Dark Shadows & Bright Promises: The ‘missionary vision and passion’ planted in Brazil by the ‘first Southwesterner’ continues to grow
Editor’s Note: The following feature story originally appeared in the spring 2020 issue of Southwestern News (pgs. 46-55). The events recounted herein took place before the outbreak of COVID-19.
“I think this verse characterizes my grandparents’ journey to and ministry in Brazil,” AnneLu Bagby remarked. She held up an unused children’s coloring book page she had translated into Portuguese as she spoke to a group of more than 200 women gathered for tea. The church in which they assembled, First Baptist Church Goainia (Primera Igreja Batista em Goiania), was her childhood church home and one pastored by her father, T.C. Bagby. The text, accompanied by a hand-drawn wooden ship on the black-and-white page, taken from Psalm 139:9-10, read, “If I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me.”
AnneLu’s grandparents, William “Buck” and Anne Luther Bagby, departed from the United States on Jan. 13, 1881, bound by ship for Brazil, trusting that the Lord’s hand would guide them. The two eager Texans, commissioned by the Foreign Mission Board and supported by the giants of Texas Baptist life at the end of the 19th century, would be instrumental in starting Southern Baptist work in Brazil. The providential hand of God guided them and others with whom they partnered to fulfill a great calling with tremendous effort. More than 100 years after her grandparents first set foot in Brazil, AnneLu, now 86, was invited to participate in the 113th annual gathering of the Brazilian Baptist Convention as an honored guest.
A Vision for Brazil
“It’s a saga,” said Fernando Brandão, executive director of the Brazilian National Mission Board (Missões Nacionais). “A line connecting with the first missionaries—AnneLu is a part of this history. … It’s impossible to talk about Baptists in Brazil if you don’t talk about the Bagbys.”
Brandão, who is also the president of the Baptist Theological Seminary of Rio de Janeiro, was one of many leaders who desired to include a special time of recognition for the Bagbys at the annual meeting of the Baptist convention in January.
The two-day program for the convention included reports from entities of Brazilian Baptists, testimonies from indigenous missionaries sharing about new churches being planted among the native people of Brazil, and a special program to recognize key figures and give thanks to God for the missionary legacy that has characterized not only previous Baptist work, but ongoing work in the country and around the world.
As AnneLu Bagby stood next to her grandson and was introduced to the assembly, the crowd stood and applauded.
She gently took the microphone offered to her by Brandão, and a hush fell across the packed room as more than 3,000 Brazilian Christians awaited her message.
“I’m very happy to be here with you,” she said. “I also give thanks to God, and I thank you for the opportunity to be here in the Baptist convention in Goiania. God gives a heritage to those who fear Him, as the psalmist says in Psalm 61:5. He has done the same for you; that’s probably why you are here.”
The heritage and treasure of Brazilian Baptists, according to Brandão, is the missionary passion that the first Southern Baptist missionaries brought with them. The vision that guided those first missionaries continues to guide current leaders in Brazil. The formula seems simple: multiply disciples, form leaders, and plant churches. This vision carried to Brazil by the Bagbys originated in the heart of God and was given fresh life by Baptist leaders in Texas who also longed to see the promised fulfillment of Revelation 7:9—“a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language” worshiping the Lord. One of those men was the legendary B.H. Carroll.
The First ‘Southwesterner’
If it’s impossible to talk about Baptists in Brazil without talking about the Bagbys, it’s impossible to talk about Buck Bagby without mentioning B.H. Carroll. Bagby never received a diploma from The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, but it would not be an exaggeration of the Texas sort to call him the “first Southwesterner.” As one of the only students studying theology for a time at the University of Waco (which later became Baylor University) in the 1870s, Bagby proudly, frequently, and jokingly told many people later in his life, “Dr. Carroll and I founded Southwestern Seminary. He was the faculty and I was the student body.”
Carroll mentored and taught Bagby in Waco, but also “held the ropes” for him in Texas after the couple was commissioned to Brazil. The Foreign Mission Board, crippled financially by the Civil War and their newly established mission work in China and Italy, did not have the funds to support the Bagbys in their missionary endeavor, though they were eager to send them. B.H. Carroll and layman A.T. Hawthorne, both instrumental in affirming the Bagbys’ call to Brazil, divided up the Texas Baptists and went on preaching tours across the state to raise the funds necessary to send the missionaries.
When they left for Brazil, the Bagbys had only three months of funds, but upon their arrival in 1881, the first letter with monetary support that they received came from B.H. Carroll himself.
Baptists in Texas stepped up and helped keep the Bagbys on the field for more than 50 years. In the first decade of the Bagbys’ ministry, due to the tireless efforts of men like Carroll, R.C. Buckner, E.Y. Mullins, George W. Truett, and many others, Texas Baptists’ giving grew by 850 percent.
On the day they departed from the U.S., Bagby wrote these words in his journal, “Southern Texas is coming nobly to Brazilian interests, and we hope that ere many years earnest workers will be sent out to help us in that land of dark shadows and bright promises.” He and his wife carried with them the hopes and dreams of the evangelization of the entire country of Brazil, and their Texas supporters shared that same dream.
Separated by more than 5,000 miles in 1907, Buck Bagby and B.H. Carroll were connected by a commitment to evangelistic fervor, missionary enterprise, and educational passion, as one made efforts to found a Baptist convention in South America while the other was moved by God to develop a school in the Southwest for the training of young Baptist preachers.
Upon the formation of the Brazilian Baptist Convention, Bagby was elected to serve on the board of the Brazilian Foreign Mission Board and, at the first meeting, wrote these words in a resolution:
“The Gospel which we preach is essentially missionary. ‘Go’ is the first word of the Great Commission. ‘Go’ is the first order given to every believer in Jesus. The history of Christian missions is the history of Christianity itself. We believe that the time has arrived for Baptist believers in Brazil to begin a movement to help in the preaching of the Gospel beyond the national frontiers.”
A Bright Future
The movement Buck Bagby envisioned, and the development of not just the Brazilian Baptist Convention but Brazilian Baptist mission boards, saw fruit while the missionary was still living. Only five people made up the first Baptist church Bagby and Z.C. Taylor planted in 1882, but at the first meeting of the convention in 1907, almost 5,000 members were reported by Baptists in Brazil. By 1930, shortly after Bagby retired, the number totaled more than 37,000.
Today, the Brazilian Baptist Convention comprises 16,000 churches and more than three million members. It is now the third largest Baptist convention in the world and growing rapidly. The world missions sending agency of the Brazilian Baptist Convention (JMM) has more than 2,000 missionaries deployed in 85 countries around the world.
President of JMM Joao Marcos Barreto Soares says, “We believe it is possible to, as we say, ‘conclude the mission’ by the end of the 21st century. In fact, I believe it might be possible within the first half of this century.”
Soares recognizes, however, that the challenge of reaching all of Brazil and reaching the world is not something that can be done by the Brazilian Baptist Convention or the Southern Baptist Convention alone, but that it must be done together. This sense of cooperation permeates the vision of the leadership of the Brazilian Baptist Convention.
L. Robert Silvado (‘83, ‘87), the immediate past president of the Brazilian Baptist Convention and senior pastor of Bacacheri Baptist Church (Igreja Batista do Bacacheri), said, “We’re living in a time of partnership for the advancement of the Kingdom. It’s something very special because we know nobody has it all, and that makes a big difference when you realize that.
“This kind of partnership between the Brazilian Baptist Convention and the Texas convention, between the seminary in Rio and Southwestern Seminary, this partnership between students in Rio and students in Southwestern, [partnership] enhances the power that can be released … if you work side by side, that makes it much more powerful.”
Silvado and others leading the Baptist denomination in Brazil are excited about the future of what God is doing in and through their country. They recognize that young people often see the world differently than they do, and by grasping and implementing strategic actions for missionary purposes, the Gospel can go further and reach more people than ever before.
“My generation,” Silvado explained, “thinks about passports and borders. They [millennials and Gen Z] think globally. … If somehow, we, as leaders, could move down and have the mindset of the newer generation and think globally, we could impact the world in a different way.”
The Brazilian Baptist Convention has a goal of starting 5,000 new churches in the next five years. They desire to expand missionary appointments and to continue to push back darkness in every corner of the globe with the light of the Gospel. Through the power of God and the obedience of His people, they pray that the missionary heritage and passion they have received will perpetuate and characterize the DNA of Baptists in Brazil.
Brent Ray (‘89, ‘00), director of Southwestern Seminary’s World Missions Center, spent 14 years in Brazil as a missionary with the International Mission Board. While he served in Brazil, Ray had the opportunity to invest in young believers in local churches and in the seminary. During his time at Southwestern, Ray has helped develop partnerships on multiple levels with Brazilian Baptists.
“We are partnering with the national convention, the Foreign Mission Board, the National Mission Board, and the Rio seminary,” Ray says. “The theological education committee of the convention met four years ago and invited us to helped train professors for the three national schools.”
“Our deepest tie is with the Rio seminary,” Ray continues. “We’ve had a five-and-a-half-year relationship with the Rio seminary and helped them develop a post-graduate program in expository preaching, which they now do on their own. They had the first national expository preaching conference this last year to an absolutely packed house. We are working now on a post-graduate program in missiology.”
The Rio seminary is also designing and developing a center on the campus of the seminary that will serve as a missionary training center and world missions center. The name they have chosen: The William Buck Bagby Center for World Missions.
His Hand Continues to Guide
In his role leading the national mission board and the seminary in Rio de Janeiro, Fernando Brandão is keenly aware of the need to train leaders. He works alongside many others in Brazil to equip young men and women for Gospel ministry. But he does not forget what he calls the “treasure” left by missionaries to Brazil like the Bagbys, Taylors, Ginsburgs, Keys, and Rays.
“What is the treasure they left for us? The missionary vision and passion,” he says.
“Love people. Reach people. Love to share the Gospel. Love planting churches. Love investing in missions. Because if you have money, if you have buildings, if you have a denominational structure, but if you don’t have missionary vision, nothing will stand.”