It was 2:00 in the morning in September 1980, and E. Glenn Hinson was sitting in his rocking chair, unable to sleep. It was a moment he would recount more than two decades later in his 2012 autobiography, A Miracle of Grace. He lamented silently, “God, you surely don’t mean for me to send out a letter that may cause all hell to break loose.”
The story that led to that sleepless night began on Aug. 21, 1980, when Ed McAteer of the Religious Roundtable and Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority convened a “public affairs briefing” for evangelical pastors in Dallas. “It’s a non-partisan event,” James Robison explained to Ronald Reagan as they made the limousine ride to Reunion Arena, “so just say something like ‘I know you can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.’”
“The Jerusalem Post had published his open letter just as the Knesset was poised to expel every Southern Baptist missionary from Israel.”
The Republican presidential candidate loved that line so much he used it verbatim as his opener. Robison, known in those days as “God’s Angry Young Man,” had warmed up the crowd by suggesting that President Jimmy Carter and his entire administration ought to be locked up for “printing worthless money” and arguing that the Bible teaches small government conservatism. Reagan joined the ensuing standing ovation.
By the time Bailey Smith, the Oklahoma pastor and newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, rose to speak the media scrum was long gone. “It is interesting at great political rallies,” Smith remarked casually, “how you have a Protestant to pray, a Catholic to pray and then you have a Jew to pray. With all due respect for those dear people, my friends, God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”
So many over-the-top statements had been uttered from the platform that night that no one seemed to notice one more. But Milton Tobian with the American Jewish Committee heard Smith loud and clear and had his remarks on tape. As Tobian’s transcript circulated throughout the Jewish world, outrage built quickly. (Reagan and Falwell were forced to disagree publicly with Smith’s perspective, a slight the Baptist preacher never forgot.)
Hinson received a phone call from Sol Bernards, director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in New York. “I’ve called every Southern Baptist leader I can think of,” Bernards said, “and cannot get a single one to respond to this statement.”
Hinson said he was sure that Duke McCall, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where Hinson taught, would be happy to make a statement. “Glenn, I’ve called McCall’s office repeatedly,” Bernards said. “His secretary always cuts me off.”
Hinson promptly drafted an open letter to Smith with three simple points. One, if God doesn’t hear the prayer of Jews, then the leading figures of the Bible, from Abraham to Jesus, had no access to the Divine. Two, Baptists had always championed the principle of religious liberty, not just for themselves but for everyone.
“Tolerance is ‘such an evil sin,’ Smith declared, ‘because it contradicts the personality of God.’”
With his third point, Hinson cut to the heart of his concern: “Statements such as this one are the stuff from which holocausts come.”
Hinson knew that line would get Smith’s attention, which is why he found himself in his rocking chair at 2 a.m. Finally, as Hinson later recounted in his autobiography, God spoke: “Yes, dammit, Glenn, hang in there!”
Hinson’s letter was published in its entirety by the Western Recorder, the Kentucky Baptist newspaper, on Wednesday, Sept. 17.
On Sept. 19, Hinson found himself standing before the redoubtable Southern Seminary president in McCall’s office. In only two days, Hinson’s letter had created a sensation. “Glenn,” McCall practically hollered, “you’ve got to do something about this. It’s explosive!”
Hinson was on his way to lead a retreat for a Methodist church in Erie, Illinois, and had a taxi waiting outside. “I’ll have to attend to this on Monday,” he told McCall. Then, turning on his heel, he marched out of the office.
No sooner had Hinson arrived in Erie than the phone began to ring. Friends like New Testament scholar Frank Stagg warned that McCall had called a faculty meeting and was threatening to make a public statement on the Bailey Smith matter that would “kick Glenn in the face.”
Hinson’s faculty friends kept calling all day Saturday. Most were supportive, but a few suggested that he might be giving the seminary a black eye. Hinson was feeling lightheaded. He was almost never sick to his stomach, but between presentations to the Methodists, he was in the restroom throwing up violently.
Then came the call that changed everything. “You’re a hero,” colleague Wayne Ward announced over the phone on Sunday morning. Hinson learned from Ward that the Jerusalem Post had published his open letter just as the Knesset was poised to expel every Southern Baptist missionary from Israel.
“By the time the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was formed in 1991, strategic theological imprecision had become an ingrained habit.”
Hinson’s holocaust reference turned the trick. It showed that he understood why Smith’s comment was so abhorrent to Jewish people. Further, it demonstrated that some Southern Baptists believed in religious liberty.
Smith had grown up believing that the only way Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus could escape hell was to become Christians. Nothing he learned at Ouachita Baptist College in Arkansas or Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas challenged this simple theological equation.
Hinson had a more eclectic education. At Washington University in Saint Louis he studied under Huston Smith, then the leading authority on world religions. Early in his career as a professor, Hinson took students in his church history class to the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery near Louisville, to give them a feel for medieval monasticism. There he met Thomas Merton, an authority on Christian spirituality with a keen interest in meditation, contemplation and, in his later years, Zen Buddhism.
Hinson completed his formal education with a Doctor of Philosophy in patristics from Oxford University, sequestering himself in the Bodleian Library where he read virtually everything written by leading Christian thinkers before 400 CE. The Church of England, he learned, “ascribes to the Fathers [and Mothers] of the Church the kind of respect and authority for framing its doctrine most Protestants accord to the New Testament.”
In the course of his studies, Hinson also was introduced to Eastern Orthodoxy with its focus on the Logos Christology and “theosis” (the idea that God became human so humans could partake in the Divine). This prepared him for the thought of the paleontologist/theologian Teilhard de Chardin who spoke of Christ as the “Omega Man,” the culmination of eons of biological and spiritual evolution.
As he discovered the spiritual riches of the broader Christian tradition, Hinson came to a deeper appreciation for his Baptist heritage. Back when they were a struggling minority, Baptists had championed the principle of religious liberty, but having achieved majority status in the American South, many had started thinking and behaving like medieval Catholics.
Baptists were good at getting folks saved, but they showed little interest in spiritual formation. Seminaries taught students how to study and interpret the Bible and how to preach, but little was said about prayer and contemplation.
“The days of moderation are over. If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, many of our children and grandchildren will walk out the door and never come back.”
Determined to change that, Hinson pioneered a wildly popular course on the classics of Christian devotion. By the time he wrote his open letter to Smith, he was an enthusiastic participant in the ecumenical movement, frequently lecturing in non-Baptist academic settings and teaching classes on spiritual formation in churches of every conceivable description.
The views of Bailey Smith and Glenn Hinson, although radically at variance, followed a clear theological logic. The same cannot be said for “moderate” denominational leaders who dreamed of marrying a polite form of Smith’s fundamentalism to a cautious expression of Hinson’s ecumenism. This theological marriage of convenience was probably unavoidable given the tenor of the times, but by the time the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was formed in 1991, strategic theological imprecision had become an ingrained habit. We just knew we weren’t mean Baptists like Smith and his ilk.
On the other hand, one never had to guess where Smith stood. “I wonder how many people are in hell because of the Christians who have been afraid they might disturb somebody,” he mused in 1999. He liked to tell a story about a Baptist layman who decided to put off witnessing to his boss until it was too late. “Pastor,” the weeping man told Smith at the altar, “during the invitation I heard my boss saying from hell, ‘Why didn’t somebody tell me? Why didn’t somebody tell me!’”
Sermons like “The Wheat and the Tares” (which, Smith claimed, had saved 40,000 people) and “Seven Kinds of People God will not Save” convinced devout, Bible-toting Southern Baptists that they were a “heartbeat from hell.” Smith asked people to think back to the moment of their conversion and then made them question the adequacy of their decision. Good, decent tithers and model parents would spend eternity in the pit, he said, if they didn’t get saved just right.
In God’s Last and Only Hope: The Fragmentation of the Southern Baptist Convention (1990), Bill Leonard, one of Hinson’s church history colleagues at Southern Seminary, noted the increasing numbers of rebaptisms in the denomination and suggested that “as the appeal of mass revivalism wanes, many Southern Baptists evangelists have concentrated on converting church members as a means to avoid changing their methods – or reducing their statistics.”
This was certainly what Smith was up to. When Tom Elliff (Smith’s brother-in-law) succeeded him at First Baptist, Del City, in 1985, Elliff immediately purged the membership rolls of non-resident and inactive members, revealing in the process that the 7,297 people Smith had baptized in five years added only 470 new members. Thousands of Smith’s converts were dedicated Baptists who had been rebaptized because you never know.
The real burden of Smith’s ministry was laid bare in a sermon titled “The Sin that Sounds So Nice” preached at Fairview Baptist Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, a few months before Donald Trump was elected president. Tolerance is “such an evil sin,” Smith declared, “because it contradicts the personality of God.” He then moved through his King James Bible listing all the times God had commanded his people to commit genocide. If they had followed God’s orders, the evangelist suggested, the people we now know as “Arabs” wouldn’t be around today to fly planes into buildings.
The genocidal seed Smith planted at the event in Dallas four decades earlier had come to full flower. But this xenophobic rejection of the “other” was just the flip-side of nostalgic white nationalism.
“Why are we not allowed to have America anymore?” Smith asked, his trembling voice suggesting that he had wandered off script. “Now, I know we can’t have the Walton America or the Andy Griffith America. That day will never exist anymore. And I’m sad about that. Because we had a right to have that kind of America, and it’s amazing how many of the Muslims and the other countries love to come here and enjoy the country children of God built.”
Is God a genocidal sadist arbitrarily picking favorites, or is God perfectly revealed in the enemy-loving Jesus?
Moderate Baptists know they don’t want to follow Bailey Smith and his tribe, but have we embraced a clear alternative? Knowing who we aren’t won’t cut it anymore. The days of moderation are over. If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, many of our children and grandchildren will walk out the door and never come back.
We need to tell the world who we are. Are we serious about talking to believers who don’t believe the way we do? Are we serious about lifelong spiritual formation? Do we want to be peacemakers? Are we interested in the radical inclusion Jesus talked about?
If we are, Glenn Hinson, now 88 years of age, still points the way forward.