ORLANDO, Fla. — Wise writers avoid superlatives like oldest or largest because some reader usually provides evidence to the contrary. But I feel safe deeming R.L. (Dick) Atkins as the most prepared Sunday school teacher in the world.
If anyone has put more time and talent into the preparation and teaching of laypersons in congregational life, I’d like to meet that person — and see the classroom. Dick writes and illustrates in-depth studies taught in a museum-like setting.
The typical block-walled space where Dick teaches each Sunday morning (as well as evening classes) is filled from floor to ceiling with charts and illustrations all of his own creation — plus a full-scale replica of the Ark of the Covenant.
Wrapped 30 feet around the ceiling is The Atkins Timeline of Religious History, detailed and meticulously drawn in 1977. It allows Dick to orient participants to the time period being discussed with just the pointing of his finger.
The illustrated timeline includes dating advanced by those who hold to a young-earth belief of a few thousand years despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Yet it also shows Dick’s belief in theistic evolution — one of the topics he teaches.
In addition to his Theistic Evolution for the Layman, Dick has researched and written several other volumes including Our Roots: The Early History of the Baptists and Anabaptists, The Genesis Anthology and The Key to the Proverbs.
“Everything that’s taught here is written by me,” said Atkins. And the various volumes create a very tall stack.
“From a college student to people my age,” was the response from the spry, 83-year-old retired engineer to my inquiry of who attends his classes at The Church on the Drive, formerly College Park Baptist Church, in Orlando, where Dick has taught for decades.
Dick grew up in the Everglades where was high school valedictorian. He then served as state president of the Baptist Student Union while attending the University of Florida from which he received a degree in aeronautical engineering.
After graduate school at Southern Methodist University in Texas, he returned to Florida to work as a project engineer at the Naval Training Systems Center in Orlando.
His embrace of theistic evolution, he said, made finding a congregational home a bit challenging at times. Yet his strong belief in Baptist principles would not allow him to search beyond his denominational heritage.
Dick said his first church engagement in the area worked out fairly well for a while until a guest speaker came on the scene preaching against belief in evolution — deeming it a threat to faith. After Dick shared a written rebuttal with the congregation, he said church leaders chose to ostracize him from leadership positions. Dick walked away.
He sought the help of local Baptist leaders to find a place where he could believe and teach his beliefs and serve as a faithful deacon, teacher and choir member. He found a home at then College Park Baptist Church in 1978.
While Dick delves deeply as a researcher, writer and teacher into the roots of Baptists historically, he also shares openly his own faith journey — noting that it is his “esteem for equal rights and human dignity” that determined his denominational affiliation.
“I defy any overload’s authority and any trammels on my conscience or threats to my standing as a priest, an autonomous believer, and soul responsible only to God,” he writes in a closing testimonial chapter in Our Roots: The Early History of the Baptists and Anabaptists.
Dick also gets personal in sections of Theistic Evolution for the Layman that he teaches to fellow church members. He shares his pilgrimage of independent thinking from a children’s book on cavemen to Greek mythology to Darwin’s Origin of the Species that caused him to reexamine his biblical interpretations in new light.
Introducing his case for theistic evolution, he notes: “Every farmer who breeds animals and develops new varieties of plants should easily grasp the fact that the Creator can also do this on a grander scale.”
Dick has wide and varied interests, and pursues each with diligence and discovery. He is kind in his relationships yet straightforward in his analyses.
He can be critical of Catholics and Muslims (and Baptists who don’t living up to their roots) while being a strong supporter of the United Nations and human rights. He dedicated his book One God, One World, to the memory of Albert Schweitzer.
Dick appeals to scripture (“From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth…” Acts 17:26a), and affirms scientifically a continental drift to support his views on the unity of humanity.
Encompassing all he does is his persistent search for truth — wherever it can be found.
And Dick knows of no more appropriate place for seeking truth than in the understanding of God, scripture and all else that flows from God.
“Theology is the science of religion,” said Atkins, a retired engineer who applied science to aeronautics. “I’m trying to get to the bottom of what we believe.”
Atkins digs deeply into the religious history that preceded Christianity — studying the works of the Jewish historian Josephus and others.
“No religion is made in a vacuum,” he said. “Our religion comes out of Judaism.”
“I use a lot of charts and pictures,” said Atkins, whose works resemble sci-fi illustrations.
Long ago when Florida Southern College started offering Greek language classes on weekends in Orlando, Dick dove right in for two years — allowing him to study the original texts of the New Testament.
He was not selfish with his knowledge, however. “I’ve taught Greek classes three times in this church,” he said. “I love to teach and I want to provide teachers with tools.”
Indeed he does. One peek into his classroom or one conversation reveals an energy and commitment that have not faded over the decades.
And he’s grateful for a congregational family that appreciates and affirms his gifts — and gives him the freedom to exercise them.
“I’m privileged to have a church that let’s me teach here.”
And by the way, before you tell your class about the traveling Magi and their camels this Christmas — you might check out Dick’s illustration of Persian priests on white horses.
This is a sample of the original, informative and inspiring articles that appear in each issue of Nurturing Faith Journal & Bible Studies. Subscribe (print or digital) at nurturingfaith.net.