By Bob Allen
In 1949 George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dystopian novel imagining a future totalitarian state where people are constantly reminded of mass surveillance by the slogan “Big Brother is watching you.”
Thirty years ago, Russell Dilday, then president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, found parallels in a 5-year-old political battle escalating within the 14.1 million-member Southern Baptist Convention.
“Incredible as it sounds, there is emerging in this denomination built on the principle of rugged individualism, an incipient Orwellian mentality,” Dilday said in the 1984 convention sermon at the SBC annual meeting in Kansas City. “It threatens to drag us down from the high ground to the low lands of suspicion, rumor, criticism, innuendoes, guilt by association and the rest of that demonic family of forced uniformity.”
“I shudder when I see a coterie of the orthodox watching to catch a brother in a statement that sounds heretical, carelessly categorizing churches as liberal or fundamentalist, unconcerned about the adverse effect that criticism may have on God’s work,” Dilday said.
Many viewed Dilday’s call to “higher ground” of denominational unity as siding with the so-called “moderates” resisting a movement of conservative Baptists who set out in 1979 to correct what they viewed as a drift toward liberalism in the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics.
Hoisting a banner of biblical “inerrancy” — the idea the Bible is literally true in all areas including science and history — conservatives mobilized grassroots Southern Baptists to attend SBC annual meetings for the purpose of voting for presidential candidates endorsed by what leaders described as a “conservative resurgence.” The appeal was to return to basics of evangelism and missions in order to save the SBC from slipping into membership losses like other denominations spiraling in the so-called “mainline decline.”
The effort succeeded enough that by 1991 battle-weary moderates withdrew from the fray, reinvesting energies in alternative approaches to missions, theological education and other church resources through the newly formed Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
At the midpoint of the SBC controversy in 1984, such a total victory seemed beyond conservative leaders’ wildest dreams.
In February 1984, SBC President Jimmy Draper told the SBC Executive Committee that Southern Baptists had “real division theologically in our convention, but we can deal with it.”
“I have never called for anybody to be dismissed or to be fired,” Draper said. “I don’t think that is the way to do it, but if we pretend we have no differences, we stick our heads in the sand.”
Even with those differences, Draper said, “there are more things that keep us together than separate us.”
“There is an historic Baptist principle — which we seem to have forgotten — that says we can respect honest differences,” Draper said.
Draper left the pastorate in 1991 to lead the Baptist Sunday School Board, now known as LifeWay Christian Resources. He retired in 2006.
In March 1984 conservative resurgence co-founders Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson told a small group of conservative students at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., they were encouraged by progress toward gaining “equity” for their views in denominational life.
“Nobody understood how the system worked,” Pressler, a Houston layman and appeals court judge described the Southern Baptist Convention prior to 1979 at a symposium sponsored by the Conservative/Evangelical Fellowship, a group of about 25 students out of a then-enrollment of 1,200.
“Nobody was sufficiently involved,” he said. “The convention [machinery] was overwhelming.” There was an enormous self-perpetuating bureaucracy that was not sensitive to lots of issues.”
Patterson, at the time president of the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies in Dallas, was asked if he had his way would all seminary faculty be inerrantists or would others also be allowed to teach?
“We are 40 million light years away from that,” Patterson said, but he responded: “If I were personally selecting the faculty … yes, the whole faculty would be inerrantists.”
“If I were in the position of the presidency of one of the seminaries — which I think is exceedingly hypothetical — my first move would be to replace existing faculty members with folks who have no questions about the full validity of the scriptures.”
Patterson, 72, was named president of Southeastern Seminary in 1992. He was elected as SBC president in both 1998 and 1999 and since 2003 has served as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Battleground in Kansas City
Headlining the 1984 SBC annual meeting June 12-14 in Kansas City, Mo., Atlanta pastor Charles Stanley garnered a 52-percent majority on a first ballot, easily outdistancing former Baptist Sunday School Board President Grady Cothen and John Sullivan, at the time pastor of Broadmoor Baptist Church in Shreveport, La., and now executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention.
Stanley was the fourth straight SBC president elected with support of the conservative faction, following Adrian Rogers, Bailey Smith and Jimmy Draper. Observers expected a tighter race, because for the first time moderates had mounted a concerted pre-convention campaign of their own.
About 2,000 people showed up for a first-time gathering called the SBC Forum, organized by pastors who believed the conservative-dominated SBC Pastors Conference had grown too political.
Cecil Sherman, pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville. N.C., and one of the conference organizers, said that for years he had felt out of place at other pre-SBC meetings.
“You can come to the Southern Baptist Convention and the pre-meeting and never hear from this side of the house,” said Sherman, “but there is some magnificent thinking going on inside the minds of some Southern Baptist pastors. They needed a place to speak and now there’s the platform.”
Sherman later became first executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He retired in 1996 and died in 2010 at 82.
Also meeting in Kansas City in 1984 was a much smaller group of about 150 calling itself the Baptist Faith and Message Fellowship, formed in 1973. One speaker explained the controversy like this: “The liberals around our convention that liked to be called moderates, but are really liberals, say we don’t need creeds.”
“They are sort of dumb, because a creed is just what you believe,” said Malone Cochran, pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Ga. “I finally realized they really don’t believe anything.”
Nominated by Jerry Vines — pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., and himself a future SBC president — Stanley had indicated in late May he was considering allowing his name to be placed in nomination, but he didn’t make up his mind until the morning of the election.
Stanley, a committed inerrantist, told a packed room of reporters he intended to work with all Southern Baptists and denied he was placed in office by the conservative faction. “I was not elected by any particular group,” he said. “I can guarantee you that.”
Attention shifted quickly, however, with passage of a resolution on ordination and the role of women in ministry. Reacting to gains by a group known today as Baptist Women in Ministry, which met for the second time in 1984, the resolution affirmed women in “the building of godly homes” and encouraged their service “in all aspects of church life and work other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.”
The resolution justified wifely submission “because the man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall.” Peter Rhea Jones, pastor of First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., said the proclamation was more than just a repudiation of churches which ordain women as deacons and ministers. “What it did was to denigrate every women on the planet by putting every woman in an inferior position,” he said.
Backlash included a paid advertisement denouncing the statement in the Louisville Courier-Journal coordinated by a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary doctoral student named Al Mohler. Mohler later changed his mind about women in ministry and today serves as ninth president of the seminary in Louisville, Ky.
Other business in 1984 included an unsuccessful attempt by conservatives to defund the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. The motion failed by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent, but it proved to be a temporary reprieve. Southern Baptists pulled out of the religious-liberty coalition now known as the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, ceasing all funding in 1991.
Moderates, meanwhile, lost an attempt to substitute conservative resurgence leader Paul Pressler’s nomination to the SBC Executive Committee with Bruce McIver, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. A show-of-hands vote was close enough to call for a ballot vote, which Pressler won 5,462-4,607.
Pressler was elected to the unexpired term of Welton Gaddy, who had to step down after taking a new job in another state. Today Gaddy is head of the Interfaith Alliance and preaching pastor at Northminster Church in Monroe, La.
That September the Executive Committee’s public relations work group investigated Baptist Press’ handling of a story involving a Southern Seminary student who had served as a driver for seminary President Roy Honeycutt. The student lodged a complaint against Pressler for allegedly secretly recording a phone call.
Pressler went on to become an Executive Committee officer and was involved in the 1990 firing of two Baptist Press editors which prompted formation of Associated Baptist Press, an independent news service that last year merged with the Religious Herald in a new entity recently rebranded as Baptist News Global.
After the storm
Fallout from the conservative juggernaut was swift. At Southern Seminary, Roy Honeycutt opened the 1984 fall semester with a convocation message calling on moderates to battle against “unholy forces, which if left unchecked, will destroy essential qualities of both our convention and this seminary.”
Honeycutt, who retired as president in 1993 and died in 2004, subsequently declined a challenge to debate Paige Patterson, proposing instead a “return to an open convention” urging Patterson, Pressler “and their co-conspirators to “turn off their computers, abolish their mailing lists, quit printing their scandal sheet newspapers and allow Southern Baptists to speak for themselves.”
Russell Dilday wrote in the July 1984 issue of Southwestern News that the real issue dividing Southern Baptists was not liberal versus conservative theology, but “a fundamentalist political machine” with a stated goal of “going for the jugular vein,” meaning control of the convention’s agencies and institutions.
In October Southwestern trustees tabled a motion instructing Dilday to stay out of politics, an action viewed as a vote of confidence in his leadership. The faculty added their vote of confidence in October. Ten years later, however, Dilday was fired by what had become a majority conservative-leaning board of trustees in a 26-7 vote. He went on to teach at George W. Truett Theological Seminary and is founding chancellor of the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute in Arlington, Texas.
Zig Ziglar, a motivational speaker newly elected as first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, criticized two Baylor professors: a Mormon teaching in the Spanish/Portuguese department and a religion professor on record as saying he believed evolution played a part in the creation of the world.
Baylor President Herbert Reynolds said Ziglar’s election as a convention officer didn’t make him an expert on Baylor. Reynolds said to his knowledge Ziglar had never been on Baylor’s campus and was part of a “priestly and self-anointed group” which “is smart enough to know that if they can control the educational system of Baptists and our publishing houses, they can be effective in producing the kind of clones which will make willing followers of demagogues who seek to change the essential characteristics of the Southern Baptist denomination.”
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Landrum Leavell warned that fragmentation could jeopardize the convention’s cooperative work in missions and evangelism.
Cecil Day, director of a fundraising program called Planned Growth in Giving, lamented that calls to designate gifts outside the Cooperative Program unified budget in order to defund unpopular causes were a throwback to the “society method” prior to 1925, when each Baptist entity had to appeal directly to local churches for funding.
Southern Baptist evangelism leaders meeting in Canada expressed “grave concern” about declining baptisms and called for “an immediate end to the apparent lack of trust and Christian love that results in confusion in our convention.” “We are not winning America to Christ, we are losing,” the evangelism leaders said in a consensus statement adopted in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Please, let us stop wasting our energies in confusion and let us unite to seek the face of God and revival in this generation.”
Furloughed Southern Baptist missionary Al Cummins told Baptist Press in December he and other missionaries were confused and angered that fussing and bickering were contributing to flat budgets and no additional missionaries.
“I know there’s not a one of those folks out there that would deliberately do this to hurt us, but somehow they’ve got it in their heads that they’re going to hurt a seminary or a college,” he said. “But, you know, those places have got millions of dollars. The only ones I’ve seen so far that have been cut up have been those that are out there trying to do the work of the Lord on the field.”
Former President Jimmy Carter said the conservative resurgence had seriously damaged the spirit of Bold Mission Thrust, a 25-year plan to present a Christian witness to every person in the world by the year 2000.
“The emphasis on foreign missions, Bold Mission Thrust and the Cooperative Program is much less than it was in 1977,” he said in an interview with Baptist Press while working on a Habitat for Humanity project in New York. Carter said he had intentionally stayed aloof from denominational struggles between the left and right because he was uninterested in the convention’s political workings.
“One of the reasons I am a Southern Baptist is because of the autonomy of the individual churches,” he said. “As long as Maranatha Baptist Church [in Plains, Ga.] suits Rosalynn and me, that’s where we will stay, and we will be happy as Christians and the right relationship with God through Jesus Christ will not be adversely affected.”
Carter said conservatives at the time were tied to a philosophy exemplified by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and, to some extent, by super-church television ministries.
“I don’t feel compatible with what has happened lately in the Southern Baptist Convention, but I also don’t have any inclination to withdraw as a Southern Baptist,” he said.
That changed in 2000, when the Southern Baptist Convention amended the Baptist Faith and Message to pronounce that “while both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
“My decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult,” Carter described his defection in an open letter published in 2009. “It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be ‘subservient’ to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.”
“This was in conflict with my belief — confirmed in the holy scriptures — that we are all equal in the eyes of God,” he said.
In 2007 Carter, along with Jimmy Allen, the last moderate elected as SBC president prior to the conservative resurgence, launched a movement that became known as the New Baptist Covenant seeking to unify U.S. Baptists across racial, geographical and theological lines. Southern Baptist Convention leaders declined to be involved.