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“A Champion of the Christian Way in Race Relations”

Brooks Hays’ legacy in the Southern Baptist Convention

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has seen hundreds of leaders throughout its history. Typically, pastors of large churches or entity leaders are among the most commonly remembered, but the contribution of lay leaders is often just as instrumental. In a time of national and denominational turmoil, one Southern Baptist layman served at the highest levels of leadership in the United States government and the SBC, with equal commitment to both and a desire to make a difference. 

Born at the close of the 19th century, Brooks Hays (1898–1981) saw tremendous change over his lifetime—in the world around him, in the culture of the South, and in Southern Baptist life. He would witness the establishment of the Executive Committee, the development and subsequent revision of the Baptist Faith and Message, the invention of the Cooperative Program, massive growth and institutionalization of denominational structures, the golden age of the layman’s movement, and the tortured Southern Baptist conscience of the civil rights era.

A thoroughly Baptist beginning

Hays’ childhood was entrenched in Southern Baptist culture. His parents were devoted to their local church and were highly engaged in convention life. His father was an attorney but served as both clerk and moderator of his local Baptist association for years, setting the example for his son of what it meant to be a devoted layman. Brooks was attending associational meetings as a child with his father as soon as he was old enough to sit through them.1“Brooks Hays’ Father Dies In Arkansas.” (1959, June 10). Baptist Press, 2.

At 10 years old, he went to the Arkansas Baptist State Convention’s annual meeting and was captivated. He attended his first SBC annual meeting in 1920 in Washington, D.C. Having graduated from college, he was working as a Treasury Department clerk and attending law school at night. The convention had come to his city, and he was not going to miss it. He observed messengers and was “thrilled” by what he witnessed. 

After law school, Hays returned to Arkansas and quickly established himself in state government, but his commitment to public service never eclipsed his commitment to the Church. He taught a popular Bible class at Second Baptist Church in Little Rock that was incredibly diverse for its time, became a deacon and Sunday school leader in his early 20s, and was president of the Arkansas Sunday School Convention before he turned 30.

A leader in Congress and the Convention

By the time Hays was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1942, there was no question that he would be just as much of a churchman as he was a congressman. In 1953, he introduced House Concurrent Resolution 60 to establish a prayer room for members of Congress. Now 70 years later, the Congressional Prayer Room still sits near the Rotunda and has been the space for countless senators and representatives to quiet their hearts and minds as they approach their work. 

In 1950, he was elected second vice president of the convention, serving alongside President R.G. Lee of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. At the time of his election, he was not in attendance, but he sent a telegram to the convention from his House of Representatives office: “Please convey my profound thanks for the high honor conferred upon me by my fellow Baptists. It will be a great pleasure to work with them in carrying forward the great program of our denomination.”2“Brooks Hays Announces As Governor Candidate.” (1966, April 14). Baptist Press, 1.

His service on the Christian Life Commission began with his appointment to the Committee on Progress on Race Relations in 1953. He was chairman of the CLC for two years beginning in 1955, and in 1957 he was elected president of the SBC, being the sixth out of seven total laymen to hold the office. 3“Hays Is Sixth Layman Chosen SEC President.” (1957, June 13). Baptist Press, 1. These were tumultuous years for the Commission, specifically in its relationship to the convention as a whole, and most difficulties came down to one major issue.

A tenure during tumult

Both Hays’ congressional career and convention leadership were marked by the primary matter that captured the South throughout the 1950s. Segregation was as much a battle in the churches as in the culture, and as the unity of Southern Baptist cooperation was tested, Hays’ search for a middle ground came at a personal cost. The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education caused turmoil throughout the South and within the SBC. As Southerners resisted the enforcement of desegregation, churches saw division and disunity among their members. 

Hays wanted Southern Baptists to focus on doing good and improving race relations, but the path that he tried to forge was initially inconsistent as he navigated his two worlds. The CLC encouraged acceptance of the Brown decision in its 1954 report, yet Hays was one of 82 members of the House to sign the Southern Manifesto attacking the decision. He later expressed regret for adding his name, but the contradiction was stark. A few years later his public stance was more clear and had lasting personal consequences.

In 1957, shortly after his election as SBC president, Hays inserted himself into brewing trouble at home by appealing to Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus to stop his defiance of the federal government over desegregation. He arranged a meeting in Rhode Island between Faubus and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but his attempt to bring them together and forestall the crisis failed. Faubus enlisted the National Guard to stop the Little Rock Nine from entering Central High School, and the stand-off ended with Eisenhower’s executive order to federalize the National Guard and desegregate the school by force. 

His opposition to Faubus’ refusal to comply with Brown had career-ending implications for Hays. His attempt to broker peace cost him his seat in Congress when he lost to a last-minute write-in segregationist candidate.4Encyclopedia of Arkansas. (2022, November 16). Encyclopedia of Arkansas. https://encyclopediaof It was not enough to cost him favor with the majority of Southern Baptists, who reelected him in 1958 for a second term in spite of two surprise nominations of candidates to challenge him.51958 SBC Annual, 50-51.

The messengers were still wary of the CLC’s support of desegregation, but Hays encouraged trust in the organization. In his 1958 address to the convention, he commended to messengers the importance of the Commission to the churches. After acknowledging its mandate of speaking for Southern Baptists where authorized, he added, “Equally important is its role of familiarizing our people with problems of this nature, supplying counsel and advice on the subject as well as information on the Scripture teaching in specific areas, and to seek a sensitizing of the Christian conscience wherever evil, injustice and oppression exist anywhere in the world.”61958 SBC Annual, 79. 

The issue of foreign relations was also important to Hays, particularly the Church’s role in the world. As SBC president, he traveled to Russia and connected with local Baptist churches as well as other Christians. Some of his congressional colleagues were troubled by the trip, but he assured them that it was a non-political visit. Some Southern Baptists were not pleased that he was interacting with people who had other religious beliefs, but Hays stood up for religious liberty and the need to live at peace with others. 

Hays also recommended an SBC presidential committee on world peace, which served for a time and then gave its work over to the CLC.7Ibid., 80 In 1959, the CLC appointed him to be the first Southern Baptist observer to the United Nations, where he witnessed “a deep appreciation of Baptist influence and our point of view in world affairs.”8“Hays Reports His United Nations Visit.” (1959, October 10). Baptist Press, 1

Hays finished his career speaking, writing, and teaching in law schools and universities. He continued to build up the Church and encourage Southern Baptists as the devoted layman he had always been. On March 1, 1965, the Christian Life Commission awarded Hays its first-ever distinguished service award, “in recognition of unique and outstanding contributions to Southern Baptists, the nation, and mankind in the interest of world peace, racial justice, and Christian citizenship.”9“Hays Receives Award For Role in Ethics.” (1965, March 3). Baptist Press, 2-3.

Brooks Hays never felt the call to vocational ministry, but he took seriously the responsibility to serve the Church. At the heart of his efforts was a desire for cooperation—that people would stand together and do what is right. When he died in 1981, he was remembered as “one of the great lay presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention” and “a champion of the Christian way in race relations.”10“Former SBC President Brooks Hays, 83, Dies.” (1981, October 12). Baptist Press, 4–5.n

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