Bill Leonard: Southern Baptist Convention President Jimmy Allen Taught Us How to Deal With Change

Former Southern Baptist Convention President Jimmy Allen in 1978, left, and 2008. 1978 photo courtesy of Baptist Press; 2008 photo by Bob Mahoney

The Rev. Dr. Jimmy Raymond Allen, who died last week (Jan. 8) at age 91, was little known in the larger culture, despite a career that touched religion, politics, theology, ethics and race.

But Allen was something of a legend among Southern Baptists.

A gifted preacher, caring pastor, tireless organizer, insightful entrepreneur and Baptist statesman, Allen reached the pinnacle of ecclesiastical success. President Jimmy Carter, a longtime friend and confidant, wrote of Allen: “I cannot think of any other Baptist leader who has had more of a beneficial effect on my life than Jimmy Allen.” Carter even took Allen to Camp David when he was negotiating a Middle East peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.

History may best remember Allen, however, for his central role in the transition that descended on American religious and political life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, when ultra-conservative Christians first established themselves as the voice of Southern Baptist evangelicalism, then harnessed themselves to the political right.

Former SBC President Jimmy Allen,
pictured here at a press conference
during the 1978 SBC annual meeting,
was remembered as “driven” and an
“energetic dreamer.” Photo courtesy
of Baptist Press

In 1979, Memphis pastor Adrian Rogers followed Allen as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, becoming the first in a line of conservatives determined to use the appointive powers of their office to secure conservative majorities on all convention boards and agencies. They went on to instigate what they called a “course correction” to reassert a confessional doctrinal uniformity in the denomination, including biblical inerrancy, conservative politics and opposition to women’s ordination.

The conservative/moderate schism that followed anticipated controversies that continue to confront American churches across the theological spectrum, punctuated most recently by a dramatic recent rise in the “nones”: individuals who departed or chose not to engage in organized religion.

Allen’s progressivism often set him at odds with the conservatives’ effort, but he responded to the social and theological upheaval with insight, controversy and creative energy. As the schism ended in 1990 with conservatives taking complete control of America’s largest Protestant denomination, Jimmy Allen founded a new home for evangelicals like him.

In “Loving Beyond Your Theology: The Life and Ministry of Jimmy Raymond Allen,” Mercer University professor Larry L. McSwain noted that Allen was “a man of enormous intellect and energy who grew beyond his environment and culture to develop a lifelong commitment to the blending of his inherited theology with an ethical progressivism of the Social Gospel.”

Born in 1927 in Arkansas, but growing up in Texas, Allen came of age in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) at a time when it was, in the words of historian E. Glenn Hinson, “the Catholic Church of the South” — an unofficial official religion that dominated Southern culture.

Jimmy Allen in the 1960s. Photo
courtesy of Bridwell Library

Converted at the age of 8 in the relentless revival atmosphere of Baptist life at the time, Allen as an adult “surrendered to preach,” following his father, the Rev. Earl Allen, into Christian ministry. Allen got a typical Baptist education at Howard Payne College in Brownwood and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary before moving through a series of pastorates in Texas Baptist churches, including his dozen years at First Baptist Church of San Antonio from 1968 to 1980.

Early in that tenure he was elected president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. He was elected to serve as president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1977, as the conservatives began to make their move.

Amid the conservative coup, Allen headed the SBC Radio and Television Commission, then served as director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, continuing to support and shape Southern Baptist programs and theology, while advocating progressive approaches to racial reconciliation, religious liberty, ecumenical relationships and social concerns.

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Source: Religion News Service