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The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) experienced an intense struggle for control of the resources and ideological direction of the now sixteen million member denomination. The campaign began around 1960. It was launched with the charge that the seminaries and denominational agencies were dominated by liberals. Its initiators called it a Conservative Resurgence while its detractors have labeled it a Fundamentalist Takeover. The movement was primarily aimed at reorienting the denomination away from a perceived liberal trajectory and towards an unambiguous affirmation of biblical inerrancy.
It was achieved by the systematic election, beginning in 1979, of conservative individuals to lead the Southern Baptist Convention. Theologically moderate and liberal leaders were voted out of office. Though some senior employees were fired from their jobs, most were replaced through attrition. All moderate and liberal presidents, professors, department heads, etc., of Southern Baptist seminaries, mission groups and other convention-owned institutions were replaced with conservatives. The Takeover/Resurgence was the most serious controversy ever to occur within the Southern Baptist Convention—the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. One of its chief architects later described it as a "reformation…achieved at an incredibly high cost."
Throughout the 20th century, controversy had flared up sporadically among Southern Baptists over the nature of biblical authority and how to interpret the Bible. In the 1920s, Baptist pastor J. Frank Norris, described as "one of the most controversial and flamboyant figures in the history of fundamentalism, " led a series of attacks upon the Southern Baptist Convention ("SBC"), particularly against Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth and Baylor University in Waco, Texas. In 1925, the SBC adopted its first formal confession of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message, largely in response to the Norris controversy. Prior to this development, Southern Baptists had looked to two earlier and more general baptistic confessions of faith produced in the United States: The Philadelphia Confession of Faith (1742) and the New Hampshire Baptist Confession of Faith of 1833.
The famed Southern Baptist unity in the past has been more functional than theological. Southern Baptists have banded together to cooperate in ministry, in missions, evangelism, and in Christian education. So long as they emphasize functional ministry, the "rope of sand," as one historian called it, holds; when they switch from function to doctrine, unity is threatened.
— Baptist historian, H. Leon McBeth
The unity of the SBC since its founding in 1845 has been basically functional rather than doctrinal. The founders wrote: "We have constructed for our basis no new creed; acting in this matter upon a Baptist aversion for all creeds but the Bible".
Some have tried to argue that Baptists have always avoided creeds. In fact, doctrinal statements have been a part of Baptist life at least since the seventeenth century. The early SBC saw no need for such a statement since most of its member churches affirmed either the New Hampshire Confession of Faith or the Philadelphia Confession. By the 1920s, with the rise of liberalism and neo-orthodoxy in other denominations, Southern Baptists saw the need to define their beliefs in a formal doctrinal statement. Thus, they adopted the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message. By the 1970s, many conservatives in the SBC felt certain seminary professors had drifted from basic Baptist doctrines. In a formal statement, they declared their commitment to "doctrinal unity in functional diversity", placing an emphasis on strict doctrinal uniformity. Conservatives argued that their beliefs did indeed represent a consensus among Southern Baptists. These individuals felt that while early Southern Baptists agreed on basic theological issues, by the 1970s many of these beliefs had come under attack in schools owned and operated by the Southern Baptist Convention.
Several twentieth century events in the SBC helped set the stage for this conflict. Some conservatives and fundamentalists interpreted these as harbingers of liberalism at one extreme, and "neo-orthodoxy" at the other, creeping into the historically conservative denomination.
In July 1961, Prof. Ralph Elliott, an Old Testament scholar at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, published a book entitled The Message of Genesis containing his interpretation of the first book of the Bible. Elliott considered his book a "very moderate" volume, though this is vastly disputed. Some prominent Southern Baptists, however, saw the book in a different light and took issue with Elliot's use of historical-critical methodology, his portrayal of Genesis 1-11 as mythological literature and his speculation that Melchizedek was a priest of Baal and not, as generally believed, of Yahweh.
The "Genesis Controversy" quickly pervaded the entire SBC. In strong reaction to the controversy, the 1962 SBC meeting elected as its president Rev. K. Owen White, pastor of First Baptist Church Houston, who had written a prominent criticism of Elliott’s views. This began what has become an ongoing trend for SBC presidents to be elected on the basis of their theology. Broadman Press, the publishing arm of the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources) in Nashville, was immediately criticized and their other materials, including Sunday School quarterlies, became suspect. Elliott's book was withdrawn from publication, and he was later dismissed from Midwestern for insubordination.
In 1963, the SBC adopted the first-ever revision of the Baptist Faith and Message, amending it to include confessional positions even more conservative than contained in the original. However, it was not without its critics: one of the takeover architects described it as "having been infected with neo-orthodox theology."
Also in the 1960s, the Sunday School Board, in its most ambitious publishing project, produced the 12-volume Broadman Bible Commentary. Its first volume, covering Genesis and Exodus, came out in 1969. In addition to providing further fuel for the controversy surrounding the Creation account in Genesis, a section written by G. Henton Davies, an English Baptist, questioned the reliability of the biblical episode in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on the grounds that such an event was morally troubling. This new publication immediately stirred a new phase of the ongoing controversy. Some argued that the Convention was trying to stifle dissent. Others pointed out that since Broadman Press was owned by the SBC, its publications should not stray so far from the beliefs of most Southern Baptists.
Conservative Southern Baptists of this time also bemoaned what they claimed was the growing presence of liberal ideology within the SBC's own seminaries.
Clark H. Pinnock, who later became an advocate of open theism, taught at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Pinnock is said to have been much more conservative in those days, at which time he argued that liberal professors should be dismissed. He did not embrace more liberal views until later. Ironically, he was a great influence on future conservative leaders, including Paige Patterson.
In 1976, a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) masters' degree student, Noel Wesley Hollyfield, Jr., presented survey results that revealed an inverse correlation between length of attendance at SBTS and Christian orthodoxy. While 87% of first year Master of Divinity students at SBTS reporting believing "Jesus is the Divine Son of God and I have no doubts about it, " only 63% of final year graduate students made that claim, according to Hollyfield's analysis. In 1981, redacted information from Hollyfield's thesis was put into tract form and distributed by conservatives as evidence of the need for reform from apostasy within SBC agencies.
The 1970 SBC meeting in Denver, Colorado, under the leadership of then-President W. A. Criswell, was marked by hostilities. Controversy erupted over a number of explosive issues. At least seventeen Baptist state papers questioned editorially the "unchristian, " "bitter, " "vitriolic, " "arrogant, " "militant" spirit and attitude of some of the messengers (delegates).
The messengers refused to hear an explanation about the Broadman Bible Commentary from the head of the Sunday School Board. Messengers actually booed ("hooted and hollered at...") Herschel H. Hobbs, the respected elder statesman and former president of the SBC, when he urged restraint.
In the early 1970s, William Powell, at the time an SBC employee, developed a rather simple strategy to take control of the SBC: elect the SBC president for ten consecutive years. The SBC president appoints the committees that name other committees that nominate trustees for the denomination's institutions, including the seminaries. Trustees of institutions served five years and were eligible for reelection once. Therefore, by occupying the presidency for ten years one could ensure that all appointments, nominations and new seminary hires stood in a line of succession trailing back to the president.[verification needed]
1976. Paul Pressler, a former state representative and a judge in Houston, Texas, and Paige Patterson, then president of Criswell College in Dallas, met in New Orleans to plan the successful political strategy to elect like-minded conservative/fundamentalist convention presidents and in turn members of SBC boards.
1978. W. A. Criswell and Adrian Rogers (both now deceased), along with Judge Pressler and Paige Patterson, met with a group of determined pastors and laymen at a hotel near the Atlanta airport to launch the resurgence/takeover. They understood William Powell's contention that electing the president of the Southern Baptist Convention was the key to redirecting the entirety of the denomination. The Atlanta group determined to elect Adrian Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, as the first Conservative Resurgence president of the convention.
1981: Cecil Sherman, a leader of the moderate faction of Southern Baptists declared in a debate with Paige Patterson, that he did not believe in an inerrant Bible but in “...a ‘dynamical’ view of the Bible’s inspiration and then pointed to what he saw as contradictions in the biblical text.
1984: The SBC voted in Kansas City to adopt a strongly worded resolution against women in the pastorate. The rationale cited was that "man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall.":p.159
1987: W. Randall Lolley, the president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, resigned after the trustees voted to hire only faculty members who follow the Baptist Faith and Message.
1987: The SBC voted in St. Louis to adopt a report from "The Peace Committee" that had been set up in 1985. The report identified the roots of the controversy as primarily theological, and called on Baptist seminaries to teach in accordance with the Bible.
1988: At the SBC Convention in San Antonio, a resolution was passed critical of the liberal interpretation of the "priesthood of the believer" and "soul competency." Moderates and liberals accused conservatives of elevating the pastor to the position of authority in the church he serves.
1990: Roy Honeycutt, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, was accused by a new trustee of "not believing the Bible." The trustee cited some of Honeycutt's own writings as evidence. This same trustee would later become chairman of the seminary board shortly after resurgency leader Al Mohler became president in 1993.
1990: Al Shackleford and Dan Martin of the Baptist Press, the official news service of the SBC, were fired for perceived bias against conservatives in their news coverage. The Associated Baptist Press was established to offer the moderate-liberal perspective.
1990: After the SBC had elected twelve straight conservative convention presidents, who then used their position to appoint conservative educators and administrators, a group of moderates broke away in 1990 to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship(CBF).
1992: Keith Parks, president of the Foreign Mission Board, retired. In his thirteen years as president, missionaries entered forty new countries with a total of 3,918 missionaries.
1991: Lloyd Elder, president of the Sunday School Board, resigned under pressure and was replaced by former SBC president James T. Draper, a staunch conservative. A total of 159 employees retired (voluntarily or involuntarily) in November 1991.
1994: Russell Dilday, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth for fifteen years, was fired abruptly and trustees changed the locks on the president's office immediately, thus denying him access. The day before, these same trustees gave Dilday a favorable job performance evaluation. These trustees sent letters to pastors and directors of missions to explain their reason for firing Dilday, saying he failed to support the resurgence at the convention and that he held liberal views of the scripture. The Seminary faculty disputed these charges. In a March 22 statement, the seminary's theology faculty claimed that Dilday was an "excellent administrator" who led Southwestern in a "highly effective and successful manner" and "with a spirit of Christlikeness." Dilday, the statement said, also kept the school doctrinally sound.
During his administration, his doctrinal stance was completely consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message statement, which is the seminary's article of faith. The theology faculty affirms Russell H. Dilday for leading the seminary with a spirit of Christlikeness and a desire to be inclusive with regard to the finest theological and biblical perspectives represented in the Southern Baptist Convention. We deeply regret his firing as president of the seminary."
1997: In October a forty-year staff member was fired at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for writing a private letter to the President of the SBC disagreeing with a statement he had made while speaking in chapel. Also in October 1997, a professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was relieved of his teaching duties because he "voiced dissent about actions of the administration of the institution."
1998: In June, Paige Patterson was elected president of the SBC without opposition. The man who helped plan the conservative resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention was now its leader. Jerry Falwell, who had criticized Southern Baptists in the days of moderate-liberal rule, attended his first SBC Convention as a messenger along with others from his church in Lynchburg, Virginia. Also the SBC amended the Baptist Faith and Message by adding a complementarian statement about male-priority gender roles in marriage, including an adverbial modifier to the verb "submit": a wife is to "submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband," followed by a lengthy description of a husband's duty to "love his wife unconditionally."
2000: The SBC adopted a new Baptist Faith and Message statement. Baptist historian Dr. Walter Shurden says this 2000 version, used as a creedal statement by SBC agencies, elevates the Bible to a position above that of Jesus himself and downplays the doctrines of priesthood of each believer and local church autonomy. Conservatives contend that the statement accurately reflects the beliefs of most Southern Baptists.
2002: Jerry Rankin and the IMB trustees began requiring missionaries to sign their assent to the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. Many missionaries resigned, and the requirement was said to "undermine missionary morale."
2004: The Southern Baptist Convention withdrew as a member of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA).
2005: The Baptist World Alliance celebrated its 100th Anniversary in Birmingham, England, with 13,000 Baptists from throughout the world. Absent was its former largest member group, the Southern Baptist Convention. BWA leaders prayed “that unity may one day be restored.”
A relatively small group of congregations split away in 1987 to form the Alliance of Baptists. With more than 2,000 individual members in 2010, 32 domestic and international mission partners, and 130 affiliate congregations the Alliance is an organization of Baptists promoting what they call progressive theologies, radical inclusivity, justice-seeking, ecumenism, and mission partnerships around the world.
The Alliance joined the National Council of the Churches of Christ (NCC) in the year 2000. The NCC is an umbrella group of mainline Christian denominations. The Alliance formed a partnership with the United Church of Christ (UCC) in 2002. Since 1995 and continuing, the Alliance "...essentially declared (themselves) a welcoming and affirming group as to sexual orientation." In 2004, they adopted a "Statement on Same Sex Marriage" which supported equality in marriage for both opposite-sex and same-sex couples throughout the U.S., and opposed the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment which would restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples.
In 1990, another schism occurred in which a large number of moderate congregations formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), originally organized as a "convention within the convention" to support causes not controlled by the majority within the SBC.[improper synthesis?]
The CBF ordains both men and women as clergy, has theological seminaries which it directly sponsors and which support the moderate-conservative biblical interpretations of the CBF. It is a fellowship of Baptist Christians and churches who share a very similar passion for the Great Commission of Jesus Christ and a commitment to Baptist principles of faith and practice. As of 2010 there were approximately 1,900 churches affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. It was partnering with 15 theological schools, 19 autonomous state and regional organizations and more than 150 ministry organizations worldwide. Based in Atlanta, the CBF has an annual budget of $16 million.
The exodus of these dissenting elements allowed for additional changes to the SBC which culminated in yet another round of significant changes to the Baptist Faith and Message at the 2000 SBC Annual Meeting.
Because each level of Baptist life is autonomous, changes at the national level do not require approval or endorsement by the state conventions or local associations. The majority of state conventions have continued to cooperate with the SBC. However, the state conventions in Texas and Virginia openly challenged the new directions and announced a "dual affiliation" with contributions to both the SBC's Cooperative Program and the CBF.
The Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT), the largest of the Southern Baptist state conventions, did not vote in 1998 to align itself with the CBF, despite some reports to the contrary. The BGCT did allow individual churches to designate their missions dollars to a number of different missions organizations, including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. One of the stated reasons for doing so was their objection to proposed changes in the 2000 revision of the Baptist Faith and Message, which the BGCT said made the document sound like a "creed, " in violation of historic Baptist tradition which opposed the use of creeds.
In a reversal from the national convention (where the moderates and liberals left and the conservatives/fundamentalist resurgents stayed), many Texas conservatives (fundamentalists) formed their own state convention, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Local congregations either disassociated completely from BGCT or sought "dual alignment" with both groups. Yet, other congregations (the vast majority conservative but not fundamentalist) solely align themselves with the BGCT. The BGCT is the much larger of the two state conventions, and universities such as Baylor only receive money from the BGCT. Similarly, fundamentalist-conservative Baptists in Virginia formed the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia.
In Missouri, the exact opposite took place. The Missouri Baptist Convention (the existing state body) came under the control of the more conservative group which subsequently attempted to take over the boards of the state's agencies and institutions and reshape them along the theological lines of the current SBC. In 2002, some congregations withdrew and affiliated with a new convention called Baptist General Convention of Missouri. Five of the old Missouri Baptist Convention agencies changed their charters in 2000 and 2001 to elect their own trustees instead of allowing them to be appointed by the Missouri Baptist Convention. Leaders of the Missouri Baptist Convention saw this as a blatant violation of convention bylaws. When the trustees of the agencies refused to settle the matter out of court, the Missouri Baptist Convention filed suit against them. As of April, 2010, two of the agencies named have been released from lawsuit, and the other agencies have prevailed in court, although the judgements are being appealed. To date, in excess of $10 million in lawyers' fees and court costs have been expended by these lawsuits. To fund these lawsuits, the Missouri Baptist Convention mortgaged its headquarters building in Jefferson City, MO.
The Virginia and Texas SBC Executive Committees receive and distribute funds from two conventions—one the traditional/original convention (BGAV and BGCT) and one new one that is only SBC (SBCVA and SBCTX). The Missouri SBC Executive Committee declined to receive money from the new more moderate Missouri group. They said it was not in Southern Baptists' best interest to cooperate with another group opposed to the conservative leadership of the Missouri Baptist Convention. Individual churches in the newer convention may contribute to the SBC directly.
The American denominational landscape has experienced significant shifts in recent times, but one major story stands out among them all—the massive redirection of the Southern Baptist Convention. America's largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention was reshaped, reformed, and restructured over the last three decades, and at an incredibly high cost.
— Albert Mohler, an architect of the Conservative Resurgence
...the takeover issue was never whether Baptists believed the Bible. The issue is and has always been Creedalism and Fundamentalism. Baptists have always been basically conservative, believing the Bible to be true, trustworthy, and authoritative. There have been individuals who deviated from that mindset but they did not last long among us. They went on to other movements in the Christian family.
— Jimmy R. Allen (President, SBC, 1978-79)
Critics of the takeover faction assert that the "civil war" among Southern Baptists has been about power lust and right-wing secular politics. Dr. Russell H. Dilday, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1978 to 1994, has analogized what he calls "the carnage of the past quarter century of denominational strife in our Baptist family" to "friendly fire" where casualties come as a result of the actions of fellow Baptists, not at the hands of the enemy. He writes that "Some of it has been accidental, " but that “some has been intentional." He characterizes the struggle as being "far more serious than a controversy, " but rather a "self-destructive, contentious, one-sided feud that at times took on combative characteristics."
Former president of the SBC Jimmy R. Allen writes that the resurgence/takeover leaders searched for a battle cry to which Baptists would respond. They found it in the fear that we were not "believing the Bible." They focused on the few who interpreted the Bible more liberally and exaggerated that fact. Allen's assessment is that "It was like hunting rabbits with howitzers. They destroyed more than they accomplished."
A spokesman for the new leadership of the SBC, Dr. Morris Chapman, claims that the root of the controversy has been about theology. He maintains that the controversy has "returned the Southern Baptist Convention to its historic commitments." Speaking as president of the "new" SBC's Executive Committee, Chapman cites as examples some of the Conservative Resurgency's claims:
While resurgence/takeover architect Paige Patterson believes the controversy has achieved its objective of returning the SBC from an alleged "leftward drift" to a more conservative stance, he admits to having some regrets. Patterson points to vocational disruption, hurt, sorrow, and disrupted friendships as evidence of the price that the controversy has exacted."Friendships and sometimes family relationships have been marred. Churches have sometimes been damaged even though local church life has proceeded for the most part above the fray and often remains largely oblivious to it. No one seriously confessing the name of Jesus can rejoice in these sorrows," Patterson writes. "I confess that I often second guess my own actions and agonize over those who have suffered on both sides, including my own family."