A brief history of the Southern Baptist Convention

(The following is a research paper I wrote on the history of the Southern Baptist Convention a year or so ago. For a history, it’s brief. For a blog post, it’s long. I’d like for you to consider it short so that you will read it and give me some feedback!)

Currently the largest evangelical denomination in the world, the Southern Baptist Convention’s history is one of a surprising amount of conflict and controversy. Its initial formation was due in part to an especially controversial topic (slavery), and the better part of its history is one filled with liberalism, heresy, and continual dissension. Recently, the SBC has received some major changes since its gradual and continual fall from Christian Orthodoxy in the twentieth century, but are these changes merely skin-deep? Will the so-called “conservative resurgence” last?

The Convention itself was formed in 1845. Only a year prior, on August 2, 1844, the application of James E. Reeve was submitted to the Home Mission Society for review.[1] This was the Georgia Baptist Executive Comity’s way of testing the Society, which was connected to the Triennial Convention. The missionary candidate in question was a slaveholder.

The preceding ten to fifteen years had given birth to hot controversy between the slavery-abolitionism camps of American Baptists. By the early 1830’s, England’s government had passed legislation proposed to end slavery within five years, an announcement upon which English Baptists sent a letter, asking their American counterparts, “are you not…. bound to protest against [slavery], and to seek, by all legitimate means, its speedy and entire destruction?”[2] The letter instigated division within the American Baptist tradition. In the following years the abolitionists became a strong force among the Baptists, and in 1840 they established the American Baptist Anti-Slavery Convention.[3]  The voice of this organization stirred the waters in the Baptist community, and the controversy continued. Some of the Baptist organizations preferred to remain neutral in their position, including the Home Mission Society.

While the Home Mission Society officially took a neutral stance, many southern (slaveholding) Baptists were skeptical. Submitting the application of slaveholder James Reeve as a missionary to the Cherokee Indians was a litmus test, meant to reveal the Society’s true position. The Home Mission Society rejected Reeve’s application with a seven-to-five vote.[4] Just two months later the Alabama state convention demanded a declaration of equal rights for slaveholding pastors as their abolitionist counterparts. The General Convention replied: “we can never be a party to any arrangement which would imply approbation of slavery.”[5] In addition to their differing organizational philosophies and evangelism styles, these two events were pivotal in leading southern Baptists to withdraw from the Triennial Convention and form their own. In addition, the already dissatisfied southern Baptists perceived an increasingly strong shift in organizational power toward the North. This migration made it difficult for Southerners to attend meetings and severely limited the South’s involvement in the decision-making of the Convention.

In May of 1845 a rally was called in Augusta, Georgia comprised of Baptists from many of the Southern states. It was here that the Southern Baptist Convention was born. Oddly enough, the SBC never offered any formal apology for their support of slavery until 1995 when they released the Resolution On Racial Reconciliation On The 150th Anniversary Of The Southern Baptist Convention. The Resolution states in part, “We apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously (Psalm 19:13) or unconsciously (Leviticus 4:27).”[6]

The ensuing century and a half since the SBC’s inception has not been free of controversy. With the obvious exception of the Convention’s backing of slavery, its early years were founded on strong Orthodox Christian beliefs. This orthodoxy was short lived. A notable altercation in the Convention arose in the 1920’s at Baylor between the Texas pastor Frank Norris and several professors who were teaching evolution in the institution.[7] Lee Scarborough (of Southwestern Seminary), and George Truett (pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas) led a counterattack against Norris and his followers. Though Norris’s cause was praiseworthy his methods were reportedly not. Norris’s attitude and tactics caused even some conservatives to take up arms against his cause.

Evolutionary thinking was not an isolated case with Baylor; there were seeds of modernism taking root throughout the Convention’s educational institutions. The president of the SBC’s flagship seminary, Southern Baptist Theological seminary, is said to have opened the gates for this biblical departure. Dr. David Beale writes, “Edgar E. Mullins, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, was responsible for making the hypothesis of evolution acceptable in Southern Baptist institutions.” He viewed evolution as a viable theory of origins.[8] Not only did Mullins open the door for Evolutionary thought, but was also a “transitional figure who represented a shift among many Baptists from an absolute verbal, plenary inspiration to more pragmatic and tolerant views.”[9]

Beginning with some of these early cases, and extending all the way to recent years, the Southern Baptist Convention’s history has been one of much compromise. One of the most significant items of controversy has been the Southern Baptist’s literature, produced by their publishing house Broadman (now B&H Publishing Group).  While Broadman has produced much good material, many of its publications have been very liberal, some even heretical. Books have been published denying the Bible’s inerrancy, the historicity of the creation account, the sinfulness of sex outside of marriage, and even the substitutionary atonement of Christ.[10] One major controversy was over Ralph Elliott’s 1961 book The Message of Genesis.[11] The work fully embraced the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis and often offered interpretations directly opposed to the clear meaning of the text (Beale 77-79). In 1970 Broadman published Fred Fisher’s book Is The Bible a Human Book? which is clearly written from a neo-orthodox perspective.[12]

Probably the most significant publication was that of the Broadman Bible Commentary set, published between 1969 and 1973. The commentary set was a schmorgasboard of liberal theology. Again the volume devoted to Genesis-Exodus espouses the JEDP documentary hypothesis, the commentator of Numbers questions the authenticity of historical facts found in the book, and the volume which introduces the Gospels denies that they were written by the men who’s names they bear.[13]

Literature was not the only problem though. In fact, much of the liberalism found in the Convention’s literature can trace its roots to the liberalism found in their colleges and seminaries. As mentioned earlier, evolutionary thought had already found a home there by the teens or twenties of the twentieth century, and much of the previously mentioned Broadman literature was written by SBC seminary faculty. One case among many is Midwestern professor G. Temp Sparkman, who’s books (published in the 70’s and 80’s) deny human depravity and salvation through faith, while apparently adopting universalism and claiming that God is both man and woman.[14] Professors like this one could be found in every one of SBC’s seminaries during this period. Liberalism and outright heresy was rampant in the schools founded to train the next generation of Baptist pastors. North Carolina’s Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary has been a huge proponent of feminism; in the 1980’s Southeastern hired an ordained female minister as staff at the seminary.[15]

In 1976 SBTS student, Noel Wesley Hollyfield wrote his M.Div. thesis on how his own seminary tended to reduce the faith of its students rather than strengthen it.[16] Hollyfield’s proposal had some surprising statistics.  Regarding Hollyfield’s work Dr. David Beale writes, “[the statistics in his thesis] generally indicate that Southern Seminary does not produce faith. It destroys it. A look at just the Master of Divinity students alone suggests the following: 9 percent lost their faith in the existence of God while in seminary; 24 percent lost their faith in Jesus as the divine Son of God.” They survey also found that 47 percent of Ph.D. and Th.M. students lost their belief in the after-life.[17] Southern Baptist, Paul Pressler noted that Hollyfield’s statistics “illustrated in a serious and dramatic way that Southern Baptists were paying to have professors destroy the faith of those who attended our seminaries.”[18]  This is just a small sampling of the evil that was being passed as Christian education in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Liberalism and heresy is not the whole story in the Southern Baptist Convention. From the beginning there have been strong bible-believing Christians who have contended for truth and worked to rid the Convention of its liberalism. Many who are familiar with the Southern Baptist Convention today may be surprised to learn of the blasphemy that has been taught and printed under the SBC’s control over the last century. This is due to the fact that the SBC’s face has drastically changed over the past thirty years.

In the mid-seventies, conservatives Paul Pressler, Paige Patterson, and a few of their friends developed a strategy to reform the convention. In a conversation with Paul Pressler, Bill Powell described the way the SBC system worked. Utilizing the hierarchical system they devised a plan to reform the convention from the top down. In theory their plan was simple: elect a conservative president, who in turn appoints the committee on committees, and on down the organizational ladder, finally resulting in new seminary presidents, professors and so on.[19] In 1979 the conservative forces accomplished the first step in their plan; conservative Adrian Rogers was elected as president of the SBC. In the following years more conservative presidents ensued; Roger’s successor was Bailey Smith, then there was James Draper, followed by Charles Stanley. Each of these men was part of the camp longing for reform in the Convention, but none of them were as strong as was hoped. In fact, each of them seemingly gave up their cause after election. Rogers stated, “I don’t want any witch hunt to purge the seminaries.”[20]  Shortly after Charles Stanley’s election as president he said, “I think we have to learn to live together and love each other, whether we agree or not.”[21] While these first presidents seemed to become weak in their endeavor, the following fifteen years actually produced some profound changes in the SBC. In part, Pressler and Patterson’s plan had worked. In 1993 Southern Baptist Theological Seminary elected conservative Dr. Albert Mohler as it’s ninth president and even more changes followed. Within two years of Mohler’s election the seminary made a decision to only hire professors who opposed the ordination of women. In the same year, Mohler asked for the resignation of Diana R. Garland, an ordained minister who was the dean of Southern Seminary’s “Carver School of Church and Social Work” which was later disassociated with the seminary.[22] Mohler told Christianity Today, “I will not accept that a person can teach in good conscience what one does not hold as conviction.”[23] The August 1995 edition of the Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, states that on one occasion after Mohler’s decision, “Protesting students sent letters to trustees and alumni, and held vigils outside Mohler’s office. On one occasion, Mohler graciously sent out for pizza for the protesting students, but warned them in an assembly to abandon their ‘pattern of self- destructive behavior’ and get back to their books.”[24] Similar stands have been taken at each of the other seminaries, and much ground has been gained for the conservative cause in the SBC. Nonetheless some Baptists are not convinced.

In an email message to this author on March 24th 2011, Dr. David Beale commented on the current state of the SBC: “I rejoice greatly and praise the Lord for every truth being taught by SBC people,” but went on to say, “While SBC conservatives indeed forced many liberals out of the seminaries, the SBC is actually more dangerous today than it was twenty years ago. The reason is that the conservatives declared victory and stopped the fight without finishing the job. The liberals simply took refuge within SBC colleges and universities, at times even establishing their own divinity schools within the universities. SBC conservatives seem oblivious to the full doctrine of biblical separation.”
 Professor at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, Rolland McCune has made this statement regarding the conservative resurgence: “it appears that the orthodox resurgence in the SBC for many years has been less interested in a purge of the apostates as much as maintaining a high form of plurality over them.”25

To be sure, there are still many shortcomings within the SBC. Nevertheless, the conservative resurgence has produced some exemplary Christian leaders who even fundamentalists could learn from. Preachers like Al Mohler and Mark Dever preach with a commitment to biblical exposition that hasn’t been the norm in fundamentalism for decades. We can praise God for the progress the Convention has made for the Gospel, while realizing that there is still much to question.


[1] Robert Andrew Baker, The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People, 1607-1972 (Broadman Press, 1974), 158.

[2] Robert A. Baker, A Baptist Source Book, with Particular Reference to Southern Baptists, First Edition. (Broadman Press, 1966), 87-88.

[3] Baker, The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People, 1607-1972, 157.

[4] David O. Beale, S. B. C. House on the Sand?: Critical Issues for Southern Baptists (BJU Press, 1985), 12-13.

[5] Baker, A Baptist Source Book, with Particular Reference to Southern Baptists, 106-108.

[6] “SBC Resolution, Resolution On Racial Reconciliation On The 150th Anniversary Of The Southern Baptist Convention,” http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/amResolution.asp?ID=899.

[7] Beale, S. B. C. House on the Sand?, 17.

[8] Ibid., 18.

[9] Ibid., 27.

[10] Ibid., 120-131.

[11] Jerry Sutton, The Baptist Reformation: The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 7.

[12] Ibid., 67.

[13] Beale, 111-119.

[14] Ibid., 80-82.

[15] Jerry Sutton, The Baptist Reformation: The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 7.

[16] Paul Pressler, A Hill on Which to Die: One Southern Baptist’s Journey, Revised. (B&H Publishing Group, 2002), 149.

[17] Beale, 45.

[18] Pressler, A Hill on Which to Die, 150.

[19] Ibid., 77-82.

[20]  Beale, S. B. C. House on the Sand?, 154.

[21] Ibid., 175.

[22] “Southern Seminary Stands Firm,” Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 1, no. 1 (August 1995), http://www.galaxie.com/article/8881.

[23] Joe Maxwell, “Dean’s Dismissal Draws Faculty, Student Protests,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1995/may15/5t6054.html.

[24] “Southern Seminary Stands Firm.”

25 Andy Naselli, “Review of McCune’s ‘Promise Unfulfilled’ with a Response from McCune”, n.d., http://andynaselli.com/review-of-mccunes-promise-unfulfilled-with-a-response-from-mccune.

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