Mixed emotions nearly kept me from writing this tribute to Henry Blackaby, who died Feb. 10 at age 88.
I hadn’t talked to Henry in years, but long ago, when he was at the height of his influence in the Southern Baptist Convention, we worked together at the SBC Home Mission Board. Given my role as an in-house journalist, we came in contact quite a lot. I heard him speak so often, I could have repeated his spiel.
Here’s what I thought then and now: Henry Blackaby was not of this world.
Originally, that drove me nuts because he was — as the saying goes — so heavenly minded he was of little earthly good. He was a mystic, a prophet, a single-minded preacher. He had found a good line — “find out where God is working the world and join God there” — and applied it to everything.
But it was the solemn assemblies that really threw me off track. Back in those days, Henry was like John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, calling the faithful to repent of their sins — publicly. He based that call on an obscure passage about repentance in the Old Testament. The gist of it was that churches and denominational groups were encouraged to have revival-like meetings that resulted in public confession and repentance.
In 1990, a Baptist Press article quoted Blackaby and others to explain what was a new term among Southern Baptists: “’Solemn assembly is a biblical term,’ a call to prayer and fasting issued from God to the people through revered church leaders, and it comes out of the book of Job, said Henry Blackaby, director of prayer and spiritual awakening at the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board.”
Blackaby added this is “a very solemn gathering of the people of God to come face to face with God and discuss what he has on his agenda.”
He also said: “Solemn assembly is a time to read God’s word, understand that God is speaking to us and that we must respond to God. It is not only a Bible study time but an encounter with God.”
“For about a five-year period, solemn assemblies became all the rage.”
For about a five-year period, solemn assemblies became all the rage. Seemingly everyone was calling a solemn assembly. Even the SBC Executive Committee — in the midst of being used to manipulate the “conservative resurgence” and forcing denominational leaders out of their jobs — held a solemn assembly that was a farce.
Reports circulated widely of odd things happening at other solemn assemblies — including husbands confessing before the entire church, without their wives’ advance knowledge, that they were having extramarital affairs.
This is not all just distant history. In 2022, members of the SBC Executive Committee were called to a yet another solemn assembly at Falls Creek retreat center in Oklahoma. That was just months after the Guidepost Solutions report presented a damning image of the Executive Committee staff and leaders in their mishandling of sexual abuse claims.
Back in the early 1990s, the solemn assembly birthed a cottage industry for Blackaby, who didn’t make money off this but appeared to be motivated genuinely by his prophetic role.
By the way, even his bestselling book, Experiencing God, which first put Blackaby on the map and gave him a platform, reportedly didn’t make him much money even though the book sold more than 8 million copies. His publishing contract with the Baptist Sunday School Board apparently didn’t give him standard royalties. If it had, he would have become a multi-millionaire. But he didn’t.
Solemn assemblies didn’t feel authentic to me. They felt like manipulative religion. And for many denominational leaders engaged in unethical and unbiblical behavior related to the politics of the SBC, they became hypocritical performative religion.
“He appeared to be not of this world.”
Yet I never attributed those same qualities to Henry. Again, he appeared to be not of this world. He acted like all that political activity didn’t matter, wasn’t important. It’s like he couldn’t see it and couldn’t be bothered by it. He was sent to deliver a particular message to whoever would hear it.
The fundamentalists of the SBC used him for their purposes while it was beneficial. Then his message spread to other denominations and religious groups.
Henry’s best gift to the Christian world was that one line: “Find out where God is working the world and join God there.” But the reality is, God is working everywhere in the world, not just in some places. And God can be experienced anywhere, any time.
Whatever influence Henry hoped to have on the SBC, it doesn’t appear to have taken institutionally. Perhaps individual lives were truly changed, but institutions were not changed.
I hope Henry has met John the Baptist in eternity. I suspect they have a lot to talk about.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global. He is the author of the new book Honestly: Telling the Truth About the Bible and Ourselves.