Jimmy R. Allen, the last moderate president of the Southern Baptist Convention and executive director emeritus of the New Baptist Covenant, died early Jan. 8 at Southeast Georgia Health System in Brunswick, Georgia.
His pastor, Tony Lankford of First Baptist Church of St. Simons Island, said the 91-year-old had been in failing health. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Named in 1999 one of the most influential Baptists of the 20th century, Allen served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1978 and 1979, the two years before conservatives took over control of the nation’s largest Protestant body in a move they called the “conservative resurgence.”
In 1990 he presided over the Consultation of Concerned Baptists in Atlanta, forerunner to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. In 2008 he agreed to become program chair and coordinator for the New Baptist Covenant, a pan-Baptist gathering promoting racial unity spearheaded by former President Jimmy Carter.
In 1995 Allen wrote the book Burden of a Secret, a personal account of his family’s battle with AIDS.
A pioneer in religious broadcasting, he led the Southern Baptist Convention’s Radio and Television Commission from 1980 to 1990, hosting a national cable talk show called “Life Today.” In 1988 he won an Emmy as producer of a show produced for ABC television filmed in the People’s Republic of China titled “China: Walls and Bridges.”
Always interested in ethical concerns, Allen led the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas from 1960 to 1968. In 1962 he helped plan the first state workshop on Christianity and race relations in Southern Baptist history. During the Johnson administration he helped plan the first White House Conference on Civil Rights.
From 1968 until 1980 Allen served as pastor of First Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas – at the time the sixth largest church in the SBC – leading the urban congregation to establish new social ministries while at the same time expanding its evangelism and nurturing ministry base.
As SBC president he launched Mission Service Corps, a pathway for adults to serve as missionaries, and was chief promoter of Bold Mission Thrust, a plan to take the gospel to every person on earth by the year 2000.
In 1993 Allen joined Los Angeles Times journalist John Dart in a prize-winning report on the relationship between news media and religion called Bridging the Gap.
He once served as a non-governmental observer at the United Nations and led a fact-finding mission to Iran during the hostage crisis at the United States embassy in Tehran in 1979-1980.
In later years he served as chaplain of Big Canoe Chapel, a multi-denominational chapel in the north Georgia mountains, before moving to St. Simons Island in retirement. Lankford, who began serving at First Baptist Church in St. Simons Island in 2015, called it “an honor to get to know him.”
“He blazed a trail of ministry in such a way that younger men and women could follow,” Lankford said. “Many people, including me, are grateful for the life and ministry of Rev. Dr. Jimmy Allen.”
Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said she has “known, loved and respected Jimmy Allen” her entire life.
Paynter called Allen “a visionary Baptist leader who believed in the power to convene good people for the surprising work of God.”
Paynter said Allen “engaged in honest dialogue and true cooperative ministry” and “brought a strong voice of encouragement and expectation to any endeavor.”
“I am so grateful for this pilgrim of faith,” Paynter said.
Hannah McMahan, executive director of the New Baptist Covenant, described Allen as “a man of vision and compassion” who will be “sorely missed.”
“He dedicated his life to the steadfast work of the gospel and was a shining example of a life well-lived,” she said. “Under his leadership, the inaugural meeting of the New Baptist Covenant in 2008 reminded our entire Baptist family what we are capable of when we lean into the best of who we are.”