Outler was great Wesley scholar — and a pack rat

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Albert C. Outler remains a towering figure in United Methodism, and he left a towering collection of papers some 370 archival boxes.

They include letters, drafts of sermons and articles, notes and syllabi for courses, and other documents one might expect from a groundbreaking scholar in Wesleyan studies.

But Outler (1908-1989) also hung onto gas ration cards from the World War II years. He saved his charge-a-plate, precursor to the credit card. From his travels for speaking engagements, Outler kept airline ticket stubs, restaurant napkins and sugar packets.

He kept matches.

“That was probably the most alarming thing I found,” said archivist Colleen Bradley-Sanders, reflecting her profession’s special dread of fire. “I gave them to our facilities manager to dispose of.”

From 2010 to 2014, Bradley-Sanders put in 6,000 hours reorganizing Outler’s papers at Bridwell Library, part of Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology.

For the first time, there’s a full guide to the Outler collection, available online and in print. Bridwell’s website includes highlights from the collection, such as the sermon Outler preached at the 1968 Uniting Conference in Dallas, officially creating The United Methodist Church.

Bridwell also has on display an exhibit drawn from the collection, featuring 90 items — though no matches.

The library’s combined efforts have a single aim.

“We’re hoping to draw attention by a new generation of scholars to a man who was a leading figure in The United Methodist Church and ecumenically,” said Timothy Binkley, the Bridwell archivist who oversaw Bradley-Sanders’ work and curated the exhibit.

Within and without Methodism

The career of Outler son of a Methodist pastor from southern Georgia almost defies summation.

He taught at Duke Divinity School, Yale Divinity School and finally at Perkins. He edited a collection of John Wesley’s sermons and formulated the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which holds that Christians should bring to bear Scripture, tradition, reason and experience as they live their faith.

Exactly how true to John Wesley’s theology the Quadrilateral is remains a matter of debate. But it’s part of the United Methodist Book of Discipline, part of the education of United Methodist clergy and a big part of Outler’s legacy.

Combine that with Outler’s role in the formation of The United Methodist Church, including leading the doctrinal study commission, and contemporary scholars consider him an indispensable figure in the denomination’s history.

“A lot of who we are is shaped by his work and his career,” said Leicester Longden, associate professor emeritus and director of the United Methodist Studies program at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.

Outler wrote on other topics, such as Christology, pneumatology (study of the Holy Spirit), and pastoral counseling and psychotherapy. The nine-volume “Albert Outler Library,” published by Bristol House, testifies to his productivity.

An ordained elder, Outler also made time for preaching and speaking to clergy and lay groups.

“His parish was the entire denomination,” Binkley said. “He was a very popular speaker.”

Outler’s reputation and influence extended beyond Methodism. He addressed the World Council of Churches and served as an official observer at the Second Vatican Council.

SMU vs. Yale

A scholar as busy as Outler would necessarily generate lots of paper. But his pack-rat tendencies also came into play.

If Outler was mentioned in a newspaper article, he saved the whole paper. He kept multiple copies of a course syllabus, and all the records of academic committees he served on, even if he didn’t have much of a role.

By eliminating redundancies and moving some material to the main SMU library, Bridwell Library reduced the collection by more than half.

“It’s a cleaner, more understandable collection,” Binkley said.

The exhibit at Bridwell offers Outler’s first license to preach, a handwritten draft of his sermon to the Uniting Conference, and correspondence between him and the noted theologian H. Richard Niebuhr.

There’s a photo of Outler meeting Pope Paul VI, and awards Outler received from Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Jewish groups.

A legal pad page shows Outler working through whether to leave Yale for Perkins and SMU. In two columns, he listed pros and cons, noting that he had a good garden where he was and that Yale was “the best school in the country,” but also that SMU was offering more money and a chance to serve Methodism in his native South.

The exhibit runs through May 1, but Bridwell will continue to have highlights from it and the rest of the collection online. And the reorganized papers will remain available for scholars.

 Longden recently gave a lecture at Bridwell on Outler, and feels there’s much more to do on him.

“One of the papers I think needs to be written is on all of the documents of the doctrinal study commission he was chair of,” Longden said. “That would show that from the very start we were an extremely diverse group of people. If we don’t see that, we can’t understand why we’re divided now.”

Longden himself will be spending lots more time with Outler’s papers.

In 2008, he was considering doing an Outler biography, to follow the one by Bob Parrott, published a decade after Outler’s death. Longden went through about 40 archival boxes before feeling overwhelmed. He put the project on hold.

Now that the collection is slimmed down and better organized, he declares himself “fully recommitted” to the biography.

Given his subject, it will still be a job.

“I’m looking at five years,” Longden said.

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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