By David Roach
EDITOR’S NOTE: March is National Women’s History Month.
NASHVILLE (BP) — In 1917, the Southern Baptist Convention received what The Christian Index called “quite a shock” when a Texas church music leader made a motion at the SBC annual meeting concerning “the eternal question”: Should women be allowed to serve as SBC messengers?
Following a protracted – and feisty – debate that ended with a contested parliamentary maneuver, the convention answered that question in the negative. But the following year, Robert Coleman of First Baptist Church in Dallas, TX made his motion again and prevailed.
As the convention observes the 100th anniversary of that action, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary first lady Dorothy Patterson said “there is no way to estimate the contributions of women during this century of their being an integral part of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
“One has but to look at the history of our convention to see how the Lord has used women in many and varied ways over the decades,” said Patterson, professor of theology in women’s studies at Southwestern. “Women have shown a compassion for missions and for reaching the lost and hurting of this world in extraordinary ways.
“The Woman’s Missionary Union has taken the lead in missionary education from the beginning…. Women have served effectively on SBC boards, using their nurturing sensitivity, intuitive discernment, and unique creativity to add to the wisdom and godly counsel where they serve,” Patterson told Baptist Press in written comments.
‘The Convention shall consist of brethren’
At the SBC’s founding in 1845, the convention’s Constitution did not stipulate any gender requirement for “delegates,” as messengers were called then. So in 1877, Myra Graves of Texas, widow of Baylor University President Henry Graves, became what Baptist historian Charles Deweese believes was the first female delegate to the SBC, registering as M.E. Graves and doing so again in 1882.
But the issue of female delegates came to a head in 1885.
When two women – Mrs. J.P. Eagle and Mrs. M.D. Early – were announced to the convention as delegates from Arkansas, Virginia pastor J. William Jones claimed they were ineligible to serve, and the question was referred to a five-member committee. The committee’s majority report – by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary co-founder Basil Manly Jr. and two others – “did not deem it expedient and for the best interests of the Convention to allow ladies to come as members,” the Alabama Baptist reported, but “they saw nothing in the Constitution to prevent their membership.”
Yet the convention voted to accept a minority report which denied seating to the female delegates, and the Arkansas delegation withdrew the women’s names from consideration, according to the Alabama Baptist. The Tennessee Baptist newsjournal reported, “The president ruled that the secretaries might exclude all reference to the question, and argument, from their report of the proceedings.”
Accordingly, the 1885 SBC Annual included no recounting of the delegate seating controversy. The Annual did note, however, that later in the meeting, the convention voted 131-42 to strike from the SBC Constitution the statement that “the Convention shall consist of members” and replace it with, “The convention shall consist of brethren.”
The constitutional ban of female delegates remained in place until 1913, when Coleman, a longtime associate of First Baptist Dallas pastor George W. Truett, “gave formal notice that at the next session of the Convention … an amendment to the Constitution would be proposed, looking to the recognition of women as messengers,” according to the 1913 SBC Annual.
Coleman ended up waiting until 1917 to offer his motion.
‘Equal privileges’ for all
In his day, Coleman was a well-known personality in Southern Baptist life. A frequent participant in discussion at SBC annual meetings, he led the convention in corporate singing during at least 19 separate annual meetings from 1914-1940. Coleman’s music publishing company produced 32 hymnals and collections of songs, according to the “Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists,” and “was the principal source of church music for Southern Baptist churches.”
The Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources) purchased Coleman’s music business for $50,000 in 1945, according to the 1946 SBC Annual. He also served as a trustee of the SBC’s Board of Ministerial Relief and Annuities (now GuideStone Christian Resources) from 1918 until his death in 1946.
Coleman was already widely known in 1917 when he moved that the SBC Constitution be amended to reference “messengers” rather than “brethren.” To support his motion, Coleman noted that “in so pure a democracy as a Baptist church, all members have equal privilege,” according to the 1917 SBC Annual.
“Much to the surprise of a number of the brethren,” The Christian Index reported, the convention appeared to adopt Coleman’s constitutional amendment. But then a point of order was raised that a two-thirds majority of all delegates registered was required to amend the Constitution, not merely the two-thirds present.
President J.B. Gambrell, who personally supported Coleman’s proposal, ruled the point of order well taken and the amendment lost. His ruling was sustained on appeal from the floor, The Index reported.
During what The Index called “the excitement following the point of order, many things were said that showed a depth of feeling” – as when Gambrell quipped to unruly messengers, “Lots of the women can preach, and many of you fellows on the floor can’t.”
In the end, the matter was referred to a committee chaired by Coleman to report in 1918.
North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder newsjournal opined, “We doubt if Chairman Coleman can bring in a unanimous report next year.”
The Biblical Recorder was correct. In 1918, Coleman asked the convention to drop the matter of female messengers because his committee did not have a unanimous report to bring, according to The Index.
But Oklahoma’s F.M. McConnell called for the reading of Coleman’s report anyway – cosigned by Louisiana pastor M.E. Dodd – and the SBC Constitution was amended by the necessary two-thirds majority to permit female messengers.
Hours earlier, the convention had voted in favor of a motion by Coleman that the Constitution be amended to allow future amendments by two-thirds of the messengers “present when the vote is being taken” – presumably a move aimed at avoiding a parliamentary setback like the one in 1917.
In the end, the SBC permitted female messengers two years before the U.S. granted women the right to vote by ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment.
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary first lady Rhonda Kelley told BP, “I believe that women were included as messengers to the SBC after the vote in 1918 as a result of the historical and cultural roles of women in America. Women have been very involved in our local Southern Baptist churches from the beginning and continue to be integral to the work of the church. Our interpretation of Scripture for men to be spiritual leaders in the home and church does not impact participation in the annual meeting or serving on appropriate committees by qualified Southern Baptist women.”
Patterson agreed that Scripture’s teaching on women’s roles in the home and church does not preclude service to the convention.
“We cannot read the hearts nor judge the motives of those before the 1918 change that invited women to be voting members of the body,” Patterson said. “Perhaps there were some with prejudice; maybe some did interpret Scripture’s guidelines as going beyond a natural reading of the text. In any case, the Holy Spirit, when we give Him free reign in our hearts, will guide us to a right understanding. He corrects and teaches. The journey of the Christian life is to pursue understanding God’s Word more perfectly.”
‘A cultural moment’
In the past 100 years, Kelley said in written comments, “women have been an important part of SBC annual meetings.”
“We have served as messengers and tellers, on committees and boards as well as on the programs,” said Kelley, who chaired SBC Executive Committee Frank S. Page’s Women’s Advisory Council from 2016-17. “In addition, several meetings specifically for women take place around the SBC, including the Woman’s Missionary Union annual meeting, the Pastors’ Wives Conference, and the Ministers’ Wives Luncheon.
“Women help with the local arrangements and coordination of programs for children/youth during the convention. Many female authors are featured during book signings with LifeWay Christian Resources,” Kelley said.
The first woman to be elected an SBC officer was Mrs. R.L. Mathis, a former WMU president who was elected second vice president in 1963 and became the first woman to preside during an SBC annual meeting in 1964, Deweese said in a 1977 address to the Florida Baptist Historical Society.
Mathis was nominated for SBC president in 1972, Deweese said, and Mrs. Carl Bates was elected second vice president in 1976.
In 2016, Amy Whitfield of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary became the first woman to serve as an SBC parliamentarian, BP reported. At least four women presently serve on the International Mission Board’s presidential search team seeking a successor to David Platt.
In a chapter for the book The Many Faces of the Southern Baptist Convention, released by the Executive Committee Feb. 21, Kelley and Southwestern Seminary professor Candi Finch highlighted numerous aspects of women’s involvement in the convention. They also noted more than 90 percent of respondents to a 2016 survey of Southern Baptist women “felt that women could be more involved in SBC life.”
Baptist historian Nathan Finn told BP he “strongly” believes convention life should include more women. He hopes the 100th anniversary of female SBC messengers can become an occasion for the convention to denounce all forms of sexism.
“We are living in a cultural moment where even unbelievers are lamenting the pernicious effects of sexual abuse of women and other forms of sexism,” Finn, dean of Union University’s School of Theology and Missions, told BP in written comments. “The hundredth anniversary of allowing women to serve as messengers is the perfect time for the Southern Baptist Convention to go on record denouncing abuse against women and every other form of sexism, as well as the toxic priorities that fuel sexism, including disordered power arrangements, rampant pornography, violent forms of entertainment, and human trafficking.”