Contemporary observers of American culture may think that Baptists have always had it in for Jews. Isolated events of the past 15 years make it easy to see why.
Southern Baptist Convention President Bailey Smith’s 1980 assertion that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew” was widely reported in the media and scorned by Jews and Christians alike, including many Baptists. Likewise, the SBC resolution adopted in 1996 calling for an active conversion campaign aimed at the Jewish people and appointing a special missionary for “Jewish evangelism” was roundly criticized.
Yet, other Baptists celebrate a higher, nobler tradition of Baptist-Jewish relationships in America going back more than two centuries.
Though only briefly a Baptist, Roger Williams and his grand experiment at Providence Plantation created a place where all people could practice their beliefs in freedom. Similarly, John Clarke, founder and pastor of First Baptist Church, Newport, R.I., desired a community where people of all religions could live together peaceably. It is no small coincidence that the Touro Synagogue, the second oldest Jewish congregation in America, was founded in Newport in 1660.
Of the first five synagogues established in this country (New York, Newport, Savannah, Philadelphia and Charleston), all were located in ports of entry which received victims of religious intolerance. While anti-Semitism was not unknown in these communities, Baptists in colonial America often were sympathetic toward Jews because of the religious persecution they themselves had experienced in England and New England.
In Savannah, city and church leaders invited members of Congregation Mickve Israel to participate in an interfaith worship service as early as the first decade of the 19th century. Baptists and other Protestants shared in this effort which may well constitute the first interfaith worship experience in North America.
Jews lived alongside their Baptist neighbors in urban as well as smaller communities throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, often working as traveling merchants and small-business owners. Although Jews in the South faced hostility from groups like the Ku Klux Klan and a measure of violence during the civil rights era, many more were accepted by their fellow citizens despite religious differences.
The Second Vatican Council and its statement Nostra Aetate enormously impacted Jewish-Christian relations, especially among Roman Catholics, but also among Protestant denominations. Baptists who made notable contributions toward better understanding included A. Jase Jones, George Sheridan, Joe R. Estes and Glenn Igleheart.
One of the strongest pronouncements by a Baptist group was “A Baptist Statement on Jewish-Christian Relations” adopted by the Alliance of Baptists. The group met at Vienna Baptist Church in Vienna, Va. and at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington in 1995. Written mainly by David Yeager, the statement noted the horrors of the Holocaust and chided Christian leaders who had “valued conversion over dialogue, invective over understanding, and prejudice over knowledge.” It further invited all Baptists to join in:
- Affirming the teaching of the Christian Scriptures that God has not rejected the community of Israel, God’s covenant people (Rom 11:1-2), since “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29);
- Renouncing interpretations of Scripture which foster religious stereotyping and prejudice against the Jewish people and their faith;
- Seeking genuine dialogue with the broader Jewish community, a dialogue built on mutual respect and the integrity of each other’s faith;
- Lifting our voices quickly and boldly against all expressions of anti-Semitism;
- Educating ourselves and others on the history of Jewish-Christian relations from the first century to the present, so as to understand our present by learning from our past.
Such a spirit of goodwill is evidenced today in a growing number of Baptist-Jewish relationships. Members of Northminster Baptist Church and Temple B’nai Israel in Monroe, La., share an ongoing history of interfaith worship and community involvement. Woodbrook Baptist Church in Baltimore, led by long-time pastor John Roberts, has been especially active in a variety of forums sponsored by the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia hosted in Savannah a dialogue on Baptist-Jewish relations, featuring Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer of Congregation Mickve Israel, Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics and E. Glenn Hinson of Candler School of Theology. And for nearly a year now, members of Temple Emanuel, Birmingham, Ala., have worshiped at Southside Baptist Church while their own historic sanctuary has undergone restoration.
All such examples of positive Baptist-Jewish relationships offer hope for the future.
John M. Finley is senior minister of First Baptist Church, Savannah, Ga.