Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Censoring Higher Education: The Baptist Faith and Message of 1963

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

Yesterday, we looked at the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message.  Growing fundamentalist pressure led the Southern Baptist Convention to do something it had refused to do before—issue a statement of faith.  The 1925 Baptist Faith and Message, led by elder statesman and ardent defender of soul freedom E. Y. Mullins, walked a fine line between the various fundamentalist, conservative, and moderate voices in the SBC, seeking to preserve unity above all.  The confession was influenced by fundamentalism—as evidenced by the strong supernaturalism—, but it chose not to make any statement with regard to evolution and supported a moderate form of the Social Gospel.

However, despite attempts at reaching a statement that all could support, fundamentalists introduced a resolution at the 1926 convention meeting that "rejects every theory, evolution or otherwise, which teaches that man originated in, or came by way of, a lower animal ancestry," becoming the official interpretation of the confession.  This began a trend toward more restrictive interpretations of Southern Baptist theology, contradicting especially the foundational, historic doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (soul freedom) and other defining marks of the Baptist identity.

The First Genesis Controversy
In 1961, controversy shook the Southern Baptist Convention again.  Ralph H. Elliott, head of the Old Testament department at the newly-formed Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, published The Message of Genesis, in which he took a symbolic rather than literal approach to Genesis stressing its “theological and religious purpose” [1].  He made a distinction between the literary style of Genesis 1-11 and 12-50, comparing the book's opening chapters to the parables of Jesus in light of the cultural context of the Ancient Near East [2].  Broadman Press—then the official publishing house of SBC—printed the book [3].

One of the earliest fundamentalist critics of the book was John Havlik, director of Evangelism for Kansas Baptists, who castigated Elliott for assaulting the Lordship of Christ by affirming anything other than the literal truth of the Old Testament.  He wrote,
Our use of the word "critical" in regard to Old Testament scholarship is to denote those scholars who are not willing to accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ in regard to the Old Testament.  That is, they are not willing to accept what he says and approach the Old Testament by substituting their own reason for His Lordship. [4]
Others accused Elliott of not affirming the foundational Christian doctrines such as the full divinity and full humanity of Christ, with some going so far as to question his salvation and call him an unbeliever [5].  Elliott was characterized as a "liberal" in the style of the 1920s controversy, insinuating a connection between his work and the modernism and Darwinism of the first fundamentalist controversy.  Such accusations divided conservatives and moderates in the SBC.  The fundamentalists controlled the terms of the debate, and if one affirmed the truth of the Bible (something all Southern Baptists did passionately), then that person must also deny the truth of The Message of Genesis.

Oklahoma Baptists were among the most critical of Elliott, and at a meeting of Elliott's critics in Oklahoma City, a plan was devised to elect trustees to Midwestern Seminary who would support their opposition to Elliott [6].  Furthermore, the furious controversy soon raised the threat that Midwestern Seminary would lose Cooperative Program funding.  Initially an ardent supporter of both Elliott and his book, only then did seminary president Millard Berquist cave to fundamentalist pressure [7].  Finally, in October of 1962, Elliott was brought before the seminary trustees where they insisted that he withdraw the book from further publication.  Elliott refused and was dismissed from his position—notably not for his theological views but for his denial of the administrators' request.  While SBC did not officially ban the book, Broadman Press ceased publication of The Message of Genesis, and Midwestern Seminary continued to be controlled by outside interest groups [8].

The controversy did not end with Elliott's dismissal from Midwestern.  It continued to reverberate throughout the convention.  At the 1962 Convention meeting in San Francisco, prior to Elliott's removal, it was proposed that a committee be formed to revise the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message.  Led by Herschel Hobbs, president of the SBC and the pastor of First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.  Again in response to fundamentalist controversy and pressure, Southern Baptists reformulated the Baptist Faith and Message.

The Confession of 1963
For many years prior to Elliott’s book, there had been a growing sentiment that the Convention was becoming more liberal in its theology.  Herschel Hobbs felt that “this book was not so much the cause as it was the occasion of the situation which developed following its publication” [9].  With much work and careful study, Hobbs and the Baptist Faith and Message Committee recommended the 1963 confession.  It was approved overwhelmingly by the messengers of the convention in Kansas City [10].

The 1963 BFM remained fairly moderate in the face of denominational conflict and once again proved to be a mediator between moderates and fundamentalists [11].  As in 1925, its language was sufficiently vague to allow for interpretation, but it was also specific enough to describe how Baptists approached faith and the Bible in general.  It reflected its engagement with the fundamentalist movement through two primary changes:  (1) an emphasis on the Lordship of Christ and (2) a more restrictive view of Christian education.

When comparing the confessions of 1925 and 1963, one of the notable differences is the amount of times language was added that mentions Jesus Christ and his relationship to the believer or the church.  Mention of Jesus was added a total of fifteen times to the 1963 confession.  Two of the most important areas in which this is evident are the articles on “The Scriptures” and “The Church.”

In the article on “The Scriptures,” the 1963 BFM additionally describes the Bible as “the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man" [12].  It also concludes with the new sentence, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ" [13].  In the article on "The Church," the committee revision made special note that the " under the Lordship of Jesus Christ" in which "members are equally responsible" [14].  (Further articles such as "The Kingdom" and "Last Things were significantly altered to emphasize the role of Christ as well.)

The language of the Lordship of Christ was open enough to allow for interpretation, acting as a bridge between the more moderate and the fundamentalist voices in the SBC.  Elliott himself was a committed Christian who frequently supplied pulpits throughout Missouri and Kansas before his dismissal, and he saw his work as an expression of his faith in Christ and study of the Bible.  Fundamentalists likewise understood their actions and positions as consistent with their understanding of the gospel and submission to Christ's lordship.  While the two groups did not agree on the particulars, they could agree on language.  Even so, such language also recalled fundamentalist objections such as those of John Havlik who criticized Elliott as being un-Christian.

The other arena of the 1963 BFM that specifically dealt with the fundamentalist crisis was the article on “Education.”  Three sentences were added that demonstrated a clear connection with the Elliott Controversy.
In Christian education, there should be a proper balance between academic freedom and academic responsibility.  Freedom in any orderly relationship of human life is always limited and never absolute.  The freedom of a teacher in a Christian school, college, or seminary, is limited by the pre-eminence of Christ, by the authoritative nature of the Scriptures, and by the distinct purposes for which the school exists. [15]
Despite the goal of continuing to preserve unity among members of the SBC, the 1963 BFM endorsed both the removal of Elliott and the censorship of his book.  In this article, the connection between the objections of fundamentalists such as Havlik and the Lordship of Christ becomes very clear.  The statement in the 1925 BFM that "the cause of education in the Kingdom of Christ is coordinate with the causes of missions and general benevolence, and should receive ...the liberal support of the churches" was removed.

Baptist Distinctives and Fundamentalism
These two shifts within the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message represent the beginning of a radical break with Baptist distinctives.  Traditional freedoms such as soul freedom were preserved almost intact.  Emphasizing the Lordship of Christ did not seek to impose any document on an individual, but it did mark a small shift in the direction towards a more centralized control.  It proved that those who convince others that their position was the most Christian had significant leverage within the denomination's official theology and power structure.  Although the prominence of Jesus did not attack any of the freedoms, its use by fundamentalists paved the way for their removal.

Nonetheless, the “Education” article was a direct refutation of Bible freedom.  By redefining Christian education, the confession was limiting what was taught in seminaries.  Rather than allowing students and laypersons to respond to the Bible themselves—in agreement or disagreement with Elliott's work guided by the Spirit of Christ—, it subtly began to endorse an official doctrine that would define how Baptists could relate and respond to God and the Bible.  Furthermore, by limiting academic freedom, the confession gave credibility to the firing of Ralph Elliott, the banning of his book in all but name only, and the tactics used by his opponents to manipulate the board of Midwestern Seminary.  Ultimately, those tactics would be used again to alter the course of the SBC as a whole and eventually to bring all of the convention's seminaries in line with its new direction.

However, the greatest threat to Baptist freedom came in the call for the confession in 1962.  The motion asked for a statement “which may serve as guidelines to the various agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention” [16].  Built into the very mission of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, credalism was creeping into the SBC.


  1. Ralph Elliott, The Genesis Controversy and Continuity in Southern Baptist Chaos: A Eulogy for a Great Tradition (Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 1992), 11.
  2. Ibid., 55-56.
  3. Quoted in Elliott, 49.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Jerry L. Faught, "The Ralph Elliott Controversy:  Competing Philosophies of Southern Baptist Seminary Education," Baptist History and Heritage 34, no. 3 (1999),;col1 (accessed June 19, 2012).
  6. Elliott, 53.
  7. Faught.
  8. 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.
  9. Ibid., 58-60.
  10. Elliott, 125.
  11. Hobbs, 62.
  12. The Baptist Standard, “Comparison of 1925, 1963 and 2000 Baptist Faith and Message,” The Baptist Standard Online [database on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed 6 November 2004.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.

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