“It is interesting at great political rallies how you have a Protestant to pray and a Catholic to pray, and then you have a Jew to pray. With all due respect to those dear people, my friend, God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew. For how in the world can God hear the prayer of a man who says that Jesus Christ is not the true Messiah? It is blasphemy.”–Bailey Smith, president, Southern Baptist Convention, Aug. 22, 1980.

There is an adage that 20 years’ worth of hard-won theology can be undone by a single 20-minute sermon. Bailey Smith’s statement about God’s not hearing the prayers of Jews is the illustration of that principle par excellence.

The Southern Baptist leader’s offhand remark, at a national affairs briefing in Dallas sponsored by the Moral Majority, wrecked nearly 20 years of the most adventurous and productive interfaith dialogue that Southern Baptists had ever attempted with Jews.

Smith’s words did more than stifle a healthy interfaith dialogue. The upheaval they generated within the Southern Baptist Convention was no less profound.

Twenty-five years later, “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew” stands as a decisive moment in the conservative conquest of the Southern Baptist Convention. Baptists across the country were, to a large extent, defined by their reaction to what their leader had said.

To his harshest critics, Smith’s remark served as proof of latent anti-Semitism in the heart of America’s largest Protestant denomination. His more charitable foes portrayed him as the religious equivalent of the imprudent politician, excoriated not because his comments really do any lasting harm but simply because he had the poor judgment to say something so stupid so publicly.

Southern Baptists themselves, it is sometimes forgotten, led the charge in repudiating his statement. Letters and editorials in Baptist newspapers ridiculed “the quotation by Ayatollah Bailey Smith,” describing it as “appalling,” “repulsive,” “blasphemous,” and “a blatant, anti-Semitic statement that discredits our denomination.”

A Baptist pastor in North Carolina complained of the “depths of ignorance and shallow-brained moronism” displayed by the convention’s leadership. A Maryland pastor decried Smith as a “right-wing extremist who baptizes bigotry, materialism and reactionary politics in the name of Christ.”

At least two state Baptist conventions, along with some Baptist colleges, passed resolutions disavowing the remark.

A professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary published an open letter asking Smith to “make an apology to Jewish people everywhere and beg God’s forgiveness.” But there was no apology forthcoming, at least not immediately.

In fact, Smith repeated the essence of his statement, saying: “No prayer gets through that is not prayed through Jesus Christ. You cannot expect to, in one breath, say, ‘God, Jesus is not your only son,’ and in the next breath try to pray to the Father that you have grossly insulted.” Told that Jewish leaders were offended at his remark, he insisted, “They are offended by the New Testament.”

Other Southern Baptists supported Smith and were thunderstruck by the shellacking he took. For them, the uproar within the denomination only confirmed that grave theological ills had infected the convention.

Conservative Baptists turned Smith’s statement into a referendum on the uniqueness of Christ, the exclusiveness of Christianity, loyalty to the denomination, belief in the literal truth of the Bible, and anti-ecumenism. That the question of God’s hearing the prayers of Jews had nothing to do with any of these was largely beside the point.

Even more than the published letters and editorials, the personal correspondence between Smith and his supporters and detractors foreshadowed a troubled future for Baptist-Jewish relations and the Southern Baptist Convention. Sifting through that correspondence, as I have done in my research for a forthcoming book on Southern Baptist-Jewish relations, it is clear that the furor over Smith’s statement mobilized conservatives in their mission to seize control of the denomination.

Two exchanges are especially striking.

In one, a Tennessee pastor wrote to encourage Smith. He called the convention’s “dialogue approach” to relations with Jews “pathetic.” The Baptist president agreed, replying, “The approach is wrong and many people agree that it is. We are trying to be so friendly that we have become bland.”

In the second, a member of the convention’s executive committee wrote to assure Smith “that not all leadership is against you.” The controversy, he proposed, “may be just the vehicle needed to establish biblical authority in our institutions again.”

And it was.

The sharp division within the convention over Smith’s statement revealed a discontented, and now incited, conservative faction. Leaders of that faction seized on the disaffection to generate massive changes in the denomination’s policies and programs.

Reaction to Smith’s statement became an acid test in the offensive against those whom conservatives regarded as theological renegades within the denomination.

In the end, both letters proved prophetic. The “pathetic” dialogue with Judaism would soon be discontinued, replaced by resolutions calling on Southern Baptists to evangelize Jews and by devotional guides telling Baptists to pray for Jews’ salvation during Judaism’s High Holy Days.

And as conservatives enforced their notion of “biblical authority” in Southern Baptist institutions, most moderate seminary professors would resign or be forced from their posts.

Bailey Smith’s statement functioned like an X-ray, revealing the theological skeleton of Southern Baptists. The picture that emerged was of a polarized convention, a body at war with its own members: some embarrassed by their leader’s primitive expression of religious hubris, others energized by his willingness to say, without apology, what many of them believed.

Knowingly or not, Smith did more than announce that God does not hear the prayers of Jews. He exposed the deep divisions in his denomination and rallied the troops for a battle that would eventually remake the Southern Baptist Convention.

Daniel E. Goodman is an associate professor in the School of Divinity at Gardner-Webb University, a Baptist school in Boiling Springs, N.C. He is writing a history of Southern Baptist-Jewish relations with research support from the Lilly Foundation. This column appeared previously in the Dallas Morning News.

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