NASHVILLE (BP) — Thousands of messengers had arrived in Houston to vote for Adrian Rogers in the presidential election at the 1979 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting. Some with limited resources had traveled hundreds of miles and were sleeping in tents in hopes of restoring their denomination to theological orthodoxy.
There was just one problem: It was the night before the election and Rogers wasn’t sure that God wanted him to be nominated. When he encountered fellow conservative leaders Paige Patterson and Jerry Vines in a hotel lobby, the three of them, along with Rogers’ wife Joyce, went to pray about the matter in Rogers’ room.
After hours of seeking God’s will, Joyce Rogers, feeling God’s leading, signaled to her husband, and he said, “I will do it.”
The following afternoon, Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., was elected over five other candidates on the first ballot with 51 percent of the vote. The Conservative Resurgence had begun.
Thirty-five years later, observers say Rogers, who died in 2005, was the pivotal leader in the SBC’s struggle to make belief in the Bible’s inerrancy a bedrock commitment of all convention entities — a commitment that undergirds Southern Baptists’ evangelistic outreach at home and abroad.
Inerrancy is the doctrine that the Bible is completely free from error regarding theology, history, science and every other matter to which it speaks. The group who advocated inerrancy and elected Rogers labeled themselves “conservatives,” a reference to theology more than political ideology. Opponents of the conservatives — many of whom held orthodox beliefs but thought theological diversity should be tolerated in the SBC — were called “moderates.”
Frank S. Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, said he is excited to see a young generation of pastors who believe the Word of God and hold to a high degree of understanding of its authenticity. “I believe that this new reality is directly attributable to great men who stood strong for the Gospel and especially Dr. Adrian Rogers,” he said. “His election 35 years ago signaled a grassroots movement that has changed our entire denominational mindset. Thank God for Dr. Adrian Rogers.”
‘Manning the pumps’
Despite the last-minute decision to run, Rogers was motivated to serve the convention by events stretching back to his days as a student at Stetson University in Florida when he learned that some professors funded by the Cooperative Program questioned doctrines that most Southern Baptists regarded as foundational to the Christian faith.
In one class taught by an ordained Baptist minister, Rogers “heard the great historic truths of the faith demeaned over and over,” Joyce Rogers wrote in “Love Worth Finding,” a biography of her husband. After class one day, Rogers gathered the courage to confront his professor and asked, “Sir, are you really saved?”
In response the professor defined salvation as “that experience when a man escapes the consequences of a maladjustment to his fellow man” and said, “I don’t know if there is a heaven or hell.”
Soon Rogers learned that the problem in Baptist life was not isolated to his university.
By the mid-20th century, “the view that the Bible was not the Word of God had become common among professors at Southern Baptist seminaries,” Baptist historian Gregory Wills wrote in “Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009.”
Wills explained that for much of the 20th century, seminary administrators tried to persuade the denomination that their professors were orthodox while at the same time trying to persuade professors to conceal their more objectionable views, revealing them only at strategic moments to sympathetic audiences. Southern Seminary professor Bill Hull, for example, was known to hide progressive views in book reviews on modern French or Belgian New Testament scholarship. “I often like to ‘bury’ such comments in material that will be read only by those who need to see it,” Hull wrote in a 1966 letter to Southern Seminary President Duke McCall.
Occasionally, however, Southern Baptists caught a glimpse of what seminaries were teaching.
In 1961, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Ralph Elliott’s “The Message of Genesis,” published by the Baptist Sunday School Board, argued that some of the stories in Genesis were historically inaccurate, including the flood and the sacrifice of Isaac. Sixteen of the SBC’s 28 state paper editors criticized the book, and the 1962 annual meeting in San Francisco adopted a motion expressing “abiding and unchanging objection to the dissemination of theological views in any of our seminaries which would undermine … faith in the historical accuracy and doctrinal integrity of the Bible.”
Eventually Elliott was fired. But C.R. Daley, editor of Kentucky Baptists’ Western Recorder journal, said there were many other seminary professors like him.
If Elliot is “a heretic, then he is one of many,” Daley said according to a 1983 Christianity Today article. “… Professors in all our seminaries know that Elliott is in the stream of thinking with most of them, and is more in the center than some.”
Rogers believed that some seminary administrators were being dishonest about what faculty members believed and that some faculty held views that were unacceptable to the Southern Baptists who funded them.
The problem wasn’t isolated to the seminaries. In 1969, the Sunday School Board published a commentary on Genesis by British scholar G. Henton Davies that claimed Genesis 1-11 was not historical and that Abraham was mistaken in his belief that God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac. The 1970 SBC passed a motion calling for the book to be withdrawn and rewritten.
Rogers believed that he faced a choice: leave the convention or lead a change.
“Adrian considered leaving the denomination,” Joyce Rogers wrote. “This would be a major step should he do so. It would require his leading his church to come out of the denomination or else resigning. But in his heart he believed something could and should be done. He used this analogy. The Southern Baptist Convention is a good old ship that has taken on much water and is slowly sinking. The choices seemed to be to abandon the ship or to man the pumps. He chose the latter and was ultimately blessed in ‘manning the pumps’ along with others.”
‘Rising star’ of Memphis
As Rogers was realizing the extent of the problem, other conservatives were realizing what to do about it.
Paul Pressler, a judge in Houston, and William Powell, editor of the Southern Baptist Journal, deduced that the key to changing the convention was winning the presidency. The president appointed the Committee on Committees, which in turn nominated the Committee on Boards (now the Committee on Nominations). The Committee on Boards then nominated trustees of the SBC entities. Conservative trustees could change the entities.
A president who appointed conservatives to the Committee on Committees would lead to conservative trustees in two years. A 10-year string of conservative presidents would lead to all the convention’s trustee boards being controlled by proponents of inerrancy — since only a percentage of trustee seats became vacant each year.
Pressler banded with Patterson and others to translate the plan into action. Traveling the nation, they organized conservatives to elect a conservative president in 1979. Rogers, who had been nominated in 1976 against his will, was an obvious candidate for the job. But part of Pressler and Patterson’s strategy was to keep Rogers away from their informal organization so he wouldn’t be labelled a denominational troublemaker, hurting his chances at election.
Potential presidential candidates like Rogers, Vines and Charles Stanley “were deliberately kept out of what was happening during the first five years of the controversy,” Patterson said in a 1994 interview. “They were aware of it and knew of it but had nothing to do with it whatsoever. That was done on purpose because anybody who was a conceivable candidate for president we deliberately kept at arm’s length.”
With the 1979 convention approaching, conservatives focused on Rogers. Opponents focused on him too, knowing the coming battle in the SBC would be contentious.
Daley, a moderate, said in a lecture at Southern Seminary five years later, “Some of us saw the rising star out of Memphis named Adrian Rogers — in my mind the most brilliant of his group, the one who poses the gravest threat to the Southern Baptist Convention. It was obvious that he was to be the king. It was obvious to some of us that he wasn’t the kind of king we wanted.”
The man to lead
Rogers arrived in Houston believing he shouldn’t run. Before a Pastors’ Conference session in which Rogers and W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, were to preach, Criswell told him, “Lad, you need to let us nominate you.” Rogers replied, “Dr. Criswell, I don’t believe that’s what God wants me to do.” Nonetheless, Criswell announced in his sermon, “We will have a great time here if for no other reason than to elect Adrian Rogers as our president” — a remark that drew loud cheers.
Despite Rogers’ reluctance, messengers were already en route to Houston, planning to vote for him, some at great personal sacrifice. Among them was Sheldon Hale, then the 32-year-old pastor of Andrew Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Ky. With a small convention budget from his church, Hale along with his wife and three young children drove cross country to Houston and slept in a tent outside the city.
Hale told Baptist Press that he knew other Southern Baptists who, like him, were concerned about the direction of the convention but didn’t have money to stay in expensive hotels near the convention center. They either camped or stayed in cheap hotels far from the annual meeting so that they could cast a vote for Rogers.
“I would do it again,” Hale, now pastor of First Baptist Church in Silver Grove, Ky., near Cincinnati, said in an interview. “It was hard to travel with three little ones and be camped out. But not only did we enjoy the time with them and they got to experience the time at the convention, we felt like we were part of history.”
With history in the making, God began to change Rogers’ mind. First, Bertha Smith, a longtime Southern Baptist missionary to China called him to say, “Brother Adrian, God wants you to do this.” Then another missionary to China, Charles Culpepper, sent a message: “Tell Adrian that I have been with God, and he should allow his nomination.”
Adrian and Joyce Rogers had devised a system where she would say a number between one and 10 to indicate how confident she was that Adrian’s nomination was God’s will. The number never rose above five. Yet as Rogers, Vines and Patterson prayed on the eve of the election, Joyce Rogers held up 10 fingers — and Adrian agreed.
When Rogers was elected the next day, surprise was audible in the hall. Some messengers gasped. Others whooped and embraced. But Rogers, himself a bit surprised, had a sense of God’s guidance and purpose.
Following Rogers, an unbroken line of conservative presidencies — including two more terms for Rogers between 1986 and 1988 — helped the convention return to biblical orthodoxy in its entities. All agree that the turnaround was not the work of any one man. Still, even his opponents say there was something special about Rogers’ election 35 years ago.
Moderate church historian Walter Shurden, who was dean of Southern Seminary’s school of theology in the early 1980s, viewed Rogers as the crucial figure in the SBC’s conservative movement, which he called “fundamentalism.”
“I sincerely doubt … that fundamentalism could have known its measure of success apart from Adrian Rogers,” Shurden wrote. “… No other fundamentalist could rival him as preacher, debater, or intransigent believer. When the leadership of the fundamentalists met for their strategy sessions, the press releases often read, ‘Adrian Rogers presided.’ He was by far fundamentalists’ most capable leader and moderates’ most formidable opponent.”
SBC President Fred Luter called Rogers a “giant of the faith” and said he helped save the convention.
“Thirty five years ago I was a brand-new Christian sharing the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ on the street corners of New Orleans, trying to transform the neighborhood I grew up in,” Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, said. “At the same time Dr. Adrian Rogers was being elected as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, trying to transform an entire convention back to believing in the Bible as the true Word of God.
“I shudder to think what our beloved convention would be if not for the courageous stand of Dr. Rogers, Dr. Patterson, Judge Pressler and so many others who stood up for God’s Word at a very critical time. May we never forget what this giant of the faith did for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Rogers was truly not only a gift to the SBC but also to the body of Christ.”
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).