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M.E. Dodd, CP originator, loved cooperative ministry

EDITOR’S NOTE: April 11 is Cooperative Program Sunday in the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–When the Southern Baptist Convention needed money for missions, it could always count on M.E. Dodd to champion the cause.

In 1919, for instance, an SBC committee planned to recommend that messengers to the denomination’s annual meeting launch a drive to raise $50 million. But before the committee could deliver its recommendation, Dodd preached a sermon to the convention on fulfilling the Great Commission.

“We have arrived at the moment in our history for which our forefathers toiled and sacrificed and prayed,” he said, “for which they suffered and bled and died. The Baptist hour of all the centuries has sounded. To waver now would be traitorous; to give up here would be a crime against all the martyred blood of the heroes of the past.”

Inspired at least in part by Dodd’s address, messengers raised the objective of the drive from $50 million to $75 million. It became known as the 75 Million Campaign, and the sermon as the $25 Million Sermon.

But that was only a small part of Dodd’s work for Southern Baptists. He went on to serve as SBC and Louisiana Baptist Convention president, chair the committee that recommended the establishment of the Cooperative Program and initiate the SBC Pastors’ Conference, serving as its president for 15 years. Earlier he was a member of the committee to launch the school that would later become New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

Dodd was born in 1878 in west Tennessee. After pastoring three churches in Kentucky between 1904 and 1912, he was called as pastor of First Baptist Church in Shreveport, La., where he served until his retirement in 1950. His work in Shreveport was interrupted briefly in 1927 when he pastored Temple Baptist Church in Los Angeles for seven months.

Spanning half a century, Dodd preached 18,000 sermons, baptized 7,000 converts and travelled some 500,000 miles to speak across the globe. That translated into an average of one sermon per day for his entire ministry.

Theologically he was a conservative who opposed Social Gospel advocates like Harry Emerson Fosdick and welcomed the label of fundamentalist.

His zeal for sacrificial Kingdom service may have originated from an experience he had in college supplying the pulpit at a Tennessee church. Though he hoped to pay living expenses with what the congregation paid him, the stipend proved inadequate to pay even his train fare home. So when he arrived back at the dorm, Dodd hurled his Bible to the floor and shouted, “I’m through!”

But confronted by a friend, he dropped to his knees, read the 23rd Psalm and repented. Then he vowed never again to let a desire for material things interfere with his service to God. Providentially, a member of the church sent him a considerable sum of money two days later. The experience impressed on Dodd the importance of trusting God for provision rather than demanding it from congregations.

The lesson apparently served him well in Shreveport, where he loved the people and saw God provide abundant ministry success. In his first year as pastor, Dodd made 1,500 pastoral visits by riding the street car and walking. The church was so impressed that it gave him a car the next year, which he used to double his visits. By 1922, First Baptist had grown so large that it built one of the largest church facilities in the world, featuring a 10-story tower, a 3,000-seat auditorium and the congregation’s own radio station.

As the church grew, Dodd’s popularity as a preacher did as well. Some pastorless churches listened to his radio broadcasts on Sunday mornings when they could not find anyone to fill their pulpits, and during the 1920s he became one of the first people in America to use an airplane to travel for speaking engagements.

Within the SBC, his preaching ability helped launch him into leadership positions, including the convention presidency between 1933 and 1935.

Dodd’s fame also led to meetings with numerous national and international celebrities. Among them was evangelist Billy Graham. When Shreveport hosted a Graham crusade in 1951, the crowd overflowed the city’s municipal auditorium, prompting Dodd to suggest that they move the services to a local football stadium. It marked the first time Graham held a campaign outdoors. According to Dodd’s granddaughter, Virginia Joyner, Graham credits Dodd with starting his career of stadium crusades.

Yet perhaps Dodd’s most famous legacy emerged from his service as chairman of the SBC’s Committee on Future Program in the mid-1920s. The committee’s goal was to build on the 75 Million Campaign and devise a way to fund the denomination’s work permanently. It recommended that churches commit a percentage of their total receipts each year to their state conventions. Those state conventions would then spend a portion of the money on local ministries and forward the remainder to the SBC.

The committee’s recommendation was adopted in 1925 and became known as the Cooperative Program.

For Dodd, the unified giving plan had personal as well as convention-wide ramifications. Before CP, he spent significant time fielding requests from various ministries that wanted First Baptist to sponsor them. After recounting a litany of Baptist causes that the congregation supported, Dodd wrote to one solicitor, “I do not see any possible way to wedge in anything else at the present time.”

With the establishment of CP, however, he was free to focus on ministry and send offerings to a central distribution hub rather than manage the allocation of mission funds himself.

Dodd’s unrelenting schedule of church and denominational responsibilities often forced him to spend less time with his family than he would have liked. Yet he made up with quality time what he lacked in quantity of time, according to his granddaughter. She remembers going to his house for meals and having him play with her on his hands and knees. He was especially fond of scaring grandchildren by charging at them with the top of his bald head, she said.

She also remembers riding home from church with him on Sunday nights and always stopping for ice cream sodas along the way.

“He just loved playing jokes, and he loved his family,” said Joyner, who serves as church historian at First Baptist Shreveport and still lives in her grandfather’s old house.

Though Dodd died in 1952, Joyner knows that his preaching and his advocacy of the Cooperative Program remain relevant. If he were still alive, she said, he would call Southern Baptists to oppose any plans that encourage churches to fund convention ministries in piecemeal fashion rather than through CP.

“He would say, ‘Keep up the Cooperative Program. Do not let it break off and do missions out of part of it,'” Joyner said of her grandfather. “He would say, ‘Keep it all together. Do the missions. Do all of the work. Do the relief and everything out of the Cooperative Program.'”
David Roach is a pastor and writer based in Louisville, Ky., and a Ph.D. graduate in church history from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.