Monday, June 18, 2012

Baptist Distinctives and the Fundamentalist Movement

Understanding Fundamentalism Series
Part 1 - Understanding Fundamentalism
Part 2 - Baptist Distinctives and the Fundamentalism Movement
Part 3 - Preserving Unity:  The Baptist Faith and Message of 1925
Part 4 - Censoring Higher Education:  The Baptist Faith and Message of 1963
Part 5 - The New Credalism:  The Baptist Faith and Message of 2000
Part 6 - Fundamentalism and the Future of Baptist Higher Education

It has often been said that whenever one finds two Baptists discussing theology, at least three opinions will be present on any particular issue.  While this may be an exaggeration, it recognizes the considerable amount of theological diversity existing among those who call themselves Baptists.  When speaking of Baptist theology, it is better to look at four anchors to which Baptists attach themselves and which shape their life and polity.  They have been identified by Walter Shurden as the Four Fragile Freedoms.

Veronica has already summarized Shurden's approach to understanding Baptist theology.  However, to avoid forcing you to click over to that series, I will briefly summarize them and highlight the relevant points for our present discussion. (For a more in-depth treatment, please click over—it will be worth your time.)

Distinctives of Baptist Theology
Baptists have traditionally been supporters of freedom both throughout the denomination at large and among organizations outside the church.  Shurden distinguishes four doctrines that are among the most historically essential to the Baptists identity, and all four concern understandings of freedom.  The four Baptist distinctives are soul freedom, Bible freedom, church freedom, and religious freedom [1].

Soul freedom is the principle that all people have the responsibility to deal with God and that they should be free from any external restraint to do so [2].  It is from this principle that the Baptist affirmation of the priesthood of all believers springs.  Baptist Historian and OBU Professor Emeritus Slayden Yarbrough defines the priesthood of all believers as “a highly individualistic approach to religion.  Each person stands before God with the choice of deciding whether to be in or out of fellowship with him" [3].  Historically, this has been one of the most important doctrines in Baptist theology, and while the four freedoms are interrelated, the strength of the others spring from this commitment to the priesthood of all believers.  Indeed, E. Y. Mullins and Herschel Hobbs—respective chairs of the 1925 and 1963 Baptist Faith and Message Committees—maintained that soul freedom (they referred to is as "soul competency") is the chief, most distinguishing mark of Baptist theology [4].

Furthermore, Baptists have rejected creeds—and at times been very suspicious of confessions—because of their commitment to soul freedom.  Creeds are considered to be documents that are authoritative, binding a religious community to its constraints [5].  Conversely, confessions are documents that function as an expression of the thoughts and beliefs of a religious community without committing any individual to its principles [6].  In other words, confessions express generally held beliefs without binding individuals within a religious community to them.  Southern Baptists were so suspicious of both creeds and confessions that at the SBC’s inauguration in 1845, the explicit understanding was that the new Convention needed no creed except the Bible [7].  Implicitly, the convention accepted The New Hampshire Confession of Faith of 1833 as descriptive of its members but without any official sanction.

Consequently, Bible freedom is the conviction that the Bible is to be central to all facets of Baptist life, and all Christians are given the liberty to study it as they will [8].  Baptists do not accept a priestly class that separates them from their ability to read the Bible and to study it for themselves.  The centrality of the Bible has often fueled the many controversies of the SBC.  During each of the fundamentalist controversies—in the 1920s, the 1960s, and the 1980s and mid-90s—, both sides argued their positions from the Bible.  Though Baptists may differ in their approaches to Scripture, its importance has been a unifying feature in the history of the SBC.

Church freedom is the belief that local churches submit only to the lordship of Jesus Christ and are free from one another in all matters of polity, membership, practice, and affiliation [9].  The national convention, state convention, and regional associations have no power over the individual church.  Acting as an autonomous unit, the individual church participates in each of these institutions voluntarily, and membership in one is not required by membership in another.  For example, it would not be impossible for a church to be a member of the national convention without being a member of the state convention or a local association.  The autonomy of the local church is considered as the “corporate expression” of the priesthood of all believers [10], and all of Baptist polity is shaped by the principle of church freedom.

Religious freedom, as defined by Shurden, is “freedom OF religion, freedom FOR religion, and freedom FROM religion, insisting that Caesar is not Christ and Christ is not Caesar" [11].  From their roots as English Separatists—politically oppressed in England and the colonies and United States—Baptists have held from their beginning that all men have the responsibility to respond to God and must have the freedom to do so without intervention.  John Leland, a Baptist leader in Massachusetts and Virginia wrote in 1791, “Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing” [12].  Despite their dramatic commitment to religious freedom, Leland's view were traditional and long-held among the Baptists of his time.  The first book published in the English language that argued for a complete and total form of religious liberty was A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, written in 1611-1612 by the Baptist founder Thomas Helwys [13].  Helwys personally sent a copy to King James I (in the same year that his King James Version of the Bible was published), and he was arrested soon after by the British crown for his religious views.  Helwys died in Newgate Prison in 1616 [14].

As we shall see in the coming days, during the fundamentalist controversies, three centuries of Baptist distinctives were under continual assault.  The attacks were not random or peripheral damage from more central issues.  Rather, they demonstrated both the incompatibility of traditional Baptist theology and fundamentalism as well as the intensity and militancy of the new movement.  The attack on the priesthood of all believers was especially intense, and as a result, Southern Baptist theology has been intrinsically changed.  To understand how a doctrine foundational to the faith and message of Baptists throughout history has been institutionally removed—in all but name only—not only demonstrates the fragility of the freedoms but also as the strength and power of fundamentalism.

Roots of Fundamentalism
George Marsden identifies two fronts for the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s:  pre-millennial dispensational theology and a militant opposition to the theory of evolution in American society [15].  In the late nineteenth century, science was undergoing a change that would separate it from the authority of the Bible.  Soon, a commitment to the authority of science and the accuracy of the Bible—as understood in a post-Enlightenment ideology—would not be possible or tolerated by many Christians and modernists.  When individuals were confronted with this dichotomy, their typical response was an extreme devotion to one side or the other [16], and as the other cultural foundations of the evangelical worldview became progressively more independent of Christianity, a new theology began to emerge among evangelicals known as premillennialism, part of an interpretation of history called dispensationalism.

Premillennialism contended that the society would grow worse until Christ returned with the saints to judge humankind and set up his millennial kingdom.  This eschatology (theology of the end of human time) insisted that present culture was beyond repair, and that the spiritual decline evangelicals were witnessing was part of God’s ultimate and divine plan [17].

Dispensationalism divides human history into seven dispensations beginning with Adam and ending with Christ's millennial reign—current Christians being in the Church Dispensation, the sixth and final one before the Second Coming.  Each dispensation ended with the God-ordained increase in wickedness and subsequent judgment.  Personal piety and proper doctrine became so important to the movement that it was impossible to separate the two ideals.  As a result, fundamentalists championed extreme militancy—in other words, vigorous and aggressive action—as the only way to remain faithful to the Bible and to God [18].

One of Clarence Larkin's many charts of the history of humankind

Premillennial dispensationalism, then, held to a radical form of supernaturalism and a hyper-literal reading of the Bible that removed all human elements from the inspiration process.  Not only was the Bible accurate and reliable, but all of reality was subject to its scrutiny—including science.  From the fusion of dispensationalism and of Baconian science, a new conceptualization of biblical authority emerged—the inerrancy of the Bible—, becoming the chief rallying cry for fundamentalists [19].  (The early-Enlightenment philosophy of Francis Bacon was a cultural assumption both fundamentalists and modernists held in common.)

World War I was the impetus that transformed the fundamentalist movement into a militant, anti-modern phenomenon.  Prior to World War I, premillennialists opposed all social reforms, but in the wake of the hyper-patriotism of the post-war years, they became convinced that to preserve Christianity, they must preserve America, the bastion of Christ on earth [20].  Certain that the new liberalism among Christian ranks was apostasy—especially since since recent developments in biblical scholarship were German in origin—the newly-christened fundamentalists became radically opposed to it and to evolution—also tied to Germany through Friedrich Nietzsche’s use of social Darwinism [21].  They argued that the only way to preserve the morals of a Christian nation was in the schools, and, as a result, fundamentalism reached its height in the 1920s [22].

From 1920 to 1925, America was at war with itself.  In the arena of the church, fundamentalists battled liberalism and aggressively supported dispensational theology.  In the arena of the society at large, evolution was the main target.  Southern laws against teaching evolution led to the famous Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee [23].  William Jennings Bryan, a key anti-evolutionist leader, attempted to win by the use of sarcastic stunts, public embarrassment of evolutionists, and vitriolic taunts.  However, his sure-to-win plan backfired, and Clarence Darrow, the defense lawyer, ridiculed Bryan’s lack of scientific knowledge, portraying him as a buffoon [24].  As the dominant cultural assumptions about the Bible had shifted, the modernists won the trial and the debate, and the fundamentalist movement—now the source of widespread ridicule—began to stall.  Bryan died only a few days after his disgrace at the trial, intensifying the depth of his and the movement's public failure [25].

All over the United States, the combination of the extremism of the fundamentalists' position and the embarrassment of the “Monkey Trial” caused many who had previously supported the movement to vacillate.  In the two strongest denominations fueling the controversy, Northern Baptists and Presbyterians, more moderate voices made decisive inroads for the sake of denominational loyalty.  In 1926, only a year after the heyday of fundamentalism, it seemed as if the fight was over for most.

Southern Baptists and Fundamentalism in the 1920s
In the Southern Baptist Convention, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy did not reach the levels that it did in other denominations.  Culturally and theologically, the South was more conservative, and the debate was never between the modernists and fundamentalists but between the fundamentalists and the conservatives and moderates—those who tried to hold to versions of pre-controversy views of the Bible and science or who were opposed to the militancy of the fundamentalists despite general theological agreement [26].

Even so, the pressure nearly caused a schism in the Southern Baptist Convention.  In order to define itself in the face of the controversy and to preserve unity, the denomination issued its first confession in 1925—The Baptist Faith and Message [27].  The confession walked a fine line between the varying views held by Southern Baptists, attempting to appease the minority fundamentalists' doctrinal rigidity without alienating the majority of its members.

This is the subject to which we will turn tomorrow.


  1. Walter B. Shurden, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1993), 4-5.
  2. Ibid., 23.
  3. Slayden A. Yarbrough, Southern Baptists: A Historical, Ecclesiological, and Theological Heritage of a Confessional People (Nashville: Southern Baptist Historical Society and Fields Publishing, 2000), 28.
  4. Mark Wingfield, "Mohler Criticizes Mullins' Influence and Doctrine of Soul Competency," The Baptist Standard, April 17, 2000.
  5. Jeff B. Pool, Against Returning to Egypt: Exposing and Resisting Credalism in the Southern Baptist Convention (Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 1998), 8-10.
  6. Ibid., 10-16.
  7. Jesse C. Fletcher, The Southern Baptist Convention: A Sesquicentennial History (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 48.
  8. Shurden, 9.
  9. Ibid., 33.
  10. Yarbrough, 29.
  11. Shurden, 45.
  12. John Leland, “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable” (1791), 184; quoted in Shurden, 50.
  13. Yarbrough, 116.
  14. Brian Haymes, "On Religious Liberty: Re-reading A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity in London in 2005," The Baptist Quarterly 42, no. 3 (2007), 198-9.
  15. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford, 1980), 164.
  16. Ibid., 20.
  17. James J. Thompson, Jr.  Tried as by Fire: Southern Baptists and the Religious Controversies of the 1920s (Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 1982), 54, 91-2.
  18. Marsden, 46.
  19. Ibid., 56.
  20. Thompson, 43-4.
  21. Marsden, 148.
  22. Ibid., 160.
  23. Thompson, 131.
  24. William E. Ellis, “A Man of the Books and a Man of the People”: E. Y. Mullins and the Crisis of Moderate Southern Baptist Leadership (Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 1985), 163.
  25. Marsden, 187-190.
  26. Ellis, 41.
  27. Herschel Hobbs, “Southern Baptists and Confessionalism: A Comparison of the Origins and Contents of the 1925 and 1963 Confessions,” Review and Expositor 76, no. 1 (1976), 55-6.

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