Baptist Bible Fellowship International

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Baptist Bible Fellowship International is a fundamentalist Baptist church which is predomiantly white and has a strong focus on missionary activity in the United States and abroad.

It was formed in 1950 from the remnants of three other fundamentalist Baptist churches formed in the 1920s and 1930s in response to concerns that other Baptist denominations (both the Southern Baptist Convention and the predecessor the the American Baptist Church) where insufficiently fundamentalist and too liberal and modernist in their leanings.

A Brief History of the BBFI

by Mike Randall, Editor Baptist Bible Tribune (emphasis added by dKospedia)

Baptist Bible Fellowship International history is a chronicle of persons, events, struggles, achievements, defeats and victories. It is also the story of God at work in our modern world, touching lives, saving souls, planting churches, sending missionaries and spreading the gospel.

The story of the BBFI cannot be presented in any great detail in the space available here. This brief history will sketch the basics elements of our past, such as the background circumstances, beginnings, development, structure, changes and current status.

Background circumstances leading to the BBFI

The attack on historic Christianity by German rationalism and theological liberalism in the late nineteenth century was met by Christian scholars of many denominations. In 1909 this response was documented in five volumes called, The Fundamentals. Fourteen fundamentals, considered essential to Christianity, were presented. They are: the inspiration of the Bible, the depravity of man, redemption through Christ's blood, the true church made up only of believers, the coming of the Lord bodily to set up His reign, the trinity, the fall of Adam, the need of the new birth, full deliverance from guilt at salvation, the assurance of salvation, the centrality of Christ in the Bible, the walk after the Spirit, the resurrection of both believers and unbelievers, and the ripening of the present age for judgment.

As theological liberalism, also called modernism, made inroads in the Baptist conventions, concerned fundamentalists such as W. B. Riley, J. Frank Norris, T. T. Shields and others stood against the compromise. In 1921 they organized the Baptist Bible Union to voice their united stand for the fundamentals in opposition to modernism. Because the leaders could not agree on the thrust and structure, this organization disintegrated and the leaders pursued fundamentalism in different ways.

In 1928 the World Fundamental Baptist Missionary Fellowship, (later the name was shortened to World Baptist Fellowship) was established under the leadership of Norris as a reaction against modernist inroads in the Southern Baptist Convention. A training center, the Bible Baptist Seminary, a missionary organization and a publication, The Fundamentalist, were established.

In 1932 the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches was established under the leadership of Robert Ketcham as a reaction against liberalism in the Northern Baptist Convention.

These independent Baptist organizations of pastors and churches were established to defend and propagate the fundamentals of historic Christianity and the distinctives of Baptists. Difficulties from within the former group brought the BBFI into existence.

The Founding of the Baptist Bible Fellowship International

For many years J. Frank Norris, the dominant leader of the World Fundamental Baptist Missionary Fellowship, had a dual pastorate in Fort Worth, Texas, and Detroit, Michigan. From 1935 onward, his associate G. B. Vick was the resident leader of the Michigan church, leading it to dynamic growth. In 1948, Vick reluctantly agreed to become president of the Bible Baptist Seminary of Fort Worth, Texas, the Fellowship school. He recognized the potential for disagreement with Norris, but agreed upon assurances of no interference. The seminary made dramatic strides in enrollment, construction of a dormitory and finances.

In May 1950, Norris opposed Vick's leadership of the school. Before Vick arrived in Fort Worth and the Fellowship could convene, Norris ousted him, and installed another president. When the Fellowship met, there was vigorous debate, Norris' actions were challenged, an impasse was reached, Vick resigned, met with 120 pastors and sympathizers in the Texas Hotel to consider a new organization, and the Baptist Bible Fellowship International was born. With it the Baptist Bible College, Mission Office and Baptist Bible Tribune were founded. W. E. Dowell, Sr. became the first president of the BBFI, Vick was named to lead the new school, Fred Donnelson became mission director and Noel Smith was the founding editor of the Tribune.

The first decade of the BBFI

During the first decade of the BBFI, there was a struggle to overcome the pain of severance with the former organization, struggle to agree upon organization, procedures and function and struggle to build the institutions that serve the BBFI. As the decade continued, victories, progress and growth were evident. At Baptist Bible College, seven building programs were completed, enrollment grew from 107 to 565. Seven-hundred sixteen students graduated, many planting churches all over the country. State or area organizations were begun to advance the cause of church planting, missionary work and the training of future pastors, missionaries and workers. Other independent Baptists also joined the new Fellowship, and missionary activity increased. Funds handled through the BBFI Mission Office in 1959 totaled $774,885. When 1960 began, 169 BBFI missionaries were serving on seventeen fields of the world.

The 1960s and dynamic growth for the BBFI

During the 1960s, continued growth characterized the BBFI. The college enrollment soared to 1,370 before the decade was completed. Nine more buildings were erected, including the 5,000 seat fieldhouse and a radio station. Graduates totaled 2,481, and church planting continued in earnest. The total number of pastors and churches listed in the Fellowship Directory in 1969 was 1,594. That represented a steady increase in new churches as well as addition of other independent Baptists to the BBFI. In 1969, the Mission Office handled $2,939,980 in funds. As a new decade began, 336 BBFI missionaries were on thirty-two fields.

Years of transition, the decade of the '70s

Several events suggest that the 1970s were years of transition for the BBFI. First, many of the founding leaders passed from the scene, transferring the torch to others. Founding Tribune Editor Noel Smith left this life in January, 1974. Founding Mission Director Fred Donnelson died a month later. The founding Baptist Bible College President G. V. Vick passed onto his reward in 1975. In 1976, a new Fellowship-owned school was started on the east coast. Baptist Bible College East began in New York and later moved to its current campus in Boston, Massachusetts. Its first President was A. V. Henderson.

Also in 1975, the Fellowship's structure was changed. Then BBFI President John Rawlings and others felt the system of nine regional directors was obsolete and left the growing state and area fellowships with inadequate representation. After study, planning, sharing and discussion, the BBFI approved its current Constitution and By-laws. They provide for five national officers: President, First Vice President, Second Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer. They provide for one director or representative for each State Fellowship. The body of directors are divided into three standing committees dealing with procedures, missions, and education. The offices of college presidents, college trustees, mission director and Tribune editor stayed the same as before. Among other refinements, a method to allow other independent Baptist colleges to provide missionary training for future BBFI missionaries was enacted.

During the decade, BBC's enrollment hit its apex (2,481) and then began to decline due to various factors, including the recognition of other schools by the Fellowship. Church planting continued, and the 1980 directory listed 2,997 who identified themselves as part of the BBFI. Giving through the Mission Office totaled $10,567,951, and 528 BBFI missionaries were on fifty-seven fields of the world at the end of the decade. The 1980s bring self-examination and renewal

During the decade of the 1980s, a new generation of leaders grappled with significant trends and new problems that affected the BBFI. Many of the founding patriarchs were moving off the scene, and the newer, younger leaders lacked the common experiences and purposes that welded their earlier counterparts into a unified movement. Divided loyalties became apparent among regions of the country, the various schools and personal philosophies of ministry.

With continued decline in BBC enrollment, the plateau or decline in church attendance around the country, the increased cost of ministry, etc., questions, criticism and self-examination became common. A crisis in the financial condition of BBC in 1985-86, brought intense focus on the college operation. A series of meetings in May 1988 at the BBC Graduation Fellowship resulted in the airing of a wide ranging list of topics with much critical discussion and verbal conflict. When the dust cleared, the result was a polarizing of loyalty to the work of the Fellowship and its institutions, the colleges and the purposes of soul winning, church planting and missionary work.

At the same time, church planting continued in the United States and abroad. In 1989 a twelve-year enrollment decline was reversed at BBC, there were 2,939 pastors and churches who identified with the BBFI through the Fellowship Directory and 734 BBFI missionaries were serving on eighty fields of the world. In the same year, gifts handled by the Mission Office totaled $19,004,880.

The BBFI in the 1990s

Through the first half of the 1990s, the work of the BBFI continues much the same as earlier. A survey of Fellowship pastors was conducted in 1993, and the large number of respondents provided data that was significant and descriptive of the BBFI specifically and independent Baptists in general. A report of the findings of this survey is contained in the author's book, A Profile of Independent Baptist Pastors and Churches.

A composite of a BBFI pastor placed him in his forties, over ten years of pastoral experience, at his church over five years, has a small number of pastorates, a Bible college graduate with some training at a university, seminary or special seminar.

A summary of characteristics of the "average" Fellowship church is that its Sunday school has less than 200 in attendance but is growing, the youth group has less than twenty, probably without a paid youth leader. It may be located anywhere in the United States, but probably in a suburban area. It is likely over ten years old with a full-time pastor and a paid secretary. It offers a variety of special training classes to aid the believer in spiritual development and conducts revivals or crusades on a regular basis.

Regarding the BBFI as a national organization, the report showed that eighty percent of pastors attend state or area meetings at some time during the year. Only thirty-six percent attend one or more national meetings a year. Mission giving and support is growing in individual churches. The faith promise method is the most popular among churches. The BBFI has been a church planting movement (twenty-two and a half percent of the churches have been planted in the past ten years) and should continue to be as twenty-two percent of the pastors indicated that their church would be the primary sponsor of a new church in the near future. Regions of most activity in church planting in the BBFI are the Northwest, Southeast and Northeast.

The work of the BBFI - soul winning, church planting, world missions, church building, touching and discipling lives - remains the purpose and heart of the Fellowship. As 1996 begins, there are 3,289 pastors and churches who identify with this movement by consenting to be listed in the Fellowship Directory. Currently 806 BBFI missionaries are serving on ninety-five fields of the world. Contributions processed by the Mission Office for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1995, totaled $24,468,716.

These figures speak of the hand of God at work among the pastors, churches, missionaries, colleges, institutions, and ministries of the Baptist Bible Fellowship International. May God receive the glory and may the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ continue to go forth into all the world.

"As I remarked to the enthusiastic gathering, it looked like we were taking off an old suit, badly worn and stained, and putting on a new one. I further said that I hoped the right arm of the new suit would be a missionary arm." - Fred Donnelson, as reported in the Baptist Bible Tribune, Vol. 1, No. 1; June 23, 1950.

The Foundations

One might just as well forgive Fred Donnelson's mixed metaphor and its variations invoked in print and speech. His meaning was clear enough. The newly formed Baptist Bible Fellowship International, if Donnelson had anything to say about it, would be missionary.

For those who have always assumed Baptists and missions go together, this may have seemed redundant, but, in terms of church history, the opposition encountered by William Carey among English Baptists was not that long ago. Even in the early part of the nineteenth century, Luther Rice and Adoniram Judson met stout resistance when they pled for foreign mission work. Among hyper-Calvinists, missions was believed to be an impertinence. Others felt that mission work required organization, and, thus, a loss of freedom for local churches.

Rice made an end run, appealing to "grass roots," especially women's groups, who began to contribute "butter and egg money" to missions. Fred Donnelson's vision, one hundred years later, would have none of that. Missions would be no "spare change" affair. He determined that it would be the heartbeat of the new Fellowship. Donnelson spoke from the high ground. He had taken his family to China in 1933 although his work was under-supported. With Mrs. W. S. Sweet (formerly a missionary with the Northern Baptist Convent ion) helping, he established twenty-five churches before the Japanese invaded in 1937. He left and returned one year later as a World Fundamental Baptist Missionary Fellowship (WFBMF) missionary. Afterward, the Donnelsons chose to stay in China during the early part of World War II, a decision that earned them a two-year stint in a Japanese prison camp. In all, the Donnelsons worked on the China mainland three times. When he left the third time, it was during the communist takeover in 1949, and then only at the insistence of the men in the Shanghai Baptist Tabernacle. For their safety, he fled.

The First Year' '

This was the courageous testimony of the man who stood and asked that the Fellowship's right arm be a missionary arm. A nd among that assembled group of preachers in Fort Worth, who was more qualified to lead the way and imp art a vision than Fred Donnelson? Immediately, he set to work, visiting the churches and encouraging them to have part in the Fellowship and mission work.

Within a few weeks, the missionary families of Ike Foster, Olson Hodges, Lavern Rodgers, Alvin Marsden, J. Harold DeVilbiss, Frank Hooge and Elmer Gullion representing the fields of Mexico, Japan and the Philippines, expressed their intent to become missionaries of the Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBFI). In some respects, this was a moot point since most of the missionaries' supporting churches had become part of the BBFI. The stand, however, expressed their belief that the new fellowship would be missionary in character.

While the missionaries themselves were quite busy and productive for the rest of the year (the Rodgers family even had a baby girl), the mission program could do little more than give encouragement. Most of the Fellowship's collective attention turned toward the establishment of Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. This, of course, was in the long term interest of the Fellowship, and, given the number of future missionary students, was wise policy. Twenty students were already preparing for six fields in the 1951 spring term.

The organization

With BBC well established, 1951 witnessed more concern for the mission program. In June, Fred Donnelson was officially appointed Mission Director of the BBFI. Noel Smith passionately editorialized on mission giving, urging churches to spend more on missions than on themselves. Dr. Donnelson began a Tribune column to report the needs and accomplishments of the missionaries. The Tribune devoted full pages to new missionaries as they were approved and sent. By summer's end, the year old Fellowship had thirty-eight missionaries and five fields: Mexico, Japan, The Philippines, Navajo, and China.

Some of the old had come in with the new. For more than a dozen years, the Central Baptist Church of Denton, Texas, had hosted the North Texas Mission Conference. This tradition, the immediate antecedent to the Annual Christmas Offering, was enthusiastically supported by the BBFI pastors. In 1951, a goal-breaking $26,877.54 was raised in less than twenty-five minutes. Of that amount, $1,500 was included for Mission Office expenses, $2,000 for the Tribune, $5,000 for BBC and over $16,000 for special mission projects.

These funds, along with regular support from the churches, were sent to the mission "office," which was a portion of Miss Zellota Sage's desk in her secretarial office at High Street Baptist Church in Springfield. Miss Sage had been the General Secretary of the WFBMF and the financial secretary for High Street Baptist Church. When the BBFI formed, she was unanimously elected Mission Secretary. Early issues of the Baptist Bible Tribune even carry her byline on the missionary reports. As the Fellowship mission force grew, she relinquished that position to Miss Kathleen Ball and the Mission Office was born on the campus of BBC.

A mission committee was appointed. Art Wilson, Loys Vess, Wendell Zimmerman and J. C. Brown joined Donnelson, each man representing a field. The Mission Director outlined the general practice of Fellowship missionaries, which has remained essentially unchanged, in a Tribune article entitled "The Three V's of Fellowship Missions" in 1952:

The missionary feels the need of contacting as many churches as is necessary to assure his support and work requirements. He visits the churches after approval by the Missions Committee and obtains their prayer and financial backing. He maintains contact with them after reaching his field through the Baptist Bible Tribune and occasional mimeographed prayer letter direct to his friends.

He reports his activities and financial condition regularly to the Missions Committee, and the committee in turn assists and advises him in every way possible.

Other policy changes would be made to adapt to changing situations, but the pattern of voluntary cooperation among the churches and the vital relationship between missionaries and churches is still firmly in place.

Organization was not limited to the home front. In Japan, the missionaries, pastors and churches formed the Baptist Bible Fellowship of Japan to give the churches a more formal recognition on the field. Mexican workers followed with the formation of the Baptist Bible Fellowship of Mexico in January, 1952. Within a year, this fellowship would begin a Bible institute and the names of national pastors like Guadalupe Guiterrez and Pablo Luna Luna would grace the reports of the missionaries working there. Many fields have organized their own Baptist Bible Fellowships, training and sending out their own missionaries.

The Progress

To give some idea of what was actually being accomplished in those early days, here are some representative figures for 1954:

The auditor's report for the year ended May 31, 1954, noted that receipts for the previous year were 250% over those of the year ended in 1951.

The mission budget was $140,000.

Fred Donnelson reported there were 500 churches affiliated with BBFI.

Of those, 148 of them had begun their support in the previous twelve months.

There were sixty-eight Fellowship missionaries.

Twenty-four of those missionaries were Baptist Bible College graduates.

Fifty-one mission students were enrolled at BBC.

Despite these numbers, Donnelson warned:

"In these days of automatic gear shifts, it is difficult to know whether a car is traveling in low or high gear. It is probable that we are still in low. We are still in the creeping stage, just learning to walk, and an honest, serious appraisal of the attainments of this youthful missionary fellowship keeps us from bragging."

The Growth

While studying the foreign mission work of the BBFI, one should also take into account the large number of new and growing works in the United States. Hardly an issue of the Tribune was published without the report of a new church being established, often accompanied by attendance records of over one hundred in a just a year or so. Older churches were identifying themselves with the Fellowship by supporting BBC or the missionaries, but new congregations were necessary for the burgeoning missionary force.

That force in 1956 included 102 missionaries on seventeen fields (There are some variations in the field numbers from the early years, depending on how Alaska, Hawaii, and the American Indians are considered. Figures published here are from the pages of the Baptist Bible Tribune.) The next year there were 123 missionaries. In 1959, the Fellowship had 134 missionaries on seventeen fields and the Mission Office reported that an average of $1,700 support was being processed each day.

The churches in the States were doing as well. The Annual North Texas Mission Conference changed in 1957 to accommodate four major regions of Fellowship strength. Meetings were held in California, Ohio, Florida, and Texas. With the change, 326 preachers, far more than ever before, attended and over $156,000 was raised.

There was another national fellowship meeting held each fall so these regional meetings eventually gave way to this meeting where the mission project offering was received. Some pastors and churches still refer to this offering as the Christmas Project Offering. The amounts of the offering steadily increased through the 1970s. New missionaries, new fields

The field is the world, but someone must often break the ground. One of the most significant accomplishments of Fred Donnelson was the opening of Ethiopia and the Congo (present-day Zaire) to our missionaries. He had several meetings in 1959 with the government and family of Haile Salassie I, who welcomed the proposed missionary work. Vice-minister of Education Endalkatchew Makonnen wrote Dr. Donnelson that the "... work you propose to open is entirely acceptable and will, in fact, be welcomed by this Ministry." The importance of this field opening is demonstrated by the relative strength of the Fellowship's missionary family in that region of Africa, with nearly fifty missionaries and 170 churches.

Some fields open; others close. Cuba closed; Venezuela opened. Ethiopia was closed for a time while under a communist regime. Wars and revolutions can change the missionary landscape in a matter of hours. Donnelson's beloved mainland China remains almost impenetrable today. However, the genius of BBFI missionary work and faith is the emphasis upon the local church. Our missionaries build churches. If medical facilities, schools and orphanages promote that work, they are established as well, but they are not the emphasis. In places where churches are established and national workers are trained, if the missionaries must leave, the work goes on.

The most dramatic field opening in this generation took place in the former Soviet and Eastern European states beginning in 1990. Within weeks the first BBFI representatives were in Eastern Europe and missionaries soon followed. Fields recently approved with missionaries ready to go are Bulgaria, the Republic of Georgia and Albania, all three of which were virtually inaccessible just five years ago.

Tragedy often accompanies triumph

Alaskan missionary Doug Moore, approved in 1958, was the first BBFI missionary killed in the line of service. Moore had been given a Piper Tri-Pacer float plane for his work in 1959. He had escaped an earlier accident when he had to ditch in a channel. Doug was flying with two men, Mickey McDougall and Bill Churchill to his home in Wrangell from Ketchikan when his plane failed in severe weather. He died instantly. McDougall died later in the hospital. Churchill, hospitalized for frostbite, was led to the Lord by Moore's home church pastor, Fred V. Brewer, of the Lamar Baptist Church in Greenville, Texas. Other missionaries would die on the field. He was our first.

All missionaries are quietly heroic. Some have unquestionably great accomplishments to their credit as well. Years later, our Fellowship would consider Philippine missionary Bob Hughes to be one of those. After spending twenty years on the field, reaching 18,000 each week from a central church, overseeing twenty-five churches, a Bible college, a TV and radio ministry and distributing hundreds and thousands of Bibles, he was struck down with cancer in 1975.

We still have the Doug Moores', ministering in small remote villages of a few hundred, and we have the Bob Hughes' in their crowded metro areas and everyone else in between. We come and go. The work goes on.

The BBFI Wall of Honor contains the photos and biographies of active BBFI missionaries who have died in service. The Wall is on the second floor of the BBFI Mission Office, 720 E. Kearney, Springfield, Missouri.

The future

The rest of this history could be written on any word processor with a good search and replace feature. All you would have to do is change the years and keep adding missionaries and fields to the list. There are problems and policy has to be debated. The missionary force is aging. All those sent forth do not stay.

However, the Baptist Bible Fellowship International today is the largest independent Baptist mission agency with 806 adult missionaries serving on ninety-five fields, whose support is contributed by over 4,000 churches. Bob Baird is the fourth and current Mission Director. The Mission Committee is larger and the daily business takes up a lot more room than Miss Sage's desk, but if Mr. Donnelson were to try on that new suit today, it would fit all right, especially in the arms.

Source: Baptist Bible Tribune, January 1996

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