As 2023 draws to a close, many political and military leaders are referring to the times in which we now live as “the most perilous since World War II.” The invasion of Israel by Hamas on October 7 and the escalating and expanding responses since then seem to have placed the words “war” and “world” in the same sentence an alarming number of times.
Yet if you look at our history as Southern Baptists, our identity and our story are not defined by the world leading us to war, but by war leading us to the world.
At the end of World War I, Southern Baptist veterans returned from Europe and described the devastating physical and spiritual needs they had left there. A divided and war-torn continent desperately needed the hope of the gospel.
Southern Baptists responded at their 1919 convention by launching “The Baptist Seventy-five Million Campaign,” challenging members of every church to sign pledge cards and give sacrificially over a five-year period to meet the pressing spiritual and missional needs of the day. I still have my great-grandmother’s pledge card for twenty-five dollars, a sacrificial amount in that day for a farm wife whose house had recently burned to the ground, my mother tells me. Written across the pledge card, in her own hand, are the words “paid in full,” two years early.
Later that year, in October 1919, services for “calling out the called” resulted in more than 20,000 volunteers for ministry and mission service. About 3,000 new churches were organized, and eight new international mission fields were entered.
By the way, the size of the convention that year was about 4,200 messengers. Seventy-five million dollars back then would be the equivalent of over $1.3 billion today. And while economic hard times hit the South in the 1920’s and the total collected through 1924 was “only” about $58 million, that amount given over five years amounted to about 90% of the entire amount Baptists had previously given over their first 74 years of existence since 1845.
After WWI, cooperative missions began defining us.
The Baptist Seventy-Five Million Campaign ended up becoming a pilot and predecessor for the establishment of the Cooperative Program in 1925, which continues to prepare and place thousands of missionaries, pastors, church planters, and volunteers today. Both demonstrate what everyday Baptists and Baptist churches of all sizes can do when they choose to cooperate for bold missionary causes on a worldwide scale.
Many would say it was after World War I that cooperative missions truly became a defining and core characteristic of Southern Baptist identity. It now stands alongside unwavering commitment to the Bible and Baptist doctrine as one of the primary reasons that diverse, autonomous Baptist churches choose to stay together through good times and bad. We can disagree agreeably about a lot of things when we agree passionately on the Bible and the Great Commission.
Cooperative missions-giving gave compassionate, faith-filled Baptists a powerful way to respond to the spiritual and physical ravages of war. And the same is true today.
And so, even as wars and rumors of wars bombard us in the news, let’s continue to boldly lead our churches to prioritize and give more sacrificially than ever through the Cooperative Program, especially as we approach its 100th anniversary. It’s the most effective missionary-sending system in modern history. And with missionaries around the world, with soundly equipped and resourced pastors and church planters leading our churches, and with Baptist volunteers eager to join them, we can continue to take the gospel to the world, even during wars, and to offer it true and lasting peace.
Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.