Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. (Habakkuk 2:2-3 NRSV)

These words from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk have been much on my mind in recent years. In 2008, First Baptist Church of Raleigh, an extraordinary 200-year-old congregation across the street from the North Carolina State Capitol, commissioned me to write its bicentennial history. And just last year, Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., the school where I chair the religion department and teach American and Baptist religious history, celebrated its 125th anniversary.

Two remarkable institutions that have thrived despite all odds, both have prompted me to think a lot about the nature of vision. Where does a founders’ vision come from? What are the dreams of those who start an institution? What do they see and hope for their church or school or hospital or other organization as it takes its first halting steps?

Perhaps most interesting of all, in the case of successful institutions -- those that last and are sustainable over time -- what do later generations make of that founding vision? How do they discern it? How do they keep it alive? Where does vision come from, and where does it go?

For a historian, researching and writing the history of First Baptist was a dream project. Rarely does any historian have access to the breadth and depth of archival resources that I had when I began. Indeed, the church has what is probably the best local church archive collection in North Carolina, and perhaps one of the best anywhere.

With a few exceptions scattered over 200 years, First Baptist Church has records of every church conference meeting from the beginning, all both microfilmed and digitized. They also have an extensive collection of deacons’ meeting minutes, Woman’s Missionary Union minutes, Sunday school records, weekly bulletins, newsletters, photographs, scrapbooks and miscellaneous records from committees over the years. All these resources have been carefully organized and protected in a safe location in the church.

Yet in all those records I could find virtually nothing about the dreams, the vision, of those who started the church. All we know for certain is that on March 8, 1812, the 23 founding members -- people with names like John and Moses, Dolly and Siddy, Jethro and Zilpha -- officially formed their church.

Maybe if we had a time machine and traveled back to that March weekend, we could ask them to imagine what their church would be like in 200 years. What were John’s dreams? What were Siddy’s? Did they each have different visions? Barring the invention of a time machine, however, we will never know.

Basically, this small group -- 14 of African descent and nine of Anglo descent -- simply established a Baptist community of faith out of their desire to serve Christ in the relatively new city of Raleigh, and then spent their lives building their church for the next generation.

Likewise, on Jan. 5, 1887, in the small town of Buies Creek, N.C., the Rev. James A. Campbell, a North Carolina preacher, founded Buies Creek Academy, the predecessor of what would become, Campbell Junior College (1926), Campbell College (1961) and Campbell University (1979).

Amidst the economic devastation of the post-Reconstruction South, Campbell believed that no young person should be denied an education because of a lack of money. In those dark days, could he ever have envisioned his tiny little school becoming what is today a 9,400-student university with graduate schools of divinity, education, business, pharmacy, law and -- soon -- medicine?

I seriously doubt it. In the midst of the Depression, when faculty often went without pay, it required all the imagination that he and his successor, Leslie H. Campbell, could muster just to keep the doors open.

For both First Baptist Church of Raleigh and Campbell University -- and, I suspect, for most successful institutions -- a “founders’ vision” becomes what each successive generation does with what it inherited. Looking back from the perspective of 200 years and 125 years, we can see that in both cases the founders’ visions were carefully nurtured and adapted by each successive generation for the times in which they lived.

Years ago, as a young pastor, I stumbled upon a sermon entitled “Keepers of the Springs,” by the Rev. Peter Marshall, the great Presbyterian pastor immortalized in the book and movie “A Man Called Peter.”

Marshall began the sermon with a story about a small town at the base of a mountain. On the mountain lived a man who took it upon himself to be the “keeper of the springs.” Whenever he found a spring as he walked through the woods high above the town, the man would clean out the fallen leaves, silt, mud, branches and anything else that polluted or blocked the water as it flowed down toward the town. Because of his attentiveness and care, the town’s “river of life” was always clear, clean and refreshing. As Marshall described it,

Millwheels were whirled by its rush.
Gardens were refreshed by its waters.
Fountains threw it like diamonds into the air.
Swans sailed on its limpid surface, and children laughed as they played on its banks in the sunshine.

One day, while examining the town budget, the city council noticed the salary it paid the spring keeper and decided it would be more economical in the long run to build a reservoir above the town. Thus, the keeper of the springs was deemed unnecessary, and the town built its reservoir.

The new reservoir quickly filled with water, but things were no longer the same. With no one to clean the water at its source, algae formed in the reservoir, and the unpurified water that flowed into the town began to cause health problems among the residents. Eventually, the city council was forced to admit its error and rehire the spring keeper. Soon, the town’s water was again clean and pure.

To me, a founding vision, at least for successful institutions, is like the springs in Marshall’s sermon. Vision is not a reservoir, a container, bounded and fixed for all time. Though visible at the surface, springs, like vision, originate from sources deep below, often impossible to discern. They bubble forth, flowing where they flow, carving different paths over time, occasionally guided by human hands in new directions.

And as in Marshall’s sermon, springs that bring life-giving waters depend upon others -- upon “keepers” -- for their continued vitality. They, like vision, require the care and attention of successive generations of keepers to remain clean and flowing.

Both First Baptist Church of Raleigh and Campbell University have been blessed by generations of people who have served as “keepers of the springs.” At First Baptist, the keepers have been the pastors and laity of the church, thousands of women and men who have given of their time, money and talents to be what their founders intended: a community of faith, serving Christ in the city of Raleigh.

Likewise at Campbell, generations of faculty, students, alumni, donors and staff have kept the founding vision, forming a community of learning and discovery, preparing young people for lives of purpose and meaning.

Like the mills and gardens -- indeed, the entire town at the base of Marshall’s mountain -- the congregation that still stands across from the State Capitol and the campus that still thrives in Buies Creek testify to the success of these “keepers.” For both, the founders’ visions are still being nurtured.

But what lies ahead for First Baptist Church of Raleigh? What does the future hold for Campbell University? Even with all the tools of modern planning, the current keepers of the springs are ultimately no more able to answer that question than were John and Siddy back in 1812 or James Campbell in 1887.

But the answer will come, says the prophet:

For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.


Editor’s note: This essay was adapted by the author, with editorial assistance from Faith & Leadership, from lectures he delivered at First Baptist Church of Raleigh, on June 10, 2012, and at Campbell University on Aug. 17, 2012.