It’s no secret that the 2021 SBC Meeting in Nashville will have a focus on events that happened at the last meeting in Birmingham. There will (probably) be attempts to turn over Resolution 9, which has caused much discussion in Baptist circles since then. I will make no tries to predict the future, but I do think we can learn something from Birmingham.
But for our lesson we need to go back a little farther than 2019, to the first time the Annual Meeting was held in Birmingham in 1891. Baptists were not always keen on the idea of having their own publishing arm. Several times this idea had been brought before the convention, and several times it had been shut down. But the idea was going to come up again, this time in Fort Worth at the 1890 annual meeting. J.M. Frost had made public through the papers that he was going to offer some resolutions at the next convention and request they be referred to a special committee. Specifically he was requesting for a board of publication of the southern Baptist convention. As Jimmy Draper notes in his great book Lifeway Legacy “an issue that had simmered hot and cold for years once more became a prime topic of conversation and conjecture for Baptist throughout the south.” There was not much discussion over his resolution and the matter was referred to a committee of one from each state represented in the convention. Frost was appointed chairman and a dozen other men filled it out, and they were appointed to make a recommendation in Birmingham.
It quickly became clear to Frost that the committee would never agree to planning a new board. They came up with a compromise to study the issue some more, and the SBC prepared for a bigger than ever crowd in Birmingham. In Birmingham the committee was again appointed, this time to make a recommendation the next Monday.
The committee appointed Frost and JB Gambrell as a subcommittee to work out the differences and submit a unified recommendation. They represented opposing sides of the issue, but both knew that this was an important step for the convention. Draper wrote “at the end of a long day Gambrell proposed that Frost write the report if he himself could write the last paragraph. Frost agreed on the condition that Frost be allowed to add a final sentence.”
The anticipation rose as the time for the report to the convention at whole approached. It said that there was hardly a space in Birmingham big enough to hold them. Thousands of people crowded in the auditorium. People crammed in for standing room only, opened the windows and stood outside, even crowded 300 people onto the stage, just any where they could be so they could witness this report.
Frost himself couldn’t even get into the theater. He had a passerby on the sidewalk lift him through the window, and then he worked his way to the front. He arrived there just before it was time for him to make his report. He read his report to a packed house, and when he finished there was a strange calm in the room. everyone expected a wild debate on the issue, that was most of the reason so many people had come. Now that Frost had read the report from the committee, he was allowed to make remarks of his own. Before he had pulled out his copy of his prepared statements, without warning someone stepped between him and the convention president, Judge Jonathan Haralson.
A hush fell over the room as everyone realized who it was. The 64-year-old man with the beard was recognized by everyone familiar with the denomination. It was Dr. John Broadus, the founder and president of the Southern Baptist theological seminary, and a long time proponent of an independent Sunday school board. At this time he had no official position in the convention, but was one of the most widely known and respected men in the room. No one else could have taken the platform and commanded the respect that he did.
After making a remark about the disagreement over the board, Broadus closed his statement this way.
“People of come here feeling that there is to be excitement in a heated debate. I hope that they will be disappointed. Orders have been issued for full reports of the discussion. I hope there will be nothing to report. I shall be happy if no hot words are said. If anyone says anything about sectionalism he will regret it and, after he has said it, he will wish that he had not done so. Never in my life did I so much wish to make a speech, but I will not speak.”
Draper reports that the next thing to happen was the last thing that anyone expected in that room: complete silence. In Frost words, Broadus had “put a lid on a volcano,” doing “what few men do once , but perhaps no man will try a second time” in “a sublime moment of heroism and faith. It was masterful in the noblest sense.“ Soon the silence was broken by people from the crowd calling for the question. The floor was ready to call the question and vote on the committee report with no debate at all. Judge Haralson called for the vote, and out of the many hundreds who responded there were only 13 no votes. It was said that upon hearing the vote, Dr. Broadus slumped back in his chair crying unashamed, both relieved and overcome.
Of course the Sunday school board was formed at that meeting, and still does great ministry among Southern Baptist’s today. But part of what made that possible was people coming together to come to a solution. The stakes feel much higher today than just adding an SBC entity, as high as those might have been. As we approach Nashville next week it feels like the very fabric of our convention is being pulled to it’s limit, threatening to tear in half. The tie that binds us doesn’t seem so strong any more. As Trevin Wax deftly pointed out, Southern Baptists have to decide if we are bound by our doctrine or our cooperation. It seems that that this convention will go a long ways towards finding out that answer.
But if we go back to Birmingham, we can learn a few lessons that will benefit us in Nashville. Much like the topics that we will discuss next week, the topic of the Sunday School Board had been simmering for quite some time. There were passionate believers on both sides and both claimed to have theological basis and pragmatism on their side, much like many of our arguments today. I can already hear people yelling that the issues before us now are more important than where we get our Sunday School material from. But the principles of cooperation, ego, and humility do still apply today. More than that, the story of the formation of Lifeway demonstrates the importance of godly and humble leadership. Thankfully the leaders there were not willing to fight or tear apart the denomination just to get their way. The problem with electing fighters to leadership is that they always need a battle ground and an enemy. If we elect leaders who are always looking for a fight we shouldn’t be surprised when fights break out.
Thankfully that year in Birmingham they had leaders who were not looking to fight or make enemies, but to work together for the salvation of the nations. Birmingham in 1891 demonstrated that strong leadership makes a difference. That cuts both ways of course, for good and evil. Those determined to cover up evil will find a way to do so. But those who are determined to cooperate, to work together for the spread of the gospel and the glory of God will find a way to do so. Even if that means putting themselves and their ego’s to the side in order to put Christ first. People came to the meeting that year expecting a fight, looking to make their voice heard. But the leadership was not going to let that happen. Frost himself demonstrated humility when he first declined the presidency of the new entity he had helped create. He was not seeking after power or control, simply what was best for the convention.
Of course we need to make sure we don’t put those leaders on a pedestal either. Broadus owned slaves and supported the confederacy, but was still an influential leader in Baptist life. The problem with putting leaders on pedestals is that we only see them from one side. But we can learn from Birmingham that godly leadership makes a difference. When we vote for President and elect trustees we need to remember to elect leaders who are willing to do the hard things, to shine lights on the dark places so that they can be cleaned up. We need to elect leaders who are willing to put others ahead of their own interests, to be willing to lay down power and not always be looking to take it up.
The Souther Baptist Convention needs leaders who lead like Christ. That means standing for the truth and against sin. And that also means caring for the vulnerable, the abused, and the downtrodden. Leading like Christ means being a voice for those who are overlooked and being willing to call out sin even in the highest places. It means standing firm against evil in all it’s forms. We must elect leaders who are not just broken over other peoples sin but broken over their own sin too, and are wiling to do hard things to make it right.
The stakes are much higher this year than in Birmingham in 1891. It feels in many ways like the stakes have never been higher. When we elect leaders in Nashville, elect those who will lead like Christ. Elect those who will put others first, stand firm in the truth, and protect the hurting and vulnerable.
Elect those who aren’t looking for a fight or to divide, but those who want to unite us around who we can be. By Gods grace we can come out of Nashville more united than ever. But it will take all of us looking to put Christ first, not ourselves or our own interests. If we elect leaders like that, God will be glorified in all we do.