News Articles

Pro-life stance reflects change in denomination since 1979

DALLAS (BP)–The contrast between the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979 and 2004 is well-illustrated by the shift in Southern Baptist leaders and their views on abortion.

In 1979, the SBC’s abortion stance was murky, with the convention’s Christian Life Commission — now the Ethics and Religious & Liberty Commission — defending abortion rights and using CLC literature to call it a complex moral decision.

Today, an unmistakable pro-life ethic is advanced by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the six Southern Baptist seminaries, in LifeWay Christian Resources materials and through the pro-life ministries supported by the North American Mission Board.

When the conservative resurgence began 25 years ago, a generation of Southern Baptists responded to the warning of theologian Francis Schaeffer as he predicted that a low view of Scripture naturally would lead to a disregard for the sanctity of life.

At the time, a decidedly pro-choice tone was evident among SBC leaders. For instance:

— several Southern Baptist ethics professors and the CLC head signed a declaration by the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights.

— a CLC pamphlet described abortion as a moral dilemma and absolutist abortion views as immoral.

— CLC leaders opposed a Sanctity of Life Sunday.

— a CLC staffer sought to water down the attention to a “pro-life ethic” concerning abortion by including it in a list of other concerns, namely world hunger, world peace, underemployment, justice and nuclear disarmament.

In an informal presentation to an ERLC board meeting held several years ago, Baptist historian Jerry Sutton related lessons he learned while researching for his book “The Baptist Reformation.”

“I discovered that complaining is worthless,” he said, citing a variety of complaints by conservatives over neo-orthodox theology advanced by Broadman’s publishing of “The Message of Genesis” by Ralph Elliott and the “Broadman Commentary.” More fire came when an associate editor of Playboy was invited to speak at a CLC workshop.

“We don’t like Foy Valentine (former CLC president) being a card-carrying member of the ACLU,” said Sutton, referring to the CLC’s pro-choice activism. “We don’t like that. And you know you can complain all day long.”

Drawing a lesson from the years of complaining, Sutton said, “You know something, complaining was worthless. It still is. You have to organize to do something.”

When the SBC lacked a pro-life response to the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, individual Southern Baptists decided to do more than complain. Texas Baptist Bob Holbrook began speaking out on the issue, even testifying before Congress that the opposition of the SBC-funded Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs to an amendment protecting unborn life did not represent the views of grassroots Southern Baptists.

Years later an organization called Southern Baptists for Life offered another voice in contrast to the CLC and BJCPA. Indiana layman Rudy Yakym said the Southern Baptists for Life movement began during a “March to Life” rally in 1984 in Washington, D.C. “A group of us Baptists met at a platform behind the Washington Monument,” Yakym recalled in a telephone interview.

“Those were the times than tried men’s souls,” Yakym said, adding that pro-life Southern Baptists “took a lot of bullets and from a spiritual aspect, it was very vicious.”

One of the articles Yakym remembers reading in a CLC publication compared an unborn child’s reaction to an abortion to that of a plant’s stress when harvested. “It was pathetic. The article discounted fetal pain, saying it was akin to a plant’s reaction.” He described pamphlets on abortion as being more like material from Planned Parenthood than the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Southern Baptists for Life formed in 1984 with Gary Crum serving as president and well-known pastors Jimmy Draper and Larry Lewis on the advisory board. The ministry offered resources to inform local Southern Baptist churches on the issues related to abortion from a biblically based perspective.

Lewis was the first SBC entity head to advocate his entity taking a pro-life stand after he was elected president in 1987 of the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board). Lewis introduced a support ministry to Southern Baptist churches interested in establishing crisis pregnancy centers in their communities. In less than a decade the 37 crisis pregnancy centers relating to that office reported 806 professions of faith and 1,823 babies born.

Conservatives successfully introduced resolutions that advocated a pro-life position among Southern Baptists in 1980, 1982 and 1984 and added a Sanctity of Life Sunday to the denominational calendar in 1985 over the objections of Valentine and CLC board Chairman Charles Wade, who preferred a “Concern for Life” date in April to avoid linkage to the January anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

Moderate and liberal Southern Baptists did not fade from the religious landscape but continued offering a perspective sympathetic to abortion as a woman’s right to choose. Former CLC staffer Robert Parham left the CLC and in 1991 formed Baptist Center for Ethics. In Walter B. Shurden’s book, “The Struggle for the Soul of the SBC: Moderate Responses to the Fundamentalist Movement,” Parham used sharp language to describe the transition to a conservative majority among CLC trustees. “Political right-wing orthopraxis replaced traditional Southern Baptist orthodoxy as the chief qualification for fellowship,” Parham said.

Parham remembered Valentine’s response to trustees who wanted CLC abortion material to reflect the stance of SBC pro-life resolutions. “It will not reflect your view or the convention vote,” Parham quoted Valentine as stating based on notes he kept. Valentine added, “Your view has not prevailed and if it does, you need a new executive director.” Valentine resigned at the next board meeting.

As conservatives attained a majority on seminary trustee boards and eventually hired presidents with a high view of Scripture, the perspective on abortion taught by ethics professors reflected a pro-life understanding as new faculty was hired.

Southern Baptists for Life disbanded in the early 1990s as the Southern Baptist Convention’s CLC became decidedly pro-life. “It’s great not to have to worry about what comes out of the Sunday School material,” Yakym said, noting that each LifeWay curriculum features a pro-life lesson on Sanctity of Human Life Sunday.

Yakym is pleased with the priority given to pro-life issues during the tenure of ERLC President Richard Land, who was elected when Yakym served on the CLC. “He is doing a magnificent job,” Yakym said.

Upon his election in 1988, Land pledged to put the CLC “on the cutting edge of the pro-life movement of Southern Baptists.” Earlier this year he told the Southern Baptist Texas newsjournal, “When the trustees of the then-CLC selected me they did a 180-degree turn on the issue of abortion and pro-life issues.”

“Our agency that deals with that issue was spouting a pro-abortion, pro-choice position,” he recalled. “The board and convention had insisted on changes, but they were coming at a snail’s pace and the staff was dragged kicking and screaming, taking as long as they could.

“Southern Baptists manifestly wanted that to happen. Today, Southern Baptists are the most thoroughly pro-life denomination in America.”
This story originally appeared in the Southern Baptist Texan, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: PRO-CHOICE PAMPHLET.

    About the Author

  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter