The power of 2

By Bob Allen

William Crane, a deacon at First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., and shoe salesman originally from New Jersey, was an ardent supporter of an emerging national Baptist identity in the early 1800s.

Convinced a vehicle for communications was needed to promote Baptist unity, Crane convinced William Sands, a transplanted Englishman who worked in the printing business in Baltimore, to come to Richmond to start a weekly denominational newspaper.

With a startup loan from Crane, Sands moved to Virginia in December 1827. Weeks later the first issue of the Religious Herald rolled off the press dated Jan. 11, 1828.

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Fast forward to July 17, 1990. Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention news service acknowledged as a model for freedom and candor among the denominational press, was in the midst of covering arguably the biggest Baptist story of the 20th century, a major ideological rift between conservatives and moderates which opened in 1979.

Desiring editorial leadership more sympathetic to the conservative cause, the SBC Executive Committee voted in executive session in Nashville, Tenn., to fire Dan Martin, Baptist Press’ 51-year-old news editor, and his boss, Executive Committee vice president Al Shackleford.

Afterward, Jeff Mobley, a Nashville attorney consulted by Baptist state newspaper editors in anticipation of the firing, announced formation of Associated Baptist Press, an autonomous news service to be “guided by the highest tenet of professional journalism and the standard of Christian ethics.”

Fast forward again to 2013. The closing of several Protestant denominational newspapers, magazines and other news services has played a part in eroding the standards of professional religious journalism, according to members of the Associated Church Press quoted by Religion News Service.

“There has been a strong commitment on the part of many denominations to promote religious journalism that lives up to the standards of what professional journalism should be,” said Meinrad Scherer-Emunds, chair of the ACP Religious Journalism Task Force. “We feel that has been limited in more recent years.”

The United Methodist Reporter, founded 1847, ceased publication last May after months of financial losses. The Baptist Times, flagship newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain published since 1855, went under in 2011. Other shuttered publications include The Progressive Christian, Episcopal Life, United Church News and the Church Herald

At the same time, religion reporting is losing prominence in secular newspapers, along with other specialty beats like the environment, health and education. In recent months St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend, Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Tennessean religion reporter Bob Smietana all left the newspaper business.

“I tell people I’m lucky just to have a job,” a veteran religion writer at one major newspaper commented recently.

The trend didn’t happen overnight. And back in 2007 it prompted four founding partners — Associated Baptist Press, the Baptist Standard of Texas, Word & Way of Missouri and the Religious Herald of Virginia – to launch a collaboration called New Voice Media to provide a shared multimedia content platform for moderate and progressive Baptists. Eventually talk began about more formal ties between two of those partners.

The governing boards of the Religious Herald and Associated Baptist Press moved toward a merger, finalized by the vote of both and put into place on Jan. 1.

“This merger is good news for everyone who believes that a free press is essential to the health and vitality of the Baptist witness to the gospel,” said David Wilkinson, executive director of the newly branded ABPnews/ Herald. “It offers a way to preserve and perpetuate the rich legacy of an influential, 185-year-old newspaper while also strengthening our capacity to provide timely, compelling content for and about Baptist Christians through multiple media platforms.”

That legacy began with Sands, described as “a decided Baptist and a quiet, modest, Christian gentleman” who was “small in stature, quaint in manner” and skilled as a printer but with no editorial experience.

First editor William SandsSands’ early readers included a young John A. Broadus, a member of the founding faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary when the school opened in 1859. Sands kept the Religious Herald going through the Civil War until April 13, 1865, when the Union army took the Confederate capital and the retreating rebel army inadvertently burned down much of Richmond’s business district. The Herald lost its equipment and files, though its mailing list must have survived.

Sands sold “the name and goodwill” of the paper to a partnership formed by Alfred E. Dickinson, a pastor who served as a missionary and colporteur with the Army of Northern Virginia during the war, and Jeremiah Bell Jeter. Jeter, a leader in forming the SBC who served as the first president of its Foreign Mission Board, was 64 years old when he took over the editor’s chair.

JeterRemembered as a controversialist, Jeter debated Landmarkism — a movement popular in the parts of the South that claimed only Baptist churches are recognized as gospel churches — with Mississippi Baptist Record Editor J.B. Gambrell. He is credited with coining the term “Campbellism” to describe teachings of Alexander Campbell, a leader in a reform effort historically known as the Restoration Movement, which spawned the Churches of Christ.

When Jeter died in 1880, Dickinson stepped up to the role of senior editor. Remembered as “a man of great vitality,” a “gifted preacher,” “effective evangelist” and “charming writer,” Dickinson traveled extensively helping churches both black and white rebuild following the Civil War. A contemporary called him “the most influential man of his time in the Southern Baptist Convention.”

In 1888 Dickinson acquired the services of a 35-year-old minister named Robert Healy Pitt, who became the associate editor. Pitt became owner of the Religious Herald after Dickinson’s death in 1906 and remained identified with the paper for the rest of his life.

Pitt earned a reputation as a “royal raconteur” for editorials stating convictions with a “sweet reasonableness” than won him influence in both religious and civic affairs. His editorial calling for a “Pan-Baptist Conference” published April 4, 1895, provided a major impetus for the first Baptist World Congress held in 1905.

Pitts’ death at age 84 brought a crisis to the privately owned newspaper, which remained part of Pitts’ estate and was published by his son. Reuben Alley, pastor of Irvington Baptist Church in Lancaster County, Va., purchased the Herald from Pitts’ estate in September 1937. A new charter of incorporation listed 10 stockholders who in turn hired Alley as editor.

The paper continued as a proprietary operation 13 years, until 1950, when the Religious Herald Publishing Association was chartered and the Baptist General Association of Virginia was invited to nominate trustees. The board kept Alley and gave him full editorial freedom, as well as his successors.

Pentecost and Reuben AlleyJulian Pentecost, editor from 1970 until his retirement in 1992, was a founding director of Associated Baptist Press. His successors, Michael Clingenpeel, who resigned in 2004 to become pastor of River Road Church, Baptist, in Richmond, Va., and Jim White, who stepped aside as part of the merger in December 2013, also served on the ABP board.

Of the merger, White wrote in late 2013: “The Religious Herald’s future is bright and full of promise as it will continue, in a little different form, to report the inspiring stories of innovative churches and heroes in our midst, and to share the bad news, too, when necessary.”

Bob Dale, a retired seminary professor and denominational worker and Religious Herald trustee, described the decision by the two respective boards as “more an act of faith than a business arrangement.”

“We share a theological foundation, and that foundation is much deeper than merely being fellow Baptists or than providing a wider array of services to our news readers,” Dale said in a Herald commentary. “We’re part of a belief community that’s creating a highly focused ministry partnership.”

ABPnews executive Wilkinson called it “truly a historic moment for the Baptist family.”

“This agreement has emerged from a shared commitment to be Baptist in heritage, ecumenical in spirit and global in reach,” Wilkinson said. “It lays the groundwork for future conversations with other potential partners both within and beyond Baptist life in America.”

Another goal is to combine and streamline fundraising, particularly in areas like Virginia and North Carolina where many donors supported both entities.

David wilkinson“From the outset we have been determined to find ways to better serve our respective constituencies by collaborating rather than competing for readers and resources,” Wilkinson said.

“This merger agreement reflects our best efforts to be faithful stewards of the missions and financial resources of these two news organizations,” Wilkinson said. “It builds on our strengths while consolidating and streamlining core operations, eliminating duplications, and achieving economies of scale. At the same time it prepares and positions us to embrace the challenges of a rapidly changing environment in Baptist life and in religious journalism.” 


Time line

1828 – first issue of RH published on Jan. 11, Henry Keeling, editor; Williams Sands, publisher-proprietor, aims “at the promotion of truth and holiness.”

1831 – Eli Ball, editor, focuses on “Baptist sentiments.”

1833 – Williams Sands, editor, maintains a spirit of “honesty and candor”

1830s-1860s – Campbellism, anti-missionary movement, slavery debated in RH pages

1845 – RH publishes first call for creation of what would become SBC

1861 – “Let the North not taunt the South and the South not vex the North,” RH pleads

1865 – Evacuation Fire on April 13 destroys RH’s offices. Later that year, Jeremiah Bell Jeter purchases RH name and becomes editor, “a controversialist, not by taste, but by conviction.”

1880 – Alfred E. Dickinson, editor, who “did much by pen and voice to heal the wounds of the Civil War.”

1906 – Robert Healy Pitt, editor, staunch supporter of separation of church and state, first to advocate for creation of Baptist World Alliance

1937 – Reuben Alley, editor, declares “purpose … of religious paper is not to be a propaganda sheet.”

1950 – RH ends proprietary operation, turns ownership to newly-chartered Religious Herald Publishing Association Inc. with Alley as editor. BGAV invited to nominate trustees.

1970 – Julian Pentecost, editor

1977 – RH circulation peaks at 60,000

1980s – Pentecost faces SBC theological crisis determined “not to be to truth a timid friend.”

1990 – RH helps to found ABP, Greg Warner, executive editor

1992 – Michael Clingenpeel, RH editor

2005 – Jim White, RH editor

2008 – David Wilkinson, ABP executive editor

2012 – RH and ABP begin merger discussions

2014 – Merger official on Jan. 1

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