I’m an old-fashioned, hell-fire-and-brimstone preacher,” declares Rev. Bailey Eugene Smith, 43. For him there is a sharp distinction between a mere sermon (“something any preacher can prepare”) and a message (“something you get from God”) “I think we already have too many sermonettes for Christianettes,” he says. “We need bold, aggressive Gospel messages for Christian soldiers.”
Smith’s evangelistic fervor has propelled him to the forefront of Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. He is currently serving his second one-year term as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, an umbrella organization embracing 35,000 churches with 14 million members. Those numbers make it the country’s largest Protestant denomination. Smith’s home base, the First Southern Baptist Church in Del City (an Oklahoma City suburb), has set a convention record for baptisms in seven of the last eight years. To accommodate his burgeoning congregation, which has grown from 6,600 to 16,500 during his eight-year tenure, Smith has announced plans for a new five-story church and a school for evangelists on 60 church-owned acres. Cost of the 10-year project: $20 million.
To his chagrin, however, Smith is best known to non-Baptists as the preacher who two years ago publicly declared: “God Almighty does not hear the prayers of a Jew.” Smith has regretted that outburst ever since. He denies any anti-Semitic intent and concedes that it was “an unfortunate remark.”
Theologically, Jews do not perceive Jesus as the Messiah, while Smith holds that the only road to salvation is through Christ: “Jesus said in John, Chapter 14, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.’ So I believe that for our prayers to be heard, they must, as the Bible said, be made through Jesus. I’ve never apologized for what I believe, but I am deeply sorry that I hurt some people.”
Jewish leaders, in fact, have reacted with understanding. Smith was invited by the B’nai B’rith’s Anti-Defamation League to tour Israel last year, and he returned an even more fervent supporter of that country. After Smith’s June reelection as head of the Southern Baptist Convention, Maxwell Greenberg, national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, sent a tweaking note. “Dear Bailey,” it read. “Dare I say our prayers have been answered?”
Descended from a long line of Baptist ministers, Smith was born in Dallas, the eldest of four children. He says he “came to know Christ” at 10; he gave his first sermon at 19 and was ordained at 21 by his father. Graduating from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas, Smith earned a divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. At Ouachita he met his bride-to-be, music major Sandy Elliff, also from a family of pastors. “I was created to be the wife of Bailey Smith and the mother of his children,” says Sandy, 41. They have three boys: Scott, 16, Steven, 13, and Josh, 7. On Smith’s $50,000 salary (the annual church budget is $3 million) they can afford a spacious home, boasting a rec room with a pool table and pinball machine, a swimming pool and a driveway lined with Bailey’s collection of cars. They include a 1931 Chevy, a 1940 Pontiac, a 1966 Mustang and a 1964 Volkswagen. He drives a 1982 Buick.
Smith insists on a “homelike” atmosphere in church. “We make it alive, like a fun family gathering,” he explains. “We don’t worship in a somber chamber.” Visiting celebrities, including Art Linkletter, Pat Boone, Tommy Sands and Jeannie C. Riley, have helped draw the curious to church. “I don’t care what gets them here,” says the pastor, “so long as they’re genuinely saved when they leave.
“I love being an evangelist,” Smith adds. With a staff of 100, including eight ordained ministers, Bailey’s work will turn increasingly toward the training of evangelists in his new center. Nonetheless, he continues to seek one-on-one confrontations with the un-churched. At weddings, funerals and in grocery stores he can be found urging them to accept Christ. He has even stopped his car to talk to pedestrians who he felt “looked forlorn, walking with their heads down. I love to spread the word,” he exclaims, “and to see what a difference it makes in people’s lives.”