Southern Baptist Convention Conservative Resurgence/Fundamentalist Takeover

Southern Baptist Convention Conservative Resurgence/Fundamentalist Takeover

The Southern Baptist Convention Conservative Resurgence/Fundamentalist Takeover are terms used to describe a major controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention — The United States' largest evangelical denomination. "Conservative Resurgence" is the term preferred by supporters; "Fundamentalist Takeover" is the descriptive used by detractors.

It was a struggle that began around 1960 for control of the resources and ideological direction of the convention. It was achieved by the systematic election, beginning in 1967, of conservative individuals to lead the Southern Baptist Convention, thus removing theologically moderate and allegedly liberal-leaning leadership from control. [ [ University of Virginia Library ] ] All of the leaders of Southern Baptist seminaries, mission groups and other convention-owned institutions have been replaced with conservatives.Humphreys, Fisher. "The Way We Were: How Southern Baptist Theology Has Changed and what it Means to Us All." Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2002. ISBN 1573123765] The resurgence/takeover has been described by one of its leaders as a "reformation…achieved at an incredibly high cost."Mohler, Albert. "The Southern Baptist Reformation — A First-Hand Account."]

Earlier 20th century controversies

Throughout the 20th century, controversy has 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, 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.

Events setting the stage for the Conservative Resurgence

The "Genesis" controversy

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.Elliott, Ralph H. "The Genesis Controversy and Continuity in Southern Baptist Chaos: A Eulogy for a Great Tradition." Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1992. ISBN 10-865-54-4158] 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, in fact, a priest of Baal and not, as generally believed, of Yahweh. [Faught, Jerry L. Jr. "The Ralph Elliott Controversy: Competing Philosophies of Southern Baptist Seminary Education." Baptist History and Heritage. Summer-Fall, 1999.] Patterson, Paige. "Anatomy of a Reformation: The Southern Baptist Convention 1978-2004." Office of Public Relations at 2001 West Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas, 76115]

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.McBeth, Harry L. "Texas Baptists: a Sesquicentennial History." Dallas: BaptistWay Press, 1998. Dr. McBeth is a prominent Baptist theologian who has chronicled the Conservative Resurgence/Fundamentalist Takeover both here and elsewhere.] Broadman Press, the publishing arm of the Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville, was immediately criticized and their other materials, including Sunday School quarterlies, became suspect. Professor Elliott was fired from Midwestern Seminary, and his book was withdrawn from publication.

1963 "Baptist Faith and Message" revision

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 has described it as "having been infected with neo-orthodox theology."

Broadman Bible Commentary

Also in the 1960s the Sunday School Board, in its most ambitious publishing project, produced the 10-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. [Faught, Jerry L. Jr. "Round Two, Volume One: the Broadman Commentary Controversy." "Baptist History and Heritage" Winter-Fall, 2003.] This new publication immediately stirred a new phase of the ongoing controversy, seeming to exacerbate other forms of dissent.

Seminary issues

Conservative Southern Baptists of this time also bemoaned what arguably was the growing presence of liberal ideology within the SBC's own seminaries. By way of example, Clark H. Pinnock, an advocate of open theism, taught at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the early 70s. [http:// [] Faculty biographical sketch for Clark Pinnock]

In 1976, a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) masters' degree student, Noel Wesley Hollyfield, Jr., [ [ Papers of Harold Lindsell] ] 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. [ [ Apostasy At Southern Baptist Theological Seminary by E. L. Bynum ] ] 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.

A hostile meeting

The 1970 SBC meeting in Denver, under the leadership of then-President W.A. Criswell, was marked by hostilities. The messengers refused to hear an explanation about the "Broadman Bible Commentary" from the head of the Sunday School Board. Messengers actually booed Herschel H. Hobbs, the respected elder statesman and former president of the SBC, when he urged restraint.Hull, David W. "Baptists: Understanding Our Faith and Message."]

The conservative strategy

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.

The "Controversy"

W.A. Criswell and Adrian Rogers (both now deceased), along with Houston Judge Paul Pressler and Dallas theologian Paige Patterson, were chief among the architects of what was a well-planned effort to purge the Convention of "liberal" influences. In the fall of 1978, Patterson and Pressler met with a group of determined pastors and laymen at a hotel near the Atlanta airport to launch "the controversy." 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.

The 1979 Houston convention

The 1979 SBC meeting in Houston, Texas, produced two important developments:


First, Southern Baptists applied a new word, "inerrancy," to their understanding of Scripture. Since 1650 the adjective most used by Baptist to describe their view of the Bible had been "infallible"; however, the term "inerrancy" had been implied in the 1833 New Hampshire Baptist Confession of Faith ("truth without any mixture of error") in wording that, by this time, had already been incorporated into the 1925 and 1963 editions of the Baptist Faith and Message. Some Reformed theologians in Europe had utilized the term "inerrancy" in the same way that North American theologians used "infallibility." Many conservative leaders championed the word "inerrancy" in this phase of the ongoing controversy--a phase that would later become known as the "inerrancy controversy."

Orchestration from the sky boxes

Also coming out of the 1979 Houston Convention was a well organized political campaign, using precinct style politics, to wrest control of the SBC. Judge Pressler and theologian Patterson directed the affairs of the 1979 meeting from sky boxes high above the Astrodome where the SBC was meeting.

The election on the first ballot of the more conservative pastor Adrian Rogers began the ten-year "takeover" process. Ever since that meeting, the right wing of the denomination has controlled the SBC elections. There has been an unbroken succession of conservative-leaning presidents. Each has appointed less liberal individuals, who in turn appointed others, who nominated the trustees, who elected the agency heads and institutional presidents, including those of the seminaries.

How it worked

Under the SBC bylaws, the President has sole authority to nominate the Committee on Committees (known during most of the controversy as the Committee on Boards). This committee, in turn, nominates the members of the Committee on Nominations to be approved by the messengers at the next annual meeting, which in turn nominates appointees for vacant positions (the SBC cannot remove anyone from an appointed position; only if the position is term-limited or the appointee dies, retires, or resigns does it become vacant) to be approved at the subsequent annual meeting (i.e., two years from the initial Committee on Committees appointments). The process overlaps (a new Committee on Committees is appointed every year); though lengthy, over time key appointments can (and did, in this case) shift the direction of the entire SBC.

Throughout the 1980s, Conservative Resurgence advocates gained control over the SBC leadership at every level from the administration to key faculty at their seminaries, and slowly turned the SBC towards more conservative positions on many social issues.

Liberal reaction

As the conservative movement grew, a number of liberal congregations split away in 1987 to form the Alliance of Baptists. In 1990, as the conservative movement continued to gain ground and define the SBC's theology and practice in ever more narrow terms, another schism occurred in which several liberal congregations also left to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), originally organized as a "convention within the convention", to support causes not controlled by the fundamentalist majority within the SBC. The ideological distance between the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is indicated by the Alliance of Baptists' representation in the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, a "gay-friendly" organization. Twenty-three out of a total of roughly 125 Alliance churches (18%) are members of the group whereas only 1 CBF church out of a total of 1,900 is a member.] The exodus of these dissenting elements allowed for additional changes to the convention which culminated in yet another round of significant changes to the "Baptist Faith and Message" [ The Baptist Faith & Message ] ] at the 2000 SBC Annual Meeting.

In addition to the groups mentioned above, additional new entities have come into existence to champion what liberals and some old-line leaders believe to be historic Baptist principles and cooperative spirit abandoned by SBC leaders. These include the Baptist Center for Ethics, Baptist Women in Ministry (BWIM), the national news journal "Baptists Today", the Associated Baptist Press, Smyth & Helwys Publishers, some fourteen new Baptist seminaries and divinity schools, and other entities.

State conventions react

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 B.G.C.T 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 liberals left and the conservative 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 of 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. The old state agencies are attempting to affiliate with the newly-formed state convention but are currently being taken to court by the old convention. Unlike Virginia and Texas, where the SBC Executive Committee receives and distributes funds from two conventions, one liberal and one conservative, the SBC declined to receive money from the new liberal Missouri group. They said it wasn't 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.


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 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." [Dilday, Russell. "Higher Ground: A Call for Christian Civility." Macon, Georgia: Smyth and Helwys, 2007. ISBN 1-57312-469-9. Dilday was president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1978 to 1994.]

A spokesman for the leadership of the SBC, Dr. Morris Chapman, claims that the root of the controversy has been about theology. [Chapman, Morris H. "The Root of the SBC Controversy."] 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 the Conservative Resurgency's claims that

* Baptist colleges and seminaries were producing more and more liberalism in writing, proclamation, and publication
* The adoption of a hermeneutic of suspicion which elevates human reason above the clear statements of the Bible
* The continued influence of many teachers and leaders who did not hold to a high view of Scripture.

While 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."


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