Grady Cothen, one of the last surviving Southern Baptist Convention agency heads prior to schism in the 1980s, has died. Cothen, 96, died peacefully May 19 at the Orchard Home in Ridgeland, Miss., after a series of illnesses.
Cothen served as president of the Baptist Sunday School Board (now known as LifeWay Christian Resources) from 1975 until his retirement in 1984. Midway through his tenure, 1979, marked the starting point of the “conservative resurgence” also known as the “fundamentalist takeover” of the SBC and subsequent emergence of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in the 1990s.
Cothen wrote about the conflict from the “moderate” perspective in his 1993 memoir What Happened to the Southern Baptist Convention? and The New SBC: Fundamentalism’s Impact on the Southern Baptist Convention in 1995.
“Baptist life during his era was never dominated by any ruling clique,” Cothen’s family said in an obituary, but rather led by statesmen such as Southern Seminary President Duke McCall, Sunday School Board President James Sullivan, pastors Herschel Hobbs and Warren Hultgren and Executive Committee head Porter Routh.
“Grady Cothen won their respect and shared lifelong friendships,” the family said. “Among the listed group, he is the last to pass away.”
Adhering to Baptist tenets including the centrality of evangelism and discipleship, the autonomy of individual congregations and the priesthood of the believer, Cothen “thought the notion of the Baptist convention telling Baptists what to think was anathema, and he strongly believed that separation of church and state was essential to religious freedom,” the obit continued.
“When many Baptist leaders lurched to the right in the late 1980s and beyond, he associated himself with the traditional Baptists (who were, as he explained, ‘moderates’ in this context, but true conservatives in any other).”
A graduate of Mississippi College and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Cothen served as a Navy chaplain in World War II. He was a pastor for 15 years before being named executive secretary of the California Southern Baptist Convention in 1961.
From there he served as president of Oklahoma Baptist University and then New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary before succeeding Sullivan at the Sunday School Board when he retired after 22 years in February 1975. After Cothen retired in February 1984, his successor, Lloyd Elder, lasted seven years before being replaced by conservative leader Jimmy Draper in 1991.
Cothen was first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1962 and preached the annual convention sermon in 1970. He was nominated as SBC president in 1984 but lost a three-way race on a first ballot to conservative standard bearer Charles Stanley.
Cothen will be interred at Roseberry Cemetery in Mascot, Tenn., beside his wife of 63 years, Bettye, who died in 2005. In lieu of flowers the family requests to the Bettye Major Cothen Fund at Oklahoma Baptist University, benefiting the education of spouses of students for the Christian ministry.