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25 years ago, conservative resurgence got its start

INDIANAPOLIS (BP)–Twenty-five years ago this summer, some 15,000 Southern Baptists gathered in Houston for their annual meeting.

That 1979 convention featured a special mission emphasis (Bold Mission Thrust) as well as a sermon by evangelist Billy Graham. Today, though, the meeting is best remembered for one thing — the beginning of the conservative resurgence.

Messengers elected then-47-year-old Adrian Rogers with 51 percent of the vote on the first ballot, marking the first of a long string of conservative victories — a moderate candidate never won — and signaling the denomination’s return to its biblical, orthodox roots.

But it didn’t happen overnight.

From 1979 to 1990, conservatives and moderates struggled for control of the denomination, nominating opposing candidates for convention president. Attendance swelled. Media interest grew.

In 1985 alone, a record 45,000 messengers attended the convention, spilling into overflow seating. That same year Phil Donahue — then the king of daytime talk — devoted an entire program to the SBC controversy, as did ABC’s “Nightline.”

The source of the controversy, conservatives said, was biblical authority. Moderates countered by saying it was solely about power.

In the years leading up to the resurgence, conservatives had charged that seminary professors were espousing unorthodox and even heretical beliefs in their lectures and writings. But during that same time, little changed.

In the early 1960s Broadman Press — the SBC’s publishing house — published a book by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Ralph Elliott in which he denied the historicity of Adam and Eve, said the Genesis flood was not worldwide and asserted that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by natural occurrences. A controversy ensued, and Elliott was told not to republish the book. He did and was fired.

In part a reaction to the Elliott controversy, the 1925 Baptist Faith & Message was revised. While the new 1963 statement said the Bible had “truth without any mixture of error,” it also included an addition that later drew the criticism of conservatives. Only 13 words, the addition read: “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” While some said it was intended to emphasize Jesus’ affirmation of Old Testament teachings, the addition instead was used by moderate and liberal professors to pit Jesus’ words against the rest of the Bible — for instance, the words of Paul.

While conservatives hoped that Elliott was an aberration, others knew differently. C.R. Daley, former editor of the Western Recorder newspaper, told Christianity Today years later, “Professors in all our seminaries know that Elliott is in the same stream of thinking with most of them, and is more in the center than some of them.”

Southern Baptists had a new statement of faith, but the controversy was just beginning.

In 1969, Broadman Press published the Genesis-Exodus volume of the Broadman Bible Commentary, drawing more criticism. Like the Elliott book several years earlier, the volume was critical of a literal historical interpretation of the Bible. Commenting on Genesis 22, author G. Henton Davis said God did not order Abraham to slay Isaac: “Did God make, would God in fact have made, such a demand upon Abraham or anybody else except himself? … Our answer … is no. Indeed, what Christian or humane conscience could regard such a command as coming from God?” The volume resulted in messengers to the 1970 convention in Denver passing a motion calling for the withdrawal of the Genesis-Exodus volume, as well as a rewrite.

The rest of the 1970s only added to conservative anguish.

In 1971 — two years before Roe v. Wade — convention messengers passed a pro-choice resolution supporting legalized abortion in cases of “severe fetal deformity” and in cases where the pregnancy could damage the “emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” Three years later — after Roe v. Wade –messengers reaffirmed the position of the 1971 convention.

The denomination’s Christian Life Commission — the SBC entity that addressed moral issues — also was on record as being pro-choice. In 1976 the CLC produced a pamphlet stating that it is “impossible” to determine “when in the life cycle the fetus assumes the characteristics of a person.”

“[W]hich is more important — the mental health of a mother or the eight-week-old fetal life she carries?” the pamphlet asked. “There is no stock answer for these questions nor for the many other similar questions we face.”

The battle over the direction of the seminaries was a focal point of conservatives’ concerns. In various writings and lectures, some seminary professors had denied the inerrancy of Scripture, rejected the miracles as being true, denied the deity of Christ and embraced universalism. Most remained on the seminaries’ faculties.

Conservatives charged that seminaries were destroying the faith of their students, and a 1976 Ph.D. thesis by a Southern Seminary student seemed to support those claims. According to the thesis, 87 percent of first-year students had no doubts that Jesus was the divine Son of God. By their final year, the number had fallen to 63 percent. In another category, 85 percent of first-year students believed that belief in Christ was absolutely necessary for salvation; by their final year, only 60 percent held to that view.

A change in leadership, conservatives believed, could bring the convention back to its biblical, historical roots. But it all had to start with the president and his extensive appointive powers.

In Southern Baptist polity, the president appoints several committees, although one — the Committee on Committees — has the most power. That committee nominates the Committee on Nominations, which in turn nominates the members of the boards of trustees for all the entities (including the seminaries). By carefully appointing likeminded individuals to the committee on committees, the president can — over time — impact nearly every element of Southern Baptist life.

The strategy was championed by Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, two men who had met in the late 1960s and discovered they shared the same concern over liberal scholarship within SBC seminaries. Pressler had learned about the SBC political structure from Bill Powell, a conservative whom Pressler credits with helping spark the movement.

“It was not my independent research that showed the way the convention could be turned around; it was Bill’s,” Pressler wrote in his autobiography.

Of course, Southern Baptists had elected conservative presidents in the past, including W.A. Criswell, the larger-than-life pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas. But Criswell, who was elected twice in the late 1960s, did not comprehend the president’s appointment power — by his own admission. As president he had allowed Porter Routh, the former head of the Executive Committee, to submit a list of names for him.

Told about the strategy in the late 1970s, Criswell responded: “If I had only known what you have explained to me tonight when I was president of the convention, things could have been different.” The strategy, though, would work only if messengers showed up at the convention. They did.

At Los Angeles in 1981, messengers re-elected Bailey Smith with 60 percent of the vote — appeasing fears that the West Coast meeting would hurt the conservative cause. At San Antonio in 1988, messengers elected Jerry Vines by 692 votes out of 32,000 cast — the closest election during the conservative resurgence. And at New Orleans in 1990 — the last year that moderates nominated an opposing candidate — messengers chose Morris Chapman by 57 percent of the vote.

“I remember one family from South Bend, Ind. — they had five children and drove non-stop to Los Angeles to the Southern Baptist Convention in 1981,” Pressler said recently. “They voted and [then] drove non-stop back [home] eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They didn’t spend a night in a motel because they didn’t have the money.

“That’s the type of sacrifice that won [the convention back from liberalism].”

Debate over the source of the controversy was in itself a controversy. Moderates charged that conservatives were after power. Conservatives, though, asserted that biblical authority was the source of dispute and that the convention had strayed from its biblical, historical roots. In the end, a so-called Peace Committee was formed to investigate both sides’ claims. The committee’s report, presented at the annual meeting in 1987, sided mostly with conservatives. The primary source of the controversy, the report said, was “the Bible; more specifically, the ways in which the Bible is viewed.”

The conservative strategy worked, although it took time. The first conservative entity head was William O. Crews, who was elected president of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in 1987. The last entity to see a conservative leader was Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which elected Kenneth Hemphill in 1994.

Every entity saw a change in leadership — from the six seminaries to the two mission boards to the denomination’s publishing house. Seminary professors today are required to teach within the boundaries of biblical inerrancy. Leadership is required to affirm inerrancy as well.

The head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (formerly the Christian Life Commission), Richard Land, is a staunch pro-lifer and champion of pro-life causes. In addition, Land is one of the nation’s more outspoken opponents of same-sex “marriage” — a topic that wasn’t even on the radar in 1979 but today is threatening to split some mainline denominations.

Conservatives look at the national denomination landscape and wonder: Where would the SBC be without the conservative resurgence? The Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Methodist Church all have strong factions supporting the homosexual rights movement. Just last year the Episcopal Church ordained an openly homosexual bishop.

“Look where those mainline denominations are,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., who has been president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary since 1993. “You have the Episcopalian church ordaining an openly homosexual bishop. The United Methodist Church [recently] refused to even admit that homosexuality is dealt with clearly in their standards. Do you have the sense that if the conservative resurgence had not happened, that’s exactly where we would be? I am absolutely certain it’s right.”
With reporting by Jeff Robinson. Sources: “A Hill On Which To Die,” Paul Pressler; “The Baptist Reformation,” Jerry Sutton; “The Southern Baptist Convention: A Sesquicentennial History,” Jesse C. Fletcher; “A Messenger’s Memoirs,” Robert E. Naylor; “The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention,” James C. Hefley.

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust