MEMPHIS, Tenn. (BP)—M.O. Owens Jr. was still in knickers on May 13, 1925, the day his parents took him to a pivotal session of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting. That was the day the Cooperative Program was born.
Now 99, Owens recalls the vote that ushered in the CP as a system of financial support for the missions and ministries of Southern Baptists within state conventions and throughout the nation and world.
“I was there but I was only 11,” Owens told Baptist Press. “I don’t have a keen memory of specifics. There wasn’t any great opposition, but it was a new idea to the pastors.
“I remember very vividly how excited my dad was, how delighted he was, and I do remember so well he was concerned about enlisting the other pastors,” Owens said of his father, the late Milum Oswell Owens Sr., who pastored two churches. “He was the only pastor from that association [Orangeburg County, S.C.] who attended that convention.”
His parents must have realized the historical significance of the vote because Owens was allowed to stay with relatives during the other sessions of the five-day event, which took place in a brand-new convention hall in Memphis.
It was hot that day, Owens recalled; other reports say air was “oppressively muggy” in the convention center with about 5,600 people in their Sunday best. Owens recalls his father wore a suit and his mother, her best dress plus hat and gloves.
The SBC had space enough, with an 11,000-seating capacity, in what was known as the Memphis and Shelby County Auditorium and Market House, opened in 1924. For “air-conditioning,” it had just seven large fans to cool the entire auditorium, along with heat-escaping ceiling vents, said Eric Elam, director of operations for the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce.
Owens’ father apparently had planned for months to attend the SBC annual meeting, because he had purchased a brand-new 1925 black Plymouth that spring, replacing his 1916 black T-model Ford.
“Before that day [of the CP vote] there were very few Sundays there wouldn’t be someone appealing for an offering,” Owens said. “I remember my parents talking about it, Dad saying we needed to figure out a way to lump some of these appeals together—foreign missions, home missions, Indian missions, orphanages and more. And then he heard about [what is known today as the Cooperative Program] and he was tickled pink when it happened.”
Owens Sr. wasn’t alone in his pleasure that the Cooperative Program was approved. An article by Todd Starnes written in 2000 for SBC LIFE noted that “the messengers heartily approved the report with the following recommendation: ‘That from the adoption of this report by the Convention our co-operative work be known as ‘The Cooperative Program of Southern Baptists.’”
The fundraising strategy was created with a dozen working principles, including that the CP would be an equal partnership between state conventions and the SBC and that “money given by the churches was to be evenly divided between the state convention and SBC,” according to the establishing document.
“It was all brand-new to the local pastors, and my dad’s job, he felt, was to tell them about it, the reason for it and ... he was, I think, fairly successful,” Owens said of his father, then pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Cordova, S.C., and Two Mile Swamp Baptist Church, some eight miles down a dirt road. “The two churches together, as I remember, said they would pay him $2,000 a year, but it wasn’t guaranteed.”
Owens also became a pastor, serving churches in South Carolina, Florida and Georgia before starting Parkwood Baptist Church in Gastonia, N.C., as a mission in 1963. Beyond his retirement in 1980, Owens has continued to serve Parkwood as pastor emeritus, preaching there weekly in a ministry now spanning 50-plus years.
“Money was scarce [in 1925], actually,” Owens said. “There had been a period right after World War I when there was a sort of a boom and money was sort of plentiful, but then came a recession and that was right at the time the trip was made to Memphis.”
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