It is an old story which this historian has told and re-told. It is a love story and it is a lesson in Baptist history, heritage and principles – all wrapped up into one true life story.
The story begins in Texas and concludes in Virginia. In the 1890s a shy young woman named Minnie Lou Kennedy was teaching first grade in Rockport, Texas, and one fall a new principal was hired.
He was a recent graduate of Richmond College, a Baptist school in faraway Virginia. He was a tall, handsome native Texan and he quickly took a romantic interest in the first grade teacher.
The principal was thoroughly Baptist. His parents had given him a good Baptist name, calling him William Carey after the first English Baptist missionary. His last name was James.
William Carey James began struggling with God’s call to the ministry and his wife accepted his decision. He enrolled in the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
When the time came to leave Texas for Kentucky, Minnie was pregnant and remained behind for the birth of the baby, a girl they named Margaret. Once together in Louisville, the little family must have been happy sharing in the dream of a new life in gospel ministry.
He must have been daydreaming about his future life as a pastor and probably was weaving sermons in his head. She accepted the traditional view of a pastor’s wife and her dreams must have been of the support she would play in the church.
In 1896 W.C. James graduated magna cum laude with a doctorate. He began to fill pulpits and his Episcopalian wife dutifully, probably proudly, sat in the Baptist congregations, listening to every word.
At some point Minnie told her husband that she was willing to change her denominational affiliation and was surprised by his response. He maintained that he would not accept “Baptist by convenience” in his church. He only would accept “Baptist by conviction.”
One day she did come forward in a worship service, gave her profession of faith and requested membership. She wanted to be a Baptist out of conviction. She had made a voluntary decision.
The couple had been married four years before Minnie became a Baptist. She was 24 when she was baptized by immersion and that performed by her husband.
The story could end there. It has all the components promised at the beginning: a love story and an illustration of Baptist principles – the voluntary nature of our faith decision as well as the concept of believer’s baptism. But there’s a Baptist history story waiting to be told.
In 1907 the couple moved to Virginia where W.C. James became pastor of one of the major churches in the capitol city. Minnie James was elected to serve on the board of Woman’s Missionary Union of Virginia; and after only two years on the board, she became president.
In 1916 she became president of the WMU of the Southern Baptist Convention. It was during his presidency that the WMU, SBC moved to Birmingham.
But here is the greatest part of the Baptist history lesson. It was during her presidency that she was placed on a committee to study the needs and support of the entire Southern Baptist Convention.
Baptist work on the state and national levels was precarious at best and grossly underfunded. There were times when the Southern Baptist Convention was on the verge of financial ruin.
Minnie Kennedy James was among those who suggested a bold new concept which became popularly known as the Cooperative Program. It provided funding for the items in the SBC budget and enabled each Baptist in the pews to feel that they were having a direct way of supporting the far-flung missions enterprise.
It was a stroke of genius and it has undergirded the Baptist denominational work for nearly a century. In recent history Virginia Baptists have chosen to identify the same spirit of giving as Cooperative Missions.
Imagine! An Episcopalian turned Baptist, by conviction, helped to create a Baptist missions support system which aided state and national Baptist work to this very moment. Imagine! It all began as a romantic love story and turned into a love story for the ages.