Cecil Sherman, longtime leader of moderate Southern Baptists and founding coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, died April 17 in Virginia from complications of a heart attack.
Sherman suffered a massive heart attack April 15 and died two days later at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond, Va. He was 82.
A worship service celebrating his life will be held in the afternoon April 20 at River Road Church in Richmond, Va., a Baptist congregation affiliated with the Baptist General Association of Virginia and CBF.
A second service will follow at First Baptist Church of Asheville, N.C., on April 23.
Born Dec. 26, 1927, Sherman was a native of Fort Worth, Texas. He graduated from Baylor University in Waco, Texas; Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas; and Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J.
Sherman was a pastor of several churches in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas.
As the fundamentalist leadership began a takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979, Sherman was among those who recognized the threat and rallied moderates to oppose fundamentalism.
In 1985, Sherman was named to the SBC Peace Committee, an effort to resolve the conflict between fundamentalists and moderates. He later resigned in frustration from the committee in part because the presidents of the moderate-controlled, SBC seminaries were too willing to compromise with fundamentalists, and also because of the lack of strong leadership of other moderate committee members.
In 1991, he helped to launch CBF and became its first coordinator in April 1992. Sherman was the third CBF staff member in the Atlanta office.
Under his leadership, the organization grew from a budget of $4.5 million with 391 affiliated churches to an almost $15 million budget with some 1,500 affiliated churches. At the time of his retirement in June 1996, CBF had a staff of 25 and more than 100 missionaries, reported Associated Baptist Press.
“Cecil presided over the nascent Fellowship with the utmost integrity and with an enormous life-wish for the organization,” said Clarissa Strickland, CBF’s networking specialist, who was one of the two office employees when Sherman joined the staff.
Strickland said, “Cecil was unstinting in his willingness to spend his energies as he traveled throughout our constituency, building the base of CBF during those early years.”
Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, said, “Cecil was stubborn, opinionated and blunt, the kind of leader that moderate Baptists needed to start an organization out of an anxiety-ridden group too often afraid to take a stand for the common good. Without Cecil’s straight-shooting, hard work and network, CBF would never have been birthed.”
Parham noted that Sherman “was seldom in doubt and rarely wrong about denominational politics.”
After retiring from CBF, Sherman moved to Richmond, Va., where he taught at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.
His wife Dorothy “Dot” Hair died in August 2008, a few days after he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.
Sherman’s younger brother, Bill Sherman, was a founding director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Both Shermans were among the few white, Southern Baptist pastors who supported publicly and in their pulpits race relations in the 1960s.
A frequent attendee and occasional speaker at the annual seminars of the SBC’s Christian Life Commission, the denomination’s ethics education agency, Sherman recalled in 1985 the racial integration of the First Baptist Church of Asheville, where he was the new pastor.
He noted that 62 percent of the church members voted to change the church rules to allow a black woman to join the church.
“In that church at that time five of eight people were willing to open the church and make a Bible statement rather than a cultural statement,” said Sherman. “People are more open to [the] gospel than we give them credit for.”
In a biting speech at the CLC’s 1975 annual seminar, Sherman said that his experiences in denominational life “damaged” his innocence.
“Sometimes I have thought that I could do more to feed the hungry if I gave to CARE rather than to our own Foreign Mission Board [now the International Mission Board of the SBC],” said Sherman. “I have often wondered just what some of our colleges do to justify the use of tithe money. And then I am small enough to say out loud that I question the salaries of some of our denominational employees. I question the salaries because I know what the parties make.”
Challenging denominational leaders to “quiet the arrogance of secrecy” and “use God-talk sparingly,” Sherman said, “God-talk is too often a cheap way to sway a mass. In fact, you get your way by declaring that your way is God’s way. This is close to blasphemy.”
Carla Wynn Davis, news writer for CBF Communications, and EthicsDaily.com staff contributed to this story.