RALEIGH — R.G. Gene Puckett, a minister who found he could have a greater influence through the press than from the pulpit and who presided over the North Carolina Baptists newspaper when the denomination was undergoing one of its greatest periods of upheaval, has died.
Puckett, 80, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer several months ago, but as recently as April, he was still teaching Sunday School at First Baptist Church on Salisbury Street in downtown Raleigh.
Age and illness hadnt softened his opinions, either; an outspoken critic of the conservative movement within the Baptist church, he met friends and colleagues on the campus of Wake Forest University School of Divinity less than two weeks ago to rail about how the church was alienating its longtime followers and scaring off potential recruits.
As both a preacher and a writer, Puckett could develop an argument with clarity, said Bill J. Leonard, the Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies who teaches church history at Wake Forest and knew Puckett for 30 years. Even if you didnt agree with him, you knew what he meant. He wasnt obtuse in his sermons or his editorials. He said it straight up. In that sense, he is one in a particular generation of great Baptist progressives in the South.
Born in Kentucky and educated at Campbellsville University, Western Kentucky University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Puckett went to work as a pastor at churches in Ohio and Florida in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1958, he became editor of the Ohio Baptist Messenger. He was later associate editor of the Western Recorder in Kentucky and then editor of the Maryland Baptist from 1966 to 1979. From there, he worked as executive director of Americans For Separation of Church and State, which espoused his fervent belief that to preserve religious liberty, government must not favor one religious group over another.
Puckett began his work in religious publishing when Baptist periodicals, which were started in the 19th century, still were widely read and circulated throughout the South, Leonard said. Each state convention had its own, which it mailed out weekly to share religious news in general and Baptist news in particular: who had been called to ministry, who had died, where revivals were being held.
Staffs were small and reporters often wrote human-interest feature stories as well as editorials. It was in crafting those opinion pieces where Puckett found his niche, Leonard said.
Across the spectrum, left and right, these journalists engendered controversy. They would give their opinions on issues that were dividing, or at least were being debated, in Baptist life, Leonard said. In response, people would write these scathing denunciations as well as great praise. Being an editor was making your conscience known through the editorials that you wrote. Puckett was a master at that.
Puckett was fearless.
At odds with conservatives
Puckett came to the North Carolina Baptists Biblical Recorder newspaper in 1982, as conservative forces within the denomination had begun to take control of different functions within the church by voting theologically moderate and liberal leaders out. Puckett was often at odds with the movement; among other things, he favored the ordination of women.
In 1990, when the Southern Baptist Conventions executive committee fired two editors of the Baptist Press, Puckett and other Baptist state paper editors got together and within hours formed the Associated Baptist Press as an alternative news source.
Puckett wrote an editorial about the firings on the anniversary every year until he retired in 1998.
Carolyn Smith, who ran the business side of the Biblical Recorder while Puckett was editor, said he got many phone calls and piles of letters during his tenure.
And he answered every one, she said.
He continued to write after he retired, sending letters to the editor of The News & Observer, writing articles for religious periodicals, crafting sermons for churches that asked him to fill in when needed, and thoughtful thank-you notes for the simplest gestures others performed on his behalf. Friends say he was working on a book when he died.
He had some spunk
Puckett was a verbal pugilist who enjoyed a good argument and maybe even looked for them to keep his skills sharp, friends said.
Ive been at gatherings of my type before where I wasnt sure you could assemble one spinal column in the whole room: peaceful, gentle, loving things who could not stand up for anything, said Christopher Chapman, pastor of First Baptist.
That was not Gene. He was a person well-suited to the role that he took. He had some spunk and some fight and he was sharp and he could debate well. He didnt back down from a challenge.
Puckett is survived by his wife, Robbie, to whom he had been married 58 years; two daughters and several grandchildren.
A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at First Baptist. Brown-Wynne Funeral Home at 300 Saint Marys Street is handling the arrangements.