Jimmy Allen died recently. Now, you may not know the name but he was something of a legend in the Baptist world. He was a gifted preacher, caring pastor, tireless organizer, insightful entrepreneur and Baptist statesman, Allen reached the pinnacle of ecclesiastical success. President Jimmy Carter, a long-time friend and confidant, wrote of Allen: “I cannot think of any other Baptist leader who has had more of a beneficial effect on my life than Jimmy Allen.” Carter even took Allen to Camp David when he was negotiating a Middle East peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
Allen was the last moderate to lead the Southern Baptist Convention. His successors moved the denomination to the conservative right purging the denomination and especially its seminaries of anyone who did not fit their theological worldview. Allen, always a believer in a ‘big tent’ church open to educational and congregational diversity was saddened by this narrowing of the vision. In 1990, he and other moderate Baptists founded the Cooperative Baptist fellowship, a home for others exhausted by the infighting of the SBC.
I first heard about Allen when he wrote a memoir, Burden of a Secret: A story of truth and mercy in a family faced with AIDS. In 1982, Lydia Allen, the spouse of their son Scott, contracted the HIV/AIDS virus from contaminated blood transfusion after the birth of their son Matthew. The disease was not discovered until the birth of their second son, Bryan in 1985. AIDS ultimately took the lives of Lydia and the two boys. The family’s grief was compounded by the fearful reactions of Christian congregations. When Scott, pastor of a church in Colorado Springs, told his church of his wife’s diagnosis their response was to fire him. (Had they not read Luke 13.1-5?).
Another son, Skip acknowledged he was gay and was HIV positive. He died in 2015.
These experiences led Allen to write his book, a hopeful memoir that assisted other families and churches in confronting AIDS as it impacted North American culture.
In an appreciation of his legacy, a friend, Bill Leonard, wrote the following:
“Jimmy Allen grew up believing that the Southern Baptist Convention would sustain him throughout his life and ministry; it didn’t. Undaunted, he worked to preserve a progressive vision of Christian identity in other new Baptist communions and covenants.
Confronting significant change in his denomination, his family and his country, Allen became an agent of change himself, to the very end. We are all the better for it.”
“Love and truth form a good leader; sound leadership is founded on loving integrity.” (Proverbs 20.28, the MESSAGE)