Charles Stanley, pivotal SBC president, TV preacher, dies

Charles Stanley, a former Southern Baptist Convention president and one of the nation’s foremost television and radio preachers, passed away peacefully at his home April 18 at age 90.

Stanley presided over the two largest annual meetings in SBC history — 45,531 messengers in 1985 in Dallas and 40,987 in 1986 in Atlanta — when conservatives faced the most pronounced opposition to anchoring the convention in biblical authority.

As senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Atlanta, Stanley was elected in 1984 in the sixth year of the conservative advance toward majorities on the trustee boards of the convention’s seminaries and other entities. Conservatives rose to the challenge in 1985 and 1986, with Stanley receiving 52.18 percent of messengers’ votes in Dallas over two nominees and 55.3 percent of the tally in Atlanta over a single nominee.

Stanley transitioned to pastor emeritus in September 2020 at age 87, having led First Baptist for nearly 50 years. Anthony George, senior associate pastor since 2012, succeeded Stanley.

“My election [in 1984 in Kansas City, Mo.] infuriated the opposition,” Stanley wrote in his 2016 autobiography, “Courageous Faith,” “and ultimately revealed many of the underlying problems that had existed in the convention for a long time but had either been ignored or denied. … All the liberal and moderate political forces of the Southern Baptist Convention were against me, which included seminary presidents and state convention newspapers.”

Even so, “I knew I was in the center of His will, so I never felt anxious or angry even when the conflicts were at their very worst.”

Beyond what became known as the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC, Stanley developed an extensive television and radio audience through his In Touch Ministries and was inducted into the National Religious Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame in 1988.

Stanley’s broadcast ministry began in 1972 as “The Chapel Hour” on two Atlanta TV stations and a radio station, subsequently expanding to TBS (Turner Broadcasting System) and to CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network). He renamed the outreach In Touch Ministries in 1977, stirred by the title of a devotional book in his office, “to get as many people as possible in touch with Jesus Christ and His way of living.”

Today, Stanley’s In Touch messages are broadcast on a myriad of TV and radio stations and satellite networks as well as via shortwave in more than 100 languages across 150 countries. In 2007, the ministry also began distributing pocket-size In Touch Messenger solar-powered audio devices that contain the New Testament, Psalms, Proverbs and several dozen of Stanley’s sermons in a variety of languages. In addition to distributing hundreds of thousands of the units to U.S. soldiers and to missions efforts worldwide, the devices have been adapted for placement at refugee camps and on water towers in various parts of the world for listening by cellphone.

More than any other SBC president, Stanley’s personal life had been on public display, beginning when his wife, Anna, filed for divorce in 1993. After a period of reconciliation, a divorce ensued in 2000, after 44 years of marriage. Anna Stanley died in 2014 of pneumonia and other health issues at age 83.

The marital distress included a ruptured relationship with his son Andy, who was on First Baptist’s staff and felt his father should resign to let the church decide whether he should remain in the pulpit. Charles Stanley differed, and his son subsequently resigned and started the non-denominational North Point Community Church, whose ministry has eight Atlanta-area locations.

In his autobiography, Stanley wrote, “Losing Annie was the worst heartache of my life,” yet it helped him reach those who say, “I thought you couldn’t possibly comprehend what I was going through. But now I know you’ve been there, too, and really understand how I feel.”

Stanley and his son found reconciliation. “I asked Andy to go to counseling with me and invited him to breakfast and lunch as often as I could. And I prayed for him. Constantly,” he wrote. “I am exceedingly proud of him. From the first time I heard him preach, I knew God would use him in a powerful way — and he has.”

Andy Stanley, in the foreword to his father’s autobiography, wrote of its contents: “Triumph, tragedy, love, marriage, divorce, poverty, prosperity, opportunity — all lived out under the canopy of God’s promises and faithfulness. … In my personal life and ministry, my takeaway from having Dr. Charles Stanley as my father was that everyone can trust God with every outcome.”

In SBC life prior to his presidency, Charles Stanley was the 1984 president of the Pastors Conference that precedes the convention’s annual meeting, and he was the 1983 chairman of the Committee on Nominations (then called the Committee on Boards), which was pivotal for the Conservative Resurgence in nominating trustees for the SBC’s seminaries, mission boards and other entities.

As SBC president, Stanley served on the 22-member Peace Committee that was established and named by a motion approved at the 1985 annual meeting. The committee was tasked with identifying “the sources of the controversies” within the SBC and making recommendations for reconciliation and cooperation in “evangelism, missions, Christian education and other causes … all to the glory of God.” In its 6,450-word report, issued in 1987 after 15 meetings, the Peace Committee stated that “the great number of Southern Baptists” believe the Bible “speaks truth in all realms of reality and to all fields of knowledge. The Bible, when properly interpreted, is authoritative to all of life.”

In 1986, Stanley named Barry McCarty as the annual meeting’s chief parliamentarian. McCarty — who continued in that role through the 2022 SBC Annual Meeting, missing just two years — was a Church of Christ minister and now is a Baptist college professor in Georgia.

Stanley became senior pastor of First Baptist Atlanta in 1971 at age 40 and later led in a relocation of the church from downtown and Midtown Atlanta, where it had been located at several sites since its founding in 1848, to a renovated distribution facility on a 50-acre tract in the north Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody.

Stanley first came to the Atlanta congregation as associate pastor in 1969 and soon faced hostility from a small faction of longstanding members. After the pastor resigned in 1970, Stanley became interim pastor and was voted in as senior pastor by a motion arising during a 1971 business meeting. At a subsequent business meeting, one of Stanley’s opponents struck him in the jaw, prompting an uproar among the members that led to the faction leaving the church.

He earlier was pastor of First Baptist churches in Bartow and Miami, Fla.; Fairborn, Ohio; and Fruitland Baptist Church near Hendersonville, N.C., where he also taught at the Fruitland Baptist Bible Institute.

He held doctorate and master’s degrees in theology from Luther Rice Seminary in Atlanta; a divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas; and an undergraduate degree from the University of Richmond, where he first heard professors dismiss the deity of Christ, causing him to wonder, “What in the world is this heresy?” As a teenager, Stanley had joined a Baptist church in Danville, Va., and the pastor arranged a four-year scholarship for him at the university.

Stanley authored more than 60 books, including two stemming from his hobby of photography, with images from Alaska to Africa that he used in his sermons. “I can preach for 50 minutes,” he told the 2019 Southeastern Photojournalism Conference at the SBC Building in Nashville, “but if I show you something on a big screen that says something about that, you may forget what I said, but you will not forget what you saw. And then God will connect the two.”

A native of Dry Fork, Va., Stanley was raised by his mother, Rebecca (known by Becca), after his father, Charley, died from a kidney disease when he was less than a year old. His grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher in North Carolina, and the mother and son attended the Pentecostal Holiness Church in Danville, Va., amid frequent moves during their hardscrabble life in the Depression.

Though working long hours in a mill, Rebecca Stanley and her son prayed on their knees beside his bed every night — a practice Stanley continued throughout his life — and they looked up various verses in her Bible, the only book she owned. She remarried to give her son a father figure, Stanley recounted in his autobiography, but his stepfather was physically and verbally abusive, even though the couple had a daughter. The tumult at home, Stanley wrote, nevertheless “increased my prayer life exponentially because I spent a lot of time alone with God.”

He made a profession of faith at age 11 when the preaching of a Mrs. Wilson during a revival service “struck me to the core” about “how far I was from the Father because of my sin. … When she gave the invitation, I was the first one down the aisle and on my knees” to have “a real, eternal relationship with my Heavenly Father and Creator.”

In addition to his son, Stanley is survived by daughter Becky Stanley Brodersen, six grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and half-sister Susie Cox.

— Art Toalston is a writer based in Nashville and a former editor of Baptist Press.