FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–At the beginning of the 20th century, Southern Baptists numbered 1.6 million people. And now, at the beginning of the 21st century, Southern Baptists number over 16 million people.
The story of Southern Baptists in the 20th century is the growth story of a communion of free churches who focused upon telling lost people the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet, in recent years, our baptisms have slowed and our growth has been tempered. Why has this happened? And does our past hold any lessons for our future? How may we truly reclaim the growth habits of our forefathers and the resurgence in our hearts of Christ’s Great Commission?
As the editor of the Southwestern Journal of Theology, I have been reading through our earliest issues. In the midst of that, I repeatedly encountered denominational leaders issuing powerful affirmations of the fundamentals of the Christian faith alongside equally powerful affirmations of the fundamentals of Baptist identity. They understood the fundamentals of the Christian faith to focus on Christ, Scripture, the cross, divine grace and personal discipleship. They understood the fundamentals of Baptist identity to focus on the Lordship of Christ and His will for His churches. These leaders, from many places and walks within the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, simultaneously shared a passion for the Gospel along with a passion for obedience to the commands of Jesus Christ, especially His Great Commission.
In the midst of this reading, I also discovered a general foreboding about the future of Christianity, alongside a sense of profound excitement, especially regarding the future of Southern Baptists. As we know from our current vantage point, Southern Baptists entered their period of greatest growth in the middle decades of the 20th century. Our amazing growth was truly the work of God in the midst of our churches. And the mid-century growth was laid upon the foundational work He performed with our forefathers in the early part of the century. What characterized the foundational work of those early 20th-century forefathers? And what may we learn from them about how to prepare for an advance in the Great Commission of Jesus Christ?
DARK DAYS IN THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION
To answer these questions properly, some historical matters in the early 20th century must be addressed. During this period, the United States entered and emerged from its first engagement in world war. At that time, Americans were at war with German imperialism, just as now, we are in the midst of a war against Islamic terrorism. Also, in the religious realm, things were similar to today. There had been a powerful call by evangelical missionaries for a common missionary endeavor both in the United States and throughout the world. Internationally, these efforts were centered in the famous meetings in Edinburgh in 1910, which culminated in the World Council of Churches.
In the United States, the drive for ecumenism was led by John R. Mott, a young evangelical who succeeded the great revivalist D.L. Moody at the YMCA. Mott’s efforts gained steam and became known as the “Union Movement,” because it called for lowering denominational barriers between evangelical Christians in the name of “efficiency” and “unity” in Christ. From within the Southern Baptist Convention, L.R. Scarborough, president of Southwestern Seminary, led the effort to denounce unionism in its various forms. Even as he defended a biblically based spiritual unity, Scarborough and other Southern Baptists excoriated cross-denominational ecclesiastical unity for impinging upon the prerogatives of Christ over His churches.
Thus, many saw ecumenism as dangerous to spiritual Christianity, while others were interested in forming coalitions with other Christians for the greater cause of the Gospel. Things looked fairly bleak in the late 1910s as evangelical Christians divided into camps. In particular, it seemed as if Southern Baptists might dissipate their strength in a fight over evangelical cooperation. J.B. Gambrell, pastor and seminary leader, spoke soberly of the deep challenges leading into the 1919 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta, saying:
“The great war forced on Southern Baptists grave issues. They were precipitated on us in such a way that each man had to decide on his own course without any wide council. Unusual efforts were made by outside forces to capture and take over the leadership of the Southern Convention in the interest of plans destructive of the faith of the Gospel. The Convention in its Atlanta meeting was at the parting of ways. There was much heart-searching, and much prayer. Personally, I do not doubt that God, the Holy Spirit, dealt with the hearts of His people all over the South and prepared them aforetime for what happened in Atlanta. The Convention was the greatest ever assembled on this Continent, 4,200 messengers plus. It was widely representative. All the estates of Israel were there.”
In spite of the troubles, perhaps God was not done with Southern Baptists. With the heaviness of his previous comments in mind and the largest-ever convention gathering before him, Gambrell believed that God still desired to move mightily in the midst of His churches. Reflecting later about what had happened at the 1919 meeting, Gambrell concluded, “The Spirit of grace and power was on the assembly.” And looking back from here, we perceive that Gambrell may have actually understated the wide-ranging impact of God’s grace and power in this convention.
THREE FUNDAMENTAL PLANKS IN THE DENOMINATION’S GROWTH
And what did the Spirit of God lead the messengers of the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention to do during their 1919 meeting? Out of a dark period arose something profoundly God-honoring and world-moving from within the Southern Baptist Convention. Alongside their defense of Christian truth and their defense of Baptist identity, our forefathers were interested in reaching the world for Christ. And God honored Southern Baptists as they followed a three-fold pursuit.
The efforts of our early 20th-century forefathers manifested themselves in three significant planks in our denomination’s foundation: a compelling goal, a defined identity and a common program. First, their compelling goal was the fulfillment of the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. Second, their defined identity was evangelical Christianity of a firmly Baptist type. Third, their program was to further the Great Commission efforts of the local churches in ways respectful of the local church’s authority.
In the case of the first plank, Southern Baptists had long received the Great Commission as their own, as sermons delivered in the churches and the writings in those early issues attest. Indeed, the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 has historically been the loudest refrain of the Baptists in general and of Southern Baptists in particular. The Great Commission was their compelling goal, just as it is ours.
DEFINING BAPTIST IDENTITY
But there were two additional acts representing the two other planks that Southern Baptists needed to form the basis for their future growth: a defined identity and a common program. According to Gambrell, “The Convention rose to its greatest height, and did two vastly significant things. It disposed of all questions of alliances with other orders holding different standards of faith and practice, by passing, with amazing spirit and unanimity, a carefully considered report, which defined the Baptist position so clearly, that all the world may understand. And the convention put on a program so large, so noble and so commanding as to challenge Southern Baptists as they have never been challenged before in their history.”
In the case of a defined identity, the convention appointed a committee to write a Fraternal Address, which was soon followed by the first version of The Baptist Faith and Message. To drive home the point that Southern Baptists would maintain their Baptist identity, Gambrell, the president of the convention during that important year, listened patiently to the address of J.C. White. White had come from the evangelical Inter-Church Movement and was granted a place in the SBC program. After White spoke, Gambrell publicly grasped him by the hand at the podium and declared, “Baptists do not have popes. They never put anybody where they can’t put him down … and another thing: Baptists never ride a horse without a bridle.”
“Baptists,” according to the bold Gambrell, “do not have popes.” This fierce defense of Christ’s direct prerogative over His people has been echoed through the years, not only in the Southern Baptist Convention, but in the local associations and state conventions that preceded the national denomination by decades and centuries. Most importantly, that sense of singular devotion to Jesus Christ has its basis in the New Testament pattern of the local church, which is the only institution created by Jesus Christ to fulfill the Great Commission.
A COMMON PROGRAM RESPECTFUL OF THE LOCAL CHURCH
In the case of a common program, these earlier Southern Baptists believed that the local churches may and must support one another in their mutual efforts. The mutual cooperation of free New Testament churches for the purpose of fulfilling the Great Commission of Jesus Christ was the genius behind the programmatic efforts of the Southern Baptist Convention. And this third plank of Southern Baptist success, a common program, was dependent upon respect for the local church for its success. New Testament churches are autonomous under Christ and their independence was zealously guarded.
But Southern Baptists in these years also sought ways for the free churches to move forward together for the Gospel. They began by improving the church-supporting structure of the convention they had received. They recognized the need to help their two great foundational mission boards (Home and Foreign), as well as their growing number of seminaries and the Baptist Sunday School Board through improved means. In 1917, they created the Executive Committee as a better means to coordinate their broadening administrative needs. And in 1919, they wholeheartedly adopted the 75 Million Campaign as a better means to fund their common efforts to preach the Gospel and plant Baptist churches worldwide. The end result was the Cooperative Program and the basic structure of the national denomination as we see it, today.
HOPE FOR A NEW HIGH
And what was the result of this compelling goal of the Great Commission, the defined identity of Baptist Christianity, and this common program respectful of the local churches? Gambrell’s own words resonate with our hope for a renewed sense of commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over His churches, a commitment that is expressed as the churches fulfill the Great Commission given to us by Jesus Christ:
“Thus the healing tides of Southern Baptist life met and Jordan overflowed its banks. As never before in all their long history, Southern Baptists are together after Paul’s ideal of efficiency — ‘in one spirit, with one mind, striving together for the faith of the Gospel.’ At Atlanta a new era opened and we are in that day now. What Isaiah cried out for and some in our day have longed for came to pass. Southern Baptists awoke. They broke forth on the right hand and on the left hand. They are putting on their strength. They are enlarging the place of their habitation, and there is a new high note of courage and joy sounded out from every hilltop….”
Oh, Lord, send us a three-planked revival, again! Restore to our hearts an overwhelming to desire to fulfill Your Great Commission as defined by Your Word. Restore to our voices an evangelical identity of a distinctively Baptist type as gleaned from the New Testament. And restore to our ways remembrance that Your local churches are your ordained means and therefore our ordained program.
Malcolm Yarnell is associate professor of systematic theology and director of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.