By David Roach
BRUNSWICK (BP) – Jimmy Allen, a former Southern Baptist Convention president and entity leader known for his gregarious personality and engagement with cultural issues, died Jan. 8 in Brunswick, Ga. He was 91.
The last SBC president to serve before the convention’s Conservative Resurgence, Allen also was a confidant of President Jimmy Carter and once met with Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iran hostage crisis. Allen led the SBC’s Radio and Television Commission from 1980-90 and the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ Christian Life Commission from 1960-68.
During Allen’s 1968-80 pastorate of 9,000-member First Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas, the congregation was among the SBC’s baptism leaders and established a range of social ministries.
“He was the most energetic dreamer I think I’ve ever known,” said Allen biographer Larry McSwain, a former dean and provost at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “He was driven by a call from God as a young man that never left him, and he had a passion for people that shaped the kind of ministry he had throughout the many chapters of his life.”
A hallmark of Allen’s SBC presidency was Bold Mission Thrust, a convention-wide campaign adopted in 1978 “to enable every person in the world to have the opportunity to hear and to respond to the Gospel of Christ by the year 2000.” Allen was among the campaign’s chief promoters.
Jimmy Draper, retired president of LifeWay Christian Resources and a friend of Allen’s since the 1950s, called Allen an excellent preacher and a passionate evangelist.
“The night [the SBC launched] Bold Mission Thrust, there was a huge crowd,” said Draper, SBC Executive Committee ambassador. “It was one of the most impressive evenings as [Allen] challenged us to implement Bold Mission Thrust. Even though we disagreed on a lot of things, I respected him. He was a good communicator and had a heart to see people reached for the Gospel.”
Gender diversity marked Allen’s presidential appointments and SBC program decisions. At his first annual meeting to preside in 1978, a woman, Marian Grant, chaired the Program Committee and 15 women were appointed to SBC committees, according to McSwain’s biography “Loving Beyond Your Theology.” Five additional women had program roles, including addresses by Coretta Scott King and Ruth Graham Bell.
Allen’s intense work ethic, McSwain said, led him to sleep only about four hours a night and consume “coffee by the gallon.” He “had met everybody, and he knew everybody”, often calling pastors “Doc” when he couldn’t recall their names.
His engagement with social issues included efforts to battle racism and segregation during the Jim Crow era. Allen said in a 2008 interview his concern about racism began as a teenager when a conference at LifeWay’s Ridgecrest Conference Center led him to rethink prejudiced views.
“My sense is that the Bible itself is our authority and our mandate and that the Bible is very clear about God creating all men in His image,” Allen said in 2008. “And therefore there’s a mandate in God’s Word to oppose any kind of discrimination and racial prejudice.”
At the Texas Christian Life Commission, Allen advocated for the integration of Texas public schools and helped organize a conference on race at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His 1969-71 presidency of the BGCT culminated with an interracial gathering of 41,000 Texas Baptists from various conventions in Houston’s Astrodome.
Allen’s advocacy of racial justice brought so many threats to his family that he and his wife Wanda established a secret pattern of rings for their home telephone to let their children know a parent was calling rather than a white supremacist with a death threat, McSwain said in a 2008 interview.
While SBC conservatives and moderates alike came to applaud Allen’s progressive thinking on race, McSwain told Baptist Press, his “progressivism” in other areas like theology and U.S. politics “probably triggered some reaction” from “grassroots” Southern Baptists involved in the Conservative Resurgence.
In his latter years, Allen participated in moderate Baptist groups like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the New Baptist Covenant.
Politically, Allen used his vast social network to help Carter carry Texas in the 1976 U.S. presidential election, McSwain said. Allen “lived on the telephone” and obtained “carte blanche access to the White House after Carter became president…. Carter often called him for counsel” and “frequently addressed him as his pastor.”
On Christmas Day 1979, Allen was part of a nongovernmental U.S. delegation that met in Iran with the ayatollah amid a standoff over 52 Americans being held hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. When the delegation initially was refused an audience with Ayatollah Khomeini, McSwain said, Allen appealed to his status as immediate past SBC president. Following his meeting with the ayatollah, Allen met with the U.S. hostages.
Among Allen’s deepest personal struggles was the deaths of his son, a daughter-in-law unrelated to that son, and two grandchildren stemming from AIDS. He detailed the experience in the 1995 book “Burden of a Secret.” Allen also became an advocate for AIDS patients.
Allen’s funeral will be held Jan. 14 at First Baptist Church in St. Simons Island, Ga.
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.