Walker L. Knight, a trailblazer in establishing a free and independent Baptist press, died Dec. 1 at age 95.
Knight, a 60-year member of Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia, was born — in the vernacular of the day — with ink in his veins.
His father worked as a managing editor in Kentucky. Knight followed in his footsteps, graduating from Baylor University’s school of journalism and working as editor of an Air Force publication and a Texas country weekly.
He went to the Baptist Standard, published by the Baptist General Convention of Texas, in 1950. He served as associate editor under David M. Gardner, who held the post 1944-1954, and stayed on to work under E.S. James, editor from 1954 until 1966.
In 1960 Knight succeeded a retiring John L. Caylor as secretary of the department of editorial service of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Home Mission Board. One of the denomination’s oldest entities, the HMB merged in 1997 with the Brotherhood Commission and Radio and Television Commission to form the SBC North American Mission Board.
As editor of Home Missions magazine, later called Missions/USA, Knight and his staff exercised editorial freedom to cover stories they believed advanced the cause of home missions. For Knight and his editorial team, that meant dealing openly with racial attitudes, national ethical concerns, women’s role in ministry, social justice issues and an openness to new ideas.
Knight’s forthright approach sometimes put him at odds with conservative pastors, churches and denominational leaders holding to a less holistic view of missions. A 1967 cover story on civil rights leader William Holmes Borders, pastor of Wheat Street Baptist Church in Atlanta and spokesman for the city’s poor and dispossessed, prompted hundreds of readers to cancel subscriptions and calls for Knight to be fired.
Emmanuel McCall, an African-American minister who served on the executive staff of the Home Mission Board from 1968 until 1991, described the magazine as “perhaps the most effective communication piece that caused Southern Baptists to become more open and sensitive to racial reconciliation.”
Knight retired early after nearly 34 years in denominational journalism — including 24 years at the Home Mission Board – to pursue his long-time dream of establishing an independent Southern Baptist newspaper to fill what he saw as a void between the narrow focus of SBC missions magazines and narrow geographical interests of Baptist state newspapers.
Three years into the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, a group of moderate leaders had determined to establish a national publication to counter propaganda from the right.
Knight, at the time facing increasing restrictions on editorial content during a change in HMB leadership, jumped at the opportunity to explore the creation of a national newspaper free from the pressure to suppress stories viewed by denominational overseers as unpleasant.
Knight envisioned a publication that would report the news as fairly and objectively as possible with editorial commentary clearly labeled as opinion. Jim Newton, news editor at the Home Mission Board, suggested the name SBC Today, evocative of a then-new national newspaper published by Gannett, USA Today.
At age 59, Knight began working for half the salary he was earning at the Home Mission Board to start up the new publication as a mission project of Oakhurst Baptist Church. The first issue came out in April 1983.
In his first editorial, Knight described the need for a national publication “for the discussion of issues which deals with the entire spectrum” of Baptist news.
“Being autonomous, SBC Today can best serve Southern Baptists in presenting news and opinion,” Knight wrote. “All publications, religious or secular, are pressured at times to report something less than the truth or full disclosure. Those of us within the profession of journalism can never be so arrogant as to feel we always achieve such reporting fully or fairly; however, that is the criterion by which we wish to be judged.”
SBC Today established mutually beneficial partnerships with the Alliance of Baptists, founded in 1987, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, formed in 1991. The paper was renamed Baptists Today in 1991 and today is called Nurturing Faith Journal & Bible Studies.
“He challenged Baptists and others to live out the gospel of justice and inclusion — when it challenged their cultural norms,” John Pierce, executive editor and publisher of Nurturing Faith, wrote in an article reporting Knight’s death over the weekend.
Bob Ballance, a former editor of Baptists Today, remembered Knight as “a prophet full of wisdom and insight” in a tribute posted on Facebook.
Ken Sehested, who worked down the hall from Knight at Oakhurst Baptist Church at Seeds Magazine and later at the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, described him as “an indefatigable blessing to others.”
Lanny Peters, his pastor for 28 years, said “there was no one more encouraging and supportive and ready to offer his gifts to serve” than Walker Knight.
Baptists Today honored Knight in 2008 with its annual Judson-Rice Award recognizing individuals who demonstrate significant leadership while maintaining the highest integrity.
Associated Baptist Press, forerunner to Baptist News Global, presented Knight with its Religious Freedom Award in 1998.
Funeral services are scheduled at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia. A reception will follow.