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From Colporteurs to cooperative program: a century of Southern Baptist stewardship and the rise of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"Throughout the twentieth-century," claimed historian Bill J. Leonard, "Southern Baptists ... devoted more attention to Christian stewardship than perhaps to any other issue except evangelism and missions.

Even those powerful themes have frequently been placed within the all-encompassing context of stewardship." The same could be said of the Southern Baptist Convention's (SBC) entire history. Stewardship issues in the mid-nineteenth century were catalysts that, combined with others, helped Southern Baptists define their distinctive qualifies as a denomination: radical congregationalism, independence, and cooperation. Southern Baptists cited stewardship, not slavery or authoritarianism of the national convention, as the principal reason for their secession from the national denomination. They separated "for the purpose of carrying into effect the benevolent intentions of our constituents, by organizing a plan for eliciting, combining, and directing the energies of the whole denomination in one sacred effort, for the propagation of the Gospel." Concluded Leonard, "To be Southern Baptist was to practice stewardship the Southern Baptist way." (1) Still, it took years for that way to develop.

Initially, Southern Baptists, like other Protestant denominations and mission boards, relied on the work of paid solicitors called colporteurs to raise funds. Their job was to visit congregations and association meetings and to encourage contributions for missions, both at home and abroad. From the money collected, the colporteurs received a commission. The system undoubtedly raised more money than would otherwise have been the case, but Baptists complained loudly about the pressure these fundraisers exerted on people and congregations. The intentions may have been noble, but the method seemed anything but benevolent. (2)

The Civil War and reconstruction devastated the SBC, shattering the work and the legitimacy of the colporteurs. The victorious Union army supported the New York-based American Baptist Home Mission Society's (ABHMS) call to seize abandoned Southern Baptist churches and schools, and the ABHMS soon competed with the Southern Baptists' Domestic and Indian Mission Board, raising money and sending out missionaries to freed slaves and destitute Southerners. A feeble attempt at cooperation between the two bodies failed, and Southern Baptists saw money for domestic missions dwindle in the years 1866 to 1877 from a high of over $38,000 to a low of $16,816.64. (3) Exacerbating the problem was the movement of nearly all the freed slaves to denominations of their own, particularly to what would become the National Baptist Convention. This flight resulted from the work of the Freedmen's Bureau and the desire of the freedmen to have institutions under their own control. (4)

Financial panic in 1873 compounded all these difficulties. Contributions had fallen by two-thirds since the end of the war, and fully 53 percent of what the colporteurs raised went to pay their commissions and expenses. As money dried up, the fund-raisers became even more aggressive, competing with each other over the shrinking supply and arousing loud complaints from congregations who came to resent the annual visitations from the colporteurs. Not only was the system uneconomical, it was impolitic, raising tensions among congregations, within associations, and between state conventions and the SBC. (5) A better way, a more Southern Baptist way, had to be found that was both effective and voluntary.

Revival and Restructure

That new way evolved gradually during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. A wave of revivals, sometimes called the Third Great Awakening, lifted spirits following the end of reconstruction in the South and filled once-empty pews. Clergy and laity in all the Protestant denominations worked to save souls, and, along with the others, Southern Baptists saw their prospects grow. Increasing fervor and numbers led to institutional revival as well. In 1891, the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board that had disbanded in 1866 reemerged. Active lay evangelism and interest in mission work led to the creation of the Woman's Missionary Union (WMU) in 1888 and the Laymen's Missionary Movement (LMM) in 1906. (6) These two organizations injected new energy into denominational stewardship and pioneered innovative techniques that were less expensive than the old colporteur system and that also respected the independence of Southern Baptist bodies (churches, associations, and conventions).

The WMU developed two special solicitations, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for Foreign Missions (1918) and the Annie W. Armstrong Offering for Home Missions (1934), with volunteers in the congregations collecting the donations. Increasingly, the laity assumed the ministry of stewardship. A home-based work force active in the congregations allowed the WMU to regularize and systematize fund-raising, and because the Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong solicitations were annum events, workers and donors could anticipate them and plan their giving. Church volunteers distributed mission (mite) boxes in which donors deposited pennies every week, and the boxes were gathered on set days. The Foreign Mission Board soon experienced an increase in giving because of the use of boxes. (7)

The LMM operated differently. The SBC prohibited it from "soliciting contributions for any object whatsoever." With a mission to advocate and teach stewardship and "to bring the question of personal responsibility for largely increased giving to the Lord's cause to the thoughtful consideration of the men of [the SBC's] various churches," (8) the LMM greatly systematized stewardship techniques. The Laymen's Movement improved on the idea of the mission box by providing weekly offering envelopes to the Baptists sitting in the pews, and it initiated the every-member canvass. Members of the congregation made Sunday visits to Baptists in their homes during set periods in the year, handing out duplex envelopes with a pocket for money to be used for local causes and another pocket for money for special designated causes beyond their own community. The pastor encouraged the congregants to plan their stewardship in special messages preceding these visits, and the witness of lay people offered incentive that proved at least as inspiring as the words and example of the clergy. This effort turned out to be "one of the most successful 'business-like' measures" of stewardship, (9) and one of the most long-lasting, in the history of the denomination.

The LMM's most significant contribution was its program to educate the laity about the meaning of stewardship, linking it solidly to theology and defining it as an opportunity and a call to respond to God's grace, not just as a duty to the denomination. A new paragraph was soon added to the message. In 1895, the SBC Committee on Tithing urged that tithing was the "basis of Paul's injunction to give and urged all Baptists to adopt the practice." The Laymen's Movement soon responded by offering the first systematic response to the call. In 1910, the LMM established tithing as the minimum goal for individual givers and advocated church gifts of 50 percent to causes outside their own administrative needs. The WMU took up the cause, by organizing tithing bands to get Baptists in their homes and churches to work toward the tithe as the basis of their giving. In 1919, the SBC became the first denominational organization to urge church members to tithe estates by including denominational giving in their wills. (10)

By 1910, Southern Baptists had gone far toward developing a theology, an ethic, a method, and a polity for undertaking denomination-wide stewardship, all on the basis of congregational autonomy, voluntarism, the priesthood of all believers, and cooperation among all the workers, including clergy and laity, congregations, associations, mission boards, auxiliary fund-raising organizations, state conventions, and the Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Baptists accomplished all this by melding new, modern techniques with old Baptist principles, allowing individuals and churches to take the steps necessary to propel denominational growth and, with it, strengthened stewardship into the twentieth century.

At the same time, state conventions led the way toward innovation and administrative restructuring. In 1887, the SBC called on state conventions to lead churches and associations in creating methods "to promote systematic giving to all denominational causes," and in reply Alabama became the first state to use donation envelopes. In 1900, First Baptist Church of Murray, Kentucky, created a budget, perhaps the first Southern Baptist congregation to apply modern financial planning. In the next fifteen years, numerous other churches followed its example, and in 1915 the Kentucky state convention adopted the first statewide budget with specific allocations to the SBC for home and foreign missions. In 1917, the SBC's Apportionment Committee urged all other churches to "adopt the budget plan of finances." (11)

Organizing and Centralizing

That same year, 1917, the Maryland Baptist Union asked the SBC a probing question: "How shall a steadier and more dependable stream of contributions be made to flow into the treasuries of our Foreign and Home Mission Boards?" This question had long perplexed Baptist leaders. In 1913, the SBC devoted a half day of its annum meeting to "consideration of Christian Stewardship" and ways to lead "backward churches in systematic benevolence." As a result, the SBC's Committee on Regularity of Missionary Contributions established working principles for a systematic stewardship program. Among other things, the committee called for each church to donate $1 per year for each of its members for missions, to use envelopes to regularize giving, and to adopt a more spiritual understanding of stewardship. All of these efforts depended on local churches developing sound financial pracrices, and thus, in 1916, the SBC took on the job of preparing a systematic church financial program that it could recommend to congregations. (12)

How was this to happen, and who would be responsible for it? Implementing the idea required coordination among all dements of the denomination, and the only agency that could provide that was the SBC. But before the convention could develop an effective financial program for others, it had to systematize its own procedures. In 1913, an Efficiency Commission studied convention programs and the following year (1) called on the SBC to develop a budget (it would take another thirty years before this would be accomplished), (2) asked members and churches to give regularly and to tithe, (3) requested that the convention allocate money to agencies in proportion to their importance, and (4) instructed each board to audit its financial records. (13)

None of these procedures would come about unless all parts of the denomination entered into a formal agreement on the role each would play in creating and maintaining a cooperative relationship with all the others. The result was the first formal manifesto on cooperation. Hereafter said the report, "no large, general movement appealing to the denomination shall be launched by any one of these Boards without consultation with the others and the proper submission of the same to the Convention." Denominational agencies would have "to seek and maintain the closest possible connection with State Boards, and also in every way to promote harmonious and effective connectional organizations between the churches, in district association Boards or Committees, and State Boards." A systematic stewardship program, in other words, could neither be imposed from above nor insinuated from below. If the SBC were both to encourage a more modern financial operation throughout the denomination and to oversee and shepherd cooperation, it would have to create an agency that could meet between annual meetings of the convention, and thus, in 1917, the SBC voted to create an Executive Committee. (14) The denomination had come of age.

The Executive Committee enabled the SBC to be proactive as well as reactive, and it immediately set out to be proactive. For the first several years, the committee did little beyond its immediate administrative tasks, but in 1918, the SBC requested the LMM to spearhead a coordinated stewardship campaign throughout the convention, incorporating the efforts of state conventions, churches, associations, the WMU, and the Baptist Young People's Union. The objective was "to get at least one-tenth of Southern Baptists committed to the policy of giving systematically at least one-tenth of their income to the support of God's cause." The following year, the LMM and the WMU claimed success, calling the campaign "the most vital work" that the SBC could be doing. (15)

In 1919, the LMM took another step in the direction of centralized stewardship planning when it recommended that all Baptists "bequeath at least one-tenth of their estate to the Lord's cause," thus opening the field of estates and endowments to their stewardship interests, and the following year it urged the formation of stewardship bands in all the churches. (16) But it would be the Executive Committee, not the Laymen's Movement, that ultimately would receive responsibility for stewardship in the SBC, largely by default.

Hard Lessons

In 1919, SBC president J. B. Gambrell led the convention into the largest fund-raising effort in its history. The goal was to raise $75 million in five years and in the process to recruit and energize the entire denomination. Debates over who should administer the program aroused continuing suspicion of the Executive Committee, and thus, the convention created a special Seventy-five Million Campaign Commission. The creation of a special commission was fortunate for the Executive Committee, because the campaign created tremendous problems for which it would not responsible. During the initial part of the campaign, the SBC received pledges exceeding the goal--over $92 million--and on the basis of these rosy promises, several SBC agencies, state conventions, and seminaries took out large loans to fund capital projects. Unfortunately, the economic recession of the early 1920s invalidated many short-term pledges, and the depression of the 1930s devastated long-term receipts. The Seventy-five Million Campaign, therefore, inadvertently created a huge debt that burdened the denomination for nineteen years. Not only that, cooperation withered as agencies competed for money, independent church capital campaigns competed with the denominational effort, and SBC boards squabbled over the division of the funds that did come in. Lines of authority became blurred. State conventions and the SBC could not agree on how to divide the funds or how to share the costs of the campaign, and the SBC was not certain that it could solicit churches directly. Ultimately, no one knew who was responsible for stewardship. (17)

The crisis of the Seventy-five Million Campaign opened many eyes. "For the first time Baptists saw hard evidence that the various south-wide agencies, the state conventions, and local churches could accomplish much more working together than laboring at cross-purposes. Many Baptists saw for the first time what could be accomplished by establishing budgets, conducting every-member canvasses, and practicing weekly giving." Sustained progress required strengthened administrative oversight to provide for greater efficiency and improved cooperation and to bring about unity and prevent excessive centralized control. The SBC then created the Conservation Commission to oversee operation of the Seventy-five Million Campaign. This commission served as a proto-stewardship commission, encouraging regularity in giving, advocating budgeting in local churches, and coordinating publicity for solicitation throughout the denomination. The commission in 1924 held its first stewardship promotion conference in Nashville, Tennessee. (18)

The Cooperative Program

The SBC capped all this activity in 1924 and 1925 by authorizing and establishing the Cooperative Program (CP), a denomination-wide, annual system of giving based on the principles of regularity, proportionality (tithing), and voluntarism. The CP was to include a "simultaneous every-member canvass of every Baptist church in the South" to be conducted during the first week of December. Local moneys would be forwarded to the state convention that would decide how much to keep for state purposes and how much to send on to the SBC for national causes. Regularity would require budgeting on the part of every participating church, state convention, and SBC agency, and it called for accountability--yearly financial statements of moneys earned and spent. While designated gifts would be allowed, it was "earnestly hoped that contributions will be made to the whole program," thus emphasizing the unitary principal toward which cooperation tended. To administer the program, the SBC created the Commission on the Co-Operative Program with representatives from each state, the LMM, and the WMU, the three south-wide institutions, and the denomination at large. Gradually, the CP gained permanence in the administration and in the culture of Southern Baptists, aided by the establishment in 1925 of The Baptist Program, a journal dedicated to promoting stewardship in general and the CP in particular. (19)

Initially, the prospect was not good. The first in-gathering in 1925 was small. The failure of the Seventy-five Million Campaign had made some Southern Baptists reluctant to contribute to another centralized offering. Southern Baptists feared that scripture had not sufficiently authorized the CP and that such a program would undermine the autonomy of the churches and create a hierarchy in the denomination. Some state conventions, suspicious of the Executive Committee's authority, did not contribute to the SBC the 50 percent expected, and, as in the past, states and the SBC disagreed over who should pay promotional expenses. Rather than cooperate, states vied with the SBC for the undesignated gifts the program recruited. (20)

Poor administration adumbrated these inherent problems. Responsibility for operating the program shifted annually from one ad hoc commission to another until it came to rest with the Executive Committee in 1929. The committee's record in promoting stewardship was not strong. In 1928, it had created a special Christmas Thank Offering to help retire the denomination's debt, but it did not even raise enough money to pay for the campaign's expenses. With memories of this failure and of the fared Seventy-five Million Campaign still fresh in people's minds and with lingering doubt about the Cooperative Program's longevity, Southern Baptists were not eager to send in contributions. (21)

Lessons Learned

The situation experienced a dramatic reversal in 1929. First, the SBC designated 1929 as the "Year of Stewardship" and called for a systematic program of stewardship education and solicitation throughout the denomination. Building on materials the LMM had already developed, the Executive Committee published a guidebook of programs that churches and associations could use to encourage giving. It included curricular materials, Sunday school lessons, and schools of stewardship. Second, the SBC prohibited agencies from soliciting money independently of the CP, thus making it the sole stewardship vehicle for denomination-wide causes other than the Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong offerings. Third, the Executive Committee promulgated "A New Financial Plan" that solidified its fiscal authority, channeling all denomination-wide funds, financial reports, and special offerings through its hands. (22)

Administrative restructuring came in time for the SBC to weather the fiscal hurricane of the 1930s. By 1931, the SBC's debt exceeded $5.5 million, and 1933 saw a 27 percent decline in giving over 1932. As Albert McClellan noted, it was "the nadir for giving." But it was also the year that the SBC found the solution. To retire the debt, the Executive Committee created the Hundred Thousand Club, consisting of donors who would give $1 per month above their pledged contributions expressly for that purpose and who would marl the money directly to the Executive Committee. The committee distributed the money to SBC agencies that used it to pay off debts. The plan worked spectacularly. Within eight years, the convention saw its indebtedness shrink to such a point that the call could go out, "Debt Free by '43." Southern Baptists exceeded that goal, not only retiring the debt but creating a surplus of over $38,000. (23)

Largely responsible for this was James Edgar Dillard, the SBC's first full-time promotion director and the first in a long line of stewardship captains. He made the club successful by coordinating with state conventions and executive secretaries, thus earning their trust, and he developed new techniques for encouraging donations not only to the club but to the CR Under his leadership the Executive Committee wrote and distributed books--We Southern Baptists and Bible Stewardship-for use in congregational training sessions; it held regional conferences on the CP thus taking it "state and south-wide, to the pastors and leaders in the various sections of the states"; it produced films, The Better Way in 1938 and Romance of a Century in 1945. In 1946, the SBC pooled moneys from various bequests that had been earning interest for several decades and created the Southern Baptist Foundation that, in 1947, was capitalized at over $230,000. (24)

Toward the Future

The Southern Baptist Foundation was the last principal stewardship agent the convention created until the organization of the Stewardship Commission in 1960. Throughout the twentieth century, Southern Baptist life tended toward centralization, professionalization, and cooperation, and by the time Dillard retired as promotion director in 1947, (25) stewardship had both benefited from and contributed to all these trends. The Executive Committee arose in large part from the need to coordinate financing and accountability, the CP resulted from fund-raising that had failed because of the SBC's lack of system and coordination, and strong promotion leaders within the Executive Committee responded to a needed charisma that could inspire a voluntary denomination to greater giving. Ironically, by developing stewardship as a cooperative enterprise, the SBC ensured the very centralization that had given birth to the CP.

By 1948, stewardship in Southern Baptist terms had come to mean much more than raising money to support foreign and home missions. It meant encouraging budgeting and planning at every level of Southern Baptist life, from the family through the national convention; it meant giving through wills and endowments; it meant assisting in special offerings to help build churches and seminaries; it meant developing educational materials to teach Southern Baptists how to do all these things; it meant creating promotional materials to encourage Southern Baptists to want to do all these things; and most of all it meant developing a theology and an ethic of stewardship that could be communicated throughout the denomination by the printed and preached word, by filmstrip and film, by bulletin and brochure. Cooperative stewardship had become, as historian Fred Grisson put it, "the characteristic for many Baptists," creating bonds "stronger than those forged by any formulation of doctrine." (26) At least for the time being.

(1.) Southern Baptist Convention Annual, 1845, 3; Bill J. Leonard, "Stewardship Promotion in the Southern Baptist Convention Since 1900," Baptist History and Heritage, 21, no. 1 (January 1986): 4, 8.

(2.) SBC Annual, 1846, 10; the SBC Annual for 1859 (page 57) reported congregational complaints about these fund-raisers.

(3.) Robert A. Baker, The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People, 1607-1972 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1974), 239.

(4.) See Joe M. Richardson, Christian Reconstruction: The American Missionary Association and Southern Blacks, 1861-1890 (Athens, CA: University of Georgia, 1986).

(5.) Baker, Southern Baptist Convention, 239-40; Fred A. Grissom, "Cooperation Through Stewardship," Baptist History and Heritage, 24, no. 1 (January 1989): 22-23.

(6.) Baker, Southern Baptist Convention, 273-76, 297-99. The Laymen's Missionary Movement would become the Brotherhood Commission in 1950.

(7.) SBC Annual, 1904, 67. The SBC recommended the use of mite boxes as early as 1874 (SBC Annual, 1874, 71), but the WMU systematized their use. 8. SBC Annual, 1907, 46.

(9.) Grissom, "Cooperation," 25. See Archie E. Brown, A Million Men for Christ: The History of the Baptist Brotherhood (Nashville: Convention Press, 1956).

(10.) Grissom, "Cooperation Through Stewardship," 25; SBC Annual, 1910, 4; 1919, 108.

(11.) SBC Annual, 1881, 62; bid., 1887, 33-34, 37; Grissom, "Cooperation," 25; SBC Annual. 1917, 77 and 108.

(12.) SBC Annual, 1917, 108; 1913, 18, 36; 1916, 18.

(13.) SBC Annual, 1914, 72-73.

(14.) Ibid., 71-71. The principal authority on these events is Albert McClellan, The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1917-1984 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1985).

(15.) SBC Annual, 1918, 136; 1919, 36.

(16.) Ibid., 1919, 108; 1920, 30.

(17.) Albert McClellan, "Denominational Allocation and Distribution of Cooperative Program Money," Baptist History and Heritage 12, no. 1 (January 1986): 15, 61-66.

(18.) Grissom, "Cooperation," 26-27; SBC Annual, 1919, 30-31, 34-35; 1924, 27.

(19.) SBC Annual, 1924, 68-69; 1925, 31; Ernest D. Standerfer, "Guest Editorial: Stewardship in Southern Baptist History," Baptist History and Heritage 12, no. 1 (January 1986): 2.

(20.) Leonard, "Promotion," 9; McClellan, "Denominational Allocation," 18-19.

(21.) McClellan, Executive Committee, 103-04, 113; SBC Annual, 1927, 69; 1929, 75-76.

(22.) SBC Annual, 1928, 38-39; 1925, 91; 1926, 103; 1929, 73-74; 1931, 60; 1933, 42-43; McClellan, Executive Committee, 96-97.

(23.) McClellan, Executive Committee, 122; SBC Annual, 1933, 47, 65-66; 1943, 37-38; 1936, 74; McClellan, Executive Committee, 114-17.

(24.) SBC Annual, 1938, 32-33; 1941, 31; 1938, 33; 1945, 30; Robert A. Baker, "The Story of the Southern Baptist Foundation," Baptist History and Heritage 12, no. 1 (January 1986): 44.

(25.) SBC Annual, 1947.

(26.) Grissom, "Cooperation," 28.

David L. Rowe is professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
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Date:Mar 22, 2006
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