News Articles

Harold Bennett, dead at 78, led
Executive Committee from 1979-92

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Harold C. Bennett, president-treasurer of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee from 1979-92, died July 27 of pancreatic cancer at his Brentwood, Tenn., home near Nashville. He was 78.

“I love Southern Baptists. I love Jesus Christ,” Bennett said when he assumed the SBC leadership position in 1979. At his 1992 retirement dinner, he reiterated his love for the SBC — “my denomination.”

“I live for it,” Bennett, then 68, said. “I respect the convention. I have committed my life to the convention. I believe with all my heart … God is going to bless the work of our convention in the years yet ahead.”

Prior to his 13-plus years leading the Executive Committee, Bennett was executive secretary-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention from 1967-79; director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ missions division, 1965-67; secretary of the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) metropolitan missions department, 1962-65; and superintendent of new work of the Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources) Sunday School department, 1960-62.

Prior to his denominational service, Bennett had been a pastor, prison chaplain, short-term FBI clerk and Navy pilot.

It was during his World War II service, from 1943-45, that Bennett sensed a call to ministry that was “clear and urgent.” Stationed at Corpus Christi, Texas, at the time, he was alone in his room writing a letter to his mother when he felt an “inner, compelling, overwhelming call. It surprised me,” he recounted, “for I’d never thought of myself as a minister.”

Bennett was the fourth leader of the Executive Committee since its founding in 1917, succeeding Porter Routh, who served in the post, formerly called executive secretary-treasurer, for 28 years.

As president of the Executive Committee, Bennett was the group’s chief staff member in its role of coordinating SBC affairs between annual convention sessions (on matters not specifically assigned to other SBC entities); distributing and accounting for Southern Baptists’ giving through the Cooperative Program for national and international missions and ministries; and spearheading SBC public relations.

The Southern Baptist Convention grew from 13.2 million members to 15.2 million and from 35,404 churches to 38,221 during Bennett’s 1979-92 time frame, while the Cooperative Program budget soared from $75 million to $140 million, an 87 percent increase. The SBC Building in Nashville opened in 1983, an $8 million, seven-story facility.

And Southern Baptists’ Bold Mission Thrust, the effort launched in 1976 to stir Southern Baptists toward a key role in sharing the Gospel worldwide by the year 2000, helped the convention stay focused on missions during times when, otherwise, “we would have slipped back,” Bennett said, “instead of going forward.”

Morris H. Chapman, Bennett’s successor in 1992, said, “We are shocked and saddened by the passing of Dr. Bennett. We are taken aback by the suddenness of his home-going.

“As my predecessor, Harold Bennett was always ready to assist me when I had a question, and in the early days of my administration of the Executive Committee he was an invaluable mentor,” Chapman, who was SBC president from 1990-92, said. “He knew Southern Baptist Convention and Executive Committee work as well as anyone in the convention, and no one knew the constitution and bylaws better than he. During his retirement, he and Phyllis remained actively involved with the staff of the Executive Committee through social events. Our people looked forward to the opportunities for fellowship. We will miss him. He was a devoted Christian, a loyal Southern Baptist and a dear friend. We offer Phyllis and the children our heartfelt condolences and our prayers.”

James T. Draper Jr., president of LifeWay Christian Resources, said, “Harold Bennett has been a dear friend to me for the last 30 years and to Southern Baptists for even longer.

“His faithful service at LifeWay, as a state convention director and as president of the Executive Committee demonstrated his leadership and passion for Southern Baptists,” said Draper, who was president of the SBC from 1982-84. “He was an outstanding denominational leader and statesman and will be greatly missed.”

Bennett began his tenure at the Executive Committee three months before the SBC conservative resurgence began in 1979. Throughout the years of change, marked by controversy and more than a decade of divided votes in annual convention presidential elections, Bennett kept a steady course. “My commitment,” he said upon retiring, “has been to be fair and to work with all of our constituency.”

Bennett noted in a 1992 interview, “I have no hesitation at all to have in a committee meeting or a group meeting expressions of different opinions and positions. I see that as an opportunity to help committee members talk through various positions to the point where they come together in support of an idea or commendation.”

Draper, at the time of Bennett’s retirement, said he had received good counsel when he was SBC president from Bennett. “But he wouldn’t force it on me. He always made suggestions for me to consider,” Draper said. “I felt he wanted me to succeed. I think he viewed that as part of his job. I think most people will tell you he’s fair, [he’s] a very strong, positive, consistent leader and he’s good at what he does.”

Ernest Mosley, who worked with Bennett for several years as executive vice president of the Executive Committee, described Bennett upon his retirement as a “master of detail, ” one who had been “experientially equipped for the job” through various Baptist ministries he had led.

“The Executive Committee must act on full information,” Bennett said in the 1992 interview regarding his penchant for meticulous administrative work, “therefore detailed background statements are a necessity. To be effective, those background statements must contain past history and [must] present our position related to Baptist polity so that when the Executive Committee makes a decision, the members will be acting on full information. Then they can make the best and most intelligent decisions. … The future will either affirm us or judge us guilty of doing shoddy and poor work. Anybody who occupies this office must be careful in documenting all decisions that are made.”

A native of Asheville, N.C., Bennett was a graduate of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem and earned his master of divinity degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He was the recipient of several honorary doctorate degrees as well.

His pastorates were at Glen Royal Baptist Church in Wake Forest from 1948-51; Westpoint (Ky.) Baptist Church in 1952 and Beech Street Baptist Church in Texarkana, Ark., from 1955-60. He was assistant pastor at First Baptist Church in Shreveport, La., from 1953-55 and chaplain at the Kentucky State Reformatory at LaGrange and the Kentucky Woman’s Prison at Pewee Valley from 1951-53.

At his retirement dinner, a number of SBC leaders lauded Bennett’s service to the convention. H. Franklin Paschall, pastor of First Baptist Church in Nashville and a member of the search committee that had recommended Bennett for his Executive Committee post, said, “We wanted a man of impeccable character. … We wanted in this person one who knows and loves Southern Baptists.” Paschall credited Bennett with “fulfilling every dream and surpassing every expectation we had.”

He was listed in Who’s Who in America and various other publications profiling leaders from across the country.

Describing the work of a pastor as “God’s greatest and highest calling,” Bennett once said, “I really felt I would be a pastor all my life, because God had called me in a very special way to the ministry and I assumed all along that meant the pastorate.” But, he said, he chose to measure his ministry opportunities by a Bible passage he first heard as a boy in Asheville, Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”

Bennett is survived by his wife Phyllis; two sons, Jeffrey of Palm Harbor, Fla., and Scott of Charleston, S.C.; one daughter, Cynthia Howard of St. Petersburg, Fla.; and five grandchildren.

The funeral will be at 2 p.m. Wednesday, July 30, at First Baptist Church in Nashville.

Memorials may be made to the American Bible Society, 1865 Broadway, New York, NY 10023, and the Baptist World Alliance, 405 N. Washington St., Falls Church, VA 22046.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: HAROLD BENNETT, 1924-2003; THE BENNETTS; and HAROLD BENNETT.