The Baptist General Association of Virginia will consider its Governance Study Committee report at its annual meeting in Fredericksburg. The plan replaces a large board composed primarily of representatives of district associations to a small governing board of 15-20 persons representative of several regions. The small board also would assume the functions of the present BGAV budget committee. The large group concept would be retained in the form of an advisory council.
The plan’s chief proponents call it streamlined and efficient. They see the BGAV unfurling its sails and moving forward.
Another major revision in BGAV governance was considered in 1921 and adopted the following year. George White McDaniel, pastor of First Baptist Church of Richmond, president of the BGAV and soon-to-be president of the Southern Baptist Convention, engineered a study committee of 15 persons.
McDaniel took a hands-off approach to the committee’s deliberation but did write the following to a member of the committee: “I am of the opinion that we ought to reorganize our denominational work in Virginia. We have many boards and some of them overlap and in some cases no one has authority to act. One thorough representative board would, in my judgment, serve the denomination better than the half dozen or more boards we now have. There will be objections from some and also practical difficulties, but I judge these existed to some extent in every state which has unified and simplified its organization.”
Interestingly, at the time the board was composed of regional representatives and McDaniel thought it best to consider the regional approach, which would prove “a more efficient board.” However, McDaniel also understood Baptist democracy and recognized the right to debate. “Discussion of the right sort never hurts Baptists,” he wrote to committee members.
He knew that some favored a board composed of representatives of the district associations instead of regions. There were 29 associations at the time and the committee endorsed the concept of associational representatives, along with 16 at-large members for a board of about 50 members. (Ironically, the new proposed governance of our time reverts to the regional representation approach in place 90 years ago.)
In 1922 several boards were in operation: the State Foreign Mission Board, the State Home Mission Board, the Education Board and the Baptist Education Commission of Virginia. The new plan of 1922 consolidated them into one governing board to be known as the Virginia Baptist Board of Missions and Education. At the time, there were several schools and colleges under the Virginia Baptist umbrella, so it was understandable that education should be a prime consideration of the new governing board.
Not everyone agreed with the new plan. As longtime editor of the Religious Herald, Robert Healy Pitt was among the most influential persons in the General Association. A former president of the BGAV, Pitt at the time was president of the Baptist Education Commission and felt it worked well on its own. Behind the scenes he privately expressed misgivings about the reorganization plan, especially the consolidation of various boards into one super board.
Using the editorial “we,” Editor Pitt, after the meeting, wrote and published his sentiments: “We will be frank enough to say that we have had no enthusiasm in behalf of consolidation beyond putting our mission interests in the State in the hands of one board. Quite naturally we were attached to the traditional Virginia method of distributing these responsibilities as far as possible, both geographically and in the personnel of the managers. Under that arrangement Virginia Baptists had won an enviable name in the South and under that arrangement they had enjoyed notable prosperity and had achieved wonderful things.”
But the editor deliberately stayed out of the discussion. “It did not seem to us, however, that we ought to take any active part in promoting our own personal view and this for two reasons. The first is that editing the Herald brings us into a more or less representative place. We must work not only harmoniously but cheerfully and cordially under any plans which the majority of our people may want and it would be manifestly improper on local issues for the Herald to attempt to use its influence to further the personal preferences of its editor. So let us say out of hand that we shall support in every way open to us the new arrangement with quite as much sincerity and steadiness as we supported the older plans.”
Once approved, Pitt urged that those who “may be discontented or apprehensive [should] dismiss the matter from their minds.”
“Let us give ourselves to the tremendous task of spreading the gospel,” he wrote. “Our Virginia Baptist people can work together under almost any sort of a plan.”
There was another reason for Pitt’s reluctance to become embroiled in debate over BGAV governance.
“The second reason is that we begin to realize the wisdom of Emerson’s counsel to elderly folk that the time has come ‘to take in sail.’ For years we have been identified with innumerable boards and committees and have been glad to serve the denomination. The fact is that we have given during the past 25 years far more time and strength and thought to other denominational enterprises than we have given to our own special work [at the Religious Herald]. So far as the new denominational arrangement relieves us of large responsibilities and great anxieties, we sincerely rejoice.”
As far as ‘taking in sail,” Pitt explained: “Older men who realize the limitations that come with advancing years ought to give way gracefully and gladly to younger folk and let them have their way about doing things, for we must increasingly rely upon their abounding energy and growing wisdom.”
Pitt spoke of “advancing years.” He was 69. Early in his career, he had been a pastor, and in 1888, at age 35, he had come onto the larger denominational scene when he joined the Herald staff. He already had devoted 34 years to the life of the BGAV. For the next 15 years until his death in 1937 he remained editor of the Herald, champion of the General Association and advocate for every good Baptist cause.
Fred Anderson ([email protected]) is executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and the Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies.