James H. Smith, former executive secretary of the Illinois Baptist State Association and later the fifth Southern Baptist Brotherhood Commission president, died Oct. 21 in Memphis. He was 95.
James H. Smith
Known for his vivacious disposition and preaching, Smith spent nearly 50 years in Southern Baptist leadership. At the time of his retirement in 1991 from the Brotherhood Commission where he served 12 years, the agency accounted for more than 530,000 men and boys involved in missions.
“He was acknowledged by his staff as a leader who placed the role of the local church in the prominent position of providing manpower to reach the world for Christ, and he saw himself as a pastoral leader to his staff,” said Jack Childs of Memphis, former Brotherhood Commission vice president of support services, who served the agency 36 years.
Born in Somerville, Ala., May 26, 1921, Smith professed faith in Christ at age 18. Soon, his mother ordered a family Bible from Sears, one that Smith described as having pictures and a concordance. It wasn’t long until he was “preaching” to livestock on their farm.
Upon high school graduation, Smith went to Moody Bible Institute (MBI) in Chicago at age 18 with $54. He didn’t meet the school’s entrance requirements due to his age, lack of funds and having made a profession of faith in Christ less than a year before arriving. So he audited classes there and worked as a janitor until MBI accepted him as a full-time student.
In 1943, the Navy drafted Smith for ship duty in the South Pacific. He led Sunday services in the absence of an official chaplain. Smith credited the Navy with helping him to discover his leadership skills.
Smith continued his education after the war and earned a doctor of theology degree in New Testament Greek from Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kan., in 1955. He served in pastorates for 20 years in Westville, Okla.; Paris, Ark.; Shawnee, Okla.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Ferguson, Mo.
Preaching and other public speaking engagements were the cornerstone of his ministry and kept him on the road and in the air. During his first five years as the Illinois Baptist executive secretary, he spoke more than 880 times. To fulfill those commitments, Smith earned a private pilot’s license and began flying a single-engine aircraft to engagements. He once described his worldwide preaching opportunities as “a sacred trust.”
“He never lost his zeal for preaching,” Childs said of Smith, who was only the second ordained minister to lead the Brotherhood Commission.
Smith went to the Brotherhood Commission following the tragic death of former president Glendon McCullough who died in an automobile accident. Among Smith’s first objectives was to clarify the agency’s purpose.
“The single most significant contribution that I have made to the Brotherhood Commission was clarifying our statement of purpose and keeping us on it,” Smith said in 1991.
That statement was “helping churches involve men and boys in missions.” By staying focused on that purpose statement, Smith kept the agency away from divisive social and political issues and centered on missions.
During his tenure at the Brotherhood Commission, the missions education agency advanced its assignment from the Southern Baptist Convention with the following achievements:
- In 1987, Smith led the Brotherhood Commission to overhaul its programs, another result of the mission statement, with more emphasis on age-group curriculum.
- The Brotherhood Commission pioneered coed missions first with church renewal, a ministry assignment it shared with the former Home Mission Board.
- Coed missions continued to grow through the National Fellowship of Baptist Men, which became a part of the Brotherhood Commission’s adult division. The formation of fellowships to recruit volunteers based on vocations and avocations attracted many women, particularly in the education fellowship.
- In 1990, the Brotherhood Commission piloted World Changers, a coed missions education and mission action ministry for Southern Baptist youth. World Changers grew from 137 participants in one East Tennessee project to mobilizing more than 20,000 participants annually in cities and communities across North America and internationally.
- The Brotherhood Commission became the coordinating agency for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and hired the first national disaster relief director. Among the major disasters SBDR responded to included Hurricane Hugo in 1989, leading to a major operation in South Carolina and to one of its first long-term recovery projects in St. Croix.
In 1980, Smith envisioned 1 million Southern Baptist men participating in missions by 2000. The goal aligned with the SBC’s long-term Bold Mission Thrust objective to reach the entire world with the gospel by 2000.
Before the SBC dissolved its relationship with the Baptist World Alliance in 2004, the Brotherhood Commission was active in that organization’s men’s department. Meeting in Amman, Jordan, in 1987, Smith challenged BWA to send 100,000 Bibles to Russia, which was still a closed country at the time. Southern Baptists led in the successful worldwide effort.
Smith maintained a youthful-type energy even after retirement as he pastored churches in Memphis, focusing mostly on church revitalization.
The Brotherhood Commission eventually merged with the Home Mission Board and the Radio and Television Commission to become the North American Mission Board in June 1997.
Smith’s wife Nona Lee Lockwood preceded him in death, as did one son, David. His surviving children include John, Joy and Mark.
Funeral services were held Oct. 24 at 10 a.m. at Leawood Baptist Church in Memphis.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jim Burton is a writer and photojournalist living in Atlanta. Burton served at the Brotherhood Commission from 1986 until 1997 as editor for Baptist Men and Men’s Ministries director.)