Material History of American Religion Project

The Baptized Purse

This site includes several documents here related—in various ways—to stewardship. Like any other institution, the church needs money to fund its operations. Much of that money comes from what it calls stewardship campaigns, in which the church persuades members to give financial support. Some of these approaches use business efficiency, some offer returns on donations , and some cite historical tradition.

This document takes a different approach: guilt. In 1949 the United States was beginning one of the greatest economic expansions in its history. A decade and a half of demand, suppressed by depression and war, encouraged consumption and production on a massive scale. Salaries increased across the board. Consumer items—appliances, televisions, cars—became available to Americans of all classes. In the midst of this prosperity, the editors of Missions—a monthly magazine of the American Baptist Convention—called on church members to share that wealth with the church. They contrasted the faithfulness of an English lad—who was living in the desperation of post-war reconstruction—with the complacency and self-indulgence of American Christians. Unlike the young man who wanted a baptized purse, Americans were spending their money on alcohol, amusements and cars.

It was a powerful appeal. Over the decade that followed, Americans did share their wealth with their churches; the 1950s were boom years for church budgets.

In a sermon in New York's Riverside Church Dr. Robert James McCracken told the story of a boy who was baptized by Dr. Gilbert Laws of England. Owing to a shortage of help in the dressing rooms, Dr. Laws personally helped the boy after his baptism. From his wet garments a little brown purse fell to the floor. "Is this yours?," asked Dr. Laws. "Yes, sir," said the boy. "You see, sir, I wanted my purse baptized also."

Never have the American people been more starkly in need of having their purses baptized and consecrated to high and worthy causes. Never were they so prosperous. Total personal income reached a level of $14,000,000,000 for the year 1948. The New York Times totalled last year's cash dividends at $5,750,000,000, highest of any year since the war. The U. S. Labor Department estimated average earnings of factory workers at $55 per week, highest in labor history. American people, says United States News, are eating one-sixth more per day than before the war. They eat more cheese, eggs, vegetables, meat, milk, fruit; they eat less bread, butter, potatoes, three weight-increasing foods. Evidently they eat both wisely and well! More spectacular prosperity proofs are the fabulous expenditures for liquor, amusements, gasoline, endless assembly lines of new cars, and the highway congestion every Sunday throughout the United States. In spite of current modest unemployment, American prosperity is a solemnizing fact, the like of which heretofore the world never seen.

Contrast this fantastic American well-being the poverty and ruin in Asia and Europe, the desperate plight of the homeless and hungry, the grim fate of displaced persons, the spiritual destitution of multitudes who know not the way, the truth, and the life as revealed in Christ, and the agonizing fear of loyal Christians in mission lands who anxiously wonder if America’s complacent, prosperous, powerful Christians will sustain or forsake them.

As in other years, April is the closing month of the Northern Baptist missionary fiscal year. For many scores of Baptist enterprises and for hundreds of mission stations, April 30th this year is fraught with majestic hope or tragic disillusionment. Much depends on what happened a few days ago on SHARES OF SUCCESS Sunday. Baptists also share in the current fabulous American prosperity. In most cases without sacrifice they can if they really wish, easily meet the needs of the year and thus share in a great achievement next month at San Francisco.

For its 1949 financial appeal New York's Salvation Army adopted a slogan, "Their faith and their hope need your charity." It is singularly appropriate also for Baptists. All across the earth the faith and the hope of multitudes of people need the charity of American Baptists. In many Baptist churches the congregations sing as an offertory hymn,

We give Thee but Thine own,
Whate'er the gift may be;
All that we have is Thine alone,
A trust, O Lord, from Thee.

In that spirit Baptists will baptize and consecrate their purses and will give their professed loyalty to Jesus Christ a worthy and tangible expression. With full recognition of what Christ has meant for them individually and as a people in these days when their historic principles of religious freedom are in jeopardy in so many areas, they need on April 30th to express more generously what they propose to do in return.

"The Baptized Purse," Missions 147:4 (April 1949), 203.

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