By My Own Reckoning. By Cecil Sherman. Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2008. 280 pages. Hardcover, $24.00.
If Cecil Sherman were to offer his judgment that “grass is green,” this reviewer would probably want to reconsider his own perspectives about the color of grass, which is no surprise to anybody. Maybe grass, after all, is red. So, why have I always loved Cecil Sherman and why did I find his autobiography By My Own Reckoning one of the most delightful reads in many moons? The answer to the question presents itself in the very pages of the book. Cecil Sherman is an honest man who tells you up front what he thinks about everything without indulging in political spin games. Furthermore, in the last chapter of this book, without the slightest intention on his part, Sherman reveals the heart of a devoted husband and father to an extent rarely discernible among liberals, neo-orthodox, postmoderns or, may God forgive us, evangelicals.
There is much with which to take issue in the analyses that are provided in the book, especially when Sherman is talking about one of his favorite targets—“Fundamentalists.” He indulges in some of the same calumnies and misrepresentations that other books of this genre have made infamous. He cannot get away from the “busing” that the conservatives did at the Southern Baptist Convention, even though there has never been any proof or evidence of such “busing” other than perhaps a Southern Seminary bus of moderates before which I had my picture taken at one of the conventions. This caricature of “Fundamentalist” is not wholly fair since there are unkind and uncharitable moderates just as there are unkind and uncharitable fundamentalists.
But even when Sherman misrepresents “the enemy,” there are mitigating factors. First, several times in the autobiography he prefaces statements with some expression like, “Obviously, I am providing my own perspective.” In so doing, he admits that there might be error in his view or at least other possible interpretations. Second, there is never a time when you get the impression that bitterness is the chief operative emotion in his assessment. This common weakness has been found in most of the books coming from a similar point of view; but whereas there are occasional indications of bitterness, even these are handled with an honesty that softens the sting. Finally, Sherman’s reporting of events and his assessments of both friends and foes includes “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” Consequently, the book is both refreshing and, in the final chapter, profoundly moving.
Among the things to be noted is the foreword by W. Randall Lolley, who admits that Sherman told the six seminary presidents, “You fellows have sold the store!” While Lolley does not say so, the hint is that he suspects Sherman was right. Sherman admits that he effectively resigned from the Southern Baptist Convention and desires no further concourse with it (4). He records that the Bible “was the record of the way God moved upon his people in history” (21). In that classic neo-orthodox way of speaking, Sherman does not deny that significant portions of the Bible constitute the Word of God, but he does make clear that this record of the way God moved in the lives of His own people in history is characterized by inaccuracies and mistakes. Unfortunately, Sherman gives no sure method of ascertaining what is reliable and what is not.
Sometimes Sherman reports things that are not quite right. He describes an incident involving my now deceased mother (48-49). I was not there, so I cannot be sure of the accuracy of the account, though I am certain Sherman believes it happened this way. Part of it could not be true, however, since according to Sherman, my mother was defending the fact that both of her children were saved by the age of six, when in fact I was not saved until age nine. Even that must have come as an astonishment to my mother, who, by that time, was wondering if I belonged to the elect at all!
One of the strangest things about the book is that Sherman describes his baptism and his call to ministry but only hints at any story of conversion. This should not be taken to mean that there was no conversion experience; but for those of us who belong to the Baptist tradition of regenerate church membership, the testimony of genuine conversion to Christ is always an essential part of anyone’s biography. Should Sherman decide to provide a second edition, an explanation of how he came to faith in Christ would be a helpful addition.
Other assets of the book include a forthright assessment of the Elliott Controversy with the admission that most of the professors in the six seminaries agreed with Elliott. In this, he joins with Dr. Elliott himself, who, in his memoirs, alleged exactly the same thing. The chapters on Sherman’s pastorate in Asheville will be required reading for my students in pastoral ministries. Sherman’s handling of the race issue at Asheville in a courageous, yet statesmanlike, fashion is a model for any; and no one with a sense of justice could help but admire how he functioned in that situation.
Sherman is candid about the fact that, in the days prior to the Conservative Resurgence, there was a focus in the convention on missiology rather than upon doctrine and that this is the way the convention functioned (133). Like most moderates, he seems oblivious to the fact that it is impossible to focus on “missions” without having some sort of underlying theology that states what the “mission” is and why it matters. Nevertheless, his assessment of how the convention was working in those days is accurate.
The internal story tells of competing views among the moderates, including the overconfident assertion of those “driving the train” that “we can handle these people,” which is observable in Ken Chafin’s famous statement that some of the agency heads “could not tell the arsonists from the firemen” (154).
Although I am certain that not all members of the Peace Committee would agree with Sherman’s assessment in every part, certainly this perspective from the Peace Committee is of enormous value and is one of the few internal assessments made public. The story of his disagreement with the six seminary presidents over the Glorieta Statement and his decision to resign is classic. Russell Dilday’s rebuke, which led to Sherman’s resignation, came about when Dilday said in effect that “He (Sherman) was a bigger problem to the moderate cause than they are” (pointing down the hall to Adrian Rogers and two other conservatives who were talking). This kind of candor about the internal disagreements of the moderates is refreshing and provides a unique insight into what was actually transpiring. The chapters on the development of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship lack the vitality of the rest of the book, but Sherman himself recognized that; yet the value of his assessment of the beginning of the CBF is a worthy contribution.
The final chapter, “Retirement Years,” ought to be read by anyone who has the slightest aspirations to be a noble husband. This superb marriage between “Dot and Cecil” is a rewarding study on its own. They love each other profoundly, and clearly their faithfulness to one another is beyond question. That would be sufficient to commend the book. However, when Alzheimer’s struck Dot and eventually had its nefarious way with her, my own love and appreciation for Cecil Sherman reached new heights. His assessment, clearly not intended to be self-aggrandizing, made me examine my own heart and pray that God would make me as good a husband as Cecil Sherman. I not only believe that every preacher ought to read the last chapter, but I believe every Christian husband ought to read it and be challenged by it.
By My Own Reckoning admits that the book is by Sherman’s own reckoning. That alone would commend the book. Once again the honesty and integrity with which he tells his story, even where one may differ about the facts, increases the value of the book. Sherman has made an obvious attempt to put bitterness aside as much as possible; and, to most of his opponents, he has given the benefit of the doubt, disagreeing with them vociferously but not concluding that all were malicious in their motives. Sherman was a formidable foe for those of us who were deeply involved in the Conservative Renaissance. However, had all of our opposition had the character of Cecil Sherman, although the outcome would probably not have been different, the fallout and the injuries sustained on both sides of the aisle might have been significantly reduced. Liberals, moderates, neo-orthodox, postmoderns, conservatives, evangelicals, and fundamentalists all can say a hardy “thank you” to Cecil Sherman for opening a door to his heart and inviting us in. God bless you, my brother!
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary