“THE MAKING, MEANING, AND MISSION OF THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION”
SBC PRESIDENT’S ADDRESS
“THE MAKING, MEANING, AND MISSION OF
THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION”
J. W. Storer
Dr. James Wilson (J. W.) Storer was born December 1, 1884 in Burlington, Kansas, and spent his childhood in Washington and Oklahoma. He attended Kansas University, and graduated from William Jewell College in 1912 with his Bachelor of Science. Storer was President of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1953-1955, and President of the Convention’s Executive Committee from 1952-1953.
Following his tenure as pastor of First Baptist Church, Tulsa, Okla., from 1931 to 1956, Storer was the Executive Secretary for the Southern Baptist Foundation until his retirement in 1967.
While pastor of First Baptist in Tulsa, Storer conducted a radio ministry as Sunday services were broadcasted on station KOME. In addition to the Tulsa pastorate, Rev. Storer held pastorates in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Virginia. He also worked with other denominational agencies as a member of the Relief and Annuity Board and Foreign Mission Board.
Storer served on the Board of Trustees for several institutions including Oklahoma Baptist University, Tennessee Women’s College, and Fork Union Military Academy. Storer died in Nashville, Tenn., April 12, 1970.
When the Southern Baptist Convention began its existence in 1845, at Augusta, Georgia, there was a registration of 236. These men were Baptists, but first they were Christians. Parenthetically the same descriptive, it is to be hoped, will apply to the messengers meeting in St. Louis today—and will always hold true of Baptists anywhere and at any time, that they first be Christians and that they act like Christians. It is the purpose of God to make our personal character approximate our high calling in Christ Jesus, which means that holiness in the sense of Romans 1:7 is obligatory upon every one of us who has been redeemed. For everyone who trusts in Christ’s atonement, and rests his soul for eternity upon that finished work is bound to live in such a state of surrender and submission to God, as is made possible by the power of the outpoured indwelling spirit of God.
Let us recognize the truth of this—and then shall our every act and utterance in this Convention be under his control—for the blood that cleanses us also claims us. Thus we are in debt to the imparted righteousness of Christ, and to the exportation of the life of Christ—Christ died for us in order that he might live in us. We are not to major on the initiation of Christ, but rather upon his reproduction.
What began in 1845 was that as an organization of Southern Baptists our people then, as have their successors since, set themselves to the obedient fulfillment of Christ’s command in the various commissions he gave to his followers to witness to the world, and making disciples, to teach them all things whatsoever he commanded, to the end of time.
In the well—remembered dream of Nebuchadnezzar as given in Daniel 2, many men have found many interpretations. Some have paid it slight attention because it was but a dream. Be it remembered that when tyrants suffer from bad dreams, God is at work. In the huge composite image, there is a prophecy of successive empires, and of their courses. Beginning with great expectations, empires have degenerated because of earthy admixtures. In contrast Nebuchadnezzar beholds a wonderful and indestructible kingdom, beginning as a fragment of rock, but breaking in pieces all kingdoms, and finally filling the whole earth.
Christianity is this world power, and the Stone, rejected of the builders, has an appointed purpose. Even if our eyes cannot see the Hand that sets it loose, the fact remains that the Hand controls it.
The making of our Convention is indissolubly bound with its meaning and its mission, nor is it to be confused with anything made by human hands, or conceived by the human mind.
When we say that the Southern Baptist Convention was founded by those 236 messengers, we have, unwittingly to be sure, given complete credit where it did not completely belong. If there is any lesson which is plainly revealed, it is that the Holy Spirit was the founding Person, and the messengers were used by him. I cannot but feel that here we have direct need for the truth of I Corinthians 12:4, 7, 11, “There are diversities of gifts, but the same spirit, to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit to profit withal, all these worketh the one and the same Spirit, dividing to each severally even as he will.” The originality of Christianity appears in the source of its inspiration.
Whoever read carefully the New Testament must note the prominence of the Holy Spirit. Too often the historic achievements of our people have been regarded as praiseworthy results of human devotion, skill and sacrifice, and the Holy Spirit is relegated to a minor role, or is altogether ignored. But if we rightly interpret the teachings of the New Testament, we must know that the Holy Spirit is the immanent administrative energy of the God-head in the affairs of individual Christians, churches, and our Convention. As someone has said, there is great mystery here, for “in Christianity we find two factors, the human and the divine; the visible and the invisible; the natural and the super-natural.” How these are related to each other, we cannot precisely understand. We recognize the receptivity of the human spirit to divine influences; also the limitations of divine activity because of human characteristics and conditions. WE remember that there was a place where our Lord could do no mighty works because of the unbelief of some.
Yet, the fact remains, that Christianity must move from within—the expulsive, propulsive force of the Holy Spirit. God works in us in order that he may work through us. It has ever been thus with the organization of every great missionary movement, and I might add, with the development of our schools, our hospitals, and our seminaries. If we ever forget this, or act from lesser motives, we step down to the level of world political powers, which are impelled by lust of conquest, desire for gain, longing for glory, or that destructive and illusory thing called “manifest destiny.”
What immediately claims our thinking, then, is that we be assured our Convention is still under the dominant direction of the Holy Spirit, from whence, we are persuaded, came its entrance into the world. This is vital, in a day when the social Vesuvius is in turmoil, when Mars can scarce be refrained from drawing again that sword he has but so recently thrust into its uneasy scabbard.
Let us ever exalt the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and be grateful that we have no earthly head, and that we have no man or group of men who have laid out for us an anatomical and comprehensive organization in accordance with which all details must be exactly followed, failure so to do meaning an automatic casting into an outer darkness, and removal therefrom depending on a suppliant posture and an opened purse. Let it ever be remembered, for memory too often treasures bits of rags and straw and throws her jewels out of the window, that the function of the churches and of this Convention is not legislative, but declarative. Our Convention does not rest on accretions of church authority, but on the experimental verification of Scriptural truth. May the day never come when Southern Baptists will cease to shy at the shadow of hierarchal autocracy. It may be an easy way of religion to let an organization do your thinking for you, but the way of the Bible is “Come, let us reason together, saith the Lord.” What is the grandeur of an ecclesiastical Caesar compared with the grandeur of Christ?
We recognize that there is a great problem in achieving unity in action without centralization of power. How can the Southern Baptists Convention, with its 29,496 churches, its 1,001 associations, its approximately 8,000,000 members, how can there be any semblance of unity where there is no authoritarian voice of command? It can only be done under the Spirit’s guidance and in accordance with the law of life found in Ephesians 4:16, “All the body fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplieth, according to the working in due measure of each several part, maketh the increase of the body unto the building up of itself in love.”
In the human body there are twelve major and fifty or more minor joints—to say nothing of the vertebral column which is not as rigid as is sometimes supposed. All joints are not alike, which is illustrative of diversity and initiative, that voluntary principle which Baptists so correctly prize. To be sure, there are Baptists who seem dedicated to separatism, who refuse to play on the team, who prefer to return their own punts, call their own signals, do their own blocking, run their own interference, and set off for a goal line diagonal with the field. They refuse, however, to recover their own fumbles. But as our beloved Uncle Gideon once said, “It is better that a few characters do foolish things than to repress all personal effort.” The perfecting of Convention activities into a closer and more co-ordinating effort and relationship is but a means to an end; the object is the most effective utilization of our forces for the preaching of the gospel.
So much for the making and meaning of our Convention, what of its mission?
We hold it to be true that there is continued justification for the existence of our Convention, not for its own sake but for the sake of an unblemished Christianity. For this, Southern Baptists have a responsibility which they may ignore, but which cannot be waived. As we have through the centuries, so must we persist in contending for the right of private judgment in religious affairs, for the supremacy of the Scriptures as the guide for faith and practice; that there must be complete separation of church and state, that there must be democracy of fellowship, that the church be composed of regenerated men and women, that there must be correct observance of believer’s baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and that we shall ever protest against errors.
But our mission is more than that; it cannot be less than obedience to our Lord’s command to seek out the lost and point to him as the only and complete Saviour from sin, to make of him both Lord and Master. Ours is the day of action—not debate. The voices of wisdom, experience, and hope unite in one chorus, “today!—the voice of folly murmurs, “tomorrow.” God keeps us from becoming resolutionary sons of revolutionary fathers.
“The Crisis presses on us; face to face with us it stands,
With solemn lips of question, like the Sphinx in Egypt’s sands!
. . . . . . . .
By all for which the martyrs bore their agony and shame,
By all the warning words of truth with which the prophets came;
By the Future which awaits us; by all the hopes which cast
Their faint and trembling beams across the blackness of the Past;
And by the blessed thought of Him who for Earth’s freedom died,
O my people! O my brothers! Let us choose the righteous side.”
—JOHN GREENLEAF WHITTIER
I have said that this is a day of action—not debate. We must meet it with the spirit of adventure, of daring, in a word, with faith. Moreover, it must be met with liberality and sacrifice. What can be more tragic than self-centered preachers of the gospel of sacrifice! Our trouble is we are too worldly wise, too prone to walk by sight. We look at the wording on the dollar, “In God we trust,” but we do not mean it—we worship plans and with our partial wisdom we would safeguard God, to the point of doing nothing. Recall, please, that the only living thing on which the curse of Jesus fell was a fig tree that bore not fruit. There is a limit to the time for meeting our inescapable responsibility. We must be men and women of faith, and act as if we were.
This must not be construed as an argument for credulity, and that we refuse to use the best momentum of our minds. Prudence is right, but do not make it an excuse for cowardice. In a world wracked with wretchedness and poised on the verge of self-destruction, how shall we react, who follow in his train? In the winter of 1777-78, Washington wrote from Valley Forge to the Continental Congress: “Unless soon there is a capital change, this army must do one or another of three things: starve, dissolve, or disperse.” Thank God, his appeal, based on his personal example, brought about a renewed committal to the cause.
The Great Commission calls for a great committal. To that, the Southern Baptist Convention must give itself, and call its constituent members to a renewed witness to the good news of the once crucified but now risen Lord, to his saving power, and sovereignty. ‘Tis only this that can turn man-made ugliness into beauty. Said our Lord, “Ye are witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.” What a marvel here—we and the Holy Ghost! It is humbling to know that we are among many—it is uplifting to know that we are not without significance in the counsels of God.
What is a witness? One who talks? Not necessarily! The word “witness” literally means “martyr.” People are not made martyrs because they laid down their lives, they laid down their lives because they were already martyrs. It is to the heroic that God is calling Southern Baptists—not mock heroics wherein straw men are erected, and then with sound and fury are thrown down with publicity and gusto.
The lengthening shadows and the gravity of our times should shame all such religious histrionics. This is no time for shadow boxing, for tight rope walking, or for bickering within the camp. We are called to go without the camp, bearing his reproach, to go unto all the world, not withdrawing from it. It was this conception which gave birth and purpose to the Southern Baptist Convention, and to that purpose are we consigned. It may be dangerous—but what of that? Christ never called us to a care-free saunter through unshadowed spaces—Christian faith depends upon strong promises, never from immunity of attack. If our witness is not opposed, it is not worth opposing.
We have heard and we shall hear again the heart breaking appeal from lands beyond our shores. What justification for the tremendous and accelerated territorial growth if we do not discharge an equally expanded responsibility for giving the full gospel to these peoples—the only difference between them and ourselves being that we are sinners saved by grace. How often have we thought about the reversed situation, had not Paul crossed over into Macedonia!
What Southern Baptist can, with heart’s sight, look upon the suffering, starving, homeless millions of little children in Korea and China and other war-wearied portions of the world, and them clamp tight the lid of compassion or fail to stretch his resources to the utmost to meet those needs.
And what is true of other lands is also true of our own. This is a fact which contact makes revealingly evident. In those western areas of our Convention where I have gone since we met in Houston, the opportunities are so great as to merit the word limitless. To this the Home Mission Board is addressing its energy, and we shall have word about it in the report on Thursday night. A special Committee, with Dr. Carl Bates as chairman, has been appointed by the Executive Committee to study this matter, and its findings will doubtless be a part of the Executive Committee’s report. It will not be considered out of place for me, I trust, to add my plea for a fresh appraisal and concern, that we do something really worthy of our ability, about these fields so white unto the harvest, and that whatever we do, our motives be worthy of the Christ whose name we bear.
Facing the imperative of the Western opportunity, it is but the part of wisdom to recognize a danger in over-expansion and a consequent under-nourishment. Battles have been lost by throwing in men piecemeal when the attack should have been made by divisions. They have also been lost by a too extended line, beyond an ability to supply or to defend.
To concentrate and to cultivate, to build a base and make it strong, is to follow the Pauline policy in establishing churches. But he did not stop there, to have done so would have been to stagnate. And he did not so interpret his calling, nor must we.
Those who know me will not think of me as a visionary. But, my brethren, I am persuaded that God wills us to have a stepped up vision about our mission work. We back home have so much, and they out there have so little. In that precious old hymn we sing, “We share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens share, and often for each other flows the sympathizing tear.” The lines are scriptural, and in proper sequence, for sympathy to the point of tears, without sharing, or bearing, moves neither mountains nor pleases our Heavenly Father.
Preceding the birth of our Convention, there is an event of history little known, but which I am persuaded had great bearing on that which came into existence some twenty-eight years later. Reference is to the meeting on March 25, 1817, in Augusta, of eighteen persons, who organized themselves into what they called “The Baptist Praying Society of Augusta.”
Out of the travail in prayer came this Convention—and by the travail of prayer must it project its continuing life. Thank God for the host of men and women who will that to be true, and are willing at whatever cost, to answer Christ’s clamant call to evangelize. The spirit of just men made perfect, the spirit of a willingness to die for the faith should he see fit to so order it, is not gone from us. Moved are we by the spirits of those who served here, and now are there, whose earthly house has been dissolved, that they might live in the mansion indestructible. Their names come floating softly down the golden stairs of memory, and with concerted voice they bid us move up and out to hold aloft the light by which alone men may find their way to him who is the only Savior of the world.
On the evening of June 5, 1944, as the last glow of twilight was fading from the western sky, six Royal Air Force Albemarles were drawn up on the runway of Harwell Airfield. Gathered about them were sixty men of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company, pathfinders who were to guide the 6th British Airborne Division, to its land fall behind the Atlantic wall near Caen. Beside the leading aircraft were the ten men who were due to land first. One was a Yorkshire hodcarrier, one was a tool maker from Kent, one was a bricklayer from Edinburgh, one was a deserter from the Army of the Irish Free State, one was a refugee from Austria, one was a Welsh coal miner, one was a bus driver from Dumfrees, two were regulars, and they were led by a young Lieutenant who when the war broke out was playing in a West End band. Ordinary men, but they were the torchbearers of liberty—and of them Winston Churchill, quoting, exclaimed, “And gentlemen in England now abed, shall think themselves acurst, they were not here.”
In another and a grander sense, we are here met as torchbearers of liberty. We dare not temporize with our opportunity—we dare not sit here and exult over past victories, for life’s progressing march does not cease, and it is not the winning of a battle that counts, but the winning of the age long campaign.
May I paraphrases that never to be forgotten speech by Britain’s war-time leader on the dread day following Dunkirk, and say to this Convention: We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind involving struggle until Christ shall come again. You ask, what is our plan? I will say it is to wage a battle with all our might and all the strength that God can give us, for we wage a war against the wiles of evil. That is our plan! You ask, what is our aim? I can answer it in one word, Victory! Let us, therefore, brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves that, if Christ’s return be delayed for a thousand years, men will say of our Convention, this was their finest hour!