Guest Writer Tom Helling on Rev. Dr. Ledyard S. Baxter: A Lifetime Commitment to Fairness and Truth

It is a cold, windy and overcast February day, and my destination is the Old Steeple Church in Aquebogue, NY, approximately 100 miles due east of New York City.

I am traveling to speak with the pastor Reverend Dr. Ledyard S. Baxter, 65, or Rev Led as his current congregation named him six years ago. He is preparing for his fifth annual service on the compatibility of religion and science.

The service he is preparing for is less than a week away. The genesis of his commitment to this annual event is a document known as the Clergy Letter, which specifically addresses the evolution versus creationist controversy. It is set to coincide with Charles Darwin’s birthday, on February 12th.

Rev Led is unaware that he is one of only five pastors in the entire State of New York, and the sole pastor in the New York City/Long Island region focusing his sermon on this topic, according to the Clergy Letter’s web site. I am curious why his commitment is so unique in this region, and I’m wondering about the potential for recrimination in his congregation and the community, especially in terms of those of his Long Island neighbors who have strict Biblical ideas when it comes to evolution.

Meeting the Reverend for the first time, I can imagine the director at a casting call audition exclaiming, “We have our Reverend!” Rev Led is tall, graying, stands very erect and speaks softly in a deep baritone. His kindly demeanor makes a stranger feel immediately comfortable, a good skill for a man who spends his days counseling people about life, death, beliefs and everyday ethics.

His office is just off the sanctuary. His shelves are filled with books on theology, but he quickly points to a sizable collection on the topic of science and religion. Ian Graeme Barbour’s Issues in Science and Religion, The Language of God, by Francis Collins, and Michael Dowd’s Thank God for Evolution among them. On a wall full of framed memories, the dominant image is what appears to be a NASA photograph of the Earth as seen from an Apollo mission.

Rev Led’s interest in science is based upon an understanding of, but not expertise in, biological science. He recognizes that a deeper understanding of both science and the Bible is necessary to relate the compatibility of biological evolution with religious beliefs. It also requires a willingness to consider both, and as Rev Led suggests, “This does not work with biblical literalism. That is where the polarity continues.”

I question him regarding the impact of his commitment to the Clergy Letter project and Evolution Sunday. “It is just since I’ve been here [at Old Steeple Church in Aquebogue] really that I have felt the freedom and been blessed with the opportunity to delve into this. It certainly would have been more difficult to broach and explore these issues with a congregation and in a cross-congregational manner in any community in which I had served as clergy prior to Aquebogue.” [Rev Led had previously served with congregations in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts]

“You ask about impact, I don’t think people here have jumped up and said, yes, let’s organize and take it on the road and get other churches to do it. That’s my job. But, no one has sent me hate mail, and no one has even raised a question within the church” he adds.

By his “job”, Rev Led is referring to the extension of his influence beyond his congregation to the broader community, something he accomplishes now in a number of cross-denominational associations in the Town of Riverhead. [Area in which Aquebogue is found] His choice, however, is not to confront publically those colleagues in the clergy who believe in biblical literalism.

I gain a better understanding and appreciation for the Reverend’s means as he describes his education and commitments to community-based activism in his youth. He grew up in a small and homogeneous community, Newington, in central Connecticut, where he recalls never having an awareness of the meaning of “discrimination.” Rev Led describes the following “early lessons” in “learning how to break down barriers.”

He recalls one such opportunity in early 1966, his junior year at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “Fred Hudson, the chaplain at Colby got me involved in a month of independent study between Christmas and the spring semester in which I was mentored by Dick Broholm, of the Metropolitan Associates of Philadelphia (MAP). This was a cross-denominational think tank that philosophized about how the church might get involved in politics and government, arts and education and business and industry. One issue addressed while I was there was redlining practices along the Mainline.” Redlining was the rejection of mortgages to certain ethnic groups, or entire neighborhoods. These practices prevented ethnic groups having access to funds that would help them improve their communities, and it often prevented them from moving to other communities. In this instance, it was occurring along the “Mainline”, a series of wealthy communities situated along the commuter railway lines from Philadelphia to the suburban areas west of the city.

This was only the beginning of an interest and commitment to principles of fairness and human rights. His pastor in Newington involved him “with a group at the University of Chicago Divinity School” several months later, during the summer of 1966. “It was a summer work/study program where we lived in this community of students with common interests and backgrounds, had to get a job and participate in reflection groups on readings and discussion.” This summer program, however, turned into much more.

Frank Reynolds, who is currently Professor Emeritus of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago managed the program and a PhD student named Larry Greenfield currently the Executive Minister of the American Baptists Churches of Chicago was Rev Led’s mentor. “Larry knew Jesse Jackson, and when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came north that summer to demonstrate in Chicago, Larry asked if we would be interested in participating” he recalls.

This was the summer that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. Martin Luther King’s political base, committed to eight months of marching in communities in the Chicago area to promote equal rights for black Americans. Primary focus of these marches was on housing, education and jobs. They were documented as some of the most difficult such efforts that Southern Christian Leadership Conference leadership had encountered, and Rev Led participated in four major civil rights marches that summer, learning about nonviolent protests from no less than Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy. The impact of the hatred he experienced firsthand must have had a great impact on this young man from Newington.

Ledyard Baxter (with glasses); Chicago Freedom movement, 1966 Source: A Brief Guide to Sites of the Chicago Freedom Movement; Ralph, James; Middlebury College; 2006 (photo courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)

Graduating from Colby College in 1967, Rev Led enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then a center of Protestant social justice thinking. During his studies at Union, his interest in social ethics motivated him to take a year off to work with Bill Webber of the East Harlem Protestant Parish and the Metropolitan Urban Service Training program (MUST). He spent the year working in Harlem as a welfare rights and welfare caseworker, and in the Bronx, for the Welfare Department.

For a man who would spend his life trying to balance worldly justice with a religious message, these early experiences were transformational. Rev Led talks about “falling into these opportunities” as if he just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Perhaps so. But all along the way, he seems to have made choices to stand up for what he believed was right, to add not only his voice, or signature in the case of the Clergy Letter, but to be an active participant in society, a model for others. His choice to devote a service to present the compatibility of science and religion is but one example of this.