He still speaks glowingly of Daley, who died in 1999, as a man of courage, insight and frustratingly long sentences.
As often happens, a good associate is tapped for an editorship, and Puckett moved to Maryland in 1966 to edit the Maryland Baptist.
“One of joys of my ministry was serving as associate to C.R. Daley,” Puckett said. “I struggled to leave that because it was secure, it was in my hometown, close to my seminary alma mater. But I went to Maryland out of a deep sense of call.”
Being in Maryland put Puckett in the heart of Southern Baptist expansion into the Northeast. At one time the Maryland Baptist Convention covered all or parts of 11 states. On his own time, he produced papers for the New England and Pennsylvania/New Jersey conventions.
In 1979 he became executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Many Southern Baptists were involved with the organization at the time, and it was in some transition. But Puckett traveled constantly, his family was still young, and his heart still beat for Baptist newspapers.
He regarded the North Carolina Biblical Recorder one of the best of those papers and when its editorship came open with the retirement of J. Marse Grant in 1982, Puckett pursued that opportunity.
He led that paper for 16 years, through the delicate and often contentious transition from a moderate convention fond of and supportive of its institutions to a more conservative, anti-institutional leadership that shook the denominationally loyal base and prompted the rise of an alternative fellowship of moderate churches.
Looking back, Puckett calls his years at the Biblical Recorder “the greatest experience of my career.” He is within months of publishing a history of the Recorder, which he has named, “The life and death of the vision.”
After his journalism career, Puckett was a part of the founding faculty at Campbell Divinity School, where he taught preaching. He called it “the capstone of my career.”
“Baptists say they believe in a democracy,” Puckett said. “An informed constituency is essential to the survival of any true democracy. Thomas Jefferson said the Baptist church was the purest form of democracy he’d ever seen. Therefore a free press is essential if Baptists are to be Baptists.”
Norman Jameson is reporting and coordinating special projects for ABP on an interim basis. He is former editor of the North Carolina Biblical Recorder.