by Thomas DeShong, Project Archivist
This blog is the first of two that highlights a recently processed collection, the Baptist Joint Committee records, and its place in history.
The 1930s were a desperate time in the history of the United States. The nation had been plunged into the Great Depression following the crash of the stock markets. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his brain trust crafted the New Deal in an effort to combat unemployment and economic depression. In order to enact Roosevelt’s proposals, however, the powers of the federal government began to increase dramatically. Concerned about potential infringements on individual freedom, particularly religious liberty, Baptists across the country began to organize.
In 1936, the Southern Baptist Convention created a Committee on Public Relations to monitor the government’s activities. Rufus W. Weaver, a prominent Baptist educator and writer, served as its first Chairman. Under his leadership, the committee tackled various church-state issues including American attempts at diplomacy with the Vatican, the mistreatment of missionaries in Romania, and the formation of the United Nations. Weaver also facilitated cooperative efforts among the Southern Baptist Convention, the Northern Baptist Convention, and the predominantly African American National Baptist Convention U.S.A., Inc. to maximize their ability to enact change.
Born as a direct result of this cooperation, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs was established in Washington, D.C. on September 1, 1946. Joseph M. Dawson, a former Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Waco, was elected as the first Executive Director, a position that he filled until his retirement in 1953. Under his leadership, the committee drafted its first constitution and printed the Report from the Capital, a monthly newsletter that offered editorial opinions and updates on the condition of church-state relations. Dawson also established the Baptist Joint Committee’s place in the realm of public opinion through responses to McCollum v. Board of Education (1948) and Everson v. Board of Education (1947). By opposing public school support of religious education and vouchers for public transportation to private schools, the BJC affirmed its belief in a firm wall of separation between church and state.
C. Emanuel Carlson (1954-1971), the second Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee, faced similar issues while administering a growing organization. In addition to revising the group’s constitution and increasing its staff, Carlson stood firm on legal issues concerning the role of Christianity in public schools. In Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), the Baptist Joint Committee composed briefs that supported the Supreme Court’s decisions to strike down school-sponsored prayer and mandatory Bible reading.
James E. Wood, Jr. (1972-1980) became the BJC’s third Executive Director. Formerly the Director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, Wood broadened the mission of the Baptist Joint Committee to tackle social issues such as abortion, women’s rights, and equal opportunity employment. The committee also confronted the nationalist tendencies apparent in the rise of the Religious Right.
During the 1980s, major differences arose between the Baptist Joint Committee and its strongest financial supporter, the Southern Baptist Convention. After years of tension and conflict, the SBC eventually ended its financing of the BJC and established its own watchdog organization. Despite this schism, the BJC endured under its fourth Executive Director, James M. Dunn (1981-1999). In addition to helping the BJC survive its struggles with the SBC, Dunn re-emphasized the committee’s focus on issues related to religious liberty, including the taxation of foreign missionaries and the opening of the former Soviet Union to missionary activity.
In 2005, the group changed its name to the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty to re-emphasize its primary mission under Executive Director J. Brent Walker (1999-2016). The BJC continues to live in this tension of protecting religious liberty by supporting a clear separation of church and state. Currently supported by 15 diverse Baptist conventions, the BJC continues to focus its resources on protecting religious liberty for all Americans.
The Baptist Joint Committee records, which are comprised of 789 boxes, have recently been processed and are now available to the public. Researchers can follow the history of the organization from Weaver’s involvement in the Committee on Public Relations all the way to developments in 2016. The group’s advocacy is evidenced by a wide range of materials including addresses, correspondence, newsletters, reports, and sermons. The collection contains a massive subject file system that chronicles most major events and issues in American society since the 1950s in addition to smaller series that cover the administrations of the first five Executive Directors of the Baptist Joint Committee.
If you are interested in religious history, religious liberty, or the separation of church and state, be sure to come to The Texas Collection and check out this significant archival resource!
Hastey, Stan. “A History of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, 1946-1971.” PhD dissertation, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1973.
Parry, Pam. On Guard for Religious Liberty: Six Decades of the Baptist Joint Committee. Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 1997.
Walker, J. Brent. Church-State Matters: Fighting for Religious Liberty in Our Nation’s Capital. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2008.