Arkanslander and the scourge of denominational ambition


Art Toalston has published a thoughtful tribute in Baptist Press to Rev. Jess Moody, who died Friday, Dec. 7, at his home in West Palm Beach, Fla. The larger-than-life pastor and founder of Palm Beach Atlantic University is noted for his winsome spirit, kind nature, and widespread influence as a man of faithful obedience and moral integrity.

Through his consistent witness, Moody brought the gospel message to both U.S. coasts — from West Palm Beach to Hollywood — serving at one time as a religious consultant for 20th Century Fox. He established the Act One Ministry that provided biblical teaching and fellowship for actors, directors, and producers in the U.S. film industry. Unlike some of his evangelist contemporaries, Moody was never accused of any moral failure or ethical lapse. He was a man of modest income, extraordinary generosity, and legendary good humor.

Nominated by the inimitable Baptist comedian Jerry Clower, Moody was a candidate for SBC president in 1992. He lost to Houston-area pastor Ed Young in a three-way race. When the university he founded dedicated a statue in his honor at a ceremony attended by the Rev. Jack Graham, the ever self-deprecating Moody dispensed with his prepared remarks and instead gave credit for the school’s success to everyone else.

Announcing his death, Moody’s son put a fine point on his father’s legacy: “He poured his heart into people. He didn’t beat people with the Bible. He loved us like Jesus loves us.” ERLC President Russell Moore called Moody a “titanic Baptist figure.”

According to longtime California Baptist leader, Fermin Whitaker, the avuncular Moody “was not the kind of leader who said, ‘I don’t have time for you.’ He was never negative. He was always encouraging and always a friend, sincere in his heart to reach the lost for Christ.”

Regrettably, Moody’s commitment to “never be negative” went unreciprocated in some corners of Northwest Arkansas.

In April 1992, a letter* about Moody was circulated to 43 Arkansas Baptist leaders alleging that the popular pastor’s candidacy was being orchestrated  by the “moderates/liberals.” The letter’s author went on to state that Moody was only “somewhat conservative theologically.” With a dog whistle of ambition (pause while we say this with a straight face), the letter declared that Moody had been “running for almost a year” for the position.

Something about pots and kettles comes to mind.

We are not saddened by the death of Jess Moody. The Psalmist is instructive at moments like this: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”

But we are saddened that this man of great faith and kindness was slandered during one of the darker days of denominational strife, and we wonder how the SBC might have been a different place if there were more servants like Jess Moody.

To read the 1992 letter unjustly associating the late Jess Moody with the moderate/liberal resistance effort in the SBC, click here.


*H. Edwin Young Papers, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee.