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Texas pastor paved way for Baptists in sanctity of life battles

DALLAS (BP)–When Baptists think of pro-life movements, they may recall Southern Baptists for Life, an organization which began in 1983 by Southern Baptists such as Rudy Yakym, Kirk Shrewsbury and Larry Lewis.

But there was a precursor organization prior to the conservative resurgence that formed the night the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision was announced.

Bob Holbrook, who in 1973 was a 41-year-old pastor of First Baptist Church in Halletsville, Texas, recalls that on the night the Supreme Court decision was announced on the news, he turned to his wife and said, “Baptists won’t stand for this decision.”

Holbrook did not know the Southern Baptist Convention had already passed a “middle-of-the-road” resolution, two years earlier in 1971, which affirmed both “a high view of the sanctity of human life, including fetal life” but also resolved that Southern Baptists should “work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and … likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

For the next five years, Holbrook and a San Antonio geologist named Mo Turner worked to turn both the national and Texas conventions toward a true pro-life stance. Initially, Holbrook said he was amazed by the silence of most Baptist pastors and people on abortion, and was dismayed by the papers, resolutions and pamphlets the conventions issued.

“It was extremely difficult because the CLC (Christian Life Commission) had presented a resolution which supported both the sanctity of human life and (the option of abortion) in the case of rape, incest and the mental health of a woman.”

Holbrook said that during those years, he did not make much headway in the state convention, and worked alongside Catholic organizations — which jubilantly received a Baptist right-to-life advocate. Southern Baptists had not publicly opposed abortion when Holbrook testified before Congress in 1973; he and other members of Baptists for Life were dismissed as a renegade minority. In fact, one senator had even been briefed that Holbrook was out of the mainstream of Southern Baptists.

Holbrook learned of the senator’s misinformed briefing and told the committee that despite the stands taken nationally by the Southern Baptist Convention, a sizeable number of Southern Baptist members and pastors like Holbrook were decidedly pro-life.

Holbrook never thought he was a minority among Southern Baptists.

“I argued over and over that you could go anywhere in the Southern Baptist churches and 90 percent of the people would say that abortion is the killing of a human being,” he said. “I knew that if we could get away from the leadership and ask the common people, they would answer the right way.”

But in 1974 the Southern Baptist Convention again affirmed the 1971 “middle ground” resolution. Holbrook accused the CLC at that time of “condemning motherhood” in a paper describing the responsibility of parents to have no more than two children — similar to global population control initiatives at the time — and asking churches to avoid praising mothers with the most children, a common practice in typical Mother’s Day Sunday services. Holbrook’s group shared information about the CLC position in major newspapers just prior to Mother’s Day in 1976.

Louis Moore of Garland, Texas, former religion editor for the Houston Chronicle, recalled a lecture he received from a former Baptist Press staff member who told him Holbrook was out of step with the vast majority of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“He said Bob and those who agreed with him could hold their meetings in a phone booth,” Moore said.

Holbrook said he was at the podium at the 1976 convention supporting a resolution that affirmed the unborn’s right to life. When someone from the floor asked if Southern Baptists condemned motherhood, Holbrook said the moderator got between Holbrook and the microphone and categorically denied the ads that Holbrook and the Baptists for Life had run nationally. After the speaker was through, Holbrook went back to the microphone, “I told the man and the convention that it was true.”

Slowly, Baptists for Life began to get more support from Southern Baptists. But at his relatively small church, Holbrook did not have even a full-time secretary to help distribute the Baptists For Life newsletter. Once a month in 1975-76, he was in other pulpits advancing his cause.

“My church was patient and supportive, but there was one time I had driven all night before coming home to preach 15 minutes before the service started.”

He also recalls his young teenage daughter asking him why he was always leaving. Around 1977, he said he had to decide whether he was going to be a pastor or an activist, and his calling as a pastor won out.

By then, the pro-life movement was taking hold, beginning with the 1976 resolution to “reaffirm the biblical sacredness and dignity of all human life, including fetal life.” But it also affirmed “our conviction about the limited role of government in dealing with matters relating to abortion, and support the right of expectant mothers to the full range of medical services and personal counseling for the preservation of life and health.”

A 1977 SBC resolution was more specific, stating “that this Convention reaffirm the strong stand against abortion adopted by the 1976 Convention, and, in view of some confusion in interpreting part of this resolution we confirm our strong opposition to abortion on demand and all governmental policies and actions which permit this.”

Now 72, Holbrook is retired from serving as a full-time pastor, but does pastoral counseling at Eagle’s Nest Christian Fellowship. He said he began an interdenominational church in the 1980s for reasons unrelated to his pro-life stands and battles. But he’s pleased with the changes that have been made within the SBC.

“I’m encouraged on the stand on abortion and other issues the SBC has made,” he said.
This story originally appeared in the Southern Baptist Texan, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

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  • Tim McKeown