Porter Routh, long-time Executive Secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee for twenty-eight years (1951-1979), wrote an interesting book published in 1978 on the subject of the alternate sermon at the Southern Baptist Convention entitled Waiting in the Wings. Routh contacted all of the alternate preachers for twenty-five years ending in 1978 and published eighteen of their sermons . . . which were never preached at the SBC—from H. Leo Eddleman’s 1954 “Lessons from Ornithology” from Psalm 84 to Gene Garrison’s 1978 sermon “Beware of Your Goodness” from Romans 14:16.
When the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845, a committee composed of T. W. Sydnor, W. Curtis, and I. T. Hinton met to nominate someone to preach the annual Convention sermon at the 1846 SBC meeting. Basil Manly Sr. was proposed as the preacher for the Convention sermon and Richard Fuller was elected as the alternate. Just how important the selection of an alternate preacher would become was evidenced the next year when Manly was unable to fulfill his duties and Fuller preached in his place.
In some of the early conventions, two men were elected to preach Convention sermons; one preaching a home missionary sermon and the other the foreign missionary sermon. In the 1853 Convention, J. B. Jeter led the effort to have only one Convention sermon preached that would cover both home and foreign missions, along with an alternate preacher.
John Broadus, of On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons fame, was selected to preach the Convention sermon at Savannah in 1861. The minutes of the Convention state: “Brother J. A. Broadus being unwell, brother J. H. McIntosh preached the sermon, Text—Isaiah 9:6.” Broadus would later preach the Convention sermon in 1883.
Billy Graham was named to preach the Convention sermon in 1961, but he was unable to attend, so the alternate, A. B. Van Arsdale of Alabama, preached instead. His text was Acts 1:1 and his title was “The Everlasting Gospel.” He closed the sermon with these words:
“This is the good news that has never ended and will never end until Jesus comes again. It is the everlasting gospel, the Christ who lived, and still lives; The Savior who transformed men, still transforms men! . . . He came to reach men; he died to redeem men; he lies to re-create men. . . . He began blessing; he continued blessing! And today rich and poor, old and young, black and white are saved by the eternal gospel of the eternal Son. To him be blessing, and honor, and glory, and power forever and everywhere, world without end! Hallelujah, what a gospel! And what a Savior!”
Some who were elected as alternate preachers were in later years selected to preach the Convention sermon, including T. T. Eaton, Virginia; J. L. White, Florida; W. R. White, Texas; J. W. Storer, Oklahoma; Herschel Hobbs, Oklahoma; Carl Bates, North Carolina; John Buchanan, Alabama; E Hermond Westmoreland, Texas; and Robert S. Naylor, Texas.
At the Convention meeting in Dallas in 2018, Paige Patterson was slated to preach the Convention sermon. “Days of soul-searching before our God, whose blessed forgiveness and grace are continually poured out upon us all, have led me to the conclusion that I herein now communicate to you,” Patterson wrote on June 8 to Steve Gaines, president of the SBC, removing his name as the Convention preacher. Kie Bowman, pastor of Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin, TX, was the alternate and preached the Convention sermon.
Next week, the Southern Baptist Convention gathers once again for her annual meeting in Birmingham, AL. Stephen Rummage, pastor of Quail Springs Baptist Church, Oklahoma City, is scheduled to preach the Convention sermon. The alternate preacher is Josh Smith, pastor of Prince Avenue Baptist Church in Athens, GA (son of the recently deceased Dr. Bailey Smith, former President of the Southern Baptist Convention) . . . and my pastor for eleven years in Dallas from 2006-2017.
He’s waiting in the wings.
And remember . . . “They also serve who only stand and wait” (John Milton, “On His Blindness”).