The coordinator of a New Baptist Covenant celebration views the meeting scheduled in early 2008 as “a golden moment” to move Baptists in North America forward together, overcoming racial and doctrinal differences in a “Luke 4 agenda.”
Jimmy Allen, a Baptist statesman who turns 80 this year, said in a Thursday interview with EthicsDaily.com that vision predates controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention that pitted progressives against fundamentalists beginning in 1979.
Allen directed the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas from 1960 to 1968. After being elected president of the BGCT, while serving as pastor of First Baptist Church in San Antonio, he said he desired to continue work on racial issues he had been engaged in while at the CLC.
Presidents of the various Baptist conventions in Texas met together, Allen said, to discuss an historic joint gathering. Each of the conventions had already made arrangements for the next year’s meeting–the BGCT was scheduled in Amarillo–but all agreed to move their 1971 convention site to Houston.
A simultaneous convention rally Oct. 27, 1971, in the Astrodome drew six Baptist conventions, organizations representing about 90 percent of the state’s Baptists. Highlights of the meeting included the first public testimony by astronaut Jim Irwin after returning from the moon.
While it was a “big, historic event–the first of its kind anywhere,” Allen said: “We didn’t put a network behind it. It was a step toward the days when we would have racial inclusion.”
Later, Allen was president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979, when a Bold Mission Thrust rally drew 50,000 people to Houston and the Mission Service Corps was launched. (Bold Mission Thrust was a plan for spreading the gospel around the world in the last two decades of the 20th century. Mission Service Corps is a task force of self-supporting missionaries who serve full- or part-time for four months or longer on assignment from the North American Mission Board.)
Allen said he thought “we were really on the right track” in 1979 toward moving forward in positive ways in interracial cooperation, but Southern Baptists got sidetracked.
“We lost our way, because that very time was the time we shifted the agenda to seizing control,” he said. “We had a shift of agenda in Southern Baptist life to doctrinal interpretations and shutting out those who disagree and fighting over details of our doctrine. It was a power agenda.”
The year 1979 is generally regarded the beginning of the “conservative resurgence” in Southern Baptist life. That is when Houston layman Paul Pressler and theologian Paige Patterson launched a strategy for excising “liberalism” from the SBC by rallying voters to attend the convention and elect fundamentalist presidents committed to using their appointive power to replace majorities of the denomination’s boards of trustees with like-minded individuals. The power struggle went on for a decade, until moderates disengaged in 1990 and a year later formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a quasi-denomination that appoints missionaries and provides partial support for theology schools and other partner organizations, including the BaptistCenter for Ethics.
Much of the media attention to a recent press conference featuring former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton announcing next year’s multi-Baptist gathering has focused on that rift, but Allen said he believes it is bigger than that.
Baptists “continued making progress on racial issues here and there” over the years, he said, “but the idea of putting our efforts into a common enterprise was lost in those 25 years. I see us coming back to our agenda in this new move.”
“It’s a golden moment to come back to our original agenda,” Allen said, which he defined as Jesus’ message in Luke 4 to “bring glad tidings to the poor … proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”
“It moves from conflict to cooperation on things we do agree on,” he said. “It’s kind of a golden moment, as I see, to get back to those issues. That just leaves the conflict behind. I think it has tremendous potential.”
Allen said planners of the meeting don’t want a new convention or bureaucracy. “We do want an opportunity to do with each other what we’ve been doing separately.”
Allen said new technologies in information gathering opens up new avenues that didn’t previously exist to find ways to work together “while not giving up any turf.”
“I think the possibilities are endless,” he said. “My hope is we will keep our eye on the real goal.”
“With this kind of initiative, there is just tremendous possibility,” Allen said. “Everything that has great possibility has risk and possible failure. We’re doing our best to move and shift our gears toward a positive agenda.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.