By Bob Allen
A current Southern Baptist Convention leader says looking back 30 years after Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Roy Honeycutt’s famous “Holy War Sermon,” the moderate Baptist leader’s call to arms seems destined to fail.
Among other things, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Jason Allen said in a Sept. 22 essay that Honeycutt’s attempt to mobilize and unify opposition five years into a movement today known as the “conservative resurgence” was too little and too late.
“Honeycutt’s declaration of holy war came too late, with inadequate strategy and insufficient follow-through,” he said. “Though the moderates would contest presidential elections until 1992, by 1984 the conservatives had already gained near-irreversible momentum.”
Allen, who earned both the M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees from Southern Seminary, described Honeycutt’s 1984 convocation address “To Your Tents, O Israel” as one of the most memorable — and controversial — sermons in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention. Delivered just weeks after conservatives prevailed at the SBC annual meeting in Kansas City for the fifth straight year, Allen said Honeycutt’s message “landed in the SBC like a bombshell, sending shockwaves throughout the entire denomination.”
Honeycutt, an Old Testament scholar elected to succeed President Duke McCall, who retired in 1981, based his message on 1 Kings 12:16, a call to arms by the ancient Israelites against forces viewed as the enemies of God. Embarking on a new academic year in 1984, Honeycutt described the context of Israel’s holy war as more appropriate “than one might imagine.”
“Unlike ancient Israel, Southern Seminary has never developed a war cry, but for 125 years this institution has lived with heroic qualities of integrity, it has fulfilled its duty with honor, and it has matched its convictions with courage,” Honeycutt said. “Our heritage demands that every person who loves this institution and our denomination hear again an ancient call to battle.”
Honeycutt acknowledged that some might find the holy war analogy extreme, but he said it grew “out of my conviction that unholy forces are at work in our midst, forces which if left unchecked will destroy the essential quality of both our convention and this seminary.”
Honeycutt warned of “crucial ingredients of our heritage being eviscerated by the myopic and uninformed action of independent fundamentalists, and the sincere but naïve individuals recruited to support their political party.”
“Hostile critics are misinterpreting today both freedom and Lordship,” Honeycutt said. “They propound a Bill Gothard-type chain of command which places males second only to God. They relegate women and children to the same essential role as families of the Old Testament patriarchal period, and I have letters to prove it.”
Honeycutt described people “seeking to realign the Southern Baptist Convention and to purge our institutions” as “20th-century Judaizers,” who were “seeking to legalize life, by eviscerating freedom from the gospel.”
He said such views “are not only an aberration of our heritage” but also “an absolute danger to the cooperative mission in which we share.”
“Historically, there has been a place in this denomination for every Southern Baptist church and individual committed to our world mission task,” Honeycutt said. “The fundamental issue which we face in 1984 is not now nor has it ever been whether a church is large or small, rural or urban, whether ministers are graduates of one particular seminary or of no seminary, whether one ministers in one part of the nation or overseas in missionary service.
“Nor is the issue theological. We cooperated in missions, education and evangelism for 81 years before we ever got around to writing a statement of faith in 1926. And as for liberalism in educational institutions, one would be at a loss to discover a classical liberal in a Southern Baptist pulpit, classroom, college or seminary.
“Nor does the issue focus on who serves as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. That’s not the issue. The issue is not who the convention officers are, or who will serve on the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, or who will be trustees of agencies and institutions.
“No one of these is the issue so long as — and underscore ‘so long as’ three times — those individuals are authentic convention Southern Baptists committed to the priority of cooperative missions, ministry and education and to an open process to the election of convention officers and boards.”
“Our problem today is that independent fundamentalist revisionists are rewriting our Southern Baptist history,” Honeycutt said. “They are rewriting it to suit their own agenda. They would reshape our convention by excluding both our history and our current polity. The Southern Baptist Convention has been, is and should remain a pluralistic entity.”
Allen said despite its forcefulness, in hindsight Honeycutt’s call to arms seemed destined to fail. One reason, he said, was Honeycutt’s personal temperament.
“By all accounts Honeycutt was by nature an irenic man, a Southern gentleman serving in a time of intense denominational conflict,” he said. “Though determined to turn back the conservative movement within the SBC, he was not a natural pugilist. In the Holy War sermon, his words were full-throated, but his follow-through, at times, appeared half-hearted. It is as though before the words were out of his mouth, they were beginning to wither on the floor.”
Allen said framing the controversy in terms of biblical inerrancy and doctrinal fidelity put the moderates on defense, and because a majority of Southern Baptists shared those views, it was “politically untenable” for them to prevail.
“Declaring holy war on a majority of one’s own denomination, however you nuance the phrase, is never a winning proposition,” Allen said. “This is especially true when the denomination both owns and funds your entity.”
“In hindsight, Honeycutt’s ‘To Your Tents, O Israel’ sermon looked destined to fail,” Allen said. “That is not a statement of triumphalism, for chest pounding is not a spiritual fruit. It is statement of gratitude that God, in his kind providence, gave the SBC a second chance.”
Honeycutt retired as president in 1993, and died in 2004 at 78.