James L. Sullivan, former president of SBC, Baptist Sunday School Board, dies at 94

Communications Staff — December 29, 2004

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–James Lenox Sullivan, Southern Baptist statesman and retired president of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources), died Dec. 27 at Alive Hospice in Nashville, Tenn., following a brief illness. He was 94.

A private burial service for the family will be conducted Thursday morning. Visitation is at 12:30 p.m. Thursday at First Baptist Church of Nashville, followed by a memorial service at 2 p.m.

Sullivan served as president of the Sunday School Board, the denomination’s ministry enrichment, education and publication entity, from 1953 until his retirement in 1975. He was widely known as an authority on Southern Baptist polity and had been actively involved in denominational service since his first pastorate in 1932.

“He was president at one of the most crucial times at the Sunday School Board during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ‘60s,” said LifeWay Christian Resources president James T. Draper Jr. “He led in production of materials promoting the biblical view of human worth, regardless of race, and modeled his beliefs by providing an equitable work environment for a multicultural staff.

“He was my friend and supporter, and a great statesman. His counsel, wisdom, knowledge of Baptist history and of the Southern Baptist Convention was incomparable. As we have worked to strengthen the institution, he has given generously of his experience and insights to encourage us. Today our staff continues building on the foundation he laid.

“In a time when there are not many heroes, he has certainly been one of my heroes. I have lost a great friend.”

He served as pastor of churches in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Texas; as president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention; and as trustee of numerous Southern Baptist universities, seminaries and hospitals. He also served as vice president of the Baptist World Alliance.

Sullivan served one year as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, being elected in 1976.

Morris H. Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee, called Sullivan a “consummate minister” and “denominational statesman.”

“As pastor, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and president of the Sunday School Board, his contributions to the Southern Baptist Convention have been remarkable and invaluable,” Chapman said. “His years as president of the Sunday School Board were pivotal in the Board’s spiritual and business development.

“He was a wise and decisive leader, a captivating storyteller with a genuine zest for life. His delightful humor was artfully woven into his preaching and soon found its way into his conversations. His books about the history and polity of the Southern Baptist Convention will guide generations to come. His life was shaped by his love for and devotion to Christ. He is one of the few individuals you meet along the journey of life about whom can be said, ‘He was a great man.’”

Grady C. Cothen, who succeeded Sullivan as president of the Sunday School Board from 1975 to 1984, said Sullivan’s death marks “the end of a long and significant era in Baptist life.”

“He pioneered new methods and made endless contributions to the religious life of Baptist people,” Cothen said. “He built and maintained a great institution. His generous spirit made possible the sharing of the enormous resources of the Sunday School Board with Baptists of the world. Southern Baptists will never know the debt they owe to Sullivan for his courage under fire, for his humorous defusing of many critical situations. His passing leaves us all poorer.”

Following his retirement Sullivan taught as a guest professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce Bible School (now Boyce College) in Louisville, Ky., and at Mississippi College in Clinton, Miss. A football player and captain for Mississippi College from 1928-32, he was inducted into the institution’s Sports Hall of Fame.

The Mississippi Baptist Convention named him “Clergyman of the Century” in 1985.

Sullivan wrote many articles and books, including “Your Life and Your Church,” with a distribution of more than a million copies, and “Baptist Polity: As I See It,” published by Broadman & Holman in 1998.

“He was a personal friend and faithful mentor,” said Lloyd Elder, president of the board from 1984 to 1991. “He was truly a man of God, a man of his times by being ahead of his times, a peerless leader, fearless prophet and caring servant. Dr. Sullivan developed the Board into a profoundly Christian, Baptist denominational ministry, based on sound business principles and practices. At a personal level, he was forever learning and participating with others.”

A graduate of Tylertown (Miss.) High School, Sullivan’s higher education included a bachelor of arts degree from Mississippi College in Clinton; a master of theology degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and a doctor of divinity degrees from Mississippi College and Campbell College in Buies Creek, N.C.

“His unwavering commitment to the Cooperative Program and the principles behind it stands as a lasting reminder for all Southern Baptists of the necessity of pursuing God’s Kingdom together,” Chapman said. “We praise God for the life of James L. Sullivan, and for the rich legacy and example he leaves with us.”

Sullivan’s wife, Velma Scott Sullivan, preceded him in death in 1993. His daughter, Martha Lynn (James) Porch of Tullahoma, Tenn., died in 1999.

Sullivan had known his future wife since childhood, and often said he knew she had been the right choice because she was “the only girl I ever dated,” adding that they had dated only five times. The couple married in 1935.

“We have been doing our courting since our marriage,” his wife would explain.

Survivors include a daughter, Mary Beth (Bob) Taylor of Nashville; a son, James David Sullivan of Oxford, Miss.; seven grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.

The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, memorial donations be given to one of the following charitable organizations: First Baptist Church (“Door to the Future”), Nashville; Alive Hospice, Nashville; or LifeWay Christian Resources (the chapel at Camp Ridgecrest, N.C., for Boys), Nashville.

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