Fred Powell, a behind-the-scenes leader during the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Conservative Resurgence, died April 24 in Johnson County, Kan., where he was in hospice care. He was 86.
Powell became the top aide to Charles Stanley shortly after the Atlanta pastor was elected as SBC president in 1984, serving under Stanley as he presided over the two most-attended SBC annual meetings in history – 1995 in Dallas with 45,519 messengers and 1996 in Atlanta with 40,987 messengers, both pivotal battles between theological conservatives and moderates.
Powell also was a three-time chairman of the SBC Committee on Order of Business, which leads in planning and scheduling prior to and during each year’s annual meeting. He led the committee for the 1992 convention in Indianapolis, 1993 in Houston and 1994 in Orlando, Fla.
“Fred knew how to get things done,” said Gary Ledbetter, editor in chief of the Southern Baptist TEXAN who served on the Committee on Order of Business during Powell’s three years as chairman.
Powell’s “godly wisdom and experience were great resources to many who knew him,” Ledbetter said in comments emailed to Baptist Press (BP). “He was on a first-name basis with hundreds of leaders in the SBC, and this gave him many opportunities to serve and support convention business.”
Don Hinkle, editor of The Pathway newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention, said Powell was “a stalwart in the SBC Conservative Resurgence, the movement by theological conservatives to wrest control of the SBC from Darwinist, pro-choice, theological liberals.”
Powell was present in “many strategic meetings with SBC conservative leadership as the dramatic battle over the Bible unfolded in the late 1970s to early 2000s,” Hinkle wrote in a Facebook post.
Powell was pastor of Pisgah Baptist Church in Excelsior Springs, Mo., when he became involved in efforts to remove a Baptist college professor who was quoted in the Kansas City Star as saying he did not believe in a personal devil, The Pathway recounted in a 2004 article about Powell.
“In 1977, I brought a doctrinal integrity resolution against William Jewell College to the Missouri Baptist Convention that was meeting in Kansas City,” Powell recounted to The Pathway. “We lost by 12 votes.”
Powell and Larry Lewis [a St. Louis pastor who later became president of the SBC’s then-Home Mission Board] “brought it before the 1978 meeting in St. Louis. That was the year that we passed a resolution stating that the Bible is without error scientifically, theologically, philosophically and historically.”
Powell said he was subsequently contacted by Paige Patterson, one of the leaders of the fledgling conservative movement, who asked if he would help lead the effort in Missouri to reclaim the SBC. Patterson at the time was president of Criswell College in Dallas and now is president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
Patterson, in comments emailed to Baptist Press, said Powell was “one of the earliest and most faithful leaders” in the conservative movement. “Gentle, perceptive, honest and unselfish, Fred was a man’s man who gave hours not only to his pastorate but also to searching for Bible-believing men and women to serve on various boards.”
Powell was “an eternal optimist about the providence of God,” Patterson said. “He was always the source of encouragement. I, for one, will miss him greatly, but I do rejoice with Fred Powell about his new surroundings.”
Powell, a New Jersey native, born as Frederick Earl Powell III, was led to the Lord at age 11 by a deacon – several Sundays before Pearl Harbor – at Clinton Hill Baptist Church in Newark.
After moving to Wisconsin and Minnesota with a hardware store company, he became a franchisee in 1967 with several Coast-to-Coast Hardware Stores in Missouri – while also becoming a bivocational pastor.
Powell served 10 years as pastor of Pisgah Baptist Church, which was founded in 1849 by Robert James, the father of Jesse and Frank James, before joining Charles Stanley as senior associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1984.
He later became executive assistant to the president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., from 1995-2001.
During his ministry, Powell also served as senior associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Moore, Okla., and president of Communicator Ministries, Inc., and editor of its journal, The Communicator. He authored A Biblical Deacon Ministry for Your Church and led conferences in deacon ministries.
In addition to the SBC Committee on Order of Business, Powell also was a member of the Committee on Nominations in 1983 and secretary/treasurer of the Pastors’ Conference in 1984. Internationally, he served as director of development for Emanuel Baptist Seminary in Oradea, Romania, from 1991-1998.
Powell, speaking to The Pathway in 2004, said the SBC would have “gone more and more the way of other mainline denominations” without a return to biblical authority. “It was an insidious sliding away from the inerrancy of the Word of God.”
The SBC’s seminaries were a key part of the battle, Powell said.
“We had problems with them. If we didn’t get the seminaries, we would still be turning out bad products,” he stated. “Some people say this was just a political preacher fight. But it wasn’t. It was a fight for the life of our denomination. Biblical truth is not up for grabs; it is not up for debate.”
Bible-believing Baptists, Powell said, need to be diligent against any leftward drift in the convention. “It’s almost like a magnetic pull that we have to resist,” he said. “This young generation coming along doesn’t know the price that was paid or care.
“There are no blatant signs now that there will be a liberal resurgence,” Powell commented, “but apathy allows for that. Apathy is what comes when we let down. We get so busy with church buildings, budgets and baptism that we let down the guard.”
Morris H. Chapman, SBC president from 1990-1992 when Powell first led the Committee on Order of Business, described him as “a happy warrior. His optimism was contagious. The source of his joy was Jesus.
“He was a relatively unheralded leader within the Conservative Resurgence but was greatly valued by those who knew him well. … He was a friend to many who will be missed yet never forgotten by a host of Southern Baptists,” said Chapman, who, after his SBC presidency, served as SBC Executive Committee president from 1992 until his 2010 retirement.
Powell was preceded in death by his first wife, Donna, in 1998. He is survived by his second wife, Shirley, and seven children – sons David, Jeff, Daniel and Todd and daughters Linda Battagler, Judy Mallory and Beth Rogers; two stepdaughters, Traci Anderson and Brenda Armfield; 27 grandchildren; and “numerous great-grandchildren,” according to his funeral home obituary.
The family suggests memorial contributions be made to the Clay/Platte Baptist Association in Kearney, Mo.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Art Toalston is senior editor of Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)