The SBC Conservative Resurgence: Fundamentalist Crusade or Orthodox Vindication


William McPherson

CHHI 694-D01 Summer: History of Baptists

August 21, 2011


A SHOWDOWN……………………………………………………………………………………………………………3

WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED………………………………………………………………………………………..5

THEN WE SHALL REMOVE YOU…………………………………………………………………………………7

THE DENOMINATION ON A HILL………………………………………………………………………………15

CRUSADE OR REFORMATION……………………………………………………………………………………21



The Scriptures are full of showdowns; one that particularly comes to mind is the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of the Canaanite god Baal in I Kings 18. It is Elijah against more than four hundred prophets of Baal; the stakes were the loyalty and souls of the people. As Yahweh’s chosen representative, Elijah was pitted against the religious establishment of Northern Israel; for him to win the contest, fire would have to fall. The prophets of Baal went first, starting with chanting, but by the end moving into a full-fledged frenzy of blood spilling lacerations. Elijah mocked them, and he should have; they were wasting their time. Elijah walks up to the altar, pours water all over it, gives a simple prayer, and steps back as the fire falls. Truly, Yahweh was proven to be God of Israel that day; there are times when God calls us to join him in the battle.

David Dockery in his book, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal writes, “Southern Baptists over the past 30 years have been embroiled in controversy around the truthfulness of the Bible and the uniqueness of the Gospel. Such controversy causes us to ask if indeed there are times when it is necessary to separate over such first-order issues.” Whatever one decides to think about the conservatives/fundamentalists or the moderates/liberals and their tactics to achieve their respective ends, this is what the struggle was fundamentally about. For the conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention, it was a showdown over how their denomination was going to view the Scriptures: inerrant or simply inspired. If the Scriptures were not inerrant, so the reasoning goes, how can one trust the claims of Jesus Christ or his offer of salvation?

Leon McBeth, however, has a different take on what had been occurring, “doctrinal diversity is real,” he writes, “no amount of cordiality can conceal the fact that many Southern Baptists simply do not agree on such questions as the millennium, religious liberty, alien immersion and open communion, and which theory of inspiration best explains the Bible. The famed Southern Baptist unity in the past has been more functional than theological.” This would be the rallying cry and the viewpoint of the moderate camp throughout the long struggle. Unity amidst diversity would be the anthem they would play to, while conservatives fought for theological conformity at the denominational level.

Judge Paul Pressler’s autobiography is appropriately titled A Hill on Which to Die; he and Dr. Paige Patterson were willing to be two prophets taking on the priests, professors, and administrators of liberalism (specifically higher criticism) within the SBC’s institutions and offices. Though the numbers were on their side, most of the SBC was incredibly ignorant of what was being taught in their seminaries and modeled on their boards. These two men at great personal expense not only financially, physically, emotionally, socially, but even spiritually put themselves out to be used by God to help to retake and cleanse the SBC’s institutions.

Moderates do not see it the same way and many feel the bitterness of betrayal. They claim to love the SBC just as much as the conservatives do. Many would now admit that there was some liberalism being taught in SBC seminaries and in some SBC institutions, but they do not see an issue with that. They see themselves as the victims of a fundamentalist purge that laid waste to the denomination. Historian David T. Morgan’s book is appropriately titled, The New Crusades, the New Holy Land; the moderates see the conservatives as intolerant conquerors, maybe even as far as claiming the conservatives to be religious fascists.

So which is true then? Was the holy crusade to take back the SBC justified, or was it an abuse of power that permanently damaged a denomination? History is never as black and white as one wants to make it; the answer is that likely both are true. The SBC Conservative Resurgence was caused by the moderates’ apathy and arrogance; it was implemented by the conservatives’ persistence and the planning, and was ultimately used by God to save a denomination from heresy and anti-evangelical morality while at same time ensuring the tightening of orthodoxy and a right-wing political alignment.


In his autobiography, A Hill on Which to Die, Paul Pressler writes about how he would have stopped the conservative resurgence had he been a liberal, “I would have asked the SBC Executive Committee to define the term [“conference”] while the liberals still had absolute control of the Executive Committee. Had any official definition of conference existed that gave equal voice to each of the vice presidents along with the president, the conservative movement would have been stopped.” Why was this the case? “The liberal-backed candidates frequently won vice-presidential elections after 1979, though conservatives won the presidency.” The SBC bylaws stated that the Committee on Boards (which chooses the people who sit on the other committees) was chosen by the president in conference with the vice presidents.

Why did the moderates (Pressler calls them liberals) do nothing as some of them sensed the rumblings from the conservatives within the SBC? Diane Winston in an essay entitled, “The Southern Baptist Story,” admitted that 1979 presidential incumbent Jimmy Allen “a plump, gray-pompadoured denominational stalwart, had felt the rumblings of discontent. ” What was his strategy to head it off? “He was said to have headed off Rogers earlier by asking friends if they would prefer him or the man from Memphis. Allen made use of contacts and supporters nationwide, the first candidate to openly declare his interest in the top denominational spot.” Knowing full well the bylaws and mechanisms of the convention, Allen decided to make a few calls to his support network to choose him over Adrian Rogers; one has to wonder if it was naivety or sheer arrogance on the part of the moderates in the denominational offices to think that was enough.

This is not to say that Jimmy Allen was an arrogant man, in their book The Sacred Trust, Emir and Ergun Caner have this to say about Allen, “his words [his first presidential address] bespoke compassion for the hurting and disenfranchised, and his call to action illustrated his heart for reaching to the most neglected people on the planet.” This hardly describes an arrogant man, but it may show a man vulnerable to the kind political maneuvering and denominational engineering that were being planned by Pressler-Patterson. In short, he and many of the moderates like him were quite naive.

However, many of the moderates in the SBC felt that they did not have to listen to the conservative majority. They were the educated elite who had advanced beyond the simple biblical faith of many of those ignorant pastors and congregants from places like rural Alabama or Arkansas. Case in point were the colleagues of Ralph Elliot, author of the extremely controversial book The Message of Genesis, who tried to coach Elliot into, like they did, “couch their beliefs in acceptable terminology and in holy jargon so that although thinking one thing, the speaker calculated so as to cause the hearer to affirm something else.” To his credit, Elliot had enough character to state his actual beliefs unlike his colleagues who seemed to believe they did not have to adhere to the abstract of principles, which they signed upon their employment.

Morris Ashcraft, then a theology professor at Midwestern Seminary, even insisted, “that the door for a liberal interpretation of Scripture be kept open. By arguing against the traditionalism and what Baptists commonly believe, he was arguing that the door should be propped open in such a way that any interpretation, whether sound or unsound…should be left open.” When messengers like K. Owen White made a motion for a more strict theological adherence in line with the beliefs of most Southern Baptists at the 1962 meeting it was amended from “kindly, but firmly instruct,” to, “courteously request.” This made the motion an option rather than a demand. The president elect in 1962, Herschel Hobbs, made it clear that Southern Baptists needed to think foremost about the principle of unity amidst diversity; the tent of doctrine was wide open to a variety of doctrinal viewpoints.

Barry Hankins in his book Uneasy in Babylon, summarizes the viewpoint well:

For most of the twentieth century these diverse constituencies of the SBC had been held together by what Southern Baptist church historian Bill Leonard and others have called the “Grand Compromise.” This was a tacit agreement not to let the right, left, or any ideological party take control of the denomination. Instead, the SBC would be held together by centrists, and ideological diversity would be tolerated for the sake of missions and evangelism. This was a compromise not a synthesis.

Whether one agrees with this concept or not, it is clear that the grassroots Southern Baptist constituency was not in favor of this “Grand Compromise.” Beginning in 1979, with the election of Adrian Rogers to the presidency, conservatives would begin their campaign to take back their denomination not just from biblical liberals, but also from the denominational moderates who decided to protect them. It should be noted that at one point the conservatives were willing to offer a parity, a fifty-fifty split in the seminaries, but this proposal was mocked and rejected by moderate leadership. David T. Morgan hints that this offer was not genuine and that they “concealed a considerable part of their plan for the denomination.” Hankins claims that parity would never have worked, even if the conservatives were genuine in their offer, because “they had to control the SBC from top to bottom in order to enter the national culture war as they desired.”

This just begins to scratch the surface of years of conservative frustration; their protests had been ignored repeatedly for the sake of unity amidst diversity. Moderates were aware of the liberalism in SBC seminaries and for the sake of having a big tent denominationally, ignored the theological dangers that were infecting young seminary students. The moderate posture of leadership was clearly, this is how it is and that they would not be moved. The conservative response, long in coming but terminal upon arrival was that they would remove them by force.


Nancy Ammerman in her book, Baptist Battles, gives the moderate outlook after the SBC Peace Committee, a group assigned to discuss the possibility of a reconciliation between the two factions, gave its final report in 1987:

The reconciliation that would eventually come to the Southern Baptist Convention was not any mutual effort at compromise or an arbitrated settlement. It was not reconciliation between but reconciliation to. When the Peace Committee presented its final report in 1987, conservatives declared that the war was over…It was time to move on. They were right that the war was over. From 1985 on, it was clear that a conservative victory was assured and the Southern Baptist Convention would take a more conservative direction. Those who wanted to remain part of the denomination would have to accept that change in direction.

By 1985, the moderates had lost their repeated efforts to combat the Conservative Resurgence; however, in his book, The Conservative Resurgence, James Hefley had an entirely different perspective on the 1987 Peace Committee Report. He writes that:

The eagerly awaited Peace Committee report was not released until the morning of the second day of the St. Louis convention. It was as bad as many moderates feared and better than many conservatives dared hope. It repeated previous findings that the “primary source” of the controversy “is theological,” but there are “political causes as well.” The core difference was over “the extent and nature of [Biblical] authority,” the committee said.

Paul Pressler was even more confident in the committee’s findings, “Conservatives believed that the report verified the fact that theological problems existed. This was the concern which had motivated the conservative movement. It also showed that all charges against us which they studied were untrue. The Peace Committee report failed to give the liberals any arguments to use against us. Clearly, 1987 was the year that the conservatives seemed vindicated and the moderates seemed vanquished.

But how did the conservatives of the SBC pull this reclamation off? David T. Morgan gives the credit to two men who do not normally receive it, M.O. Owens Jr. and Bill Powell. Of Owens, Morgan writes, “obviously a man of unbounded energy, [Owens] also became involved in a number of ‘conservative’ causes, not the least of which was the Baptist Faith and Message Fellowship, founded in 1973 under his leadership.” It would be the networking of the BFMF that would acquire the talents of Bill Powell. It was Bill Powell, not Pressler or Patterson, who discovered the strategy for the conservatives to take over/back the SBC. However, Powell had temperament and flexibility issues that caused him to be relieved from his editorial responsibilities with the BFMF’s Southern Baptist Journal, though in a “power play” he got his position back. Pressler affirms Powell’s influence, “one of the most important discussions I ever had concerning the Southern Baptist Convention occurred on that drive from Lenoir City to Atlanta. Bill Powell described to me the way the Southern Baptist system operated,” he goes on, “It was not my independent research that showed the way the convention could be turned around; it was Bill’s…I was impressed that he had put his finger on the real solution to the problem of creeping liberalism in the SBC.” Hefley, the imminent recorder of the whole controversy, does not mention Owens and barely mentions Powell.

The process began in 1979 with the election of Adrian Rogers to the SBC presidency and the subsequent election of conservative backed candidates until all of the committees and trustee boards had clear conservative majorities. With these majorities, the conservatives could eliminate anyone who did not subscribe to the Baptist Faith and Message of 1963 and the inerrancy of the Scriptures. This is especially important in three areas: the seminaries, the boards, and the Baptist Press.

The seminaries were the target of SBC conservatives but they did not all fall at once; the first to swap hands was arguably the most liberal (or progressive): Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jerry Sutton claims that, “for whatever strange reason, the administration, faculty, trustees, alumni, and student body had seemingly forgotten that the seminary was a Southern Baptist Convention entity. The notion that the school was accountable…seemed alien.” Morgan argues that conservatives (he uses the term fundamentalist) had been targeting seminary president Randall Lolley for years because he “offered an invocation for the formal opening of the Schlitz Brewery Company plant,” when he was a pastor back in the 1970s. Lolley was no friend of conservatives either, “a small group of students felt that the conservative viewpoint was either omitted or misrepresented at the seminary. In hindsight, Lolley called the group both militant and divisive and regretted he had supported its formation.” Eventually conservative pressure would cause both Lolley, and his academic dean Morris Ashcraft, to give their resignations to the board of trustees. Ellen Rosenberg in her essay, “The Southern Baptist Response to the New South,” is critical of the firing, “Southeastern Seminary was thought to be a center of liberal opposition; the opportunity came along for a particularly brutal assault on the administration and faculty. A coup was affected to widespread attention outside of the denomination.” Morgan also sees Southeastern as the first victim of the fundamentalist crusade and seems to insinuate that the academic accreditation issues that followed were the fault of newly chosen president Lewis Drummond and his conservative trustees.

At Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, besides the infamous “Holy War” convocation address, president Honeycutt had angered conservatives with his protection of one particular professor Glen Hinson, and the sanctioning of others. Then Southern’s youngest trustee, Jerry Johnson, sent a scathing 16-page paper about the doctrinal cover up at Southern Seminary. Honeycutt created a 28-page response to Johnson, but instead of just answering the charges, as Hefley writes, “Honeycutt feared that the ‘cover-up’ paper would ‘extensively sabotage the seminary for this century’ and ’cause enduring personal damage to members of the faculty…[these are shown by] the crucifixion of the truth, the abdication of trusteeship, and the abuse of free speech which characterize trustee Johnson’s attack on the President.” Conservatives did not seem to like Honeycutt’s defiance of what seemed to be pretty clear charges of heresy and cover-up, and as a result pressured Honeycutt into early retirement. The seminary was then given into the hands of R. Albert Mahler Jr., a move Honeycutt immediately endorsed, “I wish him [Mohler] well as he incarnates the seminary’s distinctives and his vision for the future,” along with other praiseworthy adjectives of his young assistant. Honeycutt later would regret this endorsement, “the former president says that in all their time together, he never got any inkling of Mohler’s hard-line right-wing beliefs…’he did a 180-degree turn on us,’…’I think he saw where the direction was going and got out in front of the parade.'”

The cases of Midwestern and Southwestern Theological Seminaries are shorter but still need to be expressed. At Midwestern, President Milton Ferguson was already in trouble over the writings of professor Temp Sparkman, which were addressed by Paul Pressler. Then Ferguson attempted to get a professor tenured who had questionable views. Ferguson would later resign once the board was fully conservative. At Southwestern, the odd character of President Russell Dilday has to be mentioned. Dilday, according to Morgan, was eventually fired because “of President Russell Dilday’s open attack on them [the conservatives].” This appears to be half true, apparently according to Sutton, Dilday was not only politicking too much, he was also “confrontational, critical, and the conflict seemed to accelerate in recent years with attacks on trustees for lack of cooperation.” If one knows one’s enemies are after them, then one should not provide the means for one’s enemies to trounce them. What is incredibly bizarre is that Dilday was always acting paranoid, repeatedly asserting Southwestern was being criticized, which was not at all true.

The fight over the boards was especially pronounced at the missions boards. The Home Missions Board (now the North American Missions Board) was given to Larry Lewis, a stalwart defender of the resurgence and someone with an extensive background in missions. However, Ammerman points out that, “some doubted that Lewis had the ability or experience to run such a large organization,” and that, “others feared the he would immediately begin a staff purge.” But Ammerman also gives Lewis credit for knowing “more in six weeks about the inner workings of the Board than the previous President had known in ten years.” Still Lewis was not completely without his own ability to discern and question, Sutton admits that, “Lewis’ questioning of the restructuring process and proposals indicated that he was not necessarily in lockstep with the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention.” At the Foreign Missions Board (now the International Missions Board) Keith Parks, a confessed moderate supporter, despite his political leanings would remain on the FMB until 1992. Sutton, though conservative, speaks highly of Parks, “Keith Parks had a passion for reaching the unreached,” and, “up until 1985, Keith Parks was perceived as being apolitical.” However, this would not be Keith Parks’ ultimate stance and after several unfortunate controversies with a foreign seminary, some missionaries, and his own political statements, Parks was alienated from his board. Morgan writes, “for six years Parks had dodged fundamentalist arrows, but after the New Orleans convention his days were clearly numbered.” Ammerman states that, “the changes in Foreign Mission strategy and personnel were more gradual than those implemented in Atlanta, but they were no less decisive. Fundamentalist trustees aimed to use ideological standards…to determine who would do the work, in what structures, and with what goals.”

It is also important to note the changes at the Sunday School Board (now Lifeway Christian Resources). Lloyd Elder, president of SSB, got into a particularly ugly fracas with trustee Larry Holly. Even Sutton admits, “by July 1989, Holly was convinced Elder needed to go. Yet to say it bluntly, Holly was still offensive to many trustees.” In their animosity men like Larry Holly, Ammerman contends, may have used “their power to punish those [like Elder] who had opposed them to gain their positions,” and that “Lloyd Elder had visibly been on the wrong side of a number of battles…he seemed able to use the power of his office to favor moderate causes.” The biggest controversy seemed to be over the McBeth manuscript; Hefley writes that “the subcommittee on publishing, chaired by Don Moore, reported that they had reviewed the manuscript and counseled the administration not to publish it…they did not ‘want to fan the flames of controversy’ within the SBC. Moore called the book ‘unbalanced.'” Sutton sums up Elder’s eventual firing, “there seemed to be a number of reasons Lloyd Elder forfeited his leadership role at the Sunday School Board…lack of openness and respect…he attempted to spin the truth…he alienated his support….he was motivated by fear…his dependence on some employees that were less than dependable…reticence to make hard decisions. In short, his presidency unraveled.” Morgan seems to attribute his end to his support of the McBeth manuscript despite objections to its objectivity.

Finally, the conservative purge of the Baptist Press deserves some examination. There was clearly some unresolved resentment by Paul Pressler against former Baptist Press editor W.C. Field’s coverage of conservatives. Sutton writes, “Pressler was so put out with what he considered to the biased reporting of the Baptist Press that he began to accumulate articles that he maintained demonstrated his assessment.” Hefley confirms that, “Fields called the conservative resurgency movement ‘an evil force’ that had arisen ‘right out of the abyss.'” So with his retirement, conservatives were hoping to get someone more friendly to their cause. However, at the behest of Harold Bennett, Alvin Shackleford was selected by the Executive Committee to replace Fields and Sutton clearly states, “most conservatives believed that Shackleford was more fair than Fields yet he was far from acceptable. It turns out that Shackleford (and Dan Martin his associate) were not balanced enough for conservatives. Hefley tells of Executive Committee Chairman Sam Pace’s views of Shackleford, “Our biggest concern with Al and Dan was balance…we just came to the place where this termination was inevitable.” Morgan seems to believe Shackleford was dismissed because he told the truth. He writes that, “at the same time Shackleford was being attacked by fundamentalists for supposedly favoring the moderates, he received high praise from his fellow professionals in the news business.” He furthers buttresses his point by pointing out that at the session of Shackleford and Martin’s firing, “armed off-duty police officers stood guard.” Sutton downplays this by pointing out that, “all off-duty policemen are required to carry their firearms.” But as Hefley concedes, “The Executive Committee was painted as the enemy of the free press…Martin and Shackleford became martyrs in the moderate camp.” Even conservative Larry Lewis of the Home Missions Board was unhappy with the firing and called them “a mistake, coming at a time when the convention desperately needed reconciliation,” but also agreed with the assessment of the duo’s objectivity.


When the smoke cleared and the battle died down, there was a new power in control of the convention; there was a new direction. One of the victors encouraged Southern Baptists in this manner:

If Southern Baptist truly are to be the people of God before a watching world, we must visibly exhibit an attitude of unity. God’s oneness defines the oneness of the body of Christ. As God is one in three, so the believing community is made up of different parts with a variety of expressions; yet the body is one. We need to hear afresh that visible unity grounded in truth is God’s expectation for us. Let us pray and work for renewal and unity in our theological commitments, in our worship, in our fellowship, in our educational efforts, in our shared service and social engagement, and ultimately in our Gospel proclamation.

The losers also had their viewpoint of the future of the convention; this particular viewpoint sums up the moderate sentiment of uncertainty and loss:

Church alignments and the establishment of new theological institutions with which the vanquished moderates could be comfortable offered all sorts of possibilities. A small percentage of Southern Baptist churches could turn the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship into a new, fledgling denomination and support the new institutions…the CBF could remain in the SBC as the quasi-denomination it already was, and…play the role of disgruntled critics, as the fundamentalists did for many years..If the moderates chose to stay and play the part of the disenchanted, it was conceivable that the rancor that lingered from the conflict might ebb with the passage of time.

Barry Hankins, an admitted moderate Baptist but an outsider in the traditional Southern Baptist sense, offers this prospective:

Still, however, this alteration in identity is not complete and may never be. Southern Baptists who happen to support the conservative theological and cultural agenda can continue being what they have always been and can scarcely imagine ever ceasing to be–Southern Baptist. Others who are in positions to ignore the cultural agenda, African American Southern Baptists and converts from outside the South, for example, can with greater ease than was the case before conservative control become more fully Southern Baptist because they indentify with the confessional identity even while not sharing the cultural ethnicity.

In the wake of the controversy, the new conservative leadership was faced with the two great tests of any organization: time and results. So many years removed from 1979, one can see the transformation of the convention from one associated with a big tent to one characterized by strong biblical orthodoxy and global missions; the doomsayers were wrong in their concern for the demise of evangelism. Unless one attended one of the seminaries in those days and also taught in the same seminary today, it is possible not to truly understand the change. If one were not around to read the Baptist Press releases during the resurgence, perhaps one cannot truly appreciate (or even mourn) the difference. As the new generation rises up, it will be easy to forget any of this ever happened and to go on pretending like Southern Baptists have always been this way. Still, the conservatives still relish in the moments, the moderates still mourn the loss, and most of SBC remains ignorant of what happened.

To see how the denomination was saved from heresy and apostasy one need only to look at Southern Seminary. Albert Mohler Jr., had the unpleasant task of dealing with a very diverse, divided staff. All of the good feelings of Honeycutt’s endorsement must have wilted once it was clear that Mohler was on the side of the conservatives. Sutton writes, “One of Mohler’s first test had to do with status of Molly Marshall. Mohler explained that because of numerous complaints that Marshall’s teaching fell outside the parameters of the Abstract of Principles, a dismissal process had been put into place; however, with her resignation, this was a moot issue.” Mohler then dealt with the Carver School of Social Work and its dean Diana Garland. While at first committed to keeping the school at Southern Seminary, it soon became clear the two schools were incompatible and the relationship was dissolved. Not too long after this, “ten Southern faculty were taking an early retirement package. At the same time some faculty were leaving, others were coming.” Sutton then adds that, “as the years passed, Mohler continued to add the finest conservative, evangelical scholars available to his faculty at Southern Seminary.”

The conservative reclamation of Southern Seminary has produced positive results throughout the SBC; few can argue that some of the brightest Baptist scholars study in SBC seminaries, especially Southern. This citadel of liberalism and biblical uncertainty has become a bastion of conservatism and biblical inerrancy. This will have far reaching implications on the kind of pastors and professors the SBC will inherit in the future; it will encourage not discourage the faith of thousands of students and millions of congregants who fall under its umbrella. Still, there are and should be concerns.

How much indoctrination robs the individual of the ability to think for themselves and come to decisions of faith and conscience on their own? Ammerman is critical of the academic move, “fundamentalists wanted professors to support traditional faith, not challenge it; and classroom practices were subtly changing in that direction…the changes in policy would gradually produce changes in personnel, as well as changes in teaching.” Morgan seems to concur, “in launching what they regarded as their crusade for truth, fundamentalist Southern Baptists were spurred into action…their solution was to gain control of the schools, fire liberal faculty members, and hire in their places teachers who affirmed biblical inerrancy and other “fundamentals” of the faith.” The question must be asked, what Christians have ever agreed on what the fundamentals are?

It could be demonstrated that orthodoxy was protected but honest scholarship rejected. Perhaps what damaged the cause of moderates the most was the philosophical presupposition that many liberals expressed because of their training in historical criticism; some were universalist and others were complete atheists. However, the value of such people is that they challenge one in their own beliefs and make one more capable of defending them. While it is true that conservative scholars can teach historical criticism, how many of them are going to give it a fair hearing before their students? If it is bunk, then what concern is there if you have been convinced of the truth? While there were clearly liberals undermining the faith of students, the complete elimination of the moderates may have been a questionable idea in the writer’s perspective. This could make the seminaries completely unbalanced and when this occurs there could tend to be a tendency to narrow the orthodoxy because one’s previous theological opponents have been vanquished. Thus, while the theological reins needed to be tightened, they may not have needed to completely stop the doctrinal diversity as long as the right presuppositions were in place; this is of course, is completely the view of the writer and the reader must come to their own conclusions.

But why the charge that the conservatives took a more right-wing political stance as a convention after the reclamation was complete? It is a mistake to assume that the conservatives just jumped onto the Christian right; in many respects, they were the Christian right. The defining change came with a change at the Christian Life Commission and the disassociation of the convention from the Baptist Joint-Committee on Public Affairs.

There were considerable problems with the BJCPA, especially in regards to the proportion of money the SBC was giving it compared to the number of seats it had on the board of directors. Ammerman writes, “although the Director, James Dunn, was a Southern Baptist, and both staff and budget were dominated by Southern Baptist contributions, Southern Baptists did not hold a majority of seats on the board of directors.” It was not particularly popular with the majority of Southern Baptist as Sutton notes, “opposition to the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs was mounting. The more Southern Baptists learned about the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the less credibility it had.” Conservatives began moving in the direction of establishing their own voice in social issues which according to Hefley, “clearly upset James Dunn.”

The change did eventually occur when Richard Land was given the Christian Life Commission (now the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) and SBC conservatives were sure that he would support their religious, social, and political leanings. Pressler points out that, “Richard had outstanding qualifications…his government job was to deal with moral and religious liberty concerns. He hardly fit the stereotype of the conservatives which the liberals sought to create.” “Land’s intention, no doubt,” writes Sutton, “was to…address a wide range of moral and social issues from a biblical and conservative perspective.”

However, this change did place the SBC in the camp and on the door step of the Republican party and the Moral Majority. Morgan declares that, “how the fundamentalist leaders became bedfellows with the adherents of the New Religious Political Right is an interesting story, but given the fundamentalist mindset, the fact that it happened is not surprising.” He also claims that “traditionally Southern Baptists, as a denomination at least, had remained aloof from direct political action.” Hankins also asserts that, “they [conservative leaders]stand willing to make tactical alliances with any and all groups that espouse traditional, anti-secularist views…Southern Baptist conservatives are not sure if culture can be transformed, but if it is to be, they are pretty sure they are ones to do it.” It seems from the SBC posture and influence that they would seek to do so in their own image.


It is really difficult to judge any movement or organization simply by studying a handful of historians; if one wants to truly understand, then one has to either research more fully or have grown up among the lore. The writer admits that he has done neither, though he will be sure to do more reading in the future. So, the judgment of crusade or reformation will have to be left to ones who are qualified to make the call; who speak from an informed and not ignorant point of view. There were certainly rights and wrongs on both sides of the battle and so sometimes it is better just to point toward the individual actions rather than to give a particular faction a mandate of approval or censure of disapproval.

However, it seems clear that both sides of the theological/political/social war for the SBC left and were left with scars that are just now beginning to mend. The question now becomes will the conservatives of the next generation become the new moderates, more open to differences in theology and biblical interpretation? If movements such as the Resurgence, Together for the Gospel, and Catalyst are any indication; then it seems that the much needed balance will eventually be restored to the conventions institutions. Yet, it is highly unlikely that the liberal scholars of the early twentieth century will ever again return to SBC seminaries and institutions. While the new generation of Southern Baptists is inclusive, it is also clearly orthodox. So, it appears that God will truly work together for good, even for those who have needlessly maligned and mangled each other, all things for those who love him and are called according to his purposes.


Ammerman, Nancy. Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religious Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990. Kindle Edition.

Dockery, David S. Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal: a Biblical, Historical, and Theological Proposal. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008.

Elliott, Ralph H. The Genesis Controversy. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1992.

Emir, and Ergun Caner. The Sacred Trust: Sketches of the Southern Baptist Convention Presidents. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2003.

Hankins, Barry. Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture. Tuscaloosa, AL: University Alabama Press, 2003.

Hefley, James Carl. The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. Vol. 6. Hannibal, MO.: Hannibal Books, 2005.

McBeth, H. Leon. The Baptist Heritage. Nashville, TN.: Broadman Press, 1987.

Morgan, David T. The New Crusades, the New Holy Land: Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention, 1969-1991. Tuscaloosa, AL: University Alabama Press, 1996.

Pressler, Paul. A Hill On Which to Die: One Southern Baptist’s Journey. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1999.

Rosenberg, Ellen. “The Southern Baptist Response to the Newest South.” In Southern Baptists Observed: Multiple Perspectives On a Changing Denomination. Edited by Nancy Ammerman. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.

Sutton, Jerry. The Baptist Reformation: the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Watson, Diane. “The Southern Baptist Story.” In Southern Baptists Observed: Multiple Perspectives On a Changing Denomination. Edited by Nancy Ammerman. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.


4 thoughts on “The SBC Conservative Resurgence: Fundamentalist Crusade or Orthodox Vindication

  1. Hi, I think your blog might be having browser compatibility issues. When I look at your website in Chrome, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other then that, terrific blog!

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