Fifty years ago, in May 1964, a diverse group of Baptists from across North America gathered in Atlantic City to celebrate the culmination of a five-year evangelism campaign (1959-1964). With the participation of American Baptists, African-American Baptists, Canadian Baptists and Southern Baptists, this campaign, known as Baptist Jubilee Advance, aimed to inspire Baptists to recover their responsibility for carrying out the Great Commission to spread the Gospel, the Good News.
During the campaign (the last joint significant effort of its kind among North American Baptists), a new leader emerged in Baptist life — Jitsuo Morikawa, a leader whose influence would become far-reaching in the years ahead. Morikawa was a key organizer of Baptist Jubilee Advance (and a Baptist that more should know).
Born to Buddhist parents in British Columbia, Morikawa became a Christian at age 16, and several years later was ordained in 1937 at a Baptist church in Pasadena, California. After a stop at UCLA for his bachelor’s degree, Morikawa headed to Louisville to attend Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. With his degree in hand, Morikawa hoped to be a missionary, but his Japanese ancestry proved to be a barrier to service.
So Morikawa returned to the West Coast and served as pastor to three Japanese-American Baptist congregations in the Los Angeles area. His time in the pulpit was brief though. Morikawa and his wife, Hazel, were soon rounded up and forced into an internment camp in Arizona alongside nearly 18,000 other Japanese-Americans. He and Hazel spent nearly two years in the camp until Baptist leaders secured their release.
With World War II still raging in 1943, the historic First Baptist Church of Chicago, a predominantly white congregation, called Morikawa as its pastor. Thirteen years later, Morikawa embarked on what would be a 20-year denominational journey as an executive with the American Baptist Convention (later American Baptist Churches USA). In 1956, he took over the denomination’s evangelism department, which had placed a premium on a “door-to-door” faith-sharing model.
What Morikawa offered American Baptists was a new model — an approach that provided a redefinition or new understanding of evangelism. Morikawa’s “new evangelism” signaled a more social action-oriented trajectory for the denomination. As an organizer of Baptist Jubilee Advance, Morikawa shared with and promoted to the Baptist family a holistic evangelism, which viewed salvation to be both individual and social — inclusive of the entire world, political and economic structures included.
“We have obscured the Gospel, distorted the Gospel by assuming that evangelism was primarily and fundamentally winning souls to Christ and saving them from eternal perdition,” Morikawa said. “We have missed out on the larger horizon of the redemption of the cosmos, the restoration of God’s universe.”
“Evangelism is primarily the activity of God, transforming this world, renewing this world, sustaining this world, persons, society, institutions, families, corporations and social structures,” Morikawa explained.
The mission of God is evangelism and the mission of the church is to participate in God’s mission. That was Morikawa’s message to Baptists in North America. It was a message that re-articulated the “new evangelism” of Walter Rauschenbusch, who in a popular article by the same name in 1904, called for a “fuller and purer expression” of evangelism that recovered the social emphases of ancient Christianity. Rauschenbusch believed this “new evangelism” could awaken Americans from their slumber and equip Christians to confront society’s sins — the evils caused by unregulated industrialization and unplanned urbanization.
Morikawa shared Rauschenbusch’s hope for justice, except his hope was not blind to injustices on the basis of race and ethnicity. Morikawa knew these injustices too well.
His project proved to be quite controversial, and the controversial nature of this “new evangelism” was on display at the final gathering of the Baptist Jubilee Advance in 1964. There, a 20-member panel of top Baptist leaders representing various different denominations presented a pamphlet on shared distinctives.
The pamphlet gave much attention to the topic of baptism (nearly two pages) but included only four lines on race relations. And, the pamphlet was unveiled as Southern Democrats in the U.S. Senate were filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and just months after the 1963 March on Washington and the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
Morikawa seized the opportunity and spoke up.
“This whole document is a preoccupation with the church,” Morikawa told the group. “We need to be delivered out of preoccupation with the church and bring Baptists into a relevant engagement with Christian service in the world.”
Some in the room were not interested in deliverance. Herschel Hobbs, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, provided pushback to Morikawa’s call for a greater emphasis on contemporary issues. Hobbs insisted that debates over biblical inspiration were not “dated” and remained relevant to every generation.
Morikawa also faced many critics in his own denomination. Some called him a heretic. More polite voices labeled him a universalist. Pastors claimed he didn’t believe in individual salvation. Yet, Morikawa testified (repeatedly) to his own personal conversion experience. The attacks did not stop.
Armed with “new evangelism,” Morikawa steered American Baptists toward a fresh understanding of what being the “church in the world” looked like in the 20th century. And at Baptist Jubilee Advance, he recovered the theological foundation that would help American Baptists (as well as many others, Baptists and non-Baptists alike) chart a more socially-concerned course with a “new evangelism” and in a new era where injustices were everywhere.
Jitsuo Morikawa — a name that more Baptists should know.