Brief History of the Cooperative Program

Since its inception in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has always had one mission —the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20). To fulfill its assigned part of this divine mandate, each SBC entity made special offering appeals to the churches. This method was referred to as the “societal” approach to missions and resulted in severe financial deficits, competition among entities, overlapping pledge campaigns, and frequent emergency appeals which greatly hampered the expanding ministry opportunities God was giving Southern Baptist. Some entities took out loans to cover operating costs until pledges or special offerings were received.

In 1919, the leaders of the SBC proposed the 75 Million Campaign, a five‐year pledge campaign that, for the first time, included everything – the missions and ministries of all the state conventions as well as that of the Southern Baptist Convention. Though falling short of its goals, a God‐given partnership of missions support was conceived – The Cooperative Program. Since its launch in 1925, the effectiveness of the Cooperative Program has been dependent upon individuals, churches, state conventions, and SBC entities cooperating, working toward a common goal of sharing the gospel with every person on the planet.

The CP Story

The CP Story Starts with You!

When you dedicate yourself to the Lord and give out of obedience and gratitude to Him, that offering goes on a journey and impacts every aspect of Southern Baptist ministry and missions. 

You give to your church and from there, your church decides what percentage of its undesignated gifts will be committed to reaching people in your state and around the world through The Cooperative Program. This amount is then forwarded to your State Baptist Convention.

A Godly Heritage

It was muggy day in Memphis, Tennessee and that made conditions a bit unbearable inside the city’s brand new convention hall-packed with 5,600 messengers to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.

And the oppressive humidity added to an SBC meeting already rife with debate. The issue of the day was evolution and Baptists had brought the national fight with them to the Convention. And while the debate was subdued, a few messengers were edgy and short-tempered about it.

But the bigger issue at the 1925 Convention was a report brought by E.Y. Mullins, whose committee presented its first draft of the Baptist Faith and Message.

There was another issue that was discussed at the 1925 Convention and even though it did not elicit much debate, its approval would revolutionize the Southern Baptist Convention-the Cooperative Program.

The adoption of the Cooperative Program came on the afternoon of May 13 and it didn’t generate much debate. At the time, it was called the Future Program Commission and its report was delivered by the chairman, M.E. Dodd. Many in the auditorium considered the presentation a magnificent committee accomplishment.

The committee itself was comprised of a who's who in the annals of Baptist history including:

  • A.C. Cree
  • A.J. Barton
  • B.D. Gray
  • B.F. Rodman
  • B.H. DeMent
  • C.A. Jones
  • C.E. Burts
  • C.E. Maddry
  • C.M. Thompson
  • C.W. Stumph
  • D.F. Green
  • E.D. Solomon
  • E.Y. Mullins
  • F.S. Groner
  • I. J. Van Ness
  • J.B. Rounds
  • J.F. Love
  • J.S. Rogers
  • J.T. Henderson
  • J.W. Cammack
  • Miss Kathleen Mallory
  • L.R. Scarborough
  • M.E. Dodd
  • O.E. Bryan
  • R.B. Gunter
  • R.D. Garland 
  • S.B. Rogers
  • W. Lunsford
  • Mrs. W.C. James
  • W.H. Baylor

The Cooperative Program name came following the adoption of the presentation when the messengers heartily approved the report with the following recommendation: “That from the adoption of this report by the Convention our co-operative work be known as ‘The Co-operative Program of Southern Baptists.'”

The Cooperative Program was created with twelve basic working principles:

  1. The Cooperative Program was an equal partnership between the Southern Baptist Convention and the state conventions;
  2. General promotional responsibility rested with the “Commission on Cooperative Program of Southern Baptists (later SBC Executive Committee);
  3. Field promotion responsibility belonged to the various state conventions;
  4. Money given by the churches was to be evenly divided between the state convention and SBC;
  5. Except for major special offerings already established, any special offering of any agencies would need to be approved by the appropriate convention;
  6. The state conventions would divide their share of the money to their causes, and the SBC would divide its share to its causes;
  7. Agencies participating in the CP would not be permitted to approach the churches directly;
  8. Certain basic items were to be deducted from the total before division; such as the cost of promotion in the states and the direct costs of administration;
  9. The CP would preserve the right of personal designations;
  10. Agencies would be permitted to seek out individuals for special gifts to capital or endowment programs;
  11. The funds given by the churches were held to be sacred trust funds belonging to both the state conventions and the SBC. The state conventions were not to touch the SBC portion for their own use;
  12. The CP included both designated and undesignated offerings.

By 1927, the Commission claimed CP was “fairly well established,” despite some mild confusion in the first two years of the plan.

That confusion was cleared up when Austin Crouch, was elected to serve as the first president of the Executive Committee, a position he held from 1927 until 1949.

Crouch was a firm supporter of CP and he guarded the founding principles of CP. The success of CP, even in the first twenty years of the plan, [was] evident in remarks Crouch made shortly before his death.

“The Cooperative Program is scriptural,” he said. “The work supported by the Cooperative Program may be classified under three heads: missions, teaching, and benevolence …. The Cooperative Program is scriptural in its objectives and methods. The plan is, of course, through cooperative of individuals and churches. Paul gave a fine example of cooperative effort. He had urged the churches in different sections to make contributions for the poor at Jerusalem, and the method for raising this money was according to his instruction to the church in Corinth: ‘Upon the first day of the week let everyone of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come’ (I Cor. 16:2). The appeal of Paul and the Cooperative Program is to individuals.”

Interestingly, the Cooperative Program was created out of a mountain of Southern Baptist financial debt. And what many considered to be the death knell for the SBC, resulted in the SBC’s survival.

It all started with an ambitious plan in 1919 called the 75 Million Campaign. The campaign, led by such notable Baptists as L.R. Scarborough, George W. Truett, and J.B. Gambrell, sough to build on the spirit of unity and sacrifice manifested during World War One.

At the time, Scarborough wrote, “The successful accomplishment of the campaigns for government bonds and the various drives for war work trained our Baptist people in the thought of doing great things for the winning of world-liberty, the relief of suffering humanity, which was easily carried over into the religious realm and applied to denominational work.”

There was one problem: of the $92,630,923 pledged by Baptists, only $58,591,713 was collected. The resulting effect plunged the denomination into debt at a time when the South was already struggling financially.

One observer noted in 1928, that “The wonder is not that we failed to collect all the pledges to the 75 Million Campaign, but that we were able to collect the half of them.”

Though falling short of its financial goal, the 75 Million Campaign had its upsides including:

  1. Southern Baptists collected more missions’ funds during the campaign than in the previous seventy-five years combined.
  2. Thousands of churches made first-time contributions to national and international missions causes.
  3. Churches began to consider the benefits of a unified giving plan.

Weaknesses in the American economy had left the SBC and its agencies near bankruptcy. In 1925, the year the CP was approved, the Home Mission Board was forced to abolish its department of evangelism due to lack of funds. Farmers in the South, many of whom were Baptists, were hit by what historian George Soule has called, “one of the most violent crashes of prices that the nation has ever experienced.”

It was during these financially troubling times, for the SBC and the nation, that Southern Baptists were asked to give sacrificially. And they did. Even during the Great Depression. In the middle of World War II, less than twenty years after the adoption of the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists celebrated the victory under the theme, “Debt Free in ’43.”

Now, seventy-five years later, Crouch’s words from long ago, ring true for the next generation of Southern Baptists as they partner together to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ across the land.

“It is still our unshaded conviction that the missionary spirit is still gaining ground, and the success of the Cooperative Program is one of the best proofs of its success,” Crouch said.