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Southern Baptist Youth Movement Overcame Early Criticism, 'Dangers'

Posted by Jack Brymer on 1999-06-04

Although the youth revival movement of the mid-1940s grew rapidly among Southern Baptists, it did so in spite of criticism by some pastors and perceived 'dangers' by at least one state Baptist paper editor.

While acknowledging the movement as having some good in it, Editor S.H. Jones of The Baptist Courier in South Carolina wrote: "We believe it has
some dangers in it also." He cited the lack of experience, counseling techniques, an inclination to violent reactions, and division within the church as some of the dangers of the youth-led movement.

In an editorial reprinted in the August 11, 1949 issue of The Alabama Baptist newspaper, Jones prefaced his comments by noting that "any good thing can be unwisely handled; and we recognize that youth revivals follow no fixed pattern."

The movement started by a handful of Baylor University students in the mid-1940s spread across the South and ultimately had a major impact on the life and growth of Southern Baptists. Samford University will host a free public symposium on the movement, Revival Revisited, June 18-20. More than a dozen of the original youth evangelists active in the movement will take part.

"In the first place, we must make clear the distinction between evangelizing young people and evangelism by young people," Editor Jones wrote. "To the former, no one could object; it is in the latter that the danger lies. No one could deny that young people need to be evangelized, but it does not necessarily follow that a young person is best fitted to do the work. In other words, the idea of youth winning and leading youth, with whatever may be in its favor, has an obvious weakness."

The editor supported his observation with the argument that the lack of experience of one who is young would tend to make him an unsafe leader. "Would it not seem to be much wiser to let such efforts be aimed at young people, sponsored by young people, and with young people participating, but guided and directed by one who is older and better trained?" he wrote.

Perhaps the greatest hazard of youth revivals lay in the counseling techniques, according to Jones. "This (counseling) is obviously no field for amateurs and zealous novices. Yet, we have known of cases of young college students who presumed to set themselves up as counselors and invite young people to confer with them about personal and spiritual problems. That some mishandling of sacred things should result is to be expected."

Jones warned: "... young people are naturally unstable, emotional, and inclined to violent reactions. They are, therefore, susceptible to spectacular stunts and highly emotional appeals such as some youth revivalists employ. Under such appeals some young people are swept into a popular movement which may have little solid personal conviction and lasting value. The result, in many cases, is disillusionment. Other more thoughtful young people often react against such appeals to the point of becoming cynical toward all evangelistic efforts."

Finally, Jones suggested that another "insidious" danger was the insistence on the label youth in that such appeals "may contribute toward an unwarranted and hurtful cleavage between young people and others in the churches."

"Are the spiritual needs of young people sufficiently different to warrant this separation?" he asked.

Following a city-wide revival in June, 1948, in Birmingham, Ala., The Rev. James E. Harris, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in nearby Tarrant City, responded to criticism of the youth revival movement in an article printed in the July 15 issue of The Alabama Baptist.

Countering claims that the revivals would not be church-centered, Harris reported that on the Sunday following the revival, 18 people "walked the aisles" having "given their hearts to Jesus." Eight of these, which he described as "our choicest and most gifted young people," volunteered for special Christian service.

As to claims the revival would be excessively emotional, Harris reported that the team "did not capitalize unfairly on any possible religious hysteria, but gave sane, dignified, fair invitations, after stirring sermons, and left the results to God."

The secret of the success of the youth-revivals, Harris wrote, "is that these young men love the Lord with all their souls, and have decided 'I'd rather have Jesus than anything this world affords today'," the theme song of the movement.

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