Grady Cothen – the former chief executive of a state convention, a Southern Baptist university and two Southern Baptist Convention entities – died May 19 at The Orchard retirement home in Ridgeland, Miss. He was 96.
Grady Cothen, who died May 19, served as president of the Baptist Sunday School Board from 1974-84.
Among his service to Southern Baptists, Cothen was executive secretary of the Southern Baptist General Convention of California (1961-66), president of Oklahoma Baptist University (1966-70), president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (1970-74) and president of the Baptist Sunday School Board (1974-1984). The California convention has since been renamed the California Southern Baptist Convention, and the Sunday School Board has become LifeWay Christian Resources.
“Few Southern Baptist leaders have made so deep a mark in so many different places as did Grady Cothen,” New Orleans Seminary President Chuck Kelley said in a news release. “He came to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary when it was in a crisis. He brought stability and a foundation upon which our future was built. We thank God for giving our convention such an excellent leader.”
When Cothen arrived at New Orleans Seminary, it was experiencing “depleted enrollment, financial deficits and crucial faculty vacancies,” according to the news release. Under Cothen’s leadership, the Times-Picayune of New Orleans reported in 1974, the seminary experienced more than 15 percent growth of its student body.
The first alumnus to serve as president, Cothen led New Orleans Seminary through a restructuring and helped it launch a doctor of ministry degree. In 1984, he told Baptist Press (BP) his service at the seminary “was perhaps the closest to my own sense of personal call” of any ministry position during his career.
At the Sunday School Board, according to BP, Cothen established four priorities for his administration: to provide in-depth Bible study curriculum, to equip believers for the work of ministry, to enrich and support family life and to encourage ministers and their families.
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Grady Cothen (right) receive the seminary’s distinguished alumni award from professor Ray Robbins in 1971.
Under his leadership, the Board purchased the Holman Bible Publishing Company, now part of B&H Publishing Group, and enlarged its program of continuing education for ministers among other accomplishments, BP reported in 1984.
LifeWay President Thom Rainer told BP the purchase of Holman in 1979 stemmed from “Cothen’s vision and leadership.”
The acquisition “has benefited both LifeWay and the Southern Baptist Convention, by allowing us to develop and publish the Holman Christian Standard Bible and now the Christian Standard Bible as faithful translations stewarded by Southern Baptists,” Rainer said. “We can be thankful he had the foresight to step out in faith in making that critical acquisition.”
The latter years of Cothen’s Sunday School Board tenure included stomach cancer surgery and a series of related health issues that led to his retirement for medical reasons in 1984.
Cothen told the 1980 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Pastors’ Conference that the day he received his stomach cancer diagnosis, a news story in his local paper noted a 13 percent survival rate among those with his condition. That reality prompted reflections on his life and ministry.
“I thought to myself, if it’s all done today and there’s never another moment, what a glorious privilege God has given me,” Cothen said according to Tennessee’s Baptist and Reflector newsjournal. “What a glorious time spending your life for God. If He says it’s enough, glory, it’s good enough. When you gaze down the gun barrel of eternity, there is no more sweet thought in life than that we’ve done the best we could for God.”
Cothen also recalled, “I stuck out my tongue at the devil and said, ‘Get back, you rascal. God has overcome death.’”
An advocate of the moderate cause during the SBC’s conservative resurgence, Cothen finished second to Atlanta pastor Charles Stanley in the 1984 SBC presidential election. The resurgence led Cothen to write two books, What Happened to the Southern Baptist Convention? in 1993, and The New SBC: A Moderate Looks at Fundamentalism in 1995.
Cothen was born in 1920 in Poplarville, Miss. He received an undergraduate degree from Mississippi College, a master of Christian training from New Orleans Seminary and three honorary doctorates. He pastored churches in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Alabama.
His wife of 63 years, Martha “Bettye” Cothen, died in 2005. He is survived by his wife Mary Colmer Cothen and three children as well as grandchildren great-grandchildren and a great-great grandchild.
A memorial service was held May 20 at The Orchard retirement home, with interment in Mascot, Tenn., where his first wife is buried.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Marilyn Stewart is assistant director for news at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)