Associated Press

25 years later, passions still strong on Southern Baptists’ conservative takeover


June 5, 2004, Saturday, BC cycle

25 years later, passions still strong on Southern Baptists’ conservative takeover

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., AP Religion Writer

LENGTH: 1060 words


Back in 1979, the Rev. Jimmy Allen thought the highlight of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting would be a giant rally at the Astrodome featuring the Rev. Billy Graham.

Instead, Allen and other moderate leaders in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination were caught by surprise as conservatives who had attacked the denomination’s seminaries as “hotbeds of liberalism” flocked to the meeting.

There, they succeeded in electing a denominational president, the Rev. Adrian Rogers of Tennessee, who shared their view of biblical inerrancy – meaning that the Bible is without error in any way, including historical details.

Some thought the vote was just a momentary change in direction, but Rogers’ election turned out be a watershed moment for the denomination. The 16 million-member SBC shifted dramatically to the right – politically and theologically – and in the years that have followed, its conservative leaders have pushed hard against abortion rights, homosexuality and women pastors.

Twenty-five years later, passions remain strong on both sides when Baptists discuss the conservative takeover.

If not for the 1979 meeting, Southern Baptists “would be battling the same issues of the Episcopalians and the Methodists and the United Presbyterians. We would have basically marginalized and homogenized the Southern Baptist Convention into a liberal, moderate denomination with very little impact,” said the Rev. Jack Graham, the convention’s president and pastor of the 22,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas.

Allen, then the convention’s president and pastor of the First Baptist Church of San Antonio, sees it differently.

“I’m sad for the fact that the Baptist witness had a golden moment in which we were at our fullest strength, and both our image and the reality was that we were a caring group of people enthusiastic about sharing the message,” said Allen, now 76 and retired in Georgia. “Now, we are at a time when the word Baptist means squabbling and judgmentalism.”

The conservative takeover – or “take back,” as the revolt’s co-leader, Paul Pressler, refers to it – came after Pressler and the Rev. Paige Patterson, then president of Criswell College, a Baptist school in Dallas, held an unprecedented series of pre-convention strategy sessions around the country.

Pressler and Patterson used a three-point message to recruit conservative “messengers” to the meeting:

– They argued that the denomination was in trouble because of liberal seminary professors who were questioning biblical inerrancy.

– They said the problem could be turned around by electing conservative presidents, who could use their powerful appointive authority to remove moderates from the boards of Baptist seminaries and other denominational agencies.

– They urged like-minded Baptists to travel to Houston so their votes could be counted.

“We would get letters that said, ‘Answer yes and no: Were Adam and Eve real people? Do you believe the devil is a real being? Do you believe in the virgin birth of Christ?”‘ said Bill J. Leonard, then a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

In the former Southern Baptist’s view, the issue was far more complicated than the conservatives made it.

Still, the right won the fight – in part because of the simplicity of its message.

“They said, ‘You either believe the Bible or you don’t,”‘ said Leonard, now dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. “And the moderates said, ‘Yes, we believe the Bible, but we’ve got a checklist here about how we believe the Bible.”‘

Moderates, who accused conservatives of wanting to impose “creedalism” on the Baptist freedom to interpret Scriptures, brushed off the conservative challenge until it was too late, said Louis Moore, a former Houston Chronicle religion editor who has attended 30 Southern Baptist annual meetings.

“All of a sudden, these cars start coming in, and buses start coming in, with all these people they’d never seen before from Baptist churches. … And they had all been rallied by Patterson and Pressler,” said Moore, now owner of Hannibal Books, an evangelical Christian publishing house.

After the vote, the newly elected conservative president told reporters: “I haven’t come with blood in my eyes, but with love in my heart.” However, Rogers added that he would not abide any “compromise of the word of God.”

Now 72 and recuperating from heart surgery in March, Rogers declined an interview request.

Patterson, now president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, said the 1979 annual meeting “was clearly a watershed convention since it marked the first successful assault on the liberal and neo-orthodox hegemony of the convention.”

At the time, most moderates saw Rogers’ election as a temporary “pendulum swinging,” said the Rev. Charles Wade, executive director of the moderate Baptist General Convention of Texas, a 2-million-member group that clashes frequently with the Southern Baptist leadership.

But by 1985, when moderates came out on the losing end of a fiery meeting that drew 45,000 Southern Baptists to Dallas, it had become quite clear that the conservatives were not going away.

“I realized that the pendulum was not going to swing because the fundamentalists had nailed it to the wall,” Wade said.

Eventually, disenfranchised moderates left the Southern Baptist Convention and formed their own group, the Atlanta-based Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which has grown to about 1,800 member congregations. The Southern Baptist Convention has 42,000 member congregations. Some churches belong to both national associations.

Looking back, Pressler, 74, suggests conservatives were on a God-given mission in 1979.

Still, the retired Houston appellate court judge said the experience was painful, as critics accused him and Patterson of sinister motives.

“I had a very good, easy life and I forewent some other opportunities in order to be involved in the fight,” he said. “But I feel that the future of Southern Baptists, the salvation of many souls and the influence that we have in our country all depended on what happened.”

On the Net:

Southern Baptist Convention:

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship:

June 4, 2004, Friday, BC cycle


Baptist moderates, conservatives still at odds in Texas

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., AP Religion Writer

LENGTH: 1085 words


Conservatives pushing a literal view of Scriptures and a right-wing political agenda long ago won the fight for the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination with 16 million members.

In the state where the battle started, though, moderates still hold the reins of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, a 2.4 million-member state association larger than some national denominations.

“They couldn’t control Texas and what I would call conservative, traditional Southern Baptists – also known as moderates – because we were not taken in by the accusations and the political strategies,” said the Rev. Charles Wade, executive director of the Dallas-based Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Twenty-five years after conservatives wrested control of the national denomination at the SBC’s 1979 annual meeting in Houston, the battle still rages for the hearts – and souls – of Texas Baptists.

Signs of the continuing conflict can be seen in recent controversies involving Baptist-affiliated Baylor University in Waco and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

Just last month, Baylor regents voted 18-17 to retain Robert Sloan as president of the world’s largest Baptist university. One regent on the 36-member board was absent.

Sloan, a Baptist preacher and theologian, has faced harsh criticism over his 10-year reform plan that calls for moving the 14,000-student school into the top tier of American universities while strengthening its Christian mission.

Some faculty leaders say Sloan, who has headed Baylor since 1995, threatens the university’s academic reputation by stressing religious beliefs over qualifications when hiring new professors. Sloan denies imposing any creeds or religious oaths. Less than half of Baylor’s 800 faculty members are Baptist.

The split over Sloan is clearly tied to the fight between conservative and moderate Baptists, said the Rev. Jack Graham, the Southern Baptist Convention’s president and pastor of the 22,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano.

“He is viewed as someone who is theologically conservative,” Graham said. “And I believe Robert Sloan is the best thing to happen to Baylor University in the last 30 years. I believe he is an outstanding man, a man of conviction. … The spiritual condition and the Baptist future of Baylor is at stake with Robert Sloan.”

But a regent involved in the debate over Sloan said Graham is wrong.

“That is so far from the truth, that doesn’t even merit a response,” said regent Toby Druin, a former longtime editor of the Baptist Standard, the Baptist General Convention of Texas newspaper.

Wade backed Druin’s assessment, saying regents appointed by the General Convention to Baylor’s board are about evenly split on Sloan. The General Convention appoints one-fourth of the regents and contributes $5 million annually to Baylor. The vote in May was taken in a closed meeting and individual allegiances not revealed.

In the other controversy, the General Convention announced last month that it will not offer exhibit space to Southwestern and other SBC-run seminaries at the annual state meeting Nov. 8-9 in San Antonio.

In a letter, President Kenneth Hall and convention official John Petty blamed the decision on the national denomination’s “unsupportive direction” toward the Texas convention.

“We feel it is in the best interest of convention messengers to limit exhibitors to organizations and Baptists who are wholeheartedly supportive of the leadership and churches of the Baptist General Convention of Texas,” Hall and Petty wrote.

The Rev. Paige Patterson, Southwestern’s president and a co-leader of the 1979 national conservative takeover, said he was “dumbfounded” by the decision.

Since joining Southwestern last year, Patterson said he had made efforts to “achieve cordial relationships” with the Texas convention.

“This is a clear signal to Southern Baptists in BGCT churches that the present leadership of the BGCT intends to sever all relationships with the Southern Baptist Convention and its agencies,” Patterson said in a statement. “They apparently have decided to cut off the dog’s tail one joint at a time.”

Last year, Southwestern stopped allowing stacks of the Baptist Standard on campus. The ban came after Southwestern filed a grievance accusing the newspaper of inaccurate reporting on the reasons why former seminary President Ken Hemphill retired.

The Southern Baptist Texan, a newspaper published by a rival state convention, the Southern Baptists of Texas, is distributed at Southwestern.

The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, formed in 1998, has grown to 1,450 member congregations and estimates a membership of 750,000. The General Convention has 5,700 member congregations. About 25 percent of the rival convention’s members maintain dual membership.

In recent years, the General Convention has cut millions of dollars in funding for SBC seminaries, and raised money to support Baptist missionaries forced to leave the mission field because they refused to sign the national denomination’s 2000 Baptist Faith and Message doctrinal statement. The statement opposes female pastors and says wives should submit to their husbands.

Earlier this year, the General Convention defended the Baptist World Alliance – and pledged its monetary support – after SBC leaders accused the international alliance of becoming too liberal and “openly advocating aberrant and dangerous theologies.”

The SBC is the largest of the alliance’s 211 Baptist unions and conventions. Southern Baptists will consider withdrawing funding of the alliance at their annual meeting June 15-16 in Indianapolis.

Wade said the General Convention has moved beyond the conflict with Southern Baptist conservatives. Its mission, he said, “has everything to do with the future and not anything to do with what’s happened over the last 25 years.”

But Graham predicts the rival state convention will keep chipping away at the General Convention’s membership.

“Ultimately, there will be 2,000 to 3,000 churches in Texas that will support the Southern Baptists Convention of Texas,” Graham said. “That will basically divide the Southern Baptist churches in half in the state of Texas.”

On the Net:

Baptist General Convention of Texas:

Southern Baptists of Texas Convention:

Bobby Ross Jr. has covered religion since 1999. He can be reached at bross(at)

June 7, 2004, Monday, BC cycle


AP Interview: Q&A with Southern Baptist Convention president

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., AP Religion Writer

LENGTH: 1271 words


President Bush welcomes the Rev. Jack Graham to the Oval Office in a photograph that hangs in the conference room beside the Baptist minister’s office.

In another picture, Graham – pastor of the 22,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church in this Dallas suburb – poses with former President Bush and his wife, Barbara.

Other images show the minister joking around with a friend, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and praying with the world’s most famous evangelist, the Rev. Billy Graham, no relation to him.

The photos attest to the influence of Jack Graham, 53, who grew up in the small town of Conway, Ark., and pastored small churches in Texas and Oklahoma before rising to the top of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Later this month, Graham will end a two-year tenure as president of the 16 million-member, Nashville, Tenn.-based Southern Baptist Convention. At the same time, he will mark 15 years as senior pastor at Prestonwood, one of the nation’s largest churches.

And to top it off, he’s eagerly awaiting the arrival of his first grandchild.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, Graham discussed same-sex marriage, public education, presidential politics and other issues likely to arise at the Southern Baptist annual meeting June 15-16 in Indianapolis:

Question: So, it’s been a busy time for you?

Answer: This has been an incredible experience to be president of the Southern Baptist Convention for these two years. … At the same time, I feel like what we’ve been able to say, what we’ve been able to express, has been helpful. The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest evangelical denomination in the world. So people have awakened to that. We are no longer viewed as a Southern, regionalized denomination, but more and more people recognize the presence of Southern Baptists is all across America. The impact is around the world.

Q: And I understand that you have proposed studying whether even to change the name of the Southern Baptist Convention.

A: I have made that proposal and there will be a motion at this convention from the floor that a study be done and that we consider the possibility of a new name that would reflect this national and international presence of Southern Baptists.

Q: Any names that come to your mind?

A: No, that will be the challenge of this committee will be to find a name that would somehow better represent us. There are many Baptist groups and there are many names and we don’t want to confuse people as to who we are or our identity. There is a certain value of our current identity. …

Q: What do you think is the greatest accomplishment of you or Southern Baptists during the two years that you have served as president?

A: In the midst of the war on terrorism and a cultural war over major issues of ethics and morality – the marriage amendment, for example, is a major issue – I have been able to express to the religious press and the secular press the conservative, biblical values and faith of millions of Southern Baptists and evangelicals. …

Q: You’ve probably followed the split that has emerged in the Episcopal Church over the ordination of a gay bishop. Even more recently, Massachusetts has started allowing same-sex marriages. How do you and Southern Baptists react to that?

A: Well, I oppose same-sex marriage. I am for the federal marriage amendment because we have state judges and other judges in America … who want to restructure society and redefine marriage. And the people of America should decide that. It should not be decided in the courts. It should be decided among the people. And the only way to do that is through the marriage amendment. So, I’m certain there will be a strong statement of support at the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis.

Q: How have you reacted to the controversy in the Episcopal Church?

A: You know, I don’t speak for Episcopalians. But let me put it this way: I am pleased with the conservative biblists within the Episcopal Church who are rising up. … I certainly am prayerfully and hopefully expecting the conservatives and those who oppose this within the Episcopal Church to have the potential even to change it or to divide the church and move forward. …

Q: Changing gears, there’s been quite a bit of publicity about a proposed resolution for the annual meeting that would urge Southern Baptists to take their children out of public schools. Where do you stand on that?

A: You’ve got to understand the resolution process, that we have multiple resolutions that are presented for consideration. The resolutions committee may or may not choose to act on this proposal. We’ve had unusual proposals in the past that have not been considered. You know, somebody wanted to send missionaries to outer space at one point.

So, we certainly respect the men who are sincerely concerned about the public schools, and certainly Southern Baptists are concerned about the direction of some public schools. But on the other hand, many of our best people – administrators, teachers, coaches – are Southern Baptists working within the public school systems all around America. And we’re training young people, even in our Christian schools, to teach and many of these will teach in public schools.

So, I find it highly unlikely that Southern Baptists will approve a resolution like this. And I personally believe that we should encourage our public school teachers and administrators to be salt and light, that is to have an influence within the public schools, to continue to work to improve the public schools in terms of their values and beliefs. … I certainly don’t believe, as the resolution suggests, that it would be sinful for Christian parents to put their kids in public schools. …

It’s a resolution, in my view, that will not move beyond the publicity it has received.

Q: Will there be any major political figures at the meeting, such as President Bush?

A: President Bush is invited and we anticipate that he will speak to the convention via live satellite. But that at this point is still unconfirmed.

Q: Along the same lines, how active do you expect Southern Baptists to be in the political process this summer? Baptists and evangelicals have become identified with Republicans such as Bush. Is that fair and will that continue?

A: No. 1, the 2004 presidential election is a critical election. There probably hasn’t been a clearer choice in terms of the future direction of America than we have right now. For me and for most Southern Baptists, it’s not an issue or Republican or Democrat. It’s an issue of biblical values vs. secular values and values that we share as opposed to values that we do not share.

Whether it be the marriage amendment or whether it be abortion, we’re interested as Christians – as conservative, Bible-believing, evangelical Christians – we’re interested in the moral issue of abortion and marriage and the family. So we have heightened the awareness of our congregations of the issues at stake – and therefore have challenged our people … to vote their principles and not their political parties. …

Q: Would that mean voting for Bush in this election?

A: That means that people are going to make up their mind based on their values. I think it’s a well-known fact that evangelicals, not just Southern Baptists, are very fond of this president and we believe he best represents what we believe and where we want to see America go in the days ahead.

On the Net:

Southern Baptist Convention:

Prestonwood Baptist Church:

%d bloggers like this: