How SBCD Began
In 1948, Southern Baptist had been doing organized Deaf ministry for more than forty-two years. Myrtle Morris had been employed by the Home Mission Board in 1904 to work as a teacher of the Deaf in Cuba. Miss Morris was deaf herself. Her mission was short lived but John W. Michaels, also deaf, was hired by the Arkansas Baptist Convention in 1905 and by the Home Mission Board in 1906. These were pioneer efforts that would be followed by the hiring of four career missionaries and three summer missionaries in the four decades prior to December 1948. The career missionaries were Axel Oscar Wilson, Clarence Findlay Landon, Joseph Watts Gardner, and Leslie H. Gunn. The three summer missionaries were Grady Watson, John W. McCandless, and Laura J. Formwalt.
In addition to these denominational efforts, Deaf ministries of various kinds originated during the first half of the twentieth century. Michaels was responsible for about 100 of these Deaf ministries. Everything that we are today as Deaf Southern Baptists originated in Michaels and his unsurpassed vision. But in this effort of planting Deaf ministries he was greatly assisted by the persons listed above and by numerous lay people, both hearing and deaf.
Some of these lay people Michaels had enlisted as volunteer workers like Harvey Drake in Washington D.C. and Maryland, Amon P. Bass in Virginia, Mr. and Mrs. W. C. Fugate in Kentucky, William Hackney in North Carolina, Mrs. Laura Formwalt in Tennessee, Herbert Smoak in South Carolina, and Joseph W. Gardner in Texas. These people served as “volunteer” missionaries in their prospective states. By 1948 there were solid Deaf ministries planted all over the South and strong lay leaders in every southern state.
By 1948, a number of churches with strong Deaf leaders and capable hearing interpreters had risen to positions of influence. These interpreters, all of them children of Deaf parents, included Lillian Beard, Miriam Johnson, Bertie Mae McDonald (Hiner), Laura Formwalt, and Fay Osborne Lanham. These women kept in touch with each other by mail an encouraged each other. The Home Board missionaries, especially J. W. Gardner (and Laura Formwalt in the summer time) traveled throughout the South encouraging the many and various Deaf ministries and their ministry leaders. When the Southwide Conference of the Baptist Deaf started, these many ministries and these lay leaders provided the primary impetus for its founding.
It should be noted that a second impetus for the founding of the Southwide Conference came from the natural inclination that Deaf people have for creating institutions for cultural support. Deaf society in America began in 1817 with the founding of the first permanent school for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. Within a few years, Deaf organizations and institutions of all kinds began. These included church societies, education societies, and social clubs of all kinds. The National Association of the Deaf began in 1880. It still exists today and is a major influence on all parts of Deaf life in America. Several organizations began in the South having major religious emphasis. These organizations influenced the beginning of a Southern Baptist national body. The Dixie Association began in 1928. It was a bit of a reaction by Southern Deaf people against the NAD leadership. This body began with strong religious flavor but within a few years the religious flavor was gone and infighting tore the association apart.
Of more important was the North Carolina Sunday
This group formed in 1936 and lasted for
Each year Deaf people from around North
Carolina would meet for Bible study like a large
state wide Sunday School.
In was May 1948, during the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Memphis, Rev. J. W. Gardner dropped in for a visit with the First Baptist church Silent Department. It was at that time I was asking him questions about the Southern Baptist Convention, finally a God-sent idea popped up, I asked Bro. J. W. Gardner what would be his opinion of organizing a Southern Baptist convention of the deaf in the Southern field, holding annual meetings. I gave the point that it would promote Christian fellowship, Bible study, workshops and get the experience of forming Christianity with new deaf people. It could lead many deaf to know Jesus Christ for the first time in their lives. Rev. Gardner became excited and enthusiastic over the idea. He wanted to talk more about it, so he came to our deaf department again the following month and I had the opportunity to invite him to have dinner with my wife, Doris, and myself so we would have more time in planning and after dinner we talked and discussed many matters about what to be done first, it lasted late in the evening. He gave me names and addresses of churches that have ministry to the deaf and their leaders. First I wrote a letter and let him read it and make it to his best appealing, then typed copies of the letter and mailed to 40 or more churches in the Southern area. In reply, I received more than 40 letters which many churches said they were willing to send a representative if any further meetings to organize a Southwide Baptist Conference of the Deaf. All the churches with a ministry to the Deaf were full of enthusiastic and for it.
Rev. Gardner continued his monthly visits to our department of the deaf and we planned a little bit by bit until around June and July the plans were almost shaped and ready for a “GO-AHEAD.” Rev. Gardner talked the matters over with Miss Faye Osborn, now, Mrs. Lanham. She and Rev. Gardner had a talk about it and decided that it was a good thing. So they decided to go to the office of Dr. R. P. Caudill and seek his advice on the idea. He, Dr. Caudill, thought the idea would be workable with the deaf in the Southern area, in fact among all the deaf. Dr. Caudill offered First Baptist Church as host to the first meeting and organizing of the new-born, Southwide Conference of the Baptist Deaf. Dates were set for the first meeting as of December 28, 29, 30, 1948.
These memories may have some slight errors and surely there are some omissions, but for the most part the memory of Leonard Asbridge is accurate.
It is simply amazing to see God’s hand through
John Michaels, had led deaf people to
Christ all over the South.
Lillian Beard’s adoptive parents were two
of those converts. He had also founded deaf
ministries including the one in Nashville, where
Fay Lanham’s parents went to church.
Lanham’s aunt, Laura Formwalt (who led
the deaf ministry in Knoxville also founded by
Michaels) had led Leonard Asbridge to Christ
when he was a boy attending the Tennessee School
for the Deaf in Knoxville.
Beard, Lanham, and Formwalt were major
influences on J. W. Gardner’s life and ministry.
The Southern Baptist Conference of the
Deaf did not spring up out of thin air.
God had been working in the lives of men
and women and in churches for decades.
All these came together in December of
1948. Plans were made, invitations were sent, the messengers took
That was the way people traveled over
long distances in 1948.
During the first session on that fateful Wednesday, each of the representatives spoke. They told about their individual church ministries. They described their needs. The needs described are as contemporary as today. Mrs. Garrett of Columbus, Georgia said “the deaf are so worldly and need Christ, but no one to teach them...” Mrs. Embry of Louisville, Kentucky described a problem with keeping up with deaf people when they moved to new cities. Mrs. Brittain of Atlanta, Georgia pleaded that “We must preach and teach as never before.” Mr. Truett George of Louisville, Kentucky bemoaned the fact that he had difficulty “getting the deaf to understand church loyalty.”
Beginning on Wednesday afternoon, the conference had several formal and “informal” presentations. Mrs. Wright spoke on “Christianizing Deaf People for Work Among the Deaf and Christian Education.” Even at this early point Mrs. Wright was communicating with Southern Baptist seminaries asking for help from them to educate deaf ministry workers. She had been raising money for that very purpose.
Mrs. Formwalt gave a convincing appeal for Deaf people to attend Ridgecrest. For several years, Formwalt had been attending Ridgecrest during Sunday School week and taking Deaf people with her. She had been interpreting and teaching at Ridgecrest and it was her conviction (which others shared) that Ridgecrest would do great things for Deaf people and for the new Deaf Conference. Carey Shaw had the final presentation. It is not clear if he spoke Wednesday afternoon or Thursday morning. The official minutes indicate Thursday morning. Shaw’s own recollection was that he spoke on Wednesday. Shaw spoke on the topic of “Christianizing the Social Life of Our Deaf People.” He called for Christian recreation to help keep Deaf people in the church.
The conference attended prayer meeting that Wednesday night at First Baptist Church and took over the program. Several of the conference attendees helped lead the prayer meeting. Gunn, Jones, George, and Mrs. Brittain all spoke at prayer meeting. Rev. Gardner led the program. The first day ended. Everyone went home with members of First Baptist to spend the night and to prepare for Thursday.
Whatever else may have happened on
Thursday, this part is certain; the whole group
took time to discuss their problems and
Lanham led a discussion on the need for
special literature and teaching aids.
Robert Marsden and Leslie Gunn led a
discussion on the need for deaf camps.
Every part of the ministry was put on the
(1) To provide a vehicle for obeying the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) with respect to deaf people by personal witnessing, evangelism, home missions, foreign missions, and discipleship;
(2) To provide opportunities for training in local church settings, in state conferences, and on the national level to help equip people in all aspects of the deaf ministry;
(3) To assist deaf persons with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and deaf persons, interpreting the needs and functions of the one to the other;
(4) To provide a channel of communication within the Southern Baptist deaf community;
(5) To provide an understanding of deafness and of the needs of deaf people to the community at large;
(6) To provide opportunities for inspirational worship experiences;
To provide opportunities for Christian
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