The word “Baptist” is derived from the Greek βαπτίζω (baptizo), meaning “to dip,” “to immerge.” The name first given, though never accepted, was “ Anabaptists ” (or Again-baptists), because they denied the validity of infant baptism, and obliged people baptized in infancy to receive the rite again.William Henry Lyon, A Study of the Sects 119 (1891)
Birth of the Baptist Sect (1600s)
The denial of the validity of infant baptism and the insistence upon immersion as a form have probably been held by individuals, though not by churches, from the beginning of Christian history. They are found in various sects or parties of the Church during the Middle Ages, notably the Waldenses; but it came into prominence, very soon after Luther had stirred up the latent heresies and dissatisfactions of Europe, in the sect called the Anabaptists. Unfortunately, the main doctrine became mixed with various fanatical and even immoral doctrines, which had no real bearing upon it, and for which it was in no way responsible. The doctrine found more worthy support in Zurich and among the Mennonites of Holland, who were devout, peaceable, and pure people, abstaining from participation in civil government, and maintaining the right of religious liberty. In fact, the first one who ever proclaimed this right was Balthazar Hubmaier, one of the original Anabaptists of Germany, who was burned at the stake in 1528.William Henry Lyon, A Study of the Sects 119-120 (1891)
It was in Holland that the English Independents, or Brownists, first came into contact with Anabaptist doctrines; and one of their ministers in Amsterdam, the Rev. John Smyth, became a convert to them, and formed a new church, part of which came to London in 1612. The early history of the sect there is uncertain; but it is known that a church existed in 1633, and from that time adherents multiplied fast. They were opposed by all the sects then in existence, and were persecuted through all the changes of religious control. The Revolution of 1688 gave toleration to them, as to all dissenters; but they soon divided into “General Baptists,” who believed that the atonement was for all men to accept or reject, and “Particular Baptists,” who believed that it was for the elect alone. The latter is the Baptist sect of today. The former divided again into “Old Connection,” who became generally Unitarian, and “New Connection,” who correspond to what we call Free (Will) Baptists.
Hints of a Baptist movement existed in sixteenth-century England, mostly among the English Separatists, members of a radical branch of Puritanism. The Puritans believed that they should reform, or “purify,” the Church of England from within, but the Separatists believed that the Church of England was corrupt beyond redemption. True believers should separate from it, they warned.
By the early seventeenth century, some radical Separatists concluded that complete purity in the church demanded a rejection of infant baptism. Infant baptism reflected an inclusive, geographic view of church membership that both Roman Catholics and Anglicans embraced, introducing the children of Christian families into the church as quasi-members. But what if those children never experienced conversion? The practice necessarily brought into the church people who, according to the Calvinist view of Puritans and Separatists, were not members of the elect, the chosen people of God. Baptists sought to clear up this confusion, and to foster a pure church membership, by baptizing only those who had actually experienced conversion.
Many of the Separatists adopted views similar to those of the Mennonites on issues such as the strong separation of church and state, as both experienced harsh persecution, fines, and imprisonment at the hands of political and church authorities. The Separatists and Mennonites undoubtedly influenced each other, as English and Continental radicals routinely crossed the North Sea in these decades, looking for economic opportunity and religious freedom.
Many of the early English Baptists also rejected the dominant Calvinist beliefs of the Separatists, including predestination and limited atonement (the idea that Christ died only for those predestined for salvation), in favor of the theology of a general atonement (the idea that Christ died for everyone). They probably picked up this new doctrine from Continental Anabaptists.9 The “General” Baptists, as they came to be called, believed that all people could be saved, in contrast to the “Particular” Baptists, who believed that only the chosen elect of God could be saved.
The first English Baptist church in Holland was founded by Separatist pastor John Smyth. Educated at Cambridge, in 1600 Smyth began serving as a priest of the Church of England in Lincoln, in northeast England. Even though local officials knew of his Puritan leanings when they hired him, Smyth’s preaching earned him powerful enemies. Two years later Smyth was removed from his pastorate for “undue teaching of matters of religion,” and for attacks on elite residents of the town. Smyth became a minister of a Separatist congregation in nearby Gainsborough.
Smyth’s Gainsborough Separatists fled persecution by local authorities and arrived in the relatively free environs of Amsterdam by 1608. Liberty did not lead to peace within the congregation, however, as a faction led by John Robinson split of from Smyth’s church and moved to Leyden. The rift may have been caused by Smyth’s gravitation toward Baptist principles. Robinson’s departure for Leyden represented the origins of the celebrated group of English Separatists—the “Pilgrims”—who came to Plymouth Colony in America on the Mayflower in 1620.
In Amsterdam, Smyth became familiar with several Mennonite congregations. Smyth’s church rented space (presumably for meetings and/or lodging) at a bakeshop owned by a local Mennonite. The Mennonites may have helped Smyth take the final step from Separatist to Baptist, and they likely also contributed to Smyth’s developing belief in the general atonement. In his incendiary tract The Character of the Beast (1609), Smyth explained that infant baptism was one of the most pernicious practices of false communions like the Church of England, which he considered the daughter of the great harlot, the Roman Catholic Church. Only Christian believers could receive true baptism, and only authentic Christian churches could offer true baptism. Infants were obviously too young to understand the meaning of baptism or to repent of their sins. Baptizing infants was “the most unreasonable heresy of all Antichristianism: for considering what baptism is, an infant is no more capable of baptism than is any unreasonable or insensible creature: for baptism is not washing with water: but it is the baptism of the Spirit, the confession of the mouth, and the washing with water. . . . Infant baptism is folly and nothing.”Thomas S. Kidd & Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History 4-5 (2015)
A close associate of John Smyth in Holland was another English refugee by the name of Thomas Helwys. Convinced that it was his duty to return to England and minister to its citizens, and because of some disagreements with Smyth, Helwys made his way back to his native land and organized a church at Spitalfields in 1612. This is often called the first Baptist congregation on English soil. … He was imprisoned and may have died behind bars. Helwys is credited with the first English publication demanding universal religious liberty. “Let them be heretics, Turks Jews, or whatever,” said Helwys. “It appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”Walter B. Shurden, Not a Silent People: Controversies that Have Shaped Southern Baptists 5 (1995).
The Puritan dissenter Roger Williams (1603-1683) founded the first Baptist church in America at Providence, Rhode Island, in about 1638-1639. The movement expanded throughout the colonies, not without significant persecution from religious establishments in New England and Virginia. Divisions developed over over theology and practice, creating numerous subgroups including the Calvinistic Regular Baptists, the more revivalistic Separate Baptists, Seventh-Day Baptists, Six-Principle Baptists, and others.Macmillan Reference USA, “Baptist Tradition,” in Contemporary American Religion Vol 1, Wade Clark Roof (ed.) 50 (2000)
When the president of Harvard College, Henry Dunster, became a Baptist in 1654, leaders of the college forced him to resign. By 1670 Baptist, Presbyterian, and Quaker congregations all could be found in New England, often in competition with the old Puritan Congregational churches. French Protestant, or Huguenot, refugees settled in Rhode Island and Boston in the 1680s and shocked some Puritans, because these newcomers celebrated Christmas, which the Puritans did not.Jon Butler, Religion in Colonial America 43 (2000)
In America, the beginnings of the Baptist movement followed a similar trajectory. Religious dissenters became radicalized by persecution, opening them to a wholesale reconsideration of their faith and rituals. Most of the early colonists in America were at least nominally Christian. Some, including the Puritans of New England, came largely for religious reasons. Others, including the Anglicans of the southern colonies, came more for economic opportunity. But almost all of them practiced infant baptism and saw the rejection of that ritual as a dangerous affront to the traditions of family, church, and society.
Radical Puritanism produced the first Baptists in America. And while many historians have identified liberty of conscience as these Baptists’ chief concern, liberty of conscience served a higher purpose: the right to practice believer’s baptism.
The Puritans who founded Massachusetts in 1630 did so for religious motives, but not for religious freedom. A group of Puritans in England, weary of persecution by the English church and state, decided to start a colony in the New World. Under the leadership of the talented lawyer John Winthrop, these Puritans secured a charter for the Massachusetts Bay Company that gave them an unusual degree of autonomy from England. They set out to establish their vision of a fully biblical order of church and state. This would require them to keep those with unorthodox religious opinions out of the colony. Religious toleration and permissive laws, to the Puritans, only invited the judgment of God.
One of the first pastors to run afoul of Massachusetts’s strictures was Roger Williams, who became the most celebrated early Baptist leader in America. But Williams’s status as a Baptist leader was fleeting; he remained a Baptist for only a few months. Williams arrived in Massachusetts in 1631 as a Puritan pastor well on his way toward Separatism. He took the Puritan concern for church purity to its logical extreme not only by repudiating the Anglican Church, but ultimately by renouncing infant baptism. The Boston church quickly offered to make Williams its pastor, but he determined that it was not sympathetic enough to Separatism. The church at Salem then offered Williams a position, but withdrew it under pressure from Boston. Williams and his family moved to Plymouth, where they lived among the Separatists for two years.Thomas S. Kidd & Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History 7-8 (2015)
Replacing the old Puritan/Anglican dichotomy, New Englanders and their English dissenting brethren now distinguished at least four primary groups in English religious culture: the dissenters, among whom were the Congregationalists and Presbyterians, and increasingly included respectable Baptists; the Whig and low-church Anglicans who supported the Protestant succession; the Tory high churchmen and especially the Nonjurors who felt uncomfortable to some extent with the results of 1688, and who were often suspected, legitimately or not, of plotting against William or his successors; and finally, the small British Catholic interest. Scotland provided another British case of a non-Anglican establishment that the English church had threatened at times, but after 1714 the Massachusetts Congregationalist establishment remained tenuous politically, while the Scottish Presbyterian church became relatively secure.Thomas S. Kidd, The Protestant Interest: New England After Puritanism 119 (2004)
The important role the religious factor played in the formation and character of the colonies that would later make up the United States of America is well known. The first societies to colonize the new land took care to make it known that the spread of religion was one of their goals, indeed, their “maine and cheefe purpose,” asserted a leaflet published in 1615 by the council of the first English colonial enterprise in America, the Virginia Company.
The strongest reason for the influence exerted by the religious factor in the Protestant colonies of seventeenth-century America is found in the fact that many of them declared themselves to be havens for those persecuted for their faith. Naturally, these emigrants carried with them the beliefs of the European religious groups to which they belonged. Thus, already in the seventeenth century, we find Anglicans, Calvinists, Lutherans, and “sectarians” of various orientations, especially Baptists.Luigi Giussani, American Protestant Theology: A Historical Sketch 3 (2013) (Cosmos Damian Bacich, transl.)
Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), perhaps the greatest thinker America ever produced, stands as the defender of the absolute nature of divine sovereignty against all the liberalizing trends that diminished religious engagement favoured.
His figure emerges along with the socio-religious phenomenon known as the “Great Awakening,” an extremely emotional revival of religious life that developed its greatest impetus from the preaching of Edwards, but as a movement anticipated and went beyond the sphere of action of his person, and in an almost periodic revival characterizes American religious history.
The beginnings of the Great Awakening are connected to the pietistic impetus of Reformed Europeans through the activities of the Dutch pastor Theodore Jacobus Frelinghuysen (1691–1748), who arrived in New Jersey in 1720. Nevertheless, a noteworthy contribution to its development was made by early Methodism, along with the evangelical zeal of George Whitefield (1714–1770), companion to the Wesley brothers in the foundation of the new English spiritual movement and who arrived in America in 1740 with the first of his seven voyages to the New World. The intense emphasis placed on conversion as the event that seizes the entire person, and on the fervour of a devotion that is confirmed and nourished by expression, while springing from the urgency of renewing a declining religiosity, strives, however, to be motivated in a theological vision and to create its own continuity through an intellectual education. As if to follow the example of the famous and fleeting Log College of Pastor Gilbert Tennent (1703–1764) at the origins of the Great Awakening, many scholastic institutes date their beginnings to the Revivalist era, such as New Jersey’s Presbyterian College, Dartmouth College (which sprang from an Indian mission), the Baptist College of Rhode Island (now Brown University), and Queen’s College (now Rutgers University) of the Dutch Reformed Church. The historian McLoughlin observes that among the factors common to American Revivalist movements two should be highlighted: “a grave theological reorientation” and “an ecclesiastical conflict associated with this reorientation.”
The new orientation of theological discourse will normally assume the experiential fact of conversion as the catalyst of its entire disputation, and as the centre of its systematic solution, by exalting the paradigmatic criterion of direct experience in the pietistic view, or practical results in the more moralistic conceptions, or social efficiency in the more secularized systems, as we shall see in the second half of the nineteenth century. These would all enter into sharp tension with the resistance of the supporters of the established ecclesiastical and theological forms, on the one hand, and with the reaction of the most rationalistic trends, on the other.Luigi Giussani, American Protestant Theology: A Historical Sketch 19-20 (2013) (Cosmos Damian Bacich, transl.)
With the Revivalist Movement, … the waning of the significance of the institutional Church (Anglican, Congregationalist) marks the progressive affirmation of a religious liberty that favours dissident groups (Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists: the groups in which Revivalism will take root).Luigi Giussani, American Protestant Theology: A Historical Sketch 29 (2013) (Cosmos Damian Bacich, transl.)
The number of Congregational churches, too, was increased. The Rev. Ezra Styles, of Newport, afterwards President of Yale College, in his sermon on “Christian Union,” published in 1760, states that since 1740, “an augmentation of above 150 new churches has taken place, founded not on the separations, but natural increase into new towns and parishes,” making the whole number of Congregational churches 530. If, by this “augmentation,” the number of churches only kept pace with the increase of population, it shows the influence of the revival; for without that influence, a greater proportion of new settlements would have remained without churches. But doubtless it was otherwise, and many of them were established in the older parts of the country, by the peaceable division of towns and parishes, to meet the increased desire for religious privileges. For instance, a revival began at Leicester, about the commencement of the year 1742. Edwards, as has been mentioned, spent several weeks there, laboring with great success. In May, 1744, a new church was organized in the west precinct of Leicester, and, in November following, the Rev. Joshua Eaton was ordained as its pastor. Nor may we suppose, that all the churches which were “founded on the separations” were useless. In some instances, they were founded on separations from degenerate churches and an unconverted ministry, as even charity must admit, and were the means of establishing and preserving gospel ordinances in their life and power, where otherwise there would have been only the dead form of religion. Some of them occurred where the Christian population was large enough to justify division. Though all or nearly all of them were more or less disorderly at first, and some of them too disorderly to be capable of long life, some of them became regular and orderly churches, and subsist as useful institutions to this day. President Clapp, who in 1742 forbade his pupils to attend the Separate meeting at New Haven, became an attendant there himself in less than ten years. Still more of the Separatist churches became Baptists, and still subsist; and the older Baptist churches were considerably increased during the revival, and especially after 1745. Their increase is not included in the estimate of Dr. Styles.Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield 389-390 (2019)
Theology (Calvinism) and Liturgy (Individualism/Soul Competency)
Being congregational in polity, the Baptists can have no creed binding upon all churches. Each congregation is supposed to draw up its own statement of belief from its own study of the Scriptures. Yet few denominations have greater unity in doctrine. The Northern Baptists accept what is called the “New Hampshire Confession” (1833); while those of the South and of England are more attached to the “Philadelphia Confession,” which appeared first in London in 1677, and was adopted early in the last century by the “Philadelphia Association.” They are, however, not authoritative statements, and they differ little from each other.
The Baptist doctrine is Calvinistic, and is therefore essentially the same as that of the Congregationalists, baptism and its implications excepted. The Baptists have, however, kept Calvinism far more intact than the Congregationalists. Their peculiar doctrines are:
(1) Denial of the validity of infant baptism. The ordinance, they affirm, is to be given only on profession of faith in Christ, and is therefore meaningless when applied to infants. They can find no case of infant baptism in the New Testament.
(2) Insistence upon immersion as the only valid form of baptism. They claim that this was the original form as it was adopted and urged by Jesus, and is implied in the language used by Scripture, — as in descriptions of baptism (Matt. 3:16; John 3:23; Acts 8:38, 39), and in Paul’s frequent figure of baptism being a burial and resurrection. They baptize either in natural bodies of water or in tanks prepared beneath the pulpits of their churches.
(3) “Close Communion” — that is, exclusion from the celebration of the Lord’s Supper of all such as have not been immersed. This doctrine, however, has during this century been given up by many English Baptists.
(4) Freedom of worship to all. This has, of course, ceased to be a distinctive mark of the Baptists, but was so once, and deserves to be still mentioned.William Henry Lyon, A Study of the Sects 121-22 (1891)
In America, the Baptists had long been a coalition of diverse elements. On the one hand they had a confessional Calvinist tradition; yet at the same time they had a strong emphasis on doctrinal freedom. Calvinism was strong in the seventeenth-century Puritan origins of the American movement and also in the important eighteenth-century separation of New England Baptists from Congregationalism after the Great Awakening. Baptists, however, had an individualistic view of the church as a voluntary association of individuals who had experienced conversion. The Calvinist confessionalism was qualified by opposition to ecclesiastical centralization and vigorous affirmation of the individual right to theological freedom. Moreover, the emphasis on conversion in the pietist camp and especially in nineteenth-century frontier revivalism reinforced Arminian doctrines which emphasized human freedom of choice and were, as much as Calvinism, a venerable part of the diverse Baptist heritage.George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture 104-105 (2006)
The guiding principles of the SBC were based on limited authority, radical freedom and voluntary cooperation.
Limited Authority: The SBC Constitution states the limited authority of the SBC. “While independent and sovereign in its own sphere, the Convention does not claim and will never attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist body, whether church, auxiliary organizations, associations, or conventions.”
Radical Freedom: Baptists were adamant about freedom. No convention had authority over a local church. There was no pope, no cardinals, no bishops, and hierarchical ecclesiology.
The commitment to freedom shaped the guiding principles. These principles are:
—the authority of Scripture. Baptists have no creeds. Scripture is the final authority for the individual and the local church.Joseph E. Early, A Texas Baptist History Sourcebook: A Companion to McBeth’s Texas Baptists 626-27 (2004)
—the priesthood of all believers. Each believer has the right and responsibility of being a priest. They are to interpret scripture for themselves and act as priests to each other.
—the autonomy of the local church. Each local congregation is free to choose its ministers, worship as it feels comfortable, and ordain whomever it believes is called of God to ministry. The church is a democracy where each member has equal rights, privileges and responsibilities. No other Baptist organization has authority over the local congregation.
—the separation of church and state/religious liberty. Here Baptists were the most radical. Their roots were in the Separatist movement in England and Holland. Baptists did not simply believe in religious toleration, but in religious liberty. No person, civil government, or religious system has the right to come between God and human beings. All religions, as well as the freedom to believe in no religion or not to worship, are equal before the law.
Undergirding these principles is the most distinctive Baptist belief, “the competency of the soul in religion.” Soul competency excludes all human interference in religion such as episcopacy, infant baptism, religious proxy, and governmental authority in religion. Religion is a personal matter between the soul and God!
Voluntary Cooperation: Everything Southern Baptists did together was to be done on the basis of voluntary cooperation. Local churches make all the decisions. They choose to join associations, state conventions, or national conventions. They choose how much money to give to cooperative mission efforts. Coercion or authority from top down was not to exist.
Moderates also touted soul competency as the key to the Grand Compromise. Church historian Walter Shurden told a preconvention audience at a moderate gathering called the Forum that individual soul competency and theological diversity were indispensable Baptist doctrines. “Soul competency asserts the inalienable right and responsibility of every person to interpret God for himself. There must not be a middle person save for Jesus Christ,” he said. “Southern Baptists were built on a principle which permits, not prohibits diversity,” he continued. “Our denominational identity has been fostered by a unity which comes out of our commitment to diversity, not by a unity squeezed out of some kind of imposed uniformity.”Thomas S. Kidd & Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History 231 (2015)
Among the Baptists, each church is a separate corporation. No real connection among the churches is allowed to exist, and certainly no hierarchy. Independency, in varying degrees, is the rule. Only among the Presbyterians do we find the Trinitarian presupposition, the equal ultimacy of the one and the many, at work. In Presbyterianism, each local church is a real entity, but so is the connected church at large. The ascending courts of Presbyterianism are just that: courts of appeal, not legislatures.James B. Jordan, Introduction to Symposium on The Failure of the American Baptist Culture, Christianity and Civilization (Spring 1982, no. 1) at vii.
The Bible presents the family as a balance between the one and the many. The family is a real entity, a genuine corporation, and God deals with the family as a family. Thus, unlike the Baptists, Presbyterians baptize entire families, including wives and children; showing that the entire family is in some ways within the sphere of God’s covenant life.James B. Jordan, Introduction to Symposium on The Failure of the American Baptist Culture, Christianity and Civilization (Spring 1982, no. 1) at vii.
The experience of conservative Southern Baptists with the broader evangelical world has been one of mixed success. There is indeed an evangelical constituency with whom they have found a welcome niche. The process of ending that niche, however, was fraught with difficulty and pain largely because SBC conservatives were often unaware of how diverse the evangelical world is. The belief on the part of some conservatives that the answer to the SBC theological drift to the left was an alignment with evangelicalism smashed up against two very important realities. First, when aligning with evangelicalism, one must decide which evangelicals to support. There are many varied groups that fall under the broad term “evangelical.” Many are Calvinist, while others are Arminian. There are peace and justice evangelicals, some coming from Anabaptist backgrounds, others not. Some evangelicals are highly doctrinal, while more holiness elements retain a strong sense of revivalism and social conservatism; holiness evangelicals often avoid doctrinal disputes almost entirely. Some evangelicals are highly political, while others believe that personal, individual conversion and piety are far more important than efforts to transform culture through political engagement. Moreover, these variations do not even take into consideration the phenomena of fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, and the charismatic movements, all of which are part of what could be termed “evangelical” in the broadest sense.Barry Hankins, Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservative American Culture 74 (2002)
Schism over slaveholding missionaries (1845)
In 1845 the Baptists, operating as a national entity only since 1814, similarly separated into northern and southern bodies, though in this instance the Southern Baptist Convention far outdistanced its northern counterpart in membership and expansion. Slavery once again served as the fulcrum upon which opposing sentiments teetered, with the appointment of a slaveholding missionary bringing the issue to the fore as among the Methodists it had been the appointment of a slaveholding bishop. In 1844 Alabama Baptists had put to the Boston-based board of missions a question concerning its willingness to appoint a missionary who held slaves. The board indicated that the question had never come up, but if it should the board could not appoint anyone who insisted upon retaining slaves. “We never can be a party to any arrangement which would imply approbation of slavery.” Southerners felt excluded by such a pronouncement, since they contributed to missionary support but had no effective voice in missionary appointments. Shall the South “participate in all the burdens of the Convention,” one writer inquired in 1845, “and be excluded from all its privileges?” Slavery is part of our land, our culture, and our economy: “We do not choose the place of our birth.” We only claim the right, this author asserted, to act “according to the dictates of our own consciences without foreign control or interference.”Edwin S. Gaustad, The Religious History of America 193 (2002)
Disputes about slaveholders being missionaries caused Baptists in the South to abandon the national Triennial Convention in favour of their own regional convention. From its founding in Augusta, Georgia, in 1845 the SBC went on to struggle through such disruptive events as the Civil War, the Landmark movement of the late nineteenth century, the Fundamentalist -Modernist controversy of the 1920s and a host of minor battles over doctrinal correctness. Through it all the SBC somehow maintained a clear focus on the promotion of evangelism and missionary activity. By 1990 the Convention had long since spread beyond the southern region, achieving national status and having a global impact through its Foreign Mission Board. The SBC, by then, claimed approximately 14.9 million members and 37,000 churches. Of course, not all of those enrolled in the Convention’s many churches were active.David T. Morgan, Upheaval in the Southern Baptist Convention, 1979-90: Crusade for Truth or Bid for Power?, The Journal of Religious History, vol. 17(3) (June 1993).
It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of race in Southern Baptist history. The denomination was founded in large part because of a controversy over slavery. Leon McBeth includes three reasons that southerners formed the SBC, but then adds, “[S]lavery was the final and most decisive factor which led Southern Baptists to form their own convention.” Prior to the formation of national Baptist denominations, Baptists in the United States were organized in what is called the society system. Beyond local associations and state conventions, the only national bodies were missions societies that met occasionally to coordinate national or international efforts. These home- and foreign-mission associations, while the forerunners of Baptist denominations, usually existed for a single purpose. In other words, they were not broad-based organizations with multiple programs and departments.
As slavery became a sectional issue in the 1820s through 1840s, antislavery sentiment among Baptists and other evangelicals in the South disappeared. In its place there developed an elaborate biblical defense of the peculiar institution. One of those who wrote such a defense was South Carolina Baptist stalwart Richard Furman. Furman, like several other southern churchmen, based his argument primarily in scripture. At the same time that southern Baptists came to support and defend the practice, many northern Baptists and other evangelicals began to agitate for abolition, believing that slavery was a heinous sin most offensive to God. The two leading national Baptist societies of the time were the Home Mission Society and the Triennial Convention. Both attempted to follow a policy of neutrality, believing that the slave question was not relevant to their work in home and foreign missions. Two events in 1844 thwarted this effort, though, and led to the schism between northern and southern Baptists. First, Georgia Baptists, unconvinced by the neutrality assurances of northerners, nominated a slaveowner for appointment by the Home Mission Society in an effort to test the neutrality statements. The Board of the Home Mission Society restated its neutrality and then refused to act on the appointment of the slaveholder, apparently believing that this test case was an attempt to inject the slave question into the missions enterprise.
Second, the Baptist State Convention of Alabama wrote an inquiry to the Board of the Triennial Convention asking whether churches or the board had the authority to appoint missionaries. Additionally, the “Alabama Resolutions,” as they have been called, asked hypothetically whether a slaveholder could be appointed to mission work. The board responded that it was the body authorized to appoint missionaries and added, “One thing is certain; we can never be a party to any arrangement which would imply approbation of slavery.” They immediately faced a dilemma, for some northerners wanted a stronger antislavery statement, while southern Baptists were ready to bolt if the original decision stood. Had the Board of the Triennial Convention backed off, it is possible that northern Baptists would have split among themselves.
Some southern Baptist newspapers advocated immediate withdrawal from the Triennial Convention, while others urged caution. Virginia Baptists called for a meeting of southern Baptists to discuss the issue, and in 1845 at Augusta, Georgia, delegates met. Influenced by William Johnson of South Carolina, they went far beyond a mere discussion of the issue at hand and instead voted to form the Southern Baptist Convention. Johnson had arrived in Augusta with a written constitution for the new body, so adamant was he in favor of a separate denomination. As outlined in his constitution, both home and foreign mission boards and other agencies as well would be under the auspices of one organization. Johnson’s was the convention model as opposed to the society plan. With the formation of the SBC, southern Baptists became Southern Baptists. While delegates to the Augusta meeting issued a disclaimer saying that the new organization had in no way been formed for the defense of slavery, slavery had, in fact, played the primary role in the creation of the SBC.
One scholar has called the proslavery racism that gave birth to the SBC the denomination’s original sin. He argued that the controversy of the 1980s was part of God’s judgment on a denomination that for most of its history engaged in racism, sexism, and a sense of denominational superiority. Whatever the merits of this particular argument, the Southern Baptist Convention, like most southern institutions, reflected, manifested, and in many instances led the racism of the region as a whole. Nowhere was this more prevalent than during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, when most of the leaders of the opposition to desegregation were Southern Baptists. For just one example of a fairly typical Southern Baptist attitude, one can turn to Douglas Hudgins, pastor of one of the South’s most prominent churches in the 1950s and 1960s, First Baptist, Jackson, Mississippi. Hudgins used the moderate theology of E. Y. Mullins, with its emphasis on individualism and soul competency, to argue that the Christian faith had nothing to do with a corporate, societal problem like segregation. He, therefore, refused to speak up for African Americans and, in more ways than he could have known, helped inspire a whole generation of Southern Baptists to rest comfortably in their belief that segregation was natural and that the Civil Rights movement was a perversion of the gospel.Barry Hankins, Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservative American Culture 240-42 (2002)
In particular, slavery greatly limited the number of ministers who were available to serve southern religious needs. The mere presence of slavery kept many northern Christians from entering the South as a ministerial field of labor. Philadelphia’s Christian Observer argued that slavery prevented ministers from going south because it was “unfavorable to religion, and naturally offensive to ministerial laborers from the North.” After 1845, the North-South split of Methodists and Baptists over slavery further limited the pool of available ministers by creating region-specific denominations. Another factor complicating the South’s minister shortage was the fact that slave owners were not enthusiastic about allowing unknown individuals preach to their slaves. C. C. Jones argued that the emergence of abolition “agitated the public mind within our borders,” arrested efforts to convert the slaves in many places, and forced some clergy “to quit the field.” This was particularly true after Nat Turner used religious imagery to motivate his Southampton compatriots. Several decades after these bloody events, the Richmond Christian Advocate still proclaimed that preaching to slaves “cannot be performed by strangers” and that religious instruction must be “taught by those who have the confidence of the community.”Daniel L. Fountain, Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation 48 (2010)
In almost every major American denomination, sometime between the late 1870s and World War I, serious disagreements broke out between conservatives and liberals. In these struggles the traditionalists were not necessarily fundamentalists in any strict sense. They were first of all denominational conservatives who had their own distinct traditions and characters. Some, like the traditionalists among the Disciples of Christ, were regarded as a part of the fundamentalist movement largely because their aims were parallel and in certain of their attacks they had common opponents. What made others more fundamentalist was their combination of militant antimodernism with participation in a larger movement that, despite its mix of separable elements, possessed some degree of conscious unity. The active cooperation of denominational traditionalists with the theologically innovative dispensationalists and holiness advocates in the battle against modernism was particularly important in shaping a distinct fundamentalism. These traditionalists were found mostly among Baptists and Presbyterians. B. B. Warfield is a striking example. Warfield apparently despised the newer holiness teachings and certainly disdained dispensationalism. His own position was Old School Presbyterian traditionalism. Yet he cooperated with the larger fundamentalist movement, even with dispensationalist and holiness teachers, and in fact made an important contribution to fundamentalism, as did the Old School Presbyterian tradition generally.
The issues debated so intensely in the denominations usually centered on the authority of Scripture, its scientific accuracy, or the supernatural elements in Christ’s person and work. There were also parallel and closely related disputes over denominations’ distinctive doctrines or traditions— strict Calvinism among Presbyterians, immersion among Baptists and Disciples of Christ. Almost every major denomination struggled with some such issue, although some denominations avoided at least temporarily any dramatic disruption.
In the South the debates were in most cases short-lived, because dissent was simply not tolerated. As early as the first half of the nineteenth century, advanced theological views had usually been associated with advanced social views and abolition. Southern theology already had a strong conservative bent. The War Between the States simply intensified Southern determination to resist change. Hence there was a strong anti-modernist impulse in Southern religion well before modernism became a distinct movement in America. This theological conservatism, often combined with the warm revivalist evangelicalism inherited from the early nineteenth century, created in Southern religion many characteristics that resembled later fundamentalism. Until the 1920s, however, Southern revivalist conservatism and Northern fundamentalism developed more or less independently, although in parallel ways. The principal direct connection between the two movements was that several important fundamentalist leaders came from the South. When in the twentieth century fundamentalism became a distinct entity, Southerners with a long history of revivalist conservatism eventually flocked to the movement.
An early sign that sparks of liberalism would quickly be snuffed out in the Southern atmosphere came in 1878 when Alexander Winchell was forced by the Southern Methodist denomination out of his position at Vanderbilt for holding questionable views on Genesis. In the following year Crawford H. Toy’s resignation from the Southern Baptist Seminary at Louisville had similar causes.3 The Toy case was followed some years later by that of his friend, William H. Whitsitt, who had the indiscretion to publicize historical research showing that baptism by immersion had not continued as an unbroken tradition since apostolic times. The Landmark Baptists, an especially rigid traditionalist group, speaking through the vitriolic Western Recorder of Tennessee, led the fight that forced Whitsitt’s resignation as president of the Southern Baptist Seminary.George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture 102-103 (2006)
Slaves are the most numerous in Virginia, the two Carolinas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. There are some in a number of the other States; but in these six, the great body of them is found, and Virginia alone contains about three hundred thousand, almost one-third of its whole population. … Multitudes of the inhabitants of these States have nothing to do with slavery; some from principle, and others for the want of means to obtain them.
The Quakers, who are numerous in some of the southern States, to their praise be it spoken, would never hold slaves.
The Methodists in some places set out on this principle: their ministers preached against slavery; many set them at liberty; but I believe at present their scruples are mostly laid aside.
The Baptists are by no means uniform in their opinions of slavery. Many let it alone altogether; some remonstrate against it in gentle terms; others oppose it vehemently; while far the greater part of them hold slaves, and justify themselves the best way they can.
In the six States we have named, there are now about ninety thousand Baptist communicants; and I conclude as many as forty thousand of this great number are negroes. Many of them it is true are free, but the greatest part of them are slaves. Thousands of them are owned by Baptist masters, and others by other people. The owners of slaves have generally been loaded with reproachful invectives for their practice. They have been all, without discrimination, charged with a want of both principle and feeling, with tyranny, cruelty, and oppression. But “to discriminate is just.”George Leile, letter to Dr. Amos Rippon (1791), in David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination (Vol II) 191-92 (1997)
Texas Baptists (1840-present)
Born in 1840, the Union Baptist Association was the first Baptist association in Texas. The Travis, Independence, and Washington churches were the charter members. The early leadership of the Union Association included T. W. Cox, R. E. B. Baylor, and Z. N. Morrell. The Union Association would become the birthplace of the Texas Baptist Education Society and Baylor University at Independence. For these reasons, the importance of the Union Association cannot be understated.Joseph E. Early, A Texas Baptist History Sourcebook: A Companion to McBeth’s Texas Baptists 52 ( 2004)
Shortly after their presence in Texas, Baptists began to exhibit a desire to educate their ministers for the challenging work that faced them. The formation of the Texas Baptist Education Society was the first step in this process. This Society would lead to the birth of Baylor University at Independence in 1845.Joseph E. Early, A Texas Baptist History Sourcebook: A Companion to McBeth’s Texas Baptists 53 ( 2004)
Most early Texas Baptists were sons of the South, and thus were proslavery. While hoping to bring the Gospel to the colored, they were not willing for the slaves to gain equal stature either within the church or as fellow Christians. It should also be noted that the first three Presidents of Baylor University were pro-slavery as were eleven of its first fifteen trustees. Following the Civil War, “Jim Crow lofts” became a common architectural feature of Baptist churches. This sentiment remained so strong in Texas that a complete statewide, intentional desegregation of Southern Baptist churches did not occur until the late 1960s.Joseph E. Early, A Texas Baptist History Sourcebook: A Companion to McBeth’s Texas Baptists 73 ( 2004)
Introducing Fundamentalism (1920s-1940s)
Up until the 1920s fundamentalism developed its distinct character mostly in the North. Then its rise to prominence and early successes in the 1920s exerted an immediate appeal on many Southerners. The Northern controversies reawakened Southern conservatives to the dangers of modernism—a term most Southerners since 1865 instinctively opposed. Southerners in the Southern Baptist Convention and the Southern Presbyterian Church (the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.), quickly adopted moderate declarations of loyalty to the fundamental doctrines of the faith. Evolutionism had long symbolized to the South the inroads of liberal culture. It was now the focus of concurrent controversies over public education, and was especially feared by Southern conservatives. For the most part Southerners retained their own religious style and identity, but some were beginning to find in Northern fundamentalists an identifiable group of outsiders who might be trusted. Even the most moderate liberalism, on the other hand, while present in Southern churches, was widely viewed with suspicion.George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture 179 (2006)
In the twentieth century Fundamentalists would likewise challenge accommodation. The latter set in concrete the ‘fundamentals’ of the Christian faith and alleged that no one could be a Christian who denied them. Among their ‘fundamentals’ was the belief that the Bible is error-free. Many Southern Baptists adhered to Landmarkism, and not a few found Fundamentalism quite compatible. Yet the leaders of the Convention, regardless of their personal views, held fast to the spirit of accommodation. After 1925, when the SBC created a new financial apparatus called the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists of different views were able to funnel their money to a unified programme of missions and evangelism, and Southern Baptist growth soon outdistanced all other Protestant denominations. No other denomination in America has had a stronger tradition than the SBC of seeking and saving ‘the lost.’David T. Morgan, Upheaval in the Southern Baptist Convention, 1979-90: Crusade for Truth or Bid for Power?, The Journal of Religious History, vol. 17(3) (June 1993).
By 1927 the Northern Baptist Convention was close to peace. Most of the Baptist Bible Union was beginning to move in a separatist direction, while moderate conservatives worked more quietly from within. In 1932 the Baptist Bible Union changed its name to the General Association of Regular Baptists and became a small denomination. In the new Association (as within many Baptist churches that simply became independent congregations), separation became a new test of faith as it did among Machen’s followers. Even among the premillennial militants many were unwilling to make this move. Some remained to fight a rear-guard action in the denomination. In 1947, however, there was a repetition of what had happened among the Presbyterians in the 1930s. A Convention ban on a new conservative missions agency led to the formation of a new denomination, the Conservative Baptist Association of America. The most famous of those militants who resisted separation was William B. Riley. In the 1930s he had continued the fight through his dwindling World’s Christian Fundamentals Association. By the 40s, however, the aging Riley gave up the effort to control the denomination, and in 1947, the last year of his life, he resigned his membership in the Northern Baptist Convention. Although he did not know it, he had by this time established the link between his work and the resurgent non-separatist fundamentalism (eventually to be known as neoevangelicalism or evangelicalism) by securing the young Billy Graham to succeed him as president of the Northwestern School in Minneapolis. In 1947, however, to anyone who equated American religious life with the major denominations, fundamentalism was a bizarre American episode now fast fading into oblivion.
Fundamentalism, while fading from the reputed centers of American life since 1925, was in fact taking solid root in other, less conspicuous areas. The movement had entered into a distinct new phase. The effort to purge the leading denominations having failed, the leadership now re-emphasized working through local congregations and independent agencies, such as Bible schools and mission organizations. Local pastors, often independent from major denominations either formally or simply in practice, built fundamentalist empires both large and small. With all the variety fostered by American religious free enterprise, countless groups were formed to promote the causes that national fundamentalism had recently publicized. Radio, peculiarly suited to the revivalist style, gave new impetus to the movement. Bible schools flourished, with twenty-six new schools founded during the depression years of the 1930s. Other important new institutions of learning, such as Dallas Theological Seminary and Bob Jones University, became significant centers for branches of the movement. ‘Wheaton College was for several years during the 1930s the fastest growing liberal arts college in the nation. A network of similar colleges grew in size and influence. Fundamentalist publications increased in circulation; summer Bible conferences and other youth movements attracted the young; mission agencies continued to grow. In general, although the rest of American Protestantism floundered in the 1930s, fundamentalist groups, or those at least with fundamentalist sympathies, increased. As Joel Carpenter remarks in explaining this upsurge, fundamentalism played a role parallel to that of neo-orthodoxy among intellectuals. It “provided ordinary people with as compelling a critique of modern society.”George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture 193-94 (2006)
At the dawn of World War II, Baptist theologian Das Kelly Barnett wrote that a new prophetic theology that sought to involve Baptists in social issues was replacing the older, traditional, provincial, and dogmatic theology prevalent among Southern Baptists. The new theology was “dynamic in its appeal, social in its application, and dedicated in its purpose to the achievement of the intention of God in history”; it suggested that Christians should work to transform society and to make it more Christian. Prophets, according to Barnett, interpreted God’s word for the present rather than foretelling the future: “The first task of prophetic and practical theology is the analysis of the conditions that have been indicated.” Baptist leaders set themselves to the task of analyzing society. They often found, however, that their views were unwelcome. Historian Sam Hill writes, “The minister, called to be a prophet, is restrained by the social-psychological situation from violating the values in terms of which the congregation understands itself.”Alan Scot Wills, All According to God’s Plan: Southern Baptist Missions and Race 3 (2004)
Post-WWII Era (1945-1950)
This was the world of the Southern Baptists after World War II. Southern Baptists were thoroughly enmeshed in southern society, a society segregated along racial lines. Few questioned the prevailing racial norms in their society. Indeed, as Melton McLaurin recalls from his North Carolina childhood: “All whites knew that blacks were, really, servants. It was their destiny to work at menial tasks, supervised, of course, by benevolent whites. All this was according to God’s plan and was perfectly obvious to all but dimwitted Yankees and Communists.” But it was not obvious to Southern Baptist missionaries either. Southern Baptist missionaries and mission leaders could not be dismissed as “dimwitted Yankees” or communists. They were solidly southern. They were virulently anticommunist. Their challenge to the southern race system came from the very heart of southern society: southern evangelical Christianity.
In 1945, the Southern Baptist Convention was the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States. In the South, Baptist “culture” was pervasive. Presbyterians and Methodists typically had more in common with Southern Baptists than with northerners of their own denominations. The Southern Baptist Convention claimed the allegiance of more than half of the white population of all of the Deep South states, save Louisiana. In the upper South, the Convention attracted between 30 percent and 45 percent of the white population, as it did in the Southwestern states of New Mexico and Oklahoma. In 1942 it had affiliated churches in only nineteen states. With the establishment of a Southern Baptist church in Vermont on July 6, 1963, the Convention had entered all fifty states. Membership reached the ten million mark in 1964—up by more than two million since 1945— in 33,400 affiliated churches. Despite considerable growth outside the South, less than one church in thirty was outside that region throughout the postwar period. The Southern Baptist Convention remained throughout the postwar period dominantly southern, and it continued to dominate the South. One result was that, as Bill Leonard notes, “growing up Southern Baptist also meant you grew up Southern.” That included believing in segregation and states’ rights. But it also meant “you never sat next to a black person on a bus, in a restaurant, at school, or at a church.”Alan Scot Wills, All According to God’s Plan: Southern Baptist Missions and Race 2-3 (2004)
The war experience provided a catalyst for this new theology, leading to the creation of the Peace Committee to work toward avowedly political goals and moving the Convention leadership to become increasingly involved in social and political issues. In 1947, the Committee on Race Relations—chaired by J. B. Weatherspoon (who had served on the faculty of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary since 1929)— recommended that the Convention pursue an educational program on race and race relations through editorials, study programs, and classes at Southern Baptist colleges. The committee’s report outlined the Convention’s program for improving race relations in the South after the war.Alan Scot Wills, All According to God’s Plan: Southern Baptist Missions and Race 3 (2004)
Hyper-American Patriotic Anti-Communism (1950s)
Frank Norris, on the other hand, defended the Jewish people. Norris, however, who began his career with militant anti-Catholic attacks, and always represented extreme views in the Southern Baptist Convention, found in anti-communism a cause that exactly fit his mentality.1 8 By the 1950s most political fears had coalesced into the communist threat, which would continue to attract considerable audiences for such premillennialist leaders as Carl Mclntire or Billy James Hargis.
Even though the political attitudes of most fundamentalists were much like those of their non-fundamentalist Republican neighbors, the development of hyper-American patriotic anti-communism is a puzzle and an irony in the history of fundamentalism. How could premillennialists, whose attention was supposed to be directed away from politics while waiting for the coming King, embrace this highly politicized gospel? It is difficult to account for the phenomenon on simply rational grounds. Perhaps the puzzle can be solved by understanding a type of mentality, or disposition of thought, sometimes associated with fundamentalism. Richard Hofstadter aptly described this mentality as “essentially Manichean.” The world, in this view, is “an arena for conflict between absolute good and evil. . . .” This outlook lies behind a view of history that has often appeared on the American political scene. “History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power. . . .” This view, says Hofstadter, led to “the paranoid style” often seen in American political thought.George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture 210 (2006)
While differing visions concerning the proper theological parameters for the SBC lay at the heart of the controversy, by 1985 it had become clear that moderates and conservatives differed in other ways as well. Conservatives were fighters, not Grand Compromisers. In this sense they exuded a key trait of fundamentalism, the militant defense of orthodoxy. But they rejected fundamentalist separatism, calling instead for engagement in politics and culture. Conservatives also promoted a robust American civil religion that marked the Reagan era of the 1980s. When pulpiteers regaled the preconvention Pastor’s Conference, a giant American flag stretched across the speaker’s platform behind them. The conference opened with a written greeting from Republican president Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy. Having Republican presidents and vice presidents address the convention became standard procedure once the conservatives gained control. Conservative sermons at the 1985 Pastor’s Conference dealt with theological rigor and the importance of inerrancy but also included frequent reference to political and cultural issues. The most important of these were abortion, gay rights, prayer in schools, and evolution, as the leading conservative pastors and televangelists in the country called America back to God. Meanwhile, at the moderate-sponsored Forum, held in an adjacent hall of the Dallas Convention Center, preachers and activists emphasized soul competency, separation of church and state, freedom, cooperation, social justice, and spiritual renewal.Thomas S. Kidd & Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History 232 (2015)
Reaction to Liberation Movements (1960s-1970s)
Then, in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion. This served as a catalyst to fuse together fundamentalists, traditional Roman Catholics, and Mormons. The generally agreed-upon evil of abortion overcame the historical differences between the conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics. Meanwhile, the increasingly liberal prelates in the Roman Catholic Church began to sound like the liberals who dominated Protestant seminaries and the larger denominations. The religious leadership fragmented, with each ideological camp closer to those across denominational and ecclesiastical boundaries than they were to the rival ideologues within the organizations.Gary North, “The Intellectual Schizophrenia of the New Christian Right,” in Symposium on The Failure of the American Baptist Culture, Christianity and Civilization (Spring 1982, no. 1) (James B. Jordan, ed.) at 4.
[T]he contention of the editors of Christianity and Civilization is that American culture or civilization has been, in the main, a Baptist modification of old catholic and Reformed culture. The New Christian Right, in its attempts to stem the tide of degeneracy in American life, is a Baptistic movement, and this is the reason why the New Christian Right finds itself in a condition of crisis, confusion, and indeed impotence.James B. Jordan, Introduction to Symposium on The Failure of the American Baptist Culture, Christianity and Civilization (Spring 1982, no. 1) at v.
Militant opposition to modernism was what most clearly set off fundamentalism from a number of closely related traditions, such as evangelicalism, revivalism, pietism, the holiness movements, millenarianism, Reformed confessionalism, Baptist traditionalism, and other denominational orthodoxies. Fundamentalism was a “movement” in the sense of a tendency or development in Christian thought that gradually took on its own identity as a patchwork coalition of representatives of other movements.George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture 4 (2006)
Outside the South, white Baptists in the twentieth century had never been a dominant force, religiously or culturally. While they did not often experience the kind of discrimination they had suffered during earlier periods, they nevertheless learned to live in tension with an increasingly secular culture. No longer could they take for granted that businesses would close on Sunday, that Christmas decorations would adorn their towns in December, or that their children would begin their public school day with classroom prayer. All of these persisted longer in the South, where Baptists remained insiders and the culture stayed religiously intact. But by the end of the century these sorts of changes began to come to the South as well, and Southern Baptists had to deal with them.
As they did, key Southern Baptist conservatives began to see themselves not so much as the dominant religion of the South but rather as part of an evangelical resistance to a national culture that is secular and hostile to traditional Christian morality. This was a lesson they learned in part from the Baptist Carl F. H. Henry and Presbyterian Francis Schaeffer. Henry had argued since the 1940s that evangelicals should shrug of fundamentalist separatism and re-engage the culture as nineteenth-century Protestants had. Schaeffer taught that secular humanism had replaced America’s Christian base as society’s dominant worldview. Believing they could no longer take for granted a Judeo-Christian cultural foundation, SBC conservatives set out to fashion a countercultural witness, seeking to remake American society in exactly the same ways as Mohler had remade Southern Seminary. Believing in the separation of church and state, conservatives saw no role for the state in purely doctrinal matters such as inerrancy or the ordination of women. But on abortion, homosexuality, and the role of women within families they sought to move the denomination to the forefront of the conservative side of America’s culture wars. Abortion proved the first and easiest issue on which to form a Southern Baptist consensus.
Throughout the 1970s, largely as a result of the leadership of Foy Valentine and the CLC, the moderate SBC passed a series of resolutions that rejected abortion on demand while advocating that abortion remain an option wherever continuation of pregnancy might result in the “likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” Conservatives viewed the reference to the mental health of the mother as a cop-out, an exception so broad that it nearly amounted to a pro-choice position. As Southern Baptist abortion awareness grew in the wake of Roe v. Wade, subsequent resolutions moved gradually toward the pro-life position. Moderate resolutions emphasized the grave moral nature of abortion, the need to protect life, and a rejection of abortion for casual and selfish reasons. At the same time, however, the resolutions retained the broad “physical and mental health” exception, stressed the “limited role of government,” and supported “the right of expectant mothers to the full range of medical services,” which presumably included abortion. Such phrases could be interpreted to support at least a soft pro-choice position. In 1979, the same year conservatives engineered the election of Adrian Rogers, convention messengers rejected a resolution of support for a constitutional amendment overturning Roe.Thomas S. Kidd & Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History 240-41 (2015)
Rise of the Religious Right (1970s-1980s)
Despite religious dimensions in that opposition, piety was probably no more conspicuous there than it was in most other aspects of southern public life, whether conservative or progressive, white or black. In any case, only after white southerners were no longer automatically voting Democratic was it possible to organize a truly national movement of political conservatives. Furthermore, once civil rights receded as the defining political issue so that not everything that southern conservatives did was dismissed by their critics as motivated by veiled racism, the door was open to marshal southern conservative political energies and resentments elsewhere. So it is no accident that almost as soon as the divisive issue of civil rights formally receded, the Religious Right emerged as a national movement with conspicuous southern leadership, best exemplified by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Robison.George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture 237 (2006)
By the early 1970s people were talking of the Americanization of the South, and the “southernization” of America, and the “Californization” of Texas. The early Moral Majority emerged from the upper South, but eventually similar attitudes could be found throughout the region, as the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention best exemplifies. Conservative attitudes were now strong throughout the Sunbelt. That is not to say that latter-twentieth-century fundamentalism was a southern invention or a purely southern product. To the contrary, its roots were firmly entwined with and grafted onto traditions and attitudes traceable to the fundamentalism of the 1920s and its mid-century northern heirs. Nonetheless, the new even more resistant hybrid that emerged after the mid-1970s flourished especially well in the southland sun.George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture 239 (2006)
The next year everything changed. Conservatives pushed through a resolution opposing abortion on demand and the use of taxpayer funds to finance abortions. The 1980 resolution also included a ringing endorsement of a pro-life amendment to the constitution. Schaeffer’s pro-life film Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, which appeared in 1979, played a significant role, as Southern Baptist churches began using it as a teaching tool. All ambiguity concerning the SBC’s official position disappeared, and Southern Baptists embarked on a quest to become the most pro-life denomination in America. In 1986, fresh of their defeat of moderates the year before in Dallas, Paige Patterson allegedly remarked, “We want an open and pro-life position in all our institutions and agencies, dealing with abortion and euthanasia.”35 A decade later Mohler explained that while it was sometimes difficult for rank-and-fie Baptists to discern just when inerrancy was being denied, they understood clearly what it meant when they heard that a professor at one of their seminaries was pro-choice. As he put it, “I think moderates, to their dying day, are going to underestimate that issue. They just don’t get it.”Thomas S. Kidd & Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History 241-42 (2015)
Fundamentalist (Inerrantist) Takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (1980s-1990s)
In 1979, control of the SBC was seized by a rancorous Fundamentalist minority. That minority … could be accurately called the Fundamentalist Baptist Convention. In 1979 the SBC was comprised of approximately 10 percent Fundamentalists. The remaining 90 percent were mainstream Southern Baptists who loved, worked in and supported all their denomination s enterprises.John F. Baugh, The Battle for Baptist Integrity xii (1996)
In 1979, Adrian Rogers became president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Pastor of Bellevue Baptist outside of Memphis, one of the largest churches in the country, with a nationally known television ministry, Rogers was the most visible “fundamentalist” pastor in the SBC. Many observers believed his election amounted to little more than a nod to the conservative wing of the denomination. It had happened before, when W. A. Criswell of First Baptist, Dallas served two terms as convention president (1968–1970). But they were wrong. The election of Rogers set in motion a political and theological battle for control of America’s largest Protestant denomination. It would become one of the most significant religious events of the twentieth century.
Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler devised the strategy for the “conservative resurgence.” Patterson was a theologian-preacher and dean of the Criswell Institute in Dallas. Pressler served for years as a Texas state appeals court judge and active Baptist layman. Patterson was the unofficial theologian of the conservative movement, Pressler its political strategist, and Rogers the popular preacher.
Conservatives believed that moderates had allowed the denomination to drift too far leftward, and they sought to take the SBC back to its conservative, biblical roots. Pressler studied the SBC’s constitution and determined that if he and Patterson engineered the election of conservative SBC presidents like Rogers, and those presidents appointed conservatives to the boards of the denominational agencies and seminaries, the entire apparatus of the SBC would be in conservative hands within ten years.
Rogers’s 1979 election was the first step in executing this strategy. It took a few years for moderates to realize what they were up against, largely because they believed in what Southern Baptist historian Bill Leonard called the “Grand Compromise.” Because of the theological diversity of the denomination, moderate SBC officials sought to keep theological controversy at bay while uniting all factions around missions and evangelism. Southern Baptists may not be able to agree on a particular view of the inspiration of Scripture, the historicity of Old Testament stories, Calvinist versus Arminian theology, or women in ministry, the reasoning went, but all were united around the need to share Christ with a lost world and to win sinners to the faith. This Grand Compromise had held for so long that moderates did not see the threat coming. They proved slow to organize resistance, and by the time they did, the conservative juggernaut was rolling. For reasons that remain mysterious, Rogers did not run for the perfunctory second one-year term, but conservatives rallied around Bailey Smith of First Baptist, Del City, Oklahoma, who served two terms, as did his successor, Dallas area megachurch pastor James Draper Jr. Conservatives won these elections by rallying their supporters around the inerrancy of Scripture. The term “inerrancy” appeared in the late nineteenth century, and the evangelical debate over inerrancy reached a fever pitch in the 1970s. In 1976, evangelical Baptist scholar and Christianity Today editor Harold Lindsell published the book The Battle for the Bible, which identified inerrancy as the most important issue of his generation. An entire chapter was devoted to the Southern Baptists. Lindsell argued that the denomination was moving away from the belief that the Bible is inerrant in matters of not only theology and Christian practice but also history and science, and he singled out a handful of SBC moderates for scorn.
Moderates believed the inerrancy debate amounted to a false choice. They emphasized the authority of Scripture once interpreted properly, and they denied that the Bible’s authority relied on its historic or scientific accuracy in every detail. Nevertheless, Lindsell’s book stunned some SBC conservatives and emboldened others.
Conservatives convinced a growing number of people that the SBC’s moderate leaders were out of touch with the denomination’s grass roots. Then, through sophisticated campaigning, conservatives got their sympathizers to the SBC annual meetings to vote. Complex issues of inspiration, authority, and interpretation of Scripture fell to the wayside in the political battle over inerrancy. Other theological issues also came to the fore, such as the ordination of women, and cultural and political issues like abortion and separation of church and state became embroiled in the controversy as well. Conservatives charged that moderate leaders were liberals, a charge that was more accurate politically than theologically. But it worked. By 1985, moderates were in trouble. More than halfway into their ten-year plan, conservatives had already started to remake the denomination. As agency and seminary boards fell into the hands of conservative appointees, the moderates desperately needed to break the conservative momentum at the SBC annual convention that summer. The meeting took place at the Dallas Convention Center, where one year earlier Republicans had nominated Ronald Reagan for a second term. Both the Reagan and SBC revolutions were part of a conservative shift taking place in the wider culture.Thomas S. Kidd & Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History 228-230 (2015)
Once again the South provides the striking exception as the conservative (sometimes known as “fundamentalist”) takeover of the huge Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s and 1990s recapitulated the denominational controversies of the 1920s. The remarkable difference, however, is that, contrary to many predictions during the early stages of the Southern Baptist controversies, in this case the fundamentalists did win. In one of the most remarkable developments in American ecclesiastical history, conservatives gained control of the central boards of the denomination and took over its theological seminaries. Although characteristic fundamentalist theological concerns, often encapsulated under the rubric of “the inerrancy of Scripture,” were major elements in defining Southern Baptist conservatism, most observers believed that the cultural-political issues were just as important, or perhaps more so, in enlisting popular support.George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture 244 (2006)
In 1979 that tradition, wholly dependent upon the longstanding spirit of accommodation for its continuance, was placed in jeopardy by men who wanted to put the denomination on the straight-and-narrow path of biblical inerrancy. To accomplish their objective they came to believe that they had to secure control of the Convention. Those who supported the effort argued that their leaders had launched a crusade for truth, while opponents of what some would eventually call ‘the takeover’ condemned the move as a naked power play. The fight was soon on, but there was no agreement among the combatants as to why they were at loggerheads.
Not only was there disagreement over the cause of the brawl, the two sides could not agree on what to call each other. To divide the SBC into only two hostile camps during the controversy of the 1980s is to oversimplify the matter, for there were numerous positions and subtle differences. Even so, for the sake of convenience, this paper will recognize two general groups, plus a basically conservative but non-aligned middle group which was wooed by the other two sides. Taking the offensive in 1979 were people who called themselves ‘conservatives’ and designated their movement the ‘conservative resurgence’. This group referred to their opponents as ‘liberals’, while the so-called liberals called themselves ‘moderates’ and their opponents ‘fundamentalists’. Over time writers came to label the ‘conservatives’ as ‘conservative-fundamentalists’ and the ‘moderates’ as ‘moderate-conservatives’. Since the former espouse views that are fundamentalist in nature and the latter hold views traditionally considered conservative, this paper will use the terms fundamentalists for the former and moderates for the latter.
As the argument over labels continued, disagreement over the nature of the controversy intensified. According to the fundamentalists, they believed the Bible to be fully inspired and without error, while the moderates did not. The fundamentalists further asserted that their view concerning Scripture was the traditional Baptist belief and that the SBC would not return to it until the moderates were ousted from denominational leadership roles or pushed out of the Convention altogether.
Moderates responded that the banner of biblical inerrancy was merely camouflage for covering up a political power play. They insisted that they believed in the ‘authority’ of the Bible and that many in their ranks were committed inerrantists. Asserting that there were virtually no ‘true liberals’ in the SBC, they contended that the Convention had traditionally accommodated diverse theological views and had never denied fundamentalists their right to believe in biblical inerrancy. That all changed, according to the moderates, when, in 1979, fundamentalists, by secular political means, seized control of the Convention and set out to impose their theological views on all Southern Baptists. Denying the charge, the fundamentalists insisted that they only sought a ‘theological correction’ from the liberal turn the Convention had taken.
The ‘conservative resurgence’ in the SBC was primarily the work of two men who bided their time for over a decade after planning it. Those two men were Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson. Pressler, a Baptist layman and appeals court judge from Houston, Texas, first met Patterson- then a graduate student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and later president of Criswell College in Dallas-in New Orleans ‘about 1968’, although the meeting is sometimes said to have occurred in 1967. Over coffee and beignets at the Cafe DuMonde the two men began plotting the strategy which eventually altered the direction of the SBC. Pressler became the movement’s political strategist and Patterson its theological guru. Not long thereafter, from behind the scenes, the reforming duo received the advice and encouragement of W. A. Criswell, the clearly fundamentalist pastor of the SBC’s largest church, First Baptist of Dallas. Dan Griffin, moderate pastor from Fayetteville, North Carolina, called these men and their allies ‘nouveaux Pharisees’.
Pressler was able to present to Southern Baptists impressive credentials with regard to both lineage and education. A Texan from a long line of Baptist preachers and lawyers, he was educated at Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Princeton University and the University of Texas Law School. As he ventured out from the environment of his upbringing to acquire his education, Pressler encountered ‘liberalism’ in the churches he attended. He came to despise the ‘negative impact’ it had on ‘culture and society’ and on the ‘presentation of the gospel’. In the early 1960s he was moved to combat ‘liberalism’ by writing a pamphlet to warn Southern Baptists against it and by supporting New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary as long as it remained doctrinally sound. The judge labelled as a liberal anyone not believing ‘that the Bible is completely true, and completely what God intended it to be’. In a word, anybody who did not believe in biblical inerrancy was a liberal-regardless of what else that person might or might not believe!
Patterson was just as adamant as Pressler on the issue of an error-free Bible and, because of his very adequate training in theology, he could explain theological subtleties for the ‘conservative’ cause. Like Pressler, Patterson eschewed the label of ‘fundamentalist’ and insisted on being called a conservative. Even so, the views of both men were undeniably akin to those of professed fundamentalists. When they first met in the French Quarter in 1967 or 1968, Patterson, the younger man, committed himself to helping Pressler put the SBC on the clearly delineated path of biblical inerrancy. They agreed that they would become familiar with every jot and tittle in the Convention by-laws and other constitutional documents and learn in detail exactly how the system worked. Moreover, they would seek out like-minded ‘conservative’ pastors throughout the Convention and create their own communications network in various states-a network that became a reality at a formal meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, about five years later. Ultimately they would secure the election of an SBC president who was a committed inerrantist, followed by another and then another until, through the presidential appointive power, they and their supporters could outvote the ‘liberals’ on the Convention boards and agencies which controlled the denomination.’
For over ten years Pressler and Patterson worked methodically and patiently to accomplish their self-appointed mission. As they created their communications network, they studied thoroughly the Convention’s structure and operations. One of their early allies was Adrian Rogers, pastor of the mammoth Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. After considerable agonizing Rogers agreed to run for SBC president when the Convention met at Houston in 1979, and he was elected by a 51.4 per cent vote over five other candidates. While the vote was being taken, Pressler and Patterson ‘occupied a command post in sky-boxes’ above the Convention floor and maintained contact with many of their floor leaders below. Subsequently it was revealed that numerous voting irregularities played a part in that election which turned out to be only the first of twelve consecutive presidential election victories for the ‘conservative resurgence’ between 1979 and 1990. Registered as ‘a messenger from a church to which he did not belong’- except as an ‘honorary’ member-was none other than Judge Pressler himself. Over 15,500 messengers registered in all, but some churches sent more than their allotted number of messengers. Over 1,000 people registered without having been elected as messengers by their churches. Bus loads of people who were not legitimate messengers arrived from as far away as 150 miles. Illegal ballots were cast. Husbands marked ballots for their wives and pastors for some of their church members who were not present for the vote. Following the Rogers victory, Pressler, Patterson and their allies set a goal of winning control of the Convention by 1989. ‘Biblical inerrancy’ was to be their rallying cry, while their opponents were to be accused of being ‘weak on the authority of an error-free Bible’.
Customarily, SBC presidents served a one-year term and then ran unopposed for a second term, but Adrian Rogers, for ‘personal reasons’ chose not to stand for a second term. Stepping up to fill the void was another of his stripe- Bailey Smith, then a pastor in Dell City, Oklahoma. Smith won the presidency in 1980 and again in 1981, but when he ran for a second term at the 1981 Convention in Los Angeles, moderates who had become aware of what the fundamentalists were doing, broke with tradition and nominated Abner McCall, president of Baylor University and former dean of the Baylor University Law School, to oppose Smith. The latter won easily with a majority of 60 per cent of the vote-more than any other fundamentalist elected between 1979and 1990. After Smith came James T. (Jimmy) Draper of Euless, Texas, for two years; Charles Stanley of Atlanta for two terms; Adrian Rogers once more and for two terms this time; Jerry Vines of Jacksonville, Florida, for two years; and finally, in 1990, Morris Chapman of Wichita Falls, Texas. At the time these men were elected all were pastors of large urban or suburban churches and were confirmed inerrantists.’ Pressler and Patterson, having thus gained their succession of inerrantist presidents, set out to drive perceived ‘liberals’ from Convention agencies, aiming especially at seminary professors.David T. Morgan, Upheaval in the Southern Baptist Convention, 1979-90: Crusade for Truth or Bid for Power?, The Journal of Religious History, vol. 17(3) 322-326 (June 1993).
Obviously there were critics aplenty and not a few quarrels among Southern Baptists both before and after Pressler and Patterson plotted their new-direction strategy at the Cafe DuMonde and began linking their fundamentalist communications network together. How is it that their efforts produced a successful movement rather than just another of many short-lived controversies? The answer lies at least partly in the fact that they sincerely believed themselves to be crusaders for truth and were thus able to persuade thousands of Southern Baptists to join them in restoring doctrinal purity throughout the denomination. Biblical inerrantists are part of a huge fraternity of ‘true believers’ within the Christian faith; inerrancy is a doctrine which cuts across denominational lines, and numerous Southern Baptists adhere to it. Pressler and Patterson, two who subscribed to it, were ‘true believers’ in the same sense that Oliver Cromwell and Maximilien Robespierre were. They were proud of what they considered their uncompromising stance for truth. What they denied was that they were motivated by a desire for political power. Since these two men captured majority support in the denomination with the rallying cry of biblical inerrancy, it seems appropriate to focus attention first on that doctrine. After that the moderate allegation that the real issue was political power and the theological issue a subterfuge will be scrutinized.
Inerrancy is a term not easily explained, for there is no consensus regarding its origins or its precise meaning. In spite of the many disagreements that the word inerrancy has engendered among those who profess to believe in it, Morris Chapman, who was elected SBC president in June 1990, was quoted as saying, ‘For us not to believe in inerrancy is not to believe in God’. Yet, from the earliest Anabaptist to contemporary Southern Baptist statements of faith, which includes twenty-six confessions of faith containing over 700 articles, the word inerrancy cannot be found. Not until 1925, when the statement of faith of that year was adopted by the SBC, was there a word even similar to inerrancy mentioned. The 1925 statement says that the Bible had ‘God for its author’ and was ‘without any mixture of error’. Even the Baptist Faith and Message Statement of 1963 fails to use the word inerrancy. Actually the term is relatively new in theological circles, dated no further back than the nineteenth century.”
The fundamentalists argued that the word might not be old but that the concept of an infallible Bible is as old as the Scripture itself. One indefatigable reporter of the controversy, James C .(Jimmy) Hefley, who came down solidly on the side of the fundamentalists, asserted that fundamentalists ‘believe divine inspiration protected the biblical writers from error of any form, historical, scientific, doctrinal, theological, or philosophical’, and he quoted a Memphis, Tennessee, fundamentalist named Vaughn Denton as saying, ‘Anyone who does NOT accept the Bible as infallible AND inerrant is a heretic and disbeliever’. Paul Pressler put it this way: “Once you have crossed the theological Rubicon of saying that the Bible is sufficiently man’s work so that it can be in error and make mistakes, then you have opened the floodgates for the individual to determine the categories which are truth, and that is [an] extremely presumptuous thing for a man to do.”
Pressler stuck steadfastly to his contention that the nature of Scripture, and nothing else, was the issue. In 1984 he maintained: ‘The issue in the Southern Baptist Convention has been, is, and always will be, as far as I am concerned, what Scripture is, not an interpretation of Scripture’. He did not deviate from that position when quizzed by reporters at the San Antonio Convention in 1988. ‘You see,’ he said, ‘the issue is . . . whether we approach Scripture with the confidence that this is God’s Word. The liberals know they cannot win on that issue. So the ’re trying to make non-issues so that they will have a chance to win.
Echoing Pressler’s monotonous theme of inerrancy were a host of prominent Southern Baptist ministers and laymen. While they declared their belief in inerrancy publicly, some of them qualified it in private. Seldom, if ever, would they say in public that they did not hold an absolute view of inerrancy, perhaps because they suspected that the grassroots Baptist could not fully understand their subtle qualifications of the doctrine. Many inerrantists boldly denied that there were errors in the Bible and then turned around and admitted to ‘minor errors’, ‘statistical errors’ and contradictions between one historical fact and another, when pressed by knowledgeable interrogators.David T. Morgan, Upheaval in the Southern Baptist Convention, 1979-90: Crusade for Truth or Bid for Power?, The Journal of Religious History, vol. 17(3) 326-27 (June 1993).
The legendary W. A. Criswell spoke last at the Pastor’s Conference. He reminded the audience of the decline of mainline denominations in both the United States and Great Britain. That decline began, he argued, when evangelical denominations endorsed higher criticism of Scripture. This, he said, is precisely what happened in nineteenth-century Great Britain, where only the legendary Charles Spurgeon held out for inerrancy. Rejecting the idea that the Grand Compromise could be held together by missions and evangelism, Criswell argued, “My brother, if the higher critical approach to scriptures dominates our institutions and our denomination, there will be no missionaries to hurt. They will cease. . . . As with the Baptists of Great Britain, whether we continue to live or ultimately die lies in our dedication to the infallible Word of God.” As future SBC president Jerry Vines put it in 1986, “The view that the Bible contains error is worth fighting against. That’s the first domino to fall.”
Conservatives such as Criswell believed that the vast majority of Southern Baptists ascribed to biblical inerrancy. Pressler routinely put the percentage at 90 percent. A study by Baptist sociologist Nancy Ammerman in 1985 found that 85 percent of Southern Baptist pastors and lay leaders affirmed the view that “the scriptures are the inerrant Word of God, accurate in every detail.” Conservatives such as Pressler, Patterson, and Criswell routinely interpreted inerrancy to mean an affirmation of a literal view of biblical stories such as the Genesis creation accounts. They argued that the Bible was inerrant historically and scientifically, which meant that an allegorical reading of creation would not do. If Genesis spoke of Adam and Eve as two individual human beings, then it was unacceptable to view them as mere representations of humanity.
Ammerman discovered, however, that fewer than half of SBC pastors and lay leaders interpreted inerrancy this way. “Whatever Southern Baptists mean by inerrancy,” she concluded from her surveys and interviews at the 1985 convention, “not all of them mean that Genesis is to be read as history or science. The number of Southern Baptists who insist on such a reading of the creation stories is well under half.” On the other hand, 59 percent of Ammerman’s respondents were willing to, in her words, “claim not only that the Bible is inerrant, but that it speaks clearly and precisely about the history of the world from creation to the end of time.” Moreover, she declared to the delight of conservatives, “That is certainly the position of the denomination’s fundamentalist leaders, and it has been the position of most fundamentalists since the movement began.” During the controversy, the only safe position was a clear and consistent affirmation of inerrancy, whatever one meant by the term. Quibbling about what inerrancy actually was, or doubts concerning the term’s importance, would not suffice. As Pressler liked to put it, “Once you have crossed the theological Rubicon of saying that the Bible is sufficiently man’s work so that it can be in error and make mistakes, then you have opened the floodgates for the individual to determine the categories which are truth, and that is [an] extremely presumptuous thing for a man to do.”Thomas S. Kidd & Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History 232-33 (2015)