Moderate Baptist leader Henry Crouch dies

Henry Crouch, longtime pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., was first president of what today is known as the Alliance of Baptists.

By Bob Allen

Alliance of Baptists founder William Henry Crouch, 84, died Dec. 29 at his home in Asheville, N.C.

henry crouchCrouch, pastor emeritus of Providence Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., was a member of the “Gatlinburg Gang,” a group convened by Cecil Sherman in September 1980 to discuss encroaching fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist Convention. The meeting marked the beginning of the so-called “moderate” resistance to the “conservative resurgence” faction that rose to power in the nation’s second-largest faith group in the late 20th century.

Six years later, Crouch was among a group of predominantly East Coast moderates weary of denominational infighting and convinced their side was losing to form the Southern Baptist Alliance, organized in December 1986 and publicly announced the following February.

He was elected the group’s first president and functioned as its executive director before the 1988 hiring of Alan Neely, a missions professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary who took over administrative duties on a part-time basis for five months until the hiring of 44-year-old Stan Hastey as the Alliance’s first full-time executive director in 1988. Hastey held the post 20 years before retiring in 2009.

“In the face of a changing Baptist landscape, Henry Crouch courageously and prophetically opened the floodgates of freedom when in 1987 he became the first president of the Alliance of Baptists, giving voice to those who were shut out by the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention,” said Paula Clayton Dempsey, the Alliance’s minister for partnership relations. “Because of his leadership, freedom and Baptist remain synonymous today.”

Last year, on the 25th anniversary of its founding, the Alliance presented Crouch the “Heart of the Alliance” award for his contribution to the organization.

“Our hearts are full of gratitude for Henry's ministry, witness and leadership,” Dempsey said.

Originally intended as a voice of conscience to uphold traditional Baptist values like autonomy of the local church and the separation of church and state within the Southern Baptist Convention, the group distanced itself from the SBC in 1991, and a year later was renamed the Alliance of Baptists.

Today, the 140-church Alliance, with an additional 3,000 individual members, is known for its progressive views on social issues like interfaith and ecumenical relations, sexual orientation and opposition to the U.S. embargo of Cuba. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, formed in 1991, is larger, with about 1,800 churches, many of which also support the SBC and some that also are members of the Alliance.

A graduate of Mars Hill College with two master’s degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctorate at Wake Forest University, Crouch was pastor of churches in Kentucky, Mississippi and North Carolina. His father, Perry Crouch, was executive director of the Baptist Convention of North Carolina. His son, Bill, is president of Georgetown College in Kentucky.

After retiring from the ministry Crouch served as director of development for the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.

He was preceded in death by his wife of 60 years, Janice Young Crouch, who died in January 2010, and a daughter, Deborah Crouch McKeithan, who died in 2003.

Survivors include four children, Sarah Crouch Tucker of Macon, Ga.; Thomas L. Crouch of Asheville, N.C.; William H. Crouch Jr. of Georgetown, Ky.; and Rebecca Hobbs of Milledgeville, Ga.; 12 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is scheduled at 1 p.m. Friday, Jan. 4, at the First Baptist Church in Asheville, N.C., followed by a time of fellowship with family and friends. Burial will be private. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Crouch Leadership Scholarship at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.

Groce Funeral Home at Lake Julian in Asheville, N.C., is in charge of the arrangements.