The following is an excerpt from “CBF at 25: Stories of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship,” a new book celebrating the 25th anniversary of CBF published by Nurturing Faith. This edited volume featuring more than 80 first-person stories of mission and ministry will be released June 22 at a Wednesday evening reception during the 2016 CBF General Assembly in Greensboro, N.C. Register for General Assembly at www.cbf.net/assembly.
By Aaron D. Weaver
When Page Fulgham stepped up to the microphone during the last session of the Consultation of Concerned Baptists in Atlanta on August 25, 1990, he knew the group of some 3,000 moderate Baptists needed a name. The theme of the three-day gathering was “For Such A Time As This,” and Fulgham, like so many others, felt the gravity of the moment—“a feeling of euphoria in the sense that we had finally come home,” as he would describe it to me 25 years later.
For such a time as this, the pastor of nearby First Baptist Church of Lawrenceville, Georgia, leaned in to the microphone and made a last-minute motion to name the new group the “Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.”
Jimmy Allen, presiding convener of the Consultation, quickly responded and urged Fulgham and the attendees to refer to the new group as simply “the fellowship” for the time being. “If you name it, you might lose it,” Allen warned, alluding to the other home that the room of concerned Baptists had helped build and sustain, only to later lose to fundamentalism.
Persuaded by Allen, a past president of that other home, Fulgham returned to the microphone and rescinded his motion. A formal name would have to wait for another time.
“We were Baptists who were cooperating together for a mission, a cause, a purpose and, unlike our former associations, we felt a great sense of togetherness,” Fulgham explained to me, noting that the name carried with it the tradition of the Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention, the single giving plan that had united Southern Baptists for decades.
“The name, I think, was good, so I made the motion. It just kind of came to me in the moment, sort of a moment of inspiration.” Over the next year, the journey to adopt the name Cooperative Baptist Fellowship took a tortuous path. Five months later, the Interim Steering Committee of “the fellowship” agreed to recommend the name “The Baptist Fellowship” to the upcoming Convocation scheduled for May 9-11, 1991, at the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta.
That proposal was short-lived, as the committee soon discovered that another group of Baptists had already registered the name with the Georgia Secretary of State—ironically, an independent Baptist group with past ties to the fiery fundamentalist preacher (and former Southern Baptist) J. Frank Norris.
Discussion of what to formally call “the fellowship” came up again a few months later at the Interim Steering Committee’s May 8-9 meeting immediately preceding the founding Convocation. At the meeting, committee members learned that lawyers for “the fellowship” had reserved several potential names, including “Fellowship of Baptists Inc.” and “Baptist Congress.”
During the meeting, one member recommended the name “Fellowship of Cooperating Baptists” to be listed on the group’s proposed constitution. Another member asked if “cooperating” could be changed to “cooperative”—and one high-profile member said “cooperative” had become “a chain at my church.”
“If we’re going to break free, I’d like us to try some new language,” the member said.
Another well-known voice spoke up and expressed his unease with both “cooperating” and “fellowship”: “I no longer like the term ‘fellowship,’ and we are not at this point ‘cooperating’.”
More names were suggested, such as “The Association of Baptists,” “Baptist Assembly,” “Baptist Cooperative Missions Association” and “Free Baptists.” With no agreed-upon name looming on the horizon, a five-member subcommittee was appointed to take a few hours and return with a list of three names for the committee to choose from.
Later in the evening, three names were recommended: “United Baptist Fellowship,” “Fellowship of Baptists United” and “Baptists United.” With all five members in agreement, the subcommittee moved that the group adopt the name “United Baptist Fellowship.”
They did and did so unanimously. But the story doesn’t end there.
Less than 48 hours later, Daniel Vestal stood behind the podium as Moderator of the founding Convocation, alongside lay leader (and fellow Texan) Patricia Ayres, and introduced to attendees the proposed Constitution and Bylaws bearing the name “United Baptist Fellowship.”
As Vestal prepared the group to discuss Article 1 of the Constitution, attendees lined up at microphones spread out across the room to weigh in on the proposed new name. John Dunaway, pastor of First Baptist Church in Corbin, Kentucky, was first up.
“What United Baptist means in our area of the country,” Dunaway told the crowd, “is an extreme Calvinistic view, a view of Baptists there who are considerably different . . . whose concept of education is different from ours, whose concept of the ministry is different from ours, whose concept of mission is different from ours, whose concept of evangelism is different from ours.
“To identify, in my mind, with a group called ‘United Baptists’, whether it’s simply with the term ‘fellowship’ added to it, would be in contradiction to what we ourselves have said we are, who we are and what our purpose is,” Dunaway continued. “It would appear to me something to the term of ‘Cooperative Baptists’ would include far more than this and would make possible an easier relationship for all Baptists who choose to cooperate on the basis of missions, evangelism, education and ministry.
“I move that the words ‘United Baptist’ be amended to ‘Cooperative Baptist’ throughout the document,” Dunaway said.
After an explanation from a member of the Interim Steering Committee on how they came up with the name “United Baptist Fellowship,” Ed Vick, a layman from Raleigh, North Carolina, was recognized to address the assembly.
“In our group, we have discussed the name and feel that the word ‘united’ breeds two problems. One, the first image that comes to your mind is our good friends the Methodists. And second, I don’t believe Baptists in the truest sense of the word are united. We are cooperative, but we’re not united,” said Vick, receiving applause and chuckles from
Next up was Mike Queen, pastor of First Baptist Church in Wilmington, North Carolina, who joined Dunaway, pointing to the potential confusion the name “United Baptists” would bring in certain parts of the country.
“When I left my home in West Virginia to go to Southeastern Seminary, the United Baptists that are part of the Queen family all prayed for me . . . but what they prayed for was that I wouldn’t learn anything when I went to seminary,” Queen said to loud laughter. “I have disappointed them, I think. What the brother from Kentucky said is true—in that part of the country, United Baptists mean something so radically different from who and what we are.”
The debate over the name would continue as two more individuals weighed in, one speaking in favor of Dunaway’s motion and another suggesting the need to move away from the term “cooperative” and its connection to the past.
Then Dunaway returned to the microphone to speak to his motion. “The word cooperative . . . is not a bad term. But it is the idea that we are a cooperating body . . . and this places the emphasis on freedom, of voluntarily committing ourselves to work together.”
After Dunaway was done, Vestal exclaimed: “Isn’t it great to be in a meeting where you can talk?”
The crowd began clapping, and a moment later the assembly adopted the name “Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.”
“And the motion does carry. You have voted yourself a name,” Vestal announced as the clapping continued.
This story of a name is just one of the stories of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship over the past 25 years. The stories in this anniversary volume reflect our shared heritage and hope through the stories of individuals, congregations, pastors and professors, lay leaders, young Baptists, field personnel and short-term missionaries, chaplains and pastoral counselors, partners and friends. They are the stories of being the presence of Christ and forming together in Christ.
When newly elected CBF Moderator John Hewett stood behind the podium at the Omni Coliseum on May 11, 1991 to offer parting words to the three-day gathering, he gave voice to the Convocation’s theme—“Behold, I am doing a new thing!” He spoke of the pilgrimage that they as Baptists were on together: a journey to their new spiritual home.
“I am no longer worried about the future,” Hewett said. “I’m convinced we are heading someplace free and faithful.”
As we look forward to the next 25 years as Cooperative Baptists, may we remember the journey while also continuing to do bold new things together as a Fellowship. Happy 25th Anniversary!
Aaron D. Weaver is Communications Manager for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship,
where he serves as editor of fellowship! magazine. Weaver is the editor of “CBF at 25: Stories of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship” (Nurturing Faith Publishing, 2016).