NEW YORK (NY)
June 10, 2019
By Jonathan Merritt
In the summer of 1979, conservatives within the Southern Baptist Convention gathered in Houston for their annual meeting with the goal of seizing control of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. These conservatives claimed that theological liberalism had taken root in the denomination’s seminaries and agencies and was taking the group down the path of heresy. Seminary professors were openly questioning the historical accuracy of some of the Bible’s miraculous stories such as Noah’s flood. Progressive churches were embracing the ordination of women and even debating accepting LGBTQ people into the life of the church. These “problems” could only be corrected by a disruptive overhaul of leadership.
To shift the balance of power, these conservatives implemented a strategy that was as simple as it was genius: recruit and assemble messengers who would attend the denomination’s annual meeting and vote for a handpicked conservative for the SBC presidency. The new president would, in turn, nominate only conservatives to serve on governing boards of seminaries and agencies. And finally, once conservatives controlled a majority share of these boards, they would replace establishment liberal leaders with conservative foot soldiers.
Some 15,000 Southern Baptist messengers gathered in Houston in 1979, and after the ballots were counted, a fiery 47-year-old conservative preacher named Adrian Rogers was elected president. His unparalleled command of rhetoric and uncompromising belief in the inerrancy of scripture made him the perfect person to inaugurate the conservative revolution. Rogers only received 51 percent of the vote over several other candidates, but that was enough. His election was the toppling of the first domino, triggering a purge of left-leaning leaders and churches from the denomination. Just like that, the Southern Baptist Convention was born again.
This week the group gathers in Birmingham, Alabama, exactly 40 years since the Southern Baptist Convention as we know it came into existence. Just like many individuals of similar age, the denomination is experiencing a bit of a midlife crisis, defined by lack of purpose and deep internal conflict. Our rapidly changing world has, in the words of Baylor University historian Barry Hankins, “thrust the group into the middle of an identity crisis.” In the early days of their revolution, conservative SBC leaders united around the common goal of defeating their left-leaning brethren. But the liberals are long gone now, leaving no enemies for these “battling Baptists” to fight—except themselves.
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