Baptist pacifists have often been an endangered species. No better example can be found than that of Joseph Judson Taylor, pastor of First Baptist Church, Savannah, Ga., as America prepared to enter World War I.
Named for the famous missionary Adoniram Judson, Taylor had moved to Savannah in 1915 from the pastorate of First Baptist Church, Knoxville, Tenn. The pulpit committee glowingly described the new minister in its recommendation to the congregation:
“He stands among the foremost of our preachers in a Southern pulpit. In doctrine he is sound, clear, and conservative. As a man he is scholarly, yet genial; aggressive, but prudent; commanding the respect of the world as he wins the hearts of all.”
The committee did not state, but should have known after three days of discussion in Knoxville, that Taylor was an avowed pacifist. As did the earliest Christians, Taylor took a literalist position on the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” and it determined his attitudes toward war and peace. Moreover, he had published his pacifist views earlier in his ministerial career.
The first two years in Savannah were relatively uneventful, but the calm was soon to end.
The 1917 Southern Baptist Convention met in New Orleans shortly after Congress had declared war. Taylor attended the convention as a registered messenger and cast the lone vote against the report of the Committee on the World Crisis. He observed that the convention had “too much of Caesar and too little of Christ.” The following day, he offered three articles in a counter-resolution on peace which was overwhelmingly defeated.
Never one to hide his pacifist leanings, Taylor returned to Savannah and preached a sermon in which he reported on the SBC meeting and explained his views on war and peace. Controversy erupted as the pastor’s pacifism sharply contrasted with the congregation’s strong support of the war effort.
At the deacons’ meeting on Nov. 3, a motion was approved which declared:
“Whereas the Pacifist views expressed recently by our pastor… at the Southern Baptist Convention at New Orleans and the expression of views of a similar nature, both in private to the members of the congregation, and in the pulpit of our church, have in the opinion of the Board of Deacons, greatly weakened his influence, now therefore be it resolved that … he tender his resignation to the church, believing that by so doing he will save both himself and the church further embarrassment and will strengthen the work of the church in this community.”
Two days later, Taylor responded to the deacons by stating:
“The disquieting affairs of the First Baptist Church were submitted to a full meeting of the official Board of the church July 8th last, with the assurance that I would cheerfully conform to any course the brethren might agree upon. Since then the whole question has been in the Board’s hands. Many individuals have expressed their opinions pro and con, and many rumors have been afloat. Only recently has the Board reached an agreement and it is the first authoritative statement that has been made. This preamble states my position fairly and fraternally. I am a pacifist both for church and state. I regret that what seems to be my best interests in a secular way does not meet my convictions of duty in this case. But I in no wise admit that a pacifist is not a patriot. As our country is in war, I am absolutely loyal to the country’s interest in every fibre of my being; and I am confident that the pacifist will be more popular later than he is today.”
Taylor resigned immediately, and the deacons took out a loan with the Savannah Bank and Trust Company in order to pay him three months severance. He later served as pastor of Baptist churches in Leaksville, N.C., and Jasper, Ala. He continued to advocate pacifism by publishing in 1920 a book entitled God of War.
Following the horrors of World War I, Taylor’s pacifism was viewed altogether differently. At the 1922 SBC meeting in Jacksonville, Fla., he was elected a vice president of the convention. The following year, he introduced an anti-war resolution at the meeting in Kansas City, and messengers were so taken by his words that they approved the resolution.
Taylor also influenced the article on “Peace and War” which was incorporated into the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message statement.
John M. Finley is senior minister of First Baptist Church, Savannah, Ga.