Bailey Smith, the former Southern Baptist Convention president best known for saying God does not hear the prayers of a Jew, died Jan. 14 after a 21-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
Smith, 79, was the youngest man ever elected SBC president when he won a first-ballot victory over five other nominees in 1980. The 41-year-old Oklahoma pastor was the second of the “conservative resurgence” SBC presidents elected on a platform of biblical inerrancy, the idea that the Bible is without error in all that it affirms.
At the time Smith’s election was newsworthy because it became necessary when incumbent Adrian Rogers unexpectedly declined to be nominated for a traditional second term. Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, went on to be re-elected in 1986 and 1987, cementing control for the denominational right and heading the nation’s second-largest faith group toward schism.
Attention shifted from Baptist politics on Aug. 22, 1980, when Smith delivered an off-the-cuff remark while speaking at the Religious Roundtable’s National Affairs Briefing in Dallas.
“It’s interesting to me at great political battles how you have a Protestant to pray and a Catholic to pray and then you have a Jew to pray,” Smith stated. “With all due respect to those dear people, my friend, God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew. For how in the world can God hear the prayer of a man who says that Jesus Christ is not the true Messiah? It is blasphemy. It may be politically expedient, but no one can pray unless he prays through the name of Jesus Christ.”
Smith’s comment angered Jewish leaders across the country and was roundly criticized as a setback in Baptist-Jewish relations. Baptist historian Glenn Hinson called it “the stuff of which holocausts are made.”
Smith refused to disavow the statement but later conceded it “an unfortunate remark.” He denied anti-Semitic intent and cited words attributed to Jesus in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”
“So I believe that for our prayers to be heard, they must, as the Bible said, be made through Jesus,” Smith told People magazine in 1982. “I’ve never apologized for what I believe, but I am deeply sorry that I hurt some people.”
Smith described himself as “an old-fashioned, hellfire-and-brimstone preacher” committed to belief that the “autographs” – the original documents behind the several books of the Bible – are without error.
“I believe Jonah was a literal person swallowed by a literal fish, spit out of a literal stomach and in a literal mess,” he said in his first press conference as SBC president. Smith said he could respect people who disagree about whether the creation days in Genesis were literal 24-hour days but not those who say Jonah is a parable.
The inerrancy campaign hinged on the proposition that most Southern Baptists took the Bible at face value but the denomination was being run by liberals. The majority of the 1987 Peace Committee found that most Southern Baptists believe in a literal Adam and Eve, that miracle stories in the Bible describe supernatural events in history and that historical narratives are accurate and reliable as recorded by the authors of Scripture, calling on SBC institutions to “build their professional staffs and faculties from those who clearly reflect such dominant convictions and beliefs held by Southern Baptists at large.”
The impasse prompted spinoffs including the progressive Alliance of Baptists and centrist Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Conservative resurgence leaders maintained that unless corrected the perceived liberal drift would lead to numerical decline. Today the denomination is baptizing fewer people than it did in the 1940s and Southern Baptists have lost a million members in the last 10 years.
Smith resigned in 1985 as pastor of the 20,000-member First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Oklahoma, to enter full-time into evangelism. In 2013 he signed “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation,” a manifesto signed by more than 1,500 people worried that Calvinism has become the new litmus test for leadership in the SBC.
Smith leaves behind his wife of 55 years, the former Sandy Elliff. They have three sons and eight grandchildren. Son Steven Smith is pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. Another son, Josh, is pastor of Prince Avenue Baptist Church in Athens, Georgia.
Smith will be buried in a private service at First Baptist Church in Warren, Arkansas, where he once served as pastor. A public memorial is scheduled on what would have been his 80th birthday, Jan. 30, at One Heart Church in Norcross, Georgia.