Charles and Laura Thigpen: In Memoriam

W. Jackson Watts

Many of our hearts were saddened to learn of the recent deaths of Dr. Charles A. Thigpen and his wife Sister Laura. They died just days apart, having reached their mid-90s. Their deaths came in fairly close proximity to Leroy Forlines. It’s sobering to watch the “builder generation” pass off the scene. It’s also humbling to consider how faithfully we have heeded the valuable lessons they imparted to us.

It’s not surprising for readers of this blog to find reflections and tributes to Forlines as he was one of our two preeminent theologians for over half a century. Moreover, he was a long-time Commission chairman. Yet this is also an appropriate moment to acknowledge the Thigpens’ contribution to the theological integrity of our movement.

A Personal Note

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for this couple. The Thigpens—Charles Allen and “Lolly” as they were known back home—hail from the same community in South Carolina as me. In fact, Mrs. Thigpen and my grandfather were grade-school classmates. I began life in the same Methodist church as their families. After I began pastoring in my present church I learned that it was the home-church of their daughter-in-law. These are among the many interesting personal connections I could mention.

But when I was a younger child in the Turbeville Southern Methodist Church, then later Horse Branch Free Will Baptist Church, I honestly didn’t “know them.” I knew of them. Young people often don’t pay attention to all the interconnected relationships that give texture to rural communities like the one I was raised in. But to the Turbeville-Olanta area, the Thigpens were exemplars of the highest order. They came from fine families. They received their education at a respectable Christian college in the state. They had continued in the ministry before ultimately accepting posts at the fledgling Free Will Baptist college. Though the Thigpens would briefly leave FWBBC to pastor in Michigan for a few years, they would return and serve the college for 43 years, culminating in Dr. Thigpen’s tenure as president. [1]

But I would say I first met Dr. Thigpen when he was Tennessee Promotional Director and kept an office on campus during my time as a student at Welch. He was hefting some boxes into the student center, and I hopped over to help him. The irony in this is that I was prompted to do this because of something simple he had said in a chapel sermon either earlier that day or days before: “You ought to try to do something to help someone every day.” Talk about being at the right place and the right time! He even gave me a dollar, which I still have.

This not-so-chance encounter would lead to many conversations—first in his on-campus office—then to the Thigpens’ home on Murphy Road. He would often regale me with stories from years gone by, but the Thigpens also took a personal interest in me. I’m sure some of it owed to our common roots, but also their well-known love for students. Mrs. Laura was especially interested in my “love life” (if one could even call it that). As I would learn in later years, she had been a helpful counselor and guide in this area of life to many young men and women.

While we didn’t communicate as much in the last couple of years when they were living in Georgia, we did occasionally telephone each other and exchange cards, which I greatly cherish.

A Theological Contribution

It’s true that this blog is devoted to theological matters. Yet we’ve also gone to great lengths in recent years to correct the often narrow caricature of theology that reduces it to discussions of supralapsarianism versus infralapsarianism, or what the difference between monergism or synergism is (not unimportant, of course). But if we take the word “theology” to refer to the whole range of Christian belief, and the ways in which beliefs are presupposed in Christian practices, the scope of theology immediately widens and opens up many deeply important avenues of understanding.

In this broader sense, the Thigpens have contributed significantly to the theological integrity of the Free Will Baptist movement. These contributions go beyond the overt statements or writings on biblical themes, as important as these are [2]. But if we look at their commitment to education, and a fully-orbed education across disciplines, we begin to uncover a sort of anthropology (a theology of the person) [3]. Let me just mention two aspects of what I mean.

The Body is a Site of and Instrument for Christian Service

The two memories that most likely come to mind when people consider Mrs. Thigpen is her many years of teaching speech or directing drama.

We often reduce speech to cultural snobbery and drama to entertainment. Yet both of these areas are brimming with spiritual significance. To help a person speak with clarity, confidence, and rhetorical effectiveness presupposes that human beings are the kinds of beings who not only can do such things, but that we respond more meaningfully to speech that is clear, confident, and beautiful. You don’t have to get bogged down in a debate over whether humans are dichotomous or trichotomous beings to understand this. Human communication is more than the mere information transfer; it’s multi-layered, complex, and most certainly embodied. Read the prophetic literature in Scripture if you don’t believe that.

As Mrs. Thigpen helped teachers and preachers in training, she was helping them sharpen one of their most crucial tools: their voices. Indeed, some preachers struggle in the pulpit not for lack of study, but lack of bodily care!

In conjunction with this, the theatre also provides an interesting occasion to embody and enact truth through song, dance, character development, plot, and more. The vulgar and profane nature of modern theatre—not to mention cinema—is precisely why we need the legacy of Laura Thigpen. It reminds us that our bodies, not just our brains, belong to God.

Education as a Necessary Enterprise for Human Flourishing  

A quick glance at Dr. Thigpen’s resume clearly shows that his emphasis was much more in the area of education and administration. While he certainly proved effective in other skills and ministries, he had a passion to help people understand truth, to transmit it, and to provide the organizational contexts in which that activity could happen. I think we would be naïve to say that he thought this way because he operated in a “pre-YouTube era.” He believed that effective education needed humans to work. He gave himself over to seeing a Teacher Education program established at Welch. He participated in accreditation agency work. And regardless of whether he was building up a Sunday School program in a local church, or writing Sunday School curriculum for Randall House, he was relentless in teaching, training, and helping others to do the same.

Human beings as image bearers have been designed in such a way to grasp ideas, live those ideas, and pass them on. Moreover, this knowledge transcends the purely “religious.” If one maintains that all truth is God’s truth, as St. Augustine said, then it means that education belongs not only to pastors and missionaries, but to the nurses, attorneys, and engineers.

One of Thigpen’s tangible accomplishments in those early years was his many meetings with administrators from other Tennessee colleges and universities, seeking to secure agreements that would allow graduates of Welch (equipped with a Bible degree) to transfer to continue their education. While our highly-secularized climate in higher education makes it increasingly desirable to obtain such training in a Christian context, in an earlier era Thigpen’s efforts were understandable and helpful. Still, the underlying assumption was that vocation (from the Latin ‘calling’) extended to more than full-time pastors.

Much more could be said, but I think it’s significant that we recognize that a theology of the person is always assumed in, reflected in, and reinforced by our approach to education. Seeing the whole person in all its created glory, according to Scripture, inspires Christian educators to teach. The Thigpens did just that.


[1] A more extensive overview of the Thigpens’ ministry can be found at

[2] Dr. Thigpen contributed to A Survey of the New Testament, a Bible survey textbook Randall House published in the 1980s.

[3] It’s worth noting that more and more Free Will Baptists are contributing to a growing body of writings about pedagogy and education. This list includes, but certainly isn’t limited to Darrell Holley, Phillip Morgan, and Rebekah Zuniga.

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