In May 1964, the Southern Baptists treked to Atlantic City, New Jersey, for their annual meeting, in conjunction with American Baptists’ annual meeting. The sojourn northward revealed the divisions in Southern Baptist life over issues of Baptist cooperation and race relations.
The year 1964 marked the 150th anniversary of American Baptists’ first national organization, the Triennial Convention, formed in 1814 for the purpose of mission endeavors. Seven Baptist groups in America celebrated the anniversary, and sought to form a committee to foster better relations among the various groups. Southern Baptists, however, refused to take part in the joint committee.
By a vote of 2,771 to 2,738 – a mere 33 votes – SBC messengers voted against the cooperative proposal. A “heated debate” characterized the discussion regarding the debate. Agreeing to be a part of the joint committee meant joining hands with African American Baptist groups, and some Southern Baptists refused to do so.
Other resolutions further revealed the division that race relations caused among Southern Baptists in 1964. The Christian Life Commission offered a resolution for the inclusion of blacks in local Southern Baptist churches; for civil rights for blacks; and recommending that Southern Baptists devote themselves to the “decisive defeat of racism.”
A retired Baptist minister from Kentucky responded with a resolution condeming forced integration of public schools as unbiblical and an “invasion of the sanctity of the home, an usurpation of parental authority and responsibility, and should be immediately rescinded.” The author of the resolution also denigrated blacks as being less human than whites.
Racism and regionalism would continue to characterize Southern Baptists for the remainder of the decade. But in New Jersey in 1964, Southern Baptists came within a whisker of helping form a North American Baptist fellowship, while some courageous voices in their midst envisioned a day when Southern Baptist churches would welcome all humans into their sanctuaries.