William Wallace Finlator: Activist Prophet

By Jonas, Glenn | Baptist History and Heritage, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

William Wallace Finlator: Activist Prophet


Jonas, Glenn, Baptist History and Heritage


Any Baptist minister from North Carolina who has the nerve to write an editorial entitled "I'll Skip Billy Graham" deserves notice.

William Wallace Finlator wrote such an article in 1973, criticizing Graham for being too narrowly focused in his preaching. Finlator argued that Graham gave attention only to private sins "of the Saturday night variety," whereas he should be devoting his energies to problems in society such as injustice, poverty, the struggle for civil rights, and economic inequality created by the system of capitalism. (1)

To some extent, the 1973 article epitomized the life and career of Finlator. He was a pastor of several North Carolina Baptist churches throughout his career, but Finlator rose above the mere provincialism of Baptist life in the South. He was a Christian minister with a world vision. In many respects, his views were far ahead of his time. He was a prophetic activist who sought to call Baptists to a realization of their true heritage, as he understood it--a heritage rooted in freedom and dissent. He was, however, not without his detractors. Commenting on his reception by other Baptists, he said, "I have been dubbed with some interesting sobriquets in my day. I have seen myself referred to as 'the controversial minister,' 'the liberal Baptist pastor,' and 'a social and political activist,' and, perhaps once or twice, 'a progressive pastor.' While no one to my knowledge has described me as a 'radical-liberal,' I have opened mail ... addressed to 'Comrade Finlator.'" (2)

Finlator was born in the small, eastern North Carolina town of Louisburg on June 19, 1913. (3) While he was very young, his family moved to Raleigh, where he later attended public schools. Upon graduation from high school in 1930, he enrolled at Wake Forest College. Receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1934, he continued his studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he received a Master of Theology degree in 1937.

After graduation from Southern, Finlator moved back to North Carolina where he spent his entire career in parish ministry. He pastored four small churches in Bonlee, Liberty, Pittsboro, and Weldon, before becoming the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Elizabeth City in 1945. In 1956, he accepted the call to become the pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh. He retired from full-time ministry in 1982. Finlator died on July 3, 2006, at the age of ninety-three.

Philosophy of Ministry

Finlator's ministry is best described by the term "prophetic." His style was reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets and their activity in ancient Israel. Finlator once said, "I always wanted to be a prophetic minister and I knew there was risk and daring involved. I also knew there was excitement, and joy." (4) Identifying Harry Emerson Fosdick, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Edwin McNeill Poteat (his predecessor at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church) as personal role models for this philosophy of ministry, (5) Finlator believed that his ministry afforded him the opportunity to be involved in the larger community beyond his congregation. He became an active participant in organizations beyond Baptist life such as the North Carolina Council of Churches, the North Carolina Council on Human Rights, the North Carolina Conference on Social Welfare, and the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He also served as the chairman of the North Carolina Advisory Committee to the United States Civil Rights Commission. Along with his involvement in these organizations, he was a prolific writer submitting numerous articles and editorials to journals and newspapers throughout his career. The topics of these writings generally can be categorized into the following areas: race, religious freedom, labor, peace movement, Baptist denominational issues, and civil liberties. (6)

One might question how a Southern Baptist minister could develop such a philosophy of ministry. …

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