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The Great SBC Evangelism War

The Southern Baptist Convention was created in 1845 in part out of a passionate desire to enlist Baptist churches in the South in a cooperative effort to reach the nation and the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Towards that end, a formative gathering of church leaders was held in Augusta, Georgia. A motion to create the Southern Baptist Convention was followed by motions to create a Board for Foreign Missions and a Board for Domestic Missions. The Southern Baptist Convention was born with the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” at its heart (Matt. 28:18-20).

During the 1904 SBC meeting, a Georgia pastor named Len Broughton made a motion to create a Department of Evangelism within the Home Mission Board to assist churches in the task of reaching their communities for Christ. His action proved to be quite controversial, setting in motion a three-year battle over evangelism. After some debate, a study committee was appointed. Unable to come to any agreement on a way forward after a year of work, at the 1905 SBC that committee recommended the appointment of a second, different study committee. When the second committee prepared a recommendation for an evangelism department, the controversy deepened. Some looked for ways to block the committee from making their report. Others tried to prevent their recommendation from becoming an actionable motion.

The question in play: Were churches “on their own” to reach their communities, or should the Convention assist interested churches by providing strategies, resources, and training for evangelism? In the 1906 SBC, the issue finally came to the floor for a vote. The debate was fierce until B. H. Carroll, seminary president and respected theologian, stood and gave a brilliant defense of the role of the evangelist in the New Testament and throughout the history of the church. When the vote was finally taken, the response was overwhelming and definitive. While not wanting the Convention to take over the evangelistic responsibilities of the church, pastors did want help with the evangelistic task. They wanted a constant voice reminding the Convention of the priority of evangelism, and they wanted encouragement, strategies, and resources for evangelism made available to the churches. The idea of having an SBC Department of Evangelism was never controversial again.

A constant reminder of the importance of evangelism is just as important for Southern Baptists today. There is always a current nudging us away from evangelistic engagement with our communities. Every pastor struggles with more tasks than time, and every church has a crowded list of activities, needs, and opportunities. No one expects lost people to lobby the church to do more to share the Gospel and call them to repentance and faith. If we are not intentional about evangelism, we will defer it again, again, and again. What are you doing to create and listen to a voice for the lost? How can you make a voice for evangelism a constant presence in your life and in your congregation?

Those who are interested in learning more about the Great SBC Evangelism War will find additional details in my most recent book: Fuel the Fire, which does include the magnificent address to the 1906 Convention by B. H. Carroll that silenced the opposition then and through the years that followed. The book is available through or in print or digital form.


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