About 20,000 Southern and American Baptists were in one place for their annual conventions last month, though not always with one accord. The place was Atlantic City, New Jersey, where delegates strolled up and down the boardwalk several times a day, past souvenir shops and honky-tonk “fun” arcades, to get to their meetings, luncheons, and caucuses. During the 150 years of organized denominational work they celebrate this year, Baptists have become thoroughly Conventionalized, if not Organized.
American Baptist Convention
The year 1964 could be called the year that white and Negro delegates to the American Baptist Convention, numbering 1,500,000 members, got specific on the subject of race.
They said some of the same things their national leaders were saying from the stage of the grand ballroom of Convention Hall, though not so eloquently; the real difference was that the delegates from the local churches were talking to one another.
They also went beyond the language of the resolution on race presented to the convention and talked, in the open forums, about the situations in their own churches, about racial intermarriage, and about “what will happen and how much are we prepared to have it happen” if integration is preached and lived.
In an afternoon forum on race and the Church there were usually several people waiting in line at the microphone for their turn to speak. One white pastor said he was told by one of his parishioners that if a Negro ever “crosses the door of this church I’ll kill him.”
“Would a Negro church take white people?” someone asked. “Yes,” was the answer. “We won’t make a big ado over you—neither will the Negro church say, ‘We won’t accept him because he has ulterior motives.’ ”
On the subject of racial intermarriage, one white pastor said, “I grew up in integrated churches. Races don’t marry. People do.”
Following the forums the American Baptists heard two leaders of the non-violent civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Rev. Ralph B. Abernathy, confront the convention with the issues.
“If the Southern Baptist and the American Baptist churches ever take more than a pronouncement stand and come to an action stand, we might come to integrated churches,” said Dr. King. He told reporters that Baptists should provide “massive financial assistance” to the groups in the forefront of the civil rights battle, integrate all church facilities including hospitals, and see the need for participating in direct-action movements. He also said that ministers should do more to educate their parishioners on the subject.
Dr. King was given the first annual Edwin T. Dahlberg Peace Award, named after a former president of the convention.
The discussion on race took in one of three main convention themes (the others were “Peace With Justice” and “Christian Unity”), but it extended beyond the one day scheduled for it.
Dr. King addressed the convention twice during the second day, and civil rights kept creeping into Senator Hubert Humphrey’s speech on “Peacemaking and Peace Keeping.” Humphrey is leading the fight in the Senate to pass the civil rights bill.
Harold Stassen, this year’s convention president, called for cloture, if necessary, in order to end the stalling on the civil rights bill.
A resolution on race, passed unanimously, supported direct action and direct demonstrations, and urged churches to support civil rights legislation.
One American Baptist leader said that he believed the resolution should be more specific. However, it has been called the strongest in ABC history.
About 35 per cent of ABC churches responding to a recent poll said their congregations were integrated. However, only about the same proportion—35 per cent of all ABC churches—filled in and returned the questionnaire.
The convention passed a resolution reaffirming “our belief in the United Nations as an essential instrument toward the eventual creation of a world community of nations.” The resolution also supported the U.N.’s “peacemaking forces,” urged the speeding up of disarmament, and recommended opening “more channels of communication” with China.
Dr. J. Lester Hamish, well-known evangelical pastor at the First Baptist Church of Portland, Oregon, was elected president for a one-year term.
Southern Baptist Convention
A deeply divided Southern Baptist Convention rubber-stamped most budgetary and promotional suggestions of its leaders but shied away from any meaningful statement on the race issue and voted down proposed continuation of a five-year fellowship-type arrangement which was climaxed later in the week in a great “Jubilee Advance Celebration” with six other North American Baptist bodies.
Less than half the 13,000 registered “messengers” took part in the two major decisions, but they probably were a good cross-section of the “mass meeting” type of deliberative assembly which is impossible—on paper—but which works anyway, to the point of having proved no hindrance to the convention’s becoming the largest evangelical communion in America.
The new president of the 10,300,000-member SBC is Dr. W. Wayne Dehoney, pastor of the First Baptist Church of the Mississippi Valley city of Jackson, Tennessee, and immediate past president of the Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference. Dehoney’s theological and social action position is considered to be almost at dead center, halfway between his predecessor, Houston’s Dr. K. Owen White, who leans slightly to the right, and his chief rival for the post, Richmond’s Dr. Theodore F. Adams, who leans slightly to the left.
Twelve men were nominated for convention president in a wide, surprise race (White could have had another term, but announced only days ago that his health would not permit continuation in the exacting position). In the runoff between Dehoney and Adams, the Tennessean won by a vote of 4,024 to 3,223.
At a press conference, Dehoney said he would not favor any “prayer amendment” change in the Constitution because he didn’t know who would write it. He ascribed the current conflict over school devotions to a “misunderstanding” of the Supreme Court’s actions. The new president blamed himself and other convention executive-committee members for the defeat of the proposal for a North American Baptist Fellowship. “We did not adequately express the nature of this vehicle,” he explained, and “Baptists are afraid of a superstructure.” He attributed the 2,771-to-2,738 defeat of the proposal to lack of clarity in definitions and poor timing.
The runner-up in the presidential race, Adams, was the floor leader for the defeated “fellowship” proposal and may have suffered from a backlash of sentiment, as well as from his ecumenical leanings as former president of the Baptist World Alliance and his close ties with American Baptists and other communions holding membership in ecumenical organizations.
Some opponents of the “fellowship” expressed fears of involvement with theological liberalism and “social gospel” extremism. Adams, a quiet man, fairly shouted his disagreement during the heated, 90-minute debate on the issue: “It’s not a matter of doctrine, it’s not a matter of unity, it’s a matter of fellowship.” Later he pleaded with his fellow-churchmen not to say, in effect, that “we’ve had fellowship for 150 years, but we’re going to pick up our marbles now, go home and think about it, and then maybe have fellowship with you other Baptists next year.”
The next day, the convention partially reconsidered and decided, indeed, to think about the matter for a year, through the medium of a study committee, and have another go at the issue next year in Dallas.
Over the weekend, Adams presided over the climax of the fellowship-oriented Jubilee Advance which has linked seven Baptist conventions since 1959. The celebration included a star-studded program (ex-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker of Canada, church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette, Baptist World Alliance President John Soren of Brazil, and Billy Graham).
A sense of history and glorious (or tragic) portent hung heavy over the debate and decision on the urgent race question. Missionaries and pastors saw the future as cause for alarm and foreboding unless Southern Baptists break their “thunderous silence” on the issue that has turned America’s streets and college campuses into parading grounds and police-dogged arenas. Others, harking to the drums of prejudice and massive misunderstanding among their people, foresaw only disruption and a crippling pocketbook strike and/or a massive membership exodus if the racial issue is pushed too hard too soon.
A hard-hitting report from the convention’s Christian Life Commission drew the battle lines. Calling for a victorious confrontation of the immorality of the age, the report ranged over “the barnyard morality of prominent movie stars, the sinister disregard for human life … on the highways, the callous rejection of the worth of human personality through the general ignoring of the Surgeon General’s report on cigarette smoking and cancer, the unconscionable invasion of the American home by the liquor industry, the bribed athlete, the disintegrating family, the high school girl in trouble, the corrupt labor leader, the big business price-fixer, the expense account chiseler … the dope addict … the distortions of hate-mongers, and the sabrerattling of an awesome military-industrial complex.”
Messengers found little fault with wide-ranging recommendations to confront these malignant evils with “a Christlike concern over anything and everything that warps human life or stunts God’s creatures” and a call for “a clear and pressing imperative to prophetic witness.” There was a minor dulling of the cutting edge of the call for the abolition of capital punishment as an affront to the spirit of the New Testament and a practical failure. Then came a major explosion over the commission’s forthright summons to involvement in community race relations.
Specifically, the Christian Life Commission asked Southern Baptists to commend institutions that have desegregated their ministries, to approve the “positive action taken by hundreds of Southern Baptist churches in affirming an open-door policy …,” to express gratitude to individuals and churches who are involved redemptively in race relations, to pledge support for “laws to guarantee the legal rights of Negroes in our democracy and to go beyond these laws by practicing Christian love and reconciliation …,” and to “give themselves to the decisive defeat of racism.”
A prominent Louisiana pastor, James Middleton, moved to strike the entire section and substitute a statement expressing full cognizance of the world situation in human relations and its effect on the worldwide Christian witness; recognizing the responsibility for so living and acting as to effect Christian solutions; reminding that Southern Baptists have spoken and have (at least to a degree) extended their ministries to all races; recognizing “the dignity of every human being as God’s creation” with a God-given right to full realization of his every capability; and calling for prayerful work for peaceful solutions on the local level, where alone “final” solutions can be found.
Middleton’s substitute motion was approved via secret ballot. One report said the margin of approval was about 800 votes.
Portals And Portents
Behold, I have set before thee an open
door, and no man can shut it.—Rev. 3:8
The first Christian convert in Sinak Valley was a small man with stooped shoulders and a gray beard. Missionaries called him Tile-bu. They had preached to his tribe for two years without apparent success. The breakthrough came one day in January, 1961, when during a tribal festival the dark-skinned Tile-bu dramatically set fire to his fetishes in the front yard of his grass-covered hut. Neighbors warned that such effrontery before the evil spirits would cost him a blight on his pigs and sweet potatoes. But in the ensuing days and months Tile-bu, in his primitive way, spearheaded the evangelization of his tribe. Today there are nearly a thousand baptized Christians in the Sinak Valley of West Irian.
Accounts like these encourage even a denomination like the Christian and Missionary Alliance, which has one foreign missionary for every eighty-three church members in North America. And at the CMA’s sixty-seventh annual General Council in Columbus, Ohio, last month, such reports gave special meaning to the council theme, “Behold, an open door.”
“The overseas work of the CMA,” said the Rev. Louis L. King, foreign secretary, “enjoyed a year of marked prosperity in 1963.” Despite chronic political turbulence in key fields, not one of the 871 active CMA missionaries was obliged to leave his post.
Especially precarious is the situation in Southeast Asia, where more than half of all CMA missionaries are assigned. Even as the 1,042 council delegates met, pro-Communist Pathet Lao forces launched a major offensive in Laos.
But the CMA version of the open door policy tolerates no let-up in effort. Dr. Nathan Bailey, a seemingly indefatigable president, stresses that “only as our home base is consolidated and enlarged can we hope for advance in our work abroad.” He urges the constituency to strive for a 10 per cent annual rate of growth. Also to be overcome is a problem of recruitment now being felt by many missionary boards.
Focal point of interest at this year’s council sessions was a proposed doctrinal statement, the most explicit and detailed in the 77-year CMA history. Debate on the 832-word creed was delayed until next year.
Dr. Kenneth C. Fraser, vice-president, announced plans for a Christian retiral community and conference center on a seventy-one-acre waterfront tract near Ft. Myers, Florida. Scheduled to be built over a five-year period are: accommodations for 600 senior citizens, a 2,000-seat auditorium, a 50-unit motel, swimming pools, and a golf course. An adjacent 450-acre area is being reserved for a private housing development for Christian families.
What of the portals of the future? Will the CMA be willing to regroup to confront effectively what council guest J. Sidlow Baxter called the “sophisticated obstinacy” of the domestic front?
The thatched-roof chapel in West Irian’s Sinak Valley still attracts naked witch doctors, but a storefront mission in Pennsylvania’s Beaver Valley retains little appeal for anyone. There are hopeful signs that the CMA constituency with its pioneering missionary spirit may be willing to move with a changing society. Tomorrow’s doors invite experimentation in proclaiming the Gospel at resorts, in high-rise apartment chapels, and through new means.
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