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New book explores lives, legacies of Southern Baptist Convention presidents
June 11, 2003
By Michael Foust
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--As the story goes, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary founding President B.H. Carroll was dying and wanted to give his successor, L.R. Scarborough, one last charge.
So a few days before his death in 1914, he called Scarborough to his bedside and told him that if "heresy ever comes" to the seminary, "take it to the faculty." If the faculty fail to take action, he added, then "take it" to the trustees. If the trustees don't listen, then go to the convention.
If no one at the convention listens, he concluded, then "take it to the great common people of our churches. You will not fail to get a hearing then."
Such stories are at the core of "The Sacred Trust," a new book by brothers Emir and Ergun Caner that recounts the life of each of the Southern Baptist Convention's 52 presidents. It is the first such book in more than a generation, according to its publisher, Broadman & Holman, the trade books division of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Emir Caner is assistant professor of church history and Anabaptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. Ergun Caner is assistant professor of theology and church history at Criswell College in Dallas, although he will be moving to Liberty University this fall.
The 238-page book includes a bio on each man who has wielded the gavel at the annual meeting. The book is more than a collection of facts: It is a compilation of interesting stories and events that molded their lives.
The first president, William B. Johnson (elected in 1845-46, 1849), shook the hand of U.S. President George Washington as a boy. The second president, Robert Howell (1851, 1853, 1855, 1857) battled J.R. Graves over the issue of Landmarkism.
As a pastor of First Baptist in Houston, K. Owen White (1963) fought for the inclusion of blacks in his church. As pastor of a church in Fort Pierce, Fla., Adrian Rogers (1979, 1986-87) and his wife lost their third child to crib death on Mother's Day.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., wrote the book's foreword.
"The president of the Southern Baptist Convention has no office in a denominational headquarters, receives no salary from his position, is given no staff for assistance, and has few unilateral powers," Mohler noted. "And yet the SBC presidency is one of the most recognized and influential offices of leadership in the Christian world. Therein lies an enigma and an incredible story."
The presidents appoint members to influential committees, preside over annual conventions and serve as spokesmen to the world, Mohler pointed out. The varied stories of the 52 presidents "help us to understand the development of the Convention's self-understanding and program as well as its presidency."
The Caners note that the historical presidential gavel, handed down from year to year and used at each meeting, is a reminder of the presidents' "shared history, heritage, and legacy." The gavel, made from wood from the Holy Land, was a gift from Southern Seminary professor John A. Broadus to the convention in 1872. The handle is made of "balsam wood grown near the River Jordan, and its head is made of olive wood from the Mount of Olives."
The book tells how various presidents have stood firm in defending Christian and Baptist principles.
Richard Fuller (1859, 1861) used his pulpit at Seventh Baptist Church in Baltimore to argue against infant baptism. James P. Boyce (1872-79, 1888), who was baptized by Fuller, helped spark a revival on his campus as a college student, then later stood firm on biblical inerrancy as president of Southern Seminary.
The book also describes the various political and theological squabbles the presidents have encountered through the decades.
E.Y. Mullins (1921-23) served as chairman of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message committee that addressed the controversy over modernism and evolution. Herschel Hobbs (1961-62) helped write the 1963 BF&M over concerns of liberalism within the seminaries. Rogers served as chairman of the 2000 BF&M committee that clarified a handful of Baptist beliefs and addressed various social issues.
Stories from the 1980s and 1990s -- the height of the Conservative Resurgence -- are included, such as Bailey Smith (1980-81) winning as an "unknown" candidate in Los Angeles, Charles Stanley (1984-85) withholding his name from nomination until hours before the vote and Morris H. Chapman (1990-91) defeating Daniel Vestal (the current-day coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship) by the largest margin of victory for a first-term nominee in 11 years.
In the preface the Caners say the book is "an investigation" of the "heartbeats and the passions" of the presidents' lives.
"These were men who dared to believe that the task of world evangelism was not too large a task, too costly a labor, or too steep a climb," they write. "They dared to believe that we were equal to the task to which God called us, in his power alone. They have dared to inspire us to seek the face of God."