Bailey Smith, early Southern Baptist Convention conservative president, dies

Published: January 22, 2019

DULUTH, Ga.—Evangelist Bailey Smith, who helped sustain the Conservative Resurgence at its outset in the Southern Baptist Convention, died Monday, Jan. 14, at his home in Duluth, Ga. He was 79.

Smith's election as SBC president in 1980 was the second victory for conservatives following the landmark election of the late Memphis pastor Adrian Rogers in 1979.

J. Gerald Harris, retired editor of Georgia Baptists' Christian Index newsjournal, described Smith as "a powerful preacher, devoted pastor and faithful friend" in an obituary posted at the Index's online news site.

Harris wrote that Smith told him he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April 2017. "I was stunned and heartbroken, but he was calm and demonstrated an imperturbable peace at the threshold of the personal physical storm he was entering."

BP File Photo/Adam Covington

After receiving care from Atlanta-area cancer specialists, Smith went to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Smith and his wife Sandy remained in a Houston hotel for months for further diagnosis, chemotherapy and observation. Doctors ultimately recommended a complicated cancer surgery known as the Whipple procedure that, as Harris described it, offered "a five-year survival rate of up to 25 percent. Although the skill of the surgeon and excellent care of the hospital was commendable, the surgery was not successful."

Smith's two terms as SBC president (1980-1982) were marked by his resolute preaching of the Gospel. At one point, he sparked a national controversy over his declaration that "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew." The comments, spoken at an evangelical gathering in Dallas that included remarks by Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan, subsequently were clarified by Smith and others that he was speaking from a theological, not racial, standpoint.

"Most Baptists have known Bailey Smith as both a successful pastor and an effective evangelist for more than six decades," Harris wrote, "and his death has left a significant spiritual void in the 21st-century church that seems to be struggling to keep evangelism a priority."

Smith was born in Dallas on Jan. 30, 1939, the son of the Rev. Bailey E. Smith and his wife Frances. He graduated from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., in 1961 and from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1966.

Smith led churches in Texas, Arkansas and New Mexico before being called, at age 34, as pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla., where he served 12 years. At the time of his election as SBC president, Smith was the youngest man ever to lead the convention, Harris wrote, noting that he earlier had served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors' Conference and the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma simultaneously.

Harris wrote that TIME magazine described Smith as "a formidable figure, a fiery, red-haired, old style prairie stemwinder." Christianity Today referred to him as "an inerrancy superstar."

"In 1980 the Del City church baptized 2,000 persons, an accomplishment unprecedented in Christian history," Harris wrote. "In the 12 years Smith was the pastor … the membership grew from 6,600 to more than 20,000, and in a convention that was known for thriving on growth and soul-winning, Bailey Smith was known as a pacesetter.

"In 1985 the Del City church was flourishing, but Smith sensed a definite call from God to become a vocational evangelist," Harris continued. "He is the only former president of the Southern Baptist Convention to enter crusade evangelism." Bailey Smith Ministries conducted area-wide crusades, church revivals, Bible conferences, ladies' retreats and overseas ministries.

Smith's Real Evangelism Conferences "touched and changed countless lives for three decades," Harris wrote. First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., led by Johnny Hunt hosted one of Smith's conferences.

"There is no finer Bible Conference in America than Bailey Smith's Real Evangelism Conference," Hunt said. "It will take heaven to reveal what has happened in the hearts of pastors since Bailey Smith allowed God to use him to begin these Christ-honoring events. I believe that time will tell that there has been no man alive any more passionate about winning souls for Christ than Dr. Bailey Smith."

Smith authored several books, including "Real Evangelism," "Taking Back the Gospel," "Real Christianity," "Real Christian Excellence" and "The Grace Escape." (BP)