April 23, 2014
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Easter, a worldly holiday? 100 years ago, Southern Baptists thought it was
Stephen Douglas Wilson
Posted on Apr 5, 2012

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MAYFIELD, Ky. (BP) -- Southern Baptists originally did not attach much significance to Easter. This was much the same regarding Christmas (see "Southern Baptists have not always embraced Christmas " in Baptist Press, Dec. 23, 2011).

Both days were not recognized as a special day of worship in any of the historic Baptist confessions; allusions to them were rare in Baptist history volumes before the 20th century; and both holidays possessed an association with worldliness, and even paganism, in the minds of many Baptist ministers. Even as late as 1903, a writer for the North Carolina state Baptist paper, the Biblical Recorder, wrote an anti-Easter article that stated that "Baptists do not keep this day" (March 18, 1903).

With the exception of the Sunday worship day, Baptist tradition before the late 19th century largely rejected or ignored "special days." Although the apostle Paul recognized that Christians had a Christian liberty option for special days in Romans 14:5-6, few Baptists ministers or writers of that day championed that option. Many Baptist ministers in the era just before 1900 would have dismissed the idea of celebrating a special day for Christ's resurrection as unnecessary, since "every day should be a celebration of the Lord's resurrection."

Conversely, the slow embrace of Christmas by Southern Baptists in the late 1800s certainly led many of them also to take a second look at Easter. The late Victorian Age in the United States encouraged a re-examination of holidays in an era of a growing tendency toward leisure and celebratory events. The celebration of special days comported well with such contemporary activities as the growth of professional sports and a number of new civic celebrations and festivals. It was only natural for Southern Baptists to look to festivals with strong historic Christian connections such as Christmas and Easter.

By the late 1800s, some Southern Baptist churches began celebrating Easter in their services. Articles and advertisements in state Baptist papers acknowledged that some Baptist churches celebrated the holiday; others decorated their churches with Easter lilies; and sheet music for Easter was advertised for sale. Nonetheless, most articles in the state Baptist papers of this era were against celebrating Easter. One writer for the Kentucky state Baptist paper, the Western Recorder, in 1890 called the new custom of celebrating Easter in Baptist churches an "innovation," and he disapproved of that development. Contributing authors in the Baptist state papers in Alabama and North Carolina also acknowledged their opposition to celebrating Easter, addressing their concerns to fellow Baptists who were beginning to recognize the holiday. After 1900 the more vehement opposition to Easter slowly faded in the state Baptist papers.

Paralleling their role in Christmas celebrations in Southern Baptist life, the Woman's Missionary Union (WMU) played an important part in the Southern Baptist embrace of Easter. Once again the catalyst was missions. When the WMU successfully won the Southern Baptist Convention over to a special collection of funds at Christmastime for foreign missions (eventually called the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering), WMU Corresponding Secretary Annie Armstrong also began promoting a similar special collection for home missions. As early as 1895 the WMU began sponsoring a week of prayer for home missions that would be capped off with an offering for the cause.

Nevertheless, the connection between an offering for home missions and the recognition of Easter by Southern Baptists took longer to unfold than the Southern Baptist acceptance of Christmas that the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering engendered. Originally the prayer time and offering for home missions was suggested for January, but shortly afterward, the week of prayer was moved to early March to distance itself from the Christmas offering. After undergoing a few name changes, the springtime offering was renamed the Annie Armstrong Offering in 1933 for the upcoming 1934 season in recognition of her advocacy for home missions. The spring season of prayer and offering, with its proximity to the Easter holiday, began making the same connection with Southern Baptists that the Lottie Moon offering shared with the Christmas season.

Furthermore, the old reluctance to observe Easter faded as the 20th century unfolded. Ministers began preaching resurrection-themed sermons and voiced little objection to secular Easter activities like the "Easter Sunday meal" and Easter egg hunts. Recognizing that Easter Sunday was a day that many of their members dressed in their finest attire, the tradition of taking a "church photo" on Easter became an established custom in some Southern Baptist churches. Every so many years, and with weather permitting, churches would gather their members on Easter Sunday for a group picture. While this tradition faded as churches grew larger in the post-Second World War era, this charming custom reinforced the observance of Easter as a special time in the life of the local church.

Into this growing pro-Easter climate, the Home Mission Board suggested to the WMU in 1968 that the Annie Armstrong Offering be renamed the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for the upcoming 1969 season. The WMU supported the name change. This solidified the Southern Baptist tradition started by the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering that holidays in Southern Baptist life can be best celebrated by supporting missions. The newly renamed Easter offering would play a critical role in funding domestic missions in the years to come.

As the latter half of the 20th century waned, Southern Baptists enthusiastically supported Easter. In this era, many churches sponsored Easter musical programs, and the larger suburban churches produced elaborate Easter pageants that combined drama, music and spiritual themes. Formal invitations to accept Christ followed these pageants. Other churches instituted Easter morning "sunrise services." Baptist Book Stores (now Lifeway Christian Stores) provided Easter-themed paraphernalia along with holiday books and gifts for individuals, and group materials for Easter programs and pageants.

The advent of the 21st century continued these developments, but the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering remained the cornerstone of the Southern Baptist observance of Easter. Currently, around 5,000 North American missionaries are supported in a significant way by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering. The Easter-themed offering both solidified the connection to the holiday as well as producing the outcome of Southern Baptists' celebration of Easter.
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Stephen Douglas Wilson is dean emeritus and chair of the social studies/history department of Mid-Continent University in Mayfield, Ky., and is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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