J.B. Gambrell, J.M. Frost and LifeWay (the modern Sunday School Board of the SBC)


LifeWay Christian Resources is “one of the world’s largest providers of Christian products and services.” Operating as an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), LifeWay is not dependent on any funds collected through the SBC. Although LifeWay operates more than 160 retail stores and has various ministry assignments, the way that most people related to the entity is as a publishing house.

imgresIn fact, LifeWay is one of the world’s largest publishers of Christian books. One of its most recent—and successful—publications is The Gospel Project, a small group curriculum that is designed to show how the whole Bible is about God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. Recent sales figures indicate that The Gospel Project (TGP) is now being used by more than 500,000 people each week. That is good news for people who love the gospel and want to see it propagated to unbelievers and taught more carefully to believers.

It is hard to conceive anyone being upset over the success of a curriculum that is designed to show that the whole point of the Bible is Jesus Christ, but sadly, such is the case. Some of the more conspiratorial bent have accused TGP of being a covert operation designed to further a “Calvinist agenda” in the SBC. One employee of a Southern Baptist college went so far as to accuse the publishers of “treason” for quoting “Anglicans, Methodists and Presbys [sic]” in TGP material.

Such bigoted provincialism reminded me of warnings that were issued at origin of LifeWay, or the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, as it was called at its inception in 1891. Though many were in favor of the establishment of such a board, strong, respected voices in the convention opposed it. Through an ingenious and effective proposal the board was finally established and has served as a powerful influence for Southern Baptists for well over a century.

The story of the board’s formation in the midst of strong support and serious concerns is fascinating and serves as a reminder that first and foremost, Southern Baptists are kingdom people before they are denomininationalists.

J.M. Frost

The first Southern Baptist Sunday School and Publication Board began in 1863 but never could overcome the ravages of the war and its after-effects and consequently lasted only ten years. In the ensuing years much discussion and debate swirled around the question of whether or not a new and separate Sunday School Board should be created. J. M. Frost of Virginia was a strong advocate of the idea and in 1890 wrote a public proposal for the creation of such a board. He was opposed by all but two of the Baptist papers in the South, including the Mississippi Baptist Record and its influential editor, J.B. Gambrell. At the 1890 convention which met in Ft. Worth, a special committee was appointed to bring a report on the matter before the whole body. Gambrell and Frost served on that committee along with B. H. Carroll, John Broadus, E. C. Dargan and others. With two dissenting votes, one of which was Gambrell’s, the committee recommended the formation of a new SS Committee. Despite the recommendation, the matter was far from settled.

As the 1891 convention in Birmingham approached, tensions were high over this question. Another committee was appointed and it soon became apparent that the two sides were entrenched in their positions. J. M. Frost, a proponent of creating

J.B. Gambrell

a new board, and Gambrell, who was opposed to the idea, were appointed a subcommittee and sent to a room in the Florence Hotel to resolve the issue. After praying and talking most of the day, Gambrell agreed to let Frost write the final proposal to the convention, provided that he (Gambrell) could write the final paragraph. Frost agreed, on the condition that Gambrell let him write the final sentence. So a proposal was made and adopted to begin the present SSB in 1891.

The last paragraph of the proposal expresses the concern that Southern Baptist churches and pastors should be accorded “the fullest freedom of choice” in selecting what literature to use in their congregations. Let the Board publish curricula and let the churches decide whether or not they will use such publications. That, it seems to me, is the Baptist way.

Read the classic final paragraph with its classic final sentence below. And thank the Lord for the wonderful heritage that we have as Baptists whose publishing efforts are being blessed by God in wonderful ways in our generation.

Gambrell: “In conclusion your committee, in its long and earnest consideration of this whole matter in all its environments, have been compelled to take account of the well known fact, that there are widely divergent views held among us by brethren equally earnest, consecrated and devoted to the best interest of the Master’s Kingdom. It is therefore, recommended that the fullest freedom of choice be accorded to everyone as to what literature he will use or support, and that no brother be disparaged in the slightest degree on account of what he may do in the exercise of his right as Christ’s freeman. [and then Frost’s final sentence:] But we would earnestly urge all brethren to give to this Board a fair consideration, and in no case to obstruct it in the great work assigned it by this Convention.”

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5 Responses to “J.B. Gambrell, J.M. Frost and LifeWay (the modern Sunday School Board of the SBC)”

  1. Ben Stratton

    Bro. Ascol,

    You wrote:
    “The story of the board’s formation in the midst of strong support and serious concerns is fascinating and serves as a reminder that first and foremost, Southern Baptists are kingdom people before they are denomininationalists.”

    I fail to see how the formation of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board shows that 19th century Southern Baptists were kingdom people before they were denomininationalists. They definitely were not weak on Baptist distinctives nor did they believe in ecumenicalism or church union.

    As a matter of fact in 1900, Frost lead the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board to publish the book Baptist Why and Why Not. It can be read online at: http://elbourne.org/baptist/whybaptist/

    Chapters include:

    Why Baptist and Not Methodist
    Why Baptist and Not Presbyterian
    Why Close Communion and Not Open Communion
    Why the Baptist Doctrine
    Why Become a Baptist

    They doesn’t sound very “Kingdom-minded.” It actually sounds like someone who believed in an “orthodox denominationalism”

  2. Ben,

    Thanks for your comment. Your failure to see how “19th century century Southern Baptists were kingdom people before they were denomininationalists [sic]” because
    “They definitely were not weak on Baptist distinctives nor did they believe in ecumenicalism or church union” strikes me as a non-sequitur. I did not say nor did I intend to imply that being kingdom people first meant that they were in any way hesitant in maintaining Baptist distinctives. Rather, my point is this: as a matter of priority they committed to the essentials of the faith before they were committed to their distinctives. It is our commitment to the essentials that lead to our devotion to our distinctives (kingdom commitment gives rise to denominational distinction). That is the historic Baptist way.

    The very book that Frost edited, that you mention in your comment, demonstrates this in more than one place. Richard Dudley’s essay makes the point by acknowledging that we hold many essentials in common with other evangelicals while departing from them at the points of our distinctive understanding of Scripture.

    So the dichotomy that you suggest—either committed Baptist or committed to the kingdom of God—is a false one. And the listing of select chapter titles suggesting that their content is not “very ‘Kingdom-minded'” displays a lack of appreciation for the principles on which our Baptist faith is founded.


  3. Ben Stratton

    Bro. Ascol,

    In regard to your original article, my point was that J.B. Gambrell and J.M. Frost spent far more time rebuking and reproving Protestant and Pedobaptists than they did promoting their writings. I can provide numerous primary references to prove this statement. They would never have promoted inter-denominational Sunday School literature like the Gospel Project. They both desired a Baptist Sunday School Board that produced distinctively Baptist Sunday School literature.

    As to my “listing of select chapter titles” from J.M. Frost’s 1900 book “Baptist Why and Why Not,” isn’t it interesting that these are some of the various chapters that Timothy George left out when he reprinted the book in 1998. I wonder why he left out “Why Baptist and Not Presbyterian” and “Why Close Communion and Not Open Communion?” I think we both know why he left them out.

    • Tom Ascol


      If that was your point, then you very successfully obscured it with your original words. Of course Gambrell, Frost and other early Southern Baptist leaders were clearly Baptist and regarded paedobaptist views as erroneous. But to suggest that they were denominationalists before they were “Kingdom of God” men (which is what your actual words originally indicated) is absurd.

      As to Timothy George’s motives regarding which chapters he reprinted, I will leave that to God who alone knows men’s hearts. And please do not include me in your claim to possess such divine powers to judge the motives of another man’s heart.


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