Sign of the times? Major Southern Baptist figure dies and gets zero mainstream news coverage

At one time, the Rev. Jimmy Allen was a major figure in Southern Baptist circles.

In 2004, when I did a package on the 25th anniversary of that denomination’s conservative takeover — or “take back,” depending on one’s perspective — I interviewed Allen.

In fact, my main story on that anniversary opened with Allen:

HOUSTON — Back in 1979, the Rev. Jimmy Allen thought the highlight of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting would be a giant rally at the Astrodome featuring the Rev. Billy Graham.

Instead, Allen and other moderate leaders in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination were caught by surprise as conservatives who had attacked the denomination’s seminaries as “hotbeds of liberalism” flocked to the meeting.

There, they succeeded in electing a denominational president, the Rev. Adrian Rogers of Tennessee, who shared their view of biblical inerrancy – meaning that the Bible is without error in any way, including historical details.

Some thought the vote was just a momentary change in direction, but Rogers’ election turned out be a watershed moment for the denomination. 

Last week, Allen died at age 91 — and the world of Baptist media took notice.

The mainstream press? Not so much. More on that in a moment.

This was the lede from Bob Allen of Baptist News Global:

Jimmy R. Allen, the last moderate president of the Southern Baptist Convention and executive director emeritus of the New Baptist Covenant, died early Jan. 8 at Southeast Georgia Health System in Brunswick, Georgia.

His pastor, Tony Lankford of First Baptist Church of St. Simons Island, said the 91-year-old had been in failing health. …

Named in 1999 one of the most influential Baptists of the 20th century, Allen served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1978 and 1979, the two years before conservatives took over control of the nation’s largest Protestant body in a move they called the “conservative resurgence.”

In 1990 he presided over the Consultation of Concerned Baptists in Atlanta, forerunner to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. In 2008 he agreed to become program chair and coordinator for the New Baptist Covenant, a pan-Baptist gathering promoting racial unity spearheaded by former President Jimmy Carter.

In 1995 Allen wrote the book Burden of a Secret, a personal account of his family’s battle with AIDS.

David Roach of the SBC’s official Baptist Press wrote this:

BRUNSWICK, Ga. (BP) -- Jimmy Allen, a former Southern Baptist Convention president and entity leader known for his gregarious personality and engagement with cultural issues, died Jan. 8 in Brunswick, Ga. He was 91.

The last SBC president to serve before the convention's Conservative Resurgence, Allen also was a confidant of President Jimmy Carter and once met with Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iran hostage crisis. Allen led the SBC's Radio and Television Commission from 1980-90 and the Baptist General Convention of Texas' Christian Life Commission from 1960-68.

During Allen's 1968-80 pastorate of 9,000-member First Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas, the congregation was among the SBC's baptism leaders and established a range of social ministries.

"He was the most energetic dreamer I think I've ever known," said Allen biographer Larry McSwain, a former dean and provost at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "He was driven by a call from God as a young man that never left him, and he had a passion for people that shaped the kind of ministry he had throughout the many chapters of his life."

And Ken Camp of Texas’ Baptist Standard characterized Allen’s passing this way:

Jimmy R. Allen, former denominational executive and president of both the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Southern Baptist Convention, died Jan. 8 in Brunswick, Ga. He was 91.

At different stages in his ministry, Allen led the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Radio & Television Commission, and he was instrumental in launching both the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the New Baptist Covenant.

At one time, one might have expected to see news of Allen’s death in major Texas newspapers such as the Dallas Morning News. That, of course, was way back when such papers treated religion as real news. And it was back when the Morning News had a handful of full-time religion writers.

But these days, it’s probably no surprise that no mainstream press outlet — as far as I can tell — noted Allen’s passing.

In fact, the Morning News just laid off 43 employees — including 20 in the newsroom — last week.

On Sunday, the Dallas paper’s publisher, Grant Moise, attempted to “put lipstick on a pig,” as the old saying goes, with a front-page column on how the Morning News is trying to give readers more of what they want. (And I’m sure we can all agree that the best way to do that is to give lots of journalists pink slips.)

I read Moise’s column with interest, especially after seeing a reference to religious leaders up high:

Along with Editor Mike Wilson and other senior leaders, I met with heads of universities, health care leaders, CEOs of our region's top companies, religious leaders, arts leaders, some of our greatest philanthropic stewards, and most important, our subscribers.

We asked three questions: What do you want us to cover? What do you value most about our coverage? Where can we improve? Once we asked, the hour passed quickly as the feedback was vast and helpful.

And later, Moise says:

We've heard from many readers that the role of religion in society deserves more coverage. So we're also launching a new initiative called Faith Forum, articles focusing on how faith informs major decisions in people's lives. A panel of North Texas faith leaders has agreed to advise on topics and contribute articles. The essays will not appear on any particular schedule, but as news warrants.

“We've heard from many readers that the role of religion in society deserves more coverage.” Amen!

However, use of the word “essays” makes it sound like the Morning News won’t be doing more reporting on important religious issues but instead will rely on faith leaders to “contribute articles.” Opinion is, after all, cheap. Reporting is expensive.

I hope I’m reading that wrong because the Morning News certainly could be improved — and perhaps regain some of its former readers — with a return to its journalistic emphasis on faith matters.

In the meantime, the death of key figures such as Allen will go unnoticed in major newsrooms such as the one in Dallas.

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