The 2021 Presidential election of the Southern Baptist Convention looks to be one of the most contested in recent history. But I think we all would do well to remember the history of the position, how elections were handled, and why it mattered.
The SBC President is the man who represents, in some part, the SBC to the country at large. He serves as an unofficial face for the SBC and is often asked to preach at various events as part of that role. But the President is more than ceremonial.
In their book SBC FAQs by Keith Harper and Amy Whitfield they answer the question, “What does the Southern Baptist Convention president do? The book very thoroughly goes through what the president does, but to summarize it quickly:
- The president appoints a number of groups to serve at the annual meeting: a Committee on Committees, a Committee on Resolutions, a Credentials Committee, a group of tellers, a team of convention parliamentarians.
- The president presides over the meeting itself.
- The president serves on a number of boards and committees by virtue of his position.
This might not seem much, but the President can have a large influence on the whole of the Southern Baptist Convention by the committees that he appoints, particularly the committee on committees. That committee helps appoint trustees at all the SBC entities, who in turn help elect presidents of those institutions, and also help guide the entity. This system was the backbone of the Conservative Resurgence, an effort to guide the SBC back to belief in Biblical Inerrancy. During those years the presidential election was highly contested every year, in part for these reasons.
So this year the election will determine who gets to appoint those committees for next year, in part. Every SBC meeting has an election, as terms are only for one year, but generally, those elected serve two years. Bylaws state that they can’t serve more than those two years. Unless there is a pandemic, as we recently found out.
Most of those who read this blog will be familiar with the system we have now, but it has been different in the past. Prior to 1932 presidents were elected and then served that same year. That was the first year that a president was elected to begin serving the next year. In fact, in 1932 there were two presidential elections. William McGlothin was elected at the beginning to serve at the 32 meeting, and then Fred Brown was elected at the end to serve at the 1933 meeting.
And there hasn’t always been a term limit of two years. From 1845-1900, a time of 55 years, there were only 6 presidents. One man served one year, JP Boyce, but others served 5 6, 7, or 8 years. One man, Jonathon Harralson, served 10 years!
As we come into the modern era, a limit of two years was made as an amendment at the SBC annual meeting. This was actually pretty highly debated for several years at the annual meeting in the 1960s until they finally came to an agreement over the term limit
The only official qualification required of Convention officers is that they be “members of Baptist churches cooperating with the convention.” In most recent memory the SBC President has been a pastor, but that is not always the case. As recently as 1998 Paige Patterson was elected while he was president at Southeastern Seminary. Other seminary heads to serve as President include J.P. Boyce, E.Y. Mullins, L.R. Scarborough, J.R. Sampey, William Hamilton from NOBTS, and Pat Neff who was president at Baylor at the time.
Many laymen have also served as president, especially in the early years. Patrick Mell was Chancellor of the University of Georgia, and one man, James Philip Eagle, was the governor of Arkansas, President of AR Baptists, and president of the SBC all at the same time! The last layman elected president was Lawrence Owen Cooper of Mississippi. He was nominated by a former employee of his, the infamous Jerry Clower. Sadly I know of no video of that speech that exists. But I don’t doubt it was one of the better nomination speeches of all time.
There has never been a woman serve as president of SBC, although there is nothing that says it couldn’t happen. In 1963 Mrs. R.L. Matthis, president of the WMU was elected second Vice President and became the first woman to preside over the SBC Meeting. Mrs. Carl Bates was elected 2nd VP in 1976, and Mrs. Matthis was nominated for president in the 1972 meeting. There are almost as many stories to tell about the elections as there have been elections themselves. In 2008 there was a total of six candidates, with Johnny Hunt finally winning. Some elections were highly contested and tense, and others have been little more than a formality. At the height of the Conservative Resurgence, Winifred Moore lost with over 19k votes. Other presidents have won with fewer than 2k votes. And of course, only Baptists could have no one garner 50% of the vote when only two people were running.
Voting has gotten down to fine science over the years, although has not always been the case.
The following is from HH Hobbs, the famous SBC pastor, author, and statesman.
“Back in 1961 when I was elected president of the convention, after nominations ceased each messenger tore off a piece of any available paper, wrote a name on it, and dropped it in a basket. If a non-messenger chose to do so, no one but himself and God would know it. “
All of that history to say, the requirements are quite simple. Almost anyone from a church could be nominated, and in fact they could be when nominations open from the floor in Nashville. We have four candidates announced for the 2021 convention, but more can come from the floor. There are plethora of resources, Baptist Press articles, op-eds, Facebook groups, and more with information on the candidates for 2021. Make sure and seek those out to make informed decisions.
Make plans to be there and cast your vote if you are able. The beauty of being a Baptist is that those who show up are those who make the decisions.
SBC President Trivia
Which state has the largest representation of elected SBC Presidents?
TEXAS 12, Georgia 9, and Tennessee 8
Which Churches have had multiple pastors serve?
Bellvue Baptist – RG Lee, Willam Ramsey Pollard, Adrian Rogers, and Steve Gaines
FBC Dallas – Truett, Criswell
FSBC Del City – Bailey Smith and Tom Elliff
FBC Charlotte- CC Warren and CE Bates
Four other SBC Presidents served as Entity heads, thought not at same time. James Sullivan of the BSSB, Jimmy Allen of Radio and Television Commission, Jimmy Draper of LifeWay, and Tom Elliff of the IMB.