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1913 Southern Baptist Convention’s long reach: missions, social concerns, cooperation

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Originally posted June 4, 2013.

MAYFIELD, Ky. (BP) — One hundred years ago Southern Baptists met in St. Louis to conduct their business. Surprisingly, this particular convention would extend a long reach into the future of both the convention and even the nation at large. With the exceptions of 1845 and 1979, few SBC annual meetings produced the long reach that this one possessed.

Because of the importance of this particular convention, this article could be expanded into a work of some length. Each one of the following sub-components could be a separate work. Nevertheless, both time and space constraints dictate that only the highlights of the 1913 convention be summarized in this piece:

Death of Lottie Moon and her impact on international missions

It was the 1913 convention when the death of Lottie Moon was reported. Her life and mission in China were examined at length or in passing in three different sections of the 1913 Annual. The Annual read: “Miss Lottie Moon, a queenly saint among missionaries, passed to her reward on the 24th of December 1912.” Moon’s inspiring example of a lifetime spent serving in missions continued to be honored by Southern Baptist leaders and prompted the Woman’s Missionary Union to rename their Christmas offering taken up to support foreign missions “the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering” in 1918. Since that time Southern Baptists have contributed more than $1.5 billion to International missions in her name.

From the Social Service Commission to the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission

In the 1913 Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Baptists saw the need for addressing various social concerns and causes in a more systematic fashion than had been done in the past. A committee was authorized and appointed as the Social Service Commission (SSC). In 1914 this committee gave its first full report to the convention. For a number of years, the committee remained as a standing committee of the convention, but it eventually became a convention entity and was renamed the Christian Life Commission (CLC) in 1953. Under the leadership of Dr. Richard Land, the CLC became a strong voice for biblically-based values and took its present name in 1997 as the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. On June 1 of this year, Dr. Russell Moore assumed the mantle of leadership for the ERLC, inheriting a 100-year legacy of addressing social, ethical and religious liberty concerns and causes that can be traced back to the 1913 convention.

The road to the formation of the Executive Committee and the birth of the Cooperative Program

The 1913 Annual in various places notes the tension in Southern Baptist life in the early 20th century — the mission to evangelize both America and the world for Christ, but concern about how to organize and fund these Great Commission activities. In addition, the SBC by this time was managing an unwieldy proliferation of committees to fill and operate. These multiple tensions prompted the convention in 1913 to form the first of many committees between 1913-1925 to study these concerns and make recommendations. A 1913 resolution authorized the appointment of seven men to study the convention organization. Reporting back to the convention in 1914, this multi-year undertaking eventually led the convention to approve the formation of the Executive Committee (EC) in 1917. The EC was charged with managing many aspects of the convention once allotted to various committees. Eventually the EC was authorized to act for the convention when it was out of session. The birth of the EC became the primary accomplishment of SBC reorganization efforts in the aftermath of the 1913 convention.

Nevertheless, funding concerns remained and these concerns continued even after reorganization efforts during this period. The Annuals of this period noted the same funding concerns that the 1913 convention detailed. Therefore, the 1919 convention inaugurated the “75 Million Dollar Campaign” that ambitiously sought to raise that amount in the five-year 1919-1924 time frame. Although unprecedented funds were raised, the convention fell short of its goal by about $16 million. While still in this campaign, the convention in 1920 appointed yet another committee to make recommendations for a permanent means of funding convention work. Launched in 1925, the Cooperative Program (CP) provided for both state conventions and Southern Baptist entities to share the revenues collected from the various Southern Baptist churches. Although early financial success with the CP eluded Southern Baptists, the CP over time funded a major portion of the budgets of Southern Baptist entities and mission work. Indirectly, the institution of the CP owed its existence to the 1913 convention.

Recognition of the vital work of the WMU

The WMU, organized in 1888 and experiencing its 25th anniversary in 1913 as an important auxiliary of the convention, finally achieved some important recognition at the St. Louis convention. For years the convention had noted the importance of the WMU Christmas offering for funding missions, but the 1913 convention conceded some important milestones for the organization. The Annual noted in the report of the Foreign Mission Board, “It is worthy of note that while the contributions of the past year have fallen off, the offerings of the WMU have increased over last year more than eleven thousand dollars. Our women are to be commended for their activity … and their progress in systematic benevolence.”

A grateful convention also began turning its gratitude into important concessions for the Baptist women’s organization. For the first time in the history of Southern Baptists, the convention allowed Kathleen Mallory (WMU corresponding secretary) and Fannie Heck (WMU president) to submit a formal written report to the convention. Given special badges for the submission of the report to the convention, the ladies commented on the work of the WMU and its impact on missions as a whole. In a further concession, the Annual also noted that WMU representatives would be allowed to interview all unmarried women candidates for the mission field. These recognitions highlighted the special relationship that the WMU had fostered with the SBC in the early 20th century. This relationship endures to the present day as the WMU celebrates its 125th year of service.

Southern Baptists and race relations

It was thought that Southern Baptists possessed a poor record in race relations during this period, and such evidence certainly existed, but you would not have gathered that from the 1913 Annual. The 1913 St. Louis convention signaled the beginning of some hopeful signs in the relationship between white Southern Baptists and the African American community. For instance, the Annual noted the distaste that many Southern Baptists expressed for the lynchings of southern blacks. In fact, Southern Baptist resolutions against lynchings go back to 1906 and continued through the 1930s. The Home Mission Board report also noted a concern for African Americans beyond just evangelizing them: “There is a growing conviction on the part of our board and among many of our most thoughtful Baptists that we ought to find ways of doing a larger work for the welfare of this race at our doors.”

Other accomplishments in Southern Baptist race relations in the 1913 convention also were reported in the Annual. Like previous years before 1913, representatives of the National Baptists (the largest African American Baptist organization then and now) addressed the assembled messengers. The Annual also noted its cooperation with National Baptists and a resolution was passed to form a committee to study helping to fund a seminary for African Americans. Reporting back in 1914, the committee promised to help fund such a seminary, but the report also noted that National Baptists would possess control of the seminary. This began a long history of Southern Baptists providing direct and indirect funding for African American seminary education. In addition, the Home Mission Board report mentioned that the board maintained a staff of 40 full-time and part-time “Negro missionaries and a Negro evangelist” to evangelize African Americans. These efforts by the 1913 convention sowed the seeds for a better relationship between Southern Baptists and the black community.

From temperance to prohibition

Southern Baptists before 1913 both opposed and promoted particular social causes, but in the year that Southern Baptists authorized the SSC to address social causes in general, a couple of resolutions specifically addressed these concerns. A resolution in 1913 expressed support for the Anti-Saloon League in their struggle for a nationwide ban on the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcohol. SBC resolutions opposing alcohol in some form or another date back to 1886, but the 1913 convention specifically added its voice beyond temperance to support the full-fledged nationwide prohibition campaign sought by the Anti-Saloon League. Southern Baptists saw the fruits of their many resolutions with the enactment of the Volstead Act (1919) and the 18th Amendment (1920). Although prohibition was eventually repealed by the 21st Amendment (1933), Southern Baptists continued to issue anti-alcohol resolutions through 2006.


Even this relatively short account of the 1913 convention does not exhaust the importance to Southern Baptist life that the St. Louis convention engendered. Today much of the identity of the Southern Baptist Convention (“Lottie Moon Offering,” the CP, ERLC, etc.) traces its genesis either directly or indirectly to the 1913 convention. The St. Louis convention strengthened moves in convention life that originated before it and gave birth to new undertakings that continued long after the meeting adjourned. One could argue that its reach extends to this very day in Southern Baptist life.
Stephen Douglas Wilson is dean emeritus and chair of the history department of Mid-Continent University in Mayfield, Ky., and a member of the SBC Executive Committee. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Stephen Douglas Wilson