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ANALYSIS: Baptists underscored supernatural faith in 1925 in response to evolutionists

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following two articles recount the historical circumstances that prompted Southern Baptists’ 1925 and 1963 confessions of faith. A revised edition of the Baptist Faith and Message will be considered by messengers to this year’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting June 13-14 in Orlando, Fla.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Southern Baptists have rejected creeds, preferring to describe their common faith through confessions. The SBC’s first president, William B. Johnson, stated in 1845 that the new convention had intentionally avoided the construction of a creed, “acting in this matter upon a Baptist aversion for all creeds but the Bible.”

And though it was halfway through the course of convention history before Southern Baptists approved a complete statement of faith, neither the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message nor the revision in 1963 was ever expected to serve as the final word of what Baptists believe. At best, each document served to respond to a particular crisis of its day — evolution in 1925 and theological liberalism in 1963.

Now a new committee has prepared a revision of the Baptist Faith and Message for 2000, reflecting the presupposition of earlier committees, each of them stating in the preface, “As in the past so in the future Baptists should hold themselves free to revise their statements of faith as many seem to them wise and expedient at any time.”

The composition and central personality of each committee has varied. In 1924, messengers asked professional theologians and denominational journalists to fulfill the responsibility of writing a confessional statement. E.Y. Mullins, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, took the lead in writing statement drafts. He had already authored “The Axioms of Religion: A New Interpretation of the Baptist Faith” in 1908, along with the more readable folk theology “Baptist Beliefs” in 1912 and eight other books.

Mullins had just completed his third year as SBC president and was continuing to serve as Baptist World Alliance president when he accepted the assignment of chairing the committee asked to propose a statement of faith. A decade earlier he had authored the Southern Baptist perspective on the ecumenism of the early 1900s, “The Pronouncement of Christian Union and Denominational Efficiency.”

Another response to the union movement of the era was offered in 1919 by a committee which included Mullins, but it was never formally adopted. A portion of Mullins’ presidential address on “Science and Religion” was endorsed by the SBC in 1923.

In the 1920s SBC leaders increasingly considered both wise and expedient to respond to the expanding influence of evolutionists. Upon the recommendation of two state Baptist paper editors, the convention agreed to form a committee in 1924 to draft a proposal for consideration at the next year’s meeting.

Named as members were three presidents of educational institutions, E.Y. Mullins, L.R. Scarborough of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and W.J. McGlothlin of Furman University, as well as three Baptist editors, C.P. Stealey of the Oklahoma Baptist Messenger, R.K. Maiden, co-editor of the Missouri Word & Way, R.H. Pitt of the Virginia Religious Herald and E.C. Dargan, the SBC’s editorial secretary.

Mullins’ first draft was rejected by the committee. His second effort was approved by all but Pitt (who was absent) and Stealey (who wanted more explicity anti-evolutionary language). Mullins had revised and enlarged the New Hampshire Declaration of Faith, selecting that confession because it was “so widely accepted among Baptists.” Included were affirmations of belief in the virgin birth, bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ and the creation of man as a special act of God.

Although it was concern over evolution that prompted work on a statement of faith, the committee stated that “matters of science have no proper place in a religious confession of faith.” Instead, they chose to include in their report a statement on the relationship between science and religion written by Mullins and adopted in 1923 by the convention meeting in Kansas City.

The addendum explained that Southern Baptists “do not sit in judgment upon the scientific view of teachers of science,” granting them the same freedom of research in their realm “that we claim for ourselves in the religious realm.”

“But we do insist upon a positive content of faith in accordance with the preceding statement as a qualification for acceptable service in Baptist schools,” the statement read, referring to “our unwavering adherence to the supernatural elements in the Christian religion.”

“We stand unalterably for the supernatural in Christianity,” the statement concluded. “Teachers in our schools should be careful to free themselves from any suspicion of disloyalty on this point. In the present period of agitation and unrest they are obligated to make their positions clear.” In response, support was pledged to “all schools and teachers who are thus loyal to the facts of Christianity as revealed in the Scriptures.”

At the convention meeting, Stealey sought to amend the section on the fall of man to clearly state that “man came into this world by direct creation of God and not by evolution.” He wanted that belief clearly stated in the body of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message, not just the attached statement on science and religion. A total of 2,013 messengers voted against the additional content, however, over 950 messengers who voted for Stealey’s amendment.

Scarborough had urged approval of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message Statement in a pre-convention article and pledged to recommend that the trustees of Southwestern adopt it as the school’s confessional statement, requiring that faculty sign it. However, he also made it clear that he opposed requiring any other convention, church or group of individuals to adopt the new articles of faith.

“The Convention probably has the right to require the professors of the three South-wide seminaries, the only schools the Convention owns, and probably all of its boards and secretaries to adopt these articles of faith,” he wrote in a pre-convention article. “I do not believe that such ought to be done,” he concluded.

Scarborough, like others, regarded the Baptist Faith and Message as “simply a statement of what we believe, a witness, a testimony of our conception of the heart of revealed truth as set out in the Bible.” He noted that such articles of faith “have never been regarded by Baptists as a dogmatic creed which one group of individuals can bind upon the consciences of other individuals.”

In his book “Southern Baptists: Who Are We?” Slaydon Yarbrough wrote that the 1925 BF&M was never used by state conventions prior to 1945 and seldom used by associations or churches in spite of its wide distribution.

Yarbrough quotes church historian W.W. Barnes as writing nine years after its adoption that the BF&M statement had been received by Southern Baptist churches “generally with a tremendous outburst of silence.”

Southern Baptist patriarch Herschell Hobbs, however, offered a different assessment in his commentary on the Baptist Faith and Message. The 1925 BF&M “served in large measure to anchor Southern Baptists to their traditional theological moorings for a generation,” Hobbs wrote.

While Southern Baptists in 1925 feared that non-Baptist academics would influence Baptists to doubt the reliability of Scripture, by 1962 the reliability of Scripture was indeed being questioned in some of the SBC’s seminary classrooms and influencing some SBC writings. In response, Southern Baptist leaders saw a need to revisit the statement of faith.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter