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Chaplains recall pre-war birth of Southern Baptist endorsing body

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–It was months before the Pearl Harbor attack, but American military forces were rebuilding — and increasing numbers of chaplains were needed. That prompted the Southern Baptist Convention in 1941 to authorize its then-Home Mission Board to form a Committee on Army and Navy Chaplains to endorse candidates for military chaplaincy.

Sixty-years later, Southern Baptist chaplains meeting in New Orleans June 11 celebrated the respected history of what is now known as the Southern Baptist Chaplains’ Commission — now operating under the auspices of the SBC North American Mission Board. The anniversary was the focus of the annual Southern Baptist Chaplains and Counselors in Ministry Convocation, held at First Baptist Church, New Orleans.

In a detailed history prepared for the occasion, Brig. Gen. James Spivey shared how the first “superintendent of camp work” — Alfred Carpenter, formerly pastor of First Baptist Church, Blyetheville, Ark. — set the stage for how Southern Baptists viewed chaplains and supported their work. Spivey is a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain who also serves as a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

“Carpenter not only believed in the chaplaincy; he also had a passion for evangelism and missions,” Spivey said. “To him, every chaplain was a missionary in uniform, an evangelist-at-large. From his first day on the job, he worked hard to show people in the churches that these chaplains were among their most effective missionaries, called to share the gospel where few other missionaries and still fewer pastors could go.”

The importance of chaplains was underscored by the overwhelming numbers of professions of faith reported by Southern Baptists chaplains during the war years,” Spivey said.

“By the end of the war, Southern Baptists chaplains reported 299,342 professions of faith and 1,037 men being called into the ministry. These conversions were 82 percent of those reported by the Home Mission Board for 1941-45,” he said.

The role of Southern Baptist chaplains continued to grow, and during the 1950s new categories of civilian chaplains were added as well. Today the chaplaincy evangelism team of the North American Mission Board has specialists working with chaplains in the military, healthcare, pastoral counseling, institutional, corporate, public safety and restorative justice fields.

Bob Vickers, current director of the chaplaincy evangelism team, and NAMB chaplaincy associates also examined some of the challenges of the future. Among those are increasing religious diversity, the accelerating rate of technological change and the need for providing effective ongoing training for Southern Baptist military chaplains.

“I look forward to what God has in store for us,” Vickers said.

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  • James Dotson