SBC annual meeting returns to Birmingham after ‘goodly number of years’

SBC annual meeting returns to Birmingham after ‘goodly number of years’

By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist

It will, in all probability, be a goodly number of years before the convention comes our way again.” 

If “goodly” means 78, then F.M. Barnes was right on the money when he wrote this in 1941. After Barnes and others closed the books on the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting that year it would be almost eight decades before the meeting would be held in Birmingham again. 

It would be a “goodly” amount of understatement to say things have changed a bit in that time.

The last time the SBC met in Birmingham, Barnes — then secretary/treasurer of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions — and others were talking about World War II around the dinner table. 

If the ads were any indication, they might have had that conversation at a Britling Cafeteria — a Birmingham staple where kids got a special tally card and could check boxes every time they drank all their milk. After a certain amount they got a ceramic mug as a prize. (Stronger bones, too.)

On everyone’s minds

Everyone was having to grow up a lot in those days.

“Bear this in mind: the Germans are still winning the war,” editor L.L. Gwaltney wrote in the convention coverage issue of The Alabama Baptist. 

“We do not dare a prophecy, but we do guess the following: They will take the Suez Canal; Turkey will desert Britain in the pinch.”

The U.S. hadn’t entered the conflict yet. Pearl Harbor Day was still seven months away. But it was on everyone’s minds.

With all that going on people could use an encouraging gathering, Barnes wrote. It was worth the drive to unite around the gospel.

“It is almost impossible for many of our business men to be away for several days at a time, but from any section of Alabama they can go and spend two days and one night in one of the most profitable religious meetings they have ever attended,” Barnes wrote.

If you could get away from work you had almost nothing else to worry about by the looks of the state Baptist paper in the weeks prior. 

Area businesses had what they thought messengers needed — the ads said so. Need ointment for boils and itches or medicine for upset nerves? Birmingham had it. Need tires, seat covers and slack suits? Sears, Roebuck and Co. thought you might and they had you covered.

Much to talk about

When May 14–18 came, many a slack suit gathered. Messengers had a lot to talk about. 

At the time the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board [IMB]) had 527 missionaries serving around the globe, and a new set of missionaries was preparing to set sail from New York that very week. (In 2019 the IMB has more than 3,600 personnel serving the Great Commission cause in countries around the world.) 

They also had the 50th anniversary of the Sunday School Board to celebrate — a publishing ministry started at the 1891 SBC meeting in Birmingham. (It later became LifeWay Christian Resources.)

Also at the 1941 convention:

  • 5,884 messengers attended the meeting at the Municipal Auditorium (now called Boutwell Auditorium).
  • The Pastors Conference met at First Methodist Church.
  • The convention’s slogan was “A Debtless Denomination by 1945.” That year would mark the 100th anniversary of the SBC’s founding. In 1941 they were making good progress with just under $3 million in debt.

If you remember attending the 1941 SBC annual meeting in Birmingham as a child (and maybe drinking all your milk at Britling Cafeteria), or if you remember relatives telling you about their experience at the meeting, we’d love to hear from you. Email with your stories.