American Elijah Brown won formal approval July 7 as next general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, a fellowship of 238 conventions and unions in 124 countries and territories around the world numbering 45 million members in 177,000 churches.
Brown, 36, is executive vice president of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, a Christian human rights organization based in Washington’s Virginia suburbs. He previously taught religion at East Texas Baptist University. Since last year he has also served as BWA regional secretary for North America and general secretary for the North American Baptist Fellowship.
Brown’s tenure takes effect Jan. 1. He will succeed Jamaican Neville Callam, the first non-white and non-European head of the pan-Baptist organization which started with leadership from Baptists in the United Kingdom and the United States in 1905. Callam had announced retirement plans last November.
Callam voiced full confidence in his successor in a BWA press release. He predicted that Brown’s service will be “marked by robust advocacy in the cause of social justice and enthusiastic engagement witnessing to the transformative power of the gospel.”
John Upton, former BWA president and chair of the general secretary search committee, said Brown “understands the BWA, values human rights, is a champion of religious freedom, connects with all generations, is a passionate speaker, a skilled administrator.”
Upton, executive director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, said the new BWA leader brings “motivation, inspiration and innovation with great skill and effectiveness” to the organization.
Brown is a graduate of the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas, with a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, specializing in human rights and religious liberty.
In 2015 Brown helped former Baptist General Convention of Texas executive Randal Everett and former U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf launch the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative. He later resigned his teaching post to join the organization as chief of staff.
In 2007 Brown was named one of 35 global emerging leaders by the Baptist World Alliance.
“I understand my own calling to be one of global, collaborative engagement that believes in the local church, takes seriously the word of God, listens to the Holy Spirit and seeks to build networks that act together in areas of mission, justice and deepening theological education as Christ-centered witnesses within the public square, especially in areas of conflict, persecution, refugee marginalization and injustice,” Brown, an ordained minister and Texas native, said in a statement.
The general secretary is the CEO of the Baptist World Alliance and has overall responsibilities for the administration and operations of the organization, and is its chief representative to global organizations and institutions, ecclesial and secular, and to governments. Brown will be the 10th person to hold the post, and the fourth American.
His predecessors include:
- John Howard Shakespeare, secretary of the British Baptist Union and editor of the Baptist Times and Freeman, a Baptist pioneer in the ecumenical movement in the late 19th century who functioned as BWA general secretary after helping to hold the first Baptist World Congress in London in 1905. He was well known as a Baptist preacher and organizer until a breakdown in health in 1923, which ultimately lead to his death in 1928.
- James Henry Rushbrooke, another catalyst for the 1905 gathering, began working as BWA secretary for Europe in 1923. He was the first full-time general secretary of the organization, serving from 1928 until 1939. Born in 1870, Rushbrooke died in 1947.
- Walter Oliver Lewis, the first American to head the BWA, served as European representative of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society before becoming general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance in 1939. A native of Missouri, he graduated from William Jewell College and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before earning a Ph.D. in Germany. During his tenure the BWA temporarily moved its headquarters in 1941 from London to Washington, D.C., to avoid possible Nazi bombing during World War II. Six years later the move became permanent. After retiring as general secretary in 1948 he stayed on as associate secretary until 1955 and died in August 1965.
- Arnold T. Ohrn, a Norwegian, was BWA general secretary from 1948 until 1960. He later served as a lecturer on the faculties of the Berkeley Baptist Divinity School and Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. He died following an operation in 1963 at age 74.
- Josef Nordenhaug, also a native of Norway, was president of the European Baptist Seminary in Rüschlikon, Switzerland, prior to his election as BWA general secretary in 1960. Before that he was editor of The Commission, a publication of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Foreign Mission Board from 1948 until 1950. A noted linguist, architect, theologian and cabinet maker, Nordenhaug was pastor of Baptist churches in Norway, Kentucky and Virginia. He died in 1969 while on the way to the hospital after suffering a heart attack at age 66.
- Robert (Bob) Denny, a native of Somerset, Ky., worked on the BWA staff for 13 years before being elected to succeed Nordenhaug as general secretary in 1970. Earlier Denny worked as campus student director for Baylor University and Louisiana State University before joining the student department of the Baptist Sunday School Board, now known as LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. Denny retired in 1980 and moved to Orlando, Fla.
- Gerhard Claas, a German, led the BWA eight years until his death at age 59 in an automobile accident near Lodi, Calif., in 1988 while on a series of fund-raising meetings among BWA supporters in both American Baptist and Southern Baptist churches. He served as general secretary of the Union of Evangelical Free-Churches (Baptist and Brethren) in Germany and the European Baptist Federation, one of the six world BWA regional fellowships, before moving to the United States to lead the BWA.
- Denton Lotz, deputy general secretary of the BWA, assumed responsibilities as general secretary after his predecessor’s tragic death. Lotz had served in Europe with the American Baptist Churches Board of International Ministries before joining the BWA as director of evangelism and education in 1980. While on his watch the Southern Baptist Convention withdrew from the BWA in 2004. Lotz retired in 2006 at age 67 and the following year was named general secretary emeritus.
- Callam, born in St. Ann, Jamaica, was an educator, broadcaster and pastor before becoming in 2007 the first person from the Global South to be named BWA general secretary. He will retire at the end of 2017. The July 2-7 BWA annual gathering in Bangkok, Thailand, included a dinner in his honor.