SBC Life Articles

In Memorium: Herschel H. Hobbs

Sometimes the mark of a man should be measured by the number of footprints he leaves instead of the depth of a few. Herschel Hobbs was a theological giant among Southern Baptists, touching the lives of millions through a ministry which spanned nearly seven decades.


"If I had 10,000 lives to live, I would want to be a pastor in every one of them," Hobbs wrote in his autobiography. Although Hobbs pastored many churches throughout his 69 years of ministry, he's best known for his long-standing pastorate at First Baptist Church, Oklahoma City, OK (1949-1972).

Studying Adult Life and Work Lessons

Southern Baptists sat at Hobbs' feet for 28 years through his quarterly Sunday school lesson commentary for adult teachers. These weekly Bible study helps were first written informally by Hobbs in response to requests from church members and shared on mimeograph sheets with teachers in First Baptist Church, Oklahoma City. On Wednesday nights, Hobbs taught the teachers and officers from these mimeographed pages.

Word of the Bible study supplement spread among Southern Baptist churches, and requests soon followed for copies of Hobbs' materials. After securing permission to share the notes from the Sunday School Board, Hobbs expected 25 or 30 churches to ask for copies. Instead, 250 churches requested the lesson notes. The distribution was stopped briefly due to copyright concerns, but BSSB President James L. Sullivan received a flood of letters asking for the lesson helps. Sullivan agreed to officially publish the notes and asked Hobbs to begin a crash program of preparation to be available to churches the next quarter.

Every week Hobbs spent approximately two days preparing and writing one of the lesson units. To stay on schedule, he had to do one each week, meaning many were written in hotels and on airplanes as he traveled around the country speaking to Southern Baptists. "There is no way I could teach one million persons weekly," Hobbs said in 1986, "but I can help those who teach that one million." When he passed away, Hobbs had completed lessons through September 1996.

Baptist Hour

For 18 years Hobbs was preacher on the Baptist Hour, a work for which he received no pay. During that time he had an estimated audience of 50 million people per week. Hobbs almost turned the assignment down: "I got a telegram from Paul Stevens (president of the Radio-TV Commission) asking me to record my Sunday morning sermon and get it to him at the Brown Hotel, Louisville, KY, by the next Tuesday morning. I couldn't imagine what he wanted with the sermon, unless he wanted to use it to show somebody how not to preach." Hobbs decided not to send the sermon, but his assistant pastor, Stanton Nash, talked him into doing it. Later, Hobbs learned that the RTVC committee heard more than 40 sermon tapes without knowing the identity of any of the speakers. It wasn't until the final choice was made that the committee looked up the name of the new speaker. Hobbs said writing the Baptist Hour sermons forced him to give up 18 of the 36 holes of golf he played weekly: "When I became president of the Southern Baptist Convention I gave up the other 18."

Denominational Servant

'Baptist Faith and Message' Committee chairman
SBC president
Baptist World Alliance vice president
Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma president
SBC Pastors' Conference president
Foreign Mission Board trustee
New Orleans Seminary trustee
Southern Seminary trustee
Oklahoma Baptist University trustee president
Executive Committee member
SBC Peace Committee member

Baptist Theologian

An articulate spokesman of Baptist beliefs, Hobbs provided a fresh model for the pastor/theologian role. Hobbs' weekly newspaper column specifically tackled doctrinal questions, and when in doubt, many Baptists turned to his many books for clarification. (See below for a list of some of his more popular titles available from Broadman/Holman.)



The Baptist Faith and Message
by Mark Coppenger

Hobbs will likely be best and longest remembered for his work as chairman of the committee which produced the 1963 version of The Baptist Faith and Message. This version, as well as its 1925 predecessor, was born of controversy. The earlier statement came in response to the encroachment of evolutionary teaching upon the traditional biblical account of creation. In the 1960s, Hobbs' committee labored over faithfulness to the biblical account in seminary teaching.

The 1962 Convention in San Francisco rocked with indignation over the defense of Broadman's decision to publish Midwestern Professor Ralph Elliott's Genesis commentary, which questioned the historicity of that book's early chapters. A resolution affirming the accuracy of biblical reports passed. A motion to withdraw the book failed, leaving the decision to the Sunday School Board, which decided not to reprint the commentary. When Elliott persisted in seeking another publisher, the Midwestern Seminary board asked him to leave. In the midst of this struggle, the Convention voted to appoint a committee to reconsider and/or reaffirm its 1925 statement. It was a collective and irenic decision to get their bearings.

The 1963 SBC Annual presents the 1963 and 1925 versions side by side. There might well have been a third column displaying the text of the 1833 New Hampshire Confession, since significant passages were carried over from that document. The committee had to decide whether to re-adopt, replace or revise the 1925 statement. They chose the third option, and the dual column display shows the great similarity of the two confessions. The Convention accepted their work and the 1963 version is today the leading expression of Southern Baptist theology.

In some sections Hobbs introduced concepts and phrases. In others, he coordinated the thinking of the committee. Throughout, he was the writer, presenting successive drafts for committee approval.

Calling the preamble "as important as any other part," Hobbs spent a great deal of time and energy pressing the point that The Baptist Faith and Message is not a creed. The introductory disclaimer speaks of The Baptist Faith and Message as a statement of faith, the product of a living faith. It affirms "the soul's competency before God, freedom in religion, and the priesthood of the believer." His concern was that the document not serve as an instrument of coercion or as a litmus test for the true Baptist (this did not preclude its use as a guide for selecting church and denominational leadership).

While Hobbs made it clear that Baptists have no business using The Baptist Faith and Message or similar documents as a test for church membership, he did defend the enterprise of distilling denominational beliefs for "general instruction and guidance" concerning who Baptists are. And he was adamant in his conviction that one cannot believe just anything and be a Baptist.

In the section on the Scriptures, we find an addition to the 1925 statement — "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ." At the time, there was concern over Elliott's construal of Melchizedek as a priest of Baal. This seemed to many to stain Jesus in that He was likened to that ancient priest. Elliott defended himself on grounds that the biblical wording was not "like Melchizedek" but "after the order of Melchizedek."

This sliced things a bit thin, so the committee persisted in erecting a shield against using any part of Scripture to diminish the stature of Christ. As Hobbs explained it, "you have to interpret Jesus Christ not in the terms of Melchizedek, but Melchizedek in terms of Jesus Christ." In short, all readings of the Bible must do justice to Jesus.

The 1925 Faith and Message presented a short statement on God, the second sentence of which delineated the Trinity. The 1963 Faith and Message gave a separate paragraph to each Person of the Trinity. Among the new statements on God, the Son, Hobbs took special note of two in his recollections. The first concerned the phrase "yet without sin" and the second, the word "Mediator." Wayne Ward, of Southern Seminary, took exception to the statement that Jesus identified Himself completely with mankind. This, he argued, would make Christ a sinner in that all men were. All agreed to the qualifying clause, "yet without sin."

In calling Christ the Mediator, Hobbs was intent that the committee avoid the picture "of God on one side and man on the other … mad at one another, and Jesus in the middle trying to pull them together." Rather, as God-man, Jesus perfectly represents each to the other. Reconciliation occurs within the nature of Christ, not as a result of the third-party machinations of Christ.

The 1963 statement on salvation was more concise than the 1925 version. Three aspects were given: regeneration, sanctification and glorification. After getting committee approval for his oral sketch, Hobbs wrote this section on his own. Its most striking change concerned its treatment of sanctification. The earlier Faith and Message called it a process, but Hobbs saw it as instantaneous, upon conversion. It is at that point that "one is set apart to God's service." One develops, then, within the context or state of sanctification, not unto a state of sanctification.

The 1963 BFM softened the statement on man, continuing the trend represented by E. Y. Mullins in the 1925 BFM. It's interesting to note the movement from Southern's Abstract of Principles through the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message. The 1859 Abstract says that lost man inherits a "nature corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law." The 1925 BFM says that men "inherit a nature corrupt and in bondage to sin …." The 1963 version says that men "inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin …."

The only section to face opposition on the floor of the Convention in Kansas City was on the church. The committee had added a sentence which recognized the sense in which the church "includes all of the redeemed of all the ages." "Landmark" Baptists insisted that "church" can only refer to the local church. Hobbs asked rhetorically which local church Jesus was naming when He said of Peter, "Upon this rock I will build my church." A messenger yelled "the First Baptist Church of Jerusalem," to which Hobbs replied, "He was at least seventy-five miles from where he built that church when he said it." He also used a quote, supplied him by Albert McClellan, from Landmarker J.M. Pendleton to strengthen his case. Pendleton had referred to the "redeemed in aggregate." The Landmark opposition did not prevail, and the entire 1963 Baptist Faith and Message passed with ease.

Hobbs' thoroughgoing biblicism compelled him to sort carefully through the scriptural basis for each clause of The Baptist Faith and Message. He found the match in the 1925 version to be less than perfect and was determined that those given in 1963 would clearly support the theological assertions. He and committee secretary Dick Hall took on the task of checking them all, a job Hobbs called "the most tedious I ever had" and "nerve-wracking." But, in the end, he was satisfied.

Adapted from Baptist Theologians, ed. by Timothy George and Davis S. Dockery, (Broadman Press: 1990) and from a presentation to the 1995 Founders Conference. Used by permission.



Herschel H. Hobbs Bibliography

My Faith and Message: An Autobiography ($15.99)
What Baptists Believe ($4.25)
Fundamentals of Our Faith ($7.99)
My Favorite Illustrations ($11.99)
Baptist Faith and Message (an explanation $3.75)
Baptist Faith and Message, video series ($79.99)

These books and the video series are available through Broadman/Holman at 1-800-233-1123. In addition, a reprint of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message is available for 10¢.

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