What was life like in the Southern Baptist Convention before the birth of the Cooperative Program? Few people are alive today who hearken back to that time, and none of them were really old enough before 1925 to provide much in the way of first-hand testimony about the SBC before the CP. The decades having swiftly passed, all we can do today is read about it.
Fortunately, there's plenty to read. The state of Southern Baptist life in the year 1900 (to choose an arbitrary moment in time) was interesting and produced plenty of ink.
- At Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, W. H. Whitsett had just lost his job for having claimed that Baptists did not immerse until 1641. As the culmination of a process marked by political intrique and behind-the-scenes personality clashes, Southern welcomed to her helm a relatively obscure Texas expatriate who had been serving in Newton Centre, Massachusetts—Edgar Young Mullins. One contemporary critic remarked that Mullins was not properly educated for the prestigious liberal arts position, since Mullins had pursued training as a common telegraph operator as a member of the inaugural class of a mere "agricultural and mechanical school in Bryan, Texas." Although Landmark sentiments had succeeded in ousting Whitsett, Landmarkers had not managed to place into Louisville a president sympathetic to their agenda.
- The aforementioned critic, Benjamin M. Bogard, was fomenting an agrarian, populist uprising that started in the Arkansas Ozarks by splitting the Arkansas Baptist State Convention in 1902 and then eventually united with other similar movements to lead several churches out of the Southern Baptist Convention nationwide. Bogard and his followers were reacting primarily against efforts in the Southern Baptist Convention to pursue "efficiency" and "professionalism" by consolidating Southern Baptist money and executive power in towns and cities (towns and cities being relatively recent developments west of the Mississippi).
- The two parties in Arkansas, the New South "efficiency" party and the agrarian "common man" party, were fighting over who could rightfully claim the mantle of the recently-departed J. R. Graves, father of "Landmarkism." Truly, both parties were thoroughly Landmark (as was the preponderance of Southern Baptists in Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, much of Tennessee, and a handful of other regions). Graves's own son-in-law and heir-apparent, O. L. Hailey, amidst much fence-jumping, considered both sides to be in line with Graves's teachings.
- Regionalism, probable slight theological dissatisfaction with Southern Seminary, and vision for a slightly different kind of seminary education in the Southwest led B. H. Carroll just one year later (in 1901) to launch a Theology Department at Baylor University. This department grew rapidly over the following decade to become Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
- Lottie Moon, having served in China for nearly three decades, was surviving the dark days of the Boxer Rebellion, a militaristic anti-Christian uprising marked by such shameful excesses as the Taiyuan Massacre of Christian missionaries, believers, and children in the Summer of that year.
- Robert Cooke Buckner, having established himself as a pioneer of orphan care twenty-one years earlier, rushed to Galveston in 1900 in the aftermath of what is still today the deadliest hurricane in American history. Buckner gathered up and took to his Children's Home in Dallas roughly a hundred children from the swath of destruction, some of whom were orphans but some of whom merely hadn't yet located their parents in the chaotic aftermath of the storm. His passion for children earned him the nickname "Father Buckner."
- George W. Truett was the pastor at First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, where he assisted in the development and funding of such expansive ministries as Baylor University Medical Center (founded 1903). Truett became a world-renowned preacher and a tireless champion of religious liberty.
- Isaac Taylor Tichenor had just resigned from the presidency of the Home Mission Board. His is widely regarded as the most successful administration that the HMB/NAMB has ever known.
- After a fire, the First Baptist Church of Farmerville, Texas (where I now pastor), was constructing the sanctuary in which we now worship.
A lot was going on in Southern Baptist life, as you can see. Southern Baptists, seeing a wide variety of needs, had begun to respond in a wide variety of ways. We were involved in health-care, orphan-care, theological education, and missions both domestically and internationally. The Southern Baptist Convention, the various state conventions, and the various local associations were all robustly active. The area west of the Mississippi River was not at all considered "reached" by Southern Baptists. Evangelism and church planting were naturally considered by Southern Baptists to be an enterprise that began right at home.
The churches were young. Their facilities, if they had facilities, were young. The associations were planting new churches. The educational institutions were mostly young. The hospitals were young. The orphanages were young. Indeed, the simple realization that the South actually would stand on its own two feet again after the disasters of Civil War and Reconstruction was pretty young itself; therefore, the thought of Southern Baptists doing anything beyond first surviving belonged to the generation alive in 1900. At every strata and in every way, we were a young convention.
The upside of all of this: The Southern Baptist Convention in 1900 was an innovative group of people looking for creative ways to proclaim and live out the gospel. The manifold ministries that so many Southern Baptists take for granted were birthed, many of them, during this era.
The downside of all of this: These young institutions, starving for money, developed inefficient and counter-productive methods of soliciting donations from Southern Baptist churches. Some specific weaknesses of the pre-Cooperative-Program approach to Southern Baptist financial support:
A class of Southern Baptist employees emerged whose sole business was to solicit money from churches. These "agents" existed at virtually every tier of Southern Baptist life and at virtually every entity. They were not bad people, but they had a bad job that tended to provoke resentment among the churches. Consider this passage from the Missouri Baptist Word and Way of early 1901:
Every observing person must recognize the advance of a dread commercialism which is eating like a [cancer] at the vitals of our generation. . . . This sordid money-loving spirit on the part of God’s professed people has led them to form their co-operative bodies on a “money basis,” and this often on a fixed basis which necessarily excludes the poor man or church from their councils. . . . We are coming to believe that there should be no agents going up and down the land whose sole business it is to get money. They learn to make money through God and educate our people in a bad way. They should be preachers of a whole Gospel, like Paul. A faithful Gospel preached in its fullness will set the churches upon methods, Scriptural methods, which will not only collect the money needed, but which will insure its faithful expenditure. Let our agents change front, and instead of seeking only the money of the Lord’s people, let that whole matter take the secondary and incidental place where it belongs, and make piety, consecration of life and property the great burden of their message.
Some of the fundraising arrangements left Southern Baptists with the suspicion that their gifts were not reaching the causes for which they were solicited. William A. Clark, while serving as the General Missionary for the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, also served as a fundraising agent for the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. He served under what was a common arrangement for the day—he got to keep for himself 100% of the gifts that he received from churches until he had received the amount of his salary. The board then received gifts beyond that amount. In the first church to make a gift to the Home Mission Board for a given year, then, none of the money actually made it to the Home Mission Board. The Board, however, was doing what was necessary to recruit motivated individuals to solicit funds in the local churches.
As a result of these developments, some Southern Baptists believed that gifts to Southern Baptist causes did more to provide the livelihoods of certain prominent families in the SBC than to spread the gospel. Widespread involvement of siblings and offspring of prominent Southern Baptists in denominational enterprises fueled these suspicions. In Texas, B. H. Carroll and J. M. Carroll were both serving, and some disgruntled Southern Baptists in Texas alleged financial improprieties on J. M. Carroll's part. Carroll was vindicated upon subsequent investigation, but the point is not that the charges were justified at all, but that Southern Baptists were lobbing accusations against one of the Carroll brothers.
John H. Eager was a fundraising agent of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who worked full time to appeal directly to SBC churches and wealthy people to give funds to the seminary. His brother George was a professor at the seminary. His other brother Patrick was president of Baylor Female College in Belton, Texas, before settling as a faculty member at Mississippi College. These brothers were the children of an influential pastor in Mississippi, E. C. Eager.
So, if you were a Mississippi Southern Baptist, you might attend a church that E. C. Eager pastored and hear one Sunday from an agent seeking to raise money for Mississippi College where Patrick H. Eager was employed, and then the next Sunday from John Eager raising money for Southern Seminary where George Eager was employed. Nepotism eroded some Southern Baptist confidence that it was only the family of God being enlarged by Southern Baptist generosity.
The Carrolls were gifted brothers who each contributed greatly to Southern Baptists in Texas. The Eagers were fine people and committed Baptists as well. Southern Baptists are probably better off for the contributions of each. They were likely as dedicated and skilled as some of the families in Southern Baptist life today in which siblings and lineal descendants are able to parlay relationships into denominational posts. The SBC would be far the worse were it not for some of these (technically speaking) "nepotistic" arrangements. Yet the situation, when combined with the higher-pressure environment of direct monetary appeals to the churches, made for an easy avenue of criticism for those who chafed under the constant requests for gifts.
The multiplication of institutions and agents meant that some churches were inundated with people seeking a Sunday to speak at the church and take up an offering. And all of this came at the time when, at least in the Southwest, many of these churches were just undertaking either the construction of their own facilities or the retirement of associated debt.
The resultant distribution of funds was haphazard rather than strategic, reflecting more the skill, lineage, and network of the employed agents than the spiritual importance of the institution. E. Y. Mullins used to complain that the seminary belonged to everybody (in the Southern Baptist Convention) and therefore belonged to nobody. In other words, he believed that "local" interests such as state colleges and hospitals and the like had a great fundraising advantage over the seminary.
Southern Baptists who wanted more money to reach "lostness" in the years B.C.P. (Before the Cooperative Program) and who were wearied of the negative aspects of accelerating competition in fundraising appeals to the churches began to look for a better solution. Why do Southern Baptists not face this problem today? Because of the Cooperative Program.