Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Preserving Unity: The Baptist Faith and Message of 1925

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 reviewed briefly historic anchors of Baptist theology—the Four Fragile Freedoms, as described by Baptist historian Walter Shurden.  Save OBU has spent some time discussing them before, but is important to keep them in mind as we examine the conflict between the burgeoning fundamentalist movement and the historic characteristics of Southern Baptist theology and polity (shared by Baptists throughout the U.S. and Great Britain).  The four freedoms are soul freedom, Bible freedom, church freedom, and religious freedom.  The conflict was not a peripheral one; rather, it went to the core of both the Baptist and fundamentalist identities.

We also examined the historical characteristics of the fundamentalist movement focusing on its two primary emphases:  (1) The relatively new premillennial dispensationalist theology (developed in the second half of the 19th century) fused a rigid, hyperbolic supernaturalism with the cultural assumptions of Baconian science—assumptions shared by both modernists and fundamentalists.  The most obvious expression of this theological movement was the new belief in the inerrancy of the Bible (in the scientific, rationalist sense) and its insistence that it was the only proper starting point for Biblical interpretation.  Accordingly, the new theology's most obvious opponent became Darwinian evolutionary theory.

(2) The other defining mark of the fundamentalist movement was the militancy with which its adherents championed their beliefs.  World War I radicalized the movement—convincing the fundamentalists that the United States was the bastion of Christianity on the earth.  In order to save Christianity, the United States needed saving as well.  Fundamentalists began applying the same rigidity and vigor to the public arena—especially the public schools.  Because current trends in biblical scholarship and Darwinism were connected to Germany, those who championed such views were apostate.

The battle ground of education—E. J. Pace, 1922

Southern Baptist Contributions to The Fundamentals
When discussing fundamentalism, much is often made of the "Five Fundamentals"—though which five doctrines actually counted as essential depended upon which group issued them.  The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1910 listed the first declaration of five essential doctrines—with no use of the word "fundamental," referring to them as "essentials" [1].  Further, the doctrines were not binding to any member of the Presbyterian Church (in Baptist terminology, a creed); rather they were a general description of what Presbyterians at the time believed (in Baptist terminology, a confession).  Indeed, conservative Christians largely agreed with the five essentials (even despite the differences in each version), but their commitment to fundamentalism was by no means uniform.

It is more instructive to look at a series of twelve volumes published from 1910 to 1915 titled The Fundamentals, from which the term "fundamentalism" was coined in 1920. The series was designed as a defense of conservative Christianity and true science (as opposed to the false science of the Darwinists).  In an interesting historical aside, some of the authors such as George Frederick Wright and Scotsman James Orr allowed that certain elements of evolutionary theory were consistent with biblical revelation, so long as one understood that God was the source of all life [2].  Another contributor to the volumes, B. B. Warfield of Princeton Theological Seminary—itself a source of fundamentalist theology and a battleground for the Presbyterian church after Warfield's death in 1921—, quietly believed that a form of theistic evolution and Christianity were compatible.  Each of these writers tapped into the widespread view among conservative evangelicals that the days of creation in Genesis were not meant to be literal, twenty-four hour days.  These men held to the long-established evangelical belief that science and religion were but two sides of the same coin—each a component of God's revelation to humankind.

Furthermore, notable Southern Baptist contributor to The Fundamentals J. J. Reeves—a professor at Southwestern Seminary—found in contemporary biblical criticism "a developing revelation" in "the application of the historical method" even as he attacked modernist scholars for undermining the authority of the Bible by starting from a perspective that did not preserve Christianity "in all its essential features" [3].  E. Y. Mullins, Southern Seminary president and later chair of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message Committee, emphasized the experiential and practical elements of Christian life, drawing from both moderate and conservative influences in American Christianity at the time [4].  All of these perspectives, later rejected by fundamentalists, were considered well within the boundaries of conservative Christian thought before its post-war radicalization and the emergence of fundamentalism.

The Confession of 1925
At its formation in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention dismissed the adoption of a confession.   From the outset, the SBC held to the belief that the primary function of its association was not a theological one, but a practical one—the propagation of the gospel.  Given the general acceptance of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, the impulse remained a reality.  However, during the 1920s it became clear to some that Southern Baptists would need to define themselves in the face of a growing threat to the unity and survival of the SBC [5].  Given the conservative nature of the South, the conflict was not between the liberals and the fundamentalists, but rather between the fundamentalists and the moderates [6].  Fundamentalist militancy drew sharp lines, and many views considered acceptable within The Fundamentals only a few years before were outside the circle.

Despite longstanding tradition, the denomination chose to do something it had refused to do in 1845: draw up a confession [7].  The fundamentalists within the convention clamored for the SBC to take a stand on its key issues, and the others hoped to maintain the emphasis on soul freedom.  Indeed, E. Y. Mullins—the man chosen to lead the Baptist Faith and Message Committee—claimed that soul freedom was "a divinely given prophetic insight into the meaning of the gospel and the implicit teaching of Scripture" and the singular "distinctive historical significance of the Baptists" [8].  In 1925, the committee presented the confession to the annual convention meeting in Memphis [9].  The confession strove to walk a very fine line, inclusive enough to preserve unity among both fundamentalists and moderates, but exclusive enough to strongly affirm the truth of the Bible [10].

The previously established New Hampshire Confession of Faith was the blueprint for the Baptist Faith and Message, so much so that several articles of the 1925 confession were taken directly from its 1833 predecessor.  However, many others were changed or added to.  A comparison between the two documents clearly illuminates the shift Southern Baptist theology made in response to the fundamentalist crisis.  The Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy prompted two particular emphases to the 1925 statement, balancing the competing concerns of fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists (both moderates and conservatives) in the convention:  (1) It emphasized the supernatural nature of Christianity, and (2) it demonstrated a commitment to preserving unity through a modified Social Gospel and the exclusion of a repudiation of evolution.

One of the unique characteristics of the premillennial dispensationalist theology was its heavy emphasis on the supernatural nature of the Bible.  Fundamentalists responded to modernist naturalism by removing all human elements out of the inspiration process—insisting especially on the literal truth of the supernatural events in Scripture and making such literalism a litmus test for belief in the authority of the Bible.  The preamble of the 1925 BFM explicitly states:
The present occasion for a reaffirmation of Christian fundamentals is the prevalence of naturalism in the modern teaching and preaching of religion. Christianity is supernatural in its origin and history. We repudiate every theory of religion which denies the supernatural elements in our faith. [11]
Furthermore, articles such as “The Resurrection” and “The Return of the Lord” were not found in the NHCF, and their addition demonstrates a trend toward emphasizing supernaturalism.  Another example of this trend is in the article on "The Fall of Man"—the 1833 NHCF states simply that humankind "by voluntary transgression fell from that holy and happy state," but the 1925 BFM emphasizes the role of Satan in humanity's "bondage to sin" [12].  (Other articles corresponding to the same shift include “The Way of Salvation,” “Freeness of Salvation,” “Regeneration,” “Sanctification,” and “The Lord’s Day.")

A second purpose of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message was an attempt at preserving the unity of the SBC, and this was expressed in two ways:  (1) the argument for a moderate Social Gospel and (2) the absence of a condemnation of evolution.  The confession's preamble expresses the hope that “some statement will clarify the atmosphere and remove some causes of misunderstanding, friction, and apprehension” [13].  In taking a middle approach on both the issues of the Social Gospel and evolution, the committee worked to allow both fundamentalists and moderates to "co-operate with each other in carrying forward the missionary, educational, and benevolent program for the extension of Christ's kingdom" [14].

Statements such as an addition to “The Fall of Man” claimed that men and women are born sinful and challenged the Social Gospel belief that humankind was corrupted by its environment [15].  However, this was balanced by the creation of articles on “The Kingdom” and “Social Service” which depicted a much more liberal approach to society even to the point of changing its institutions.  By holding to a doctrine of original sin while still arguing for social reform through individual regeneration, the confession had achieved a balance most could accept.

Furthermore, by excluding the issue of evolution, the BFM expected to defuse the situation by not forcing anyone to choose personal belief over denomination statement.  No mention was made of Darwinism or evolution in the article on “The Fall of Man,” and the article on “Education” attempted to hold science and the Bible together by arguing that two were compatible.  The phrase “an adequate system of schools” was ambiguous enough to allow both sides to interpret it as they saw fit [16].

Despite the convention's adoption of the Baptist Faith and Message in 1925, the specific lack of a repudiation of evolution angered the fundamentalists.  When the Convention met in 1926 in Houston, a motion presented by S. E. Tull declared that
     WHEREAS, the Southern Baptist Convention... “accepts Genesis as teaching that man was the special creation of God, and rejects every theory, evolution or otherwise, which teaches that man originated in, or came by way of, a lower animal ancestry.” [17]
A hot issue for fundamentalists, the motion was passed—calling for all SBC institutions to abide by the statement.  Despite the efforts of Mullins and the committee, the resolution became the official interpretation of the 1925 confession.

Baptist Distinctives and Fundamentalism
At first glance, it appears that the distinctive Baptist freedoms continued to thrive despite the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.  That is true—to a certain extent.  Given the denominational climate today, in which the various versions of the Baptist Faith and Message are taken for granted as an essential feature of the Southern Baptist identity, it is difficult to understand how drastic the adoption of any official statement was in 1925.  It's very existence represented a dramatic shift in the Baptist understanding of soul freedom.  Lines were drawn, even if they were not meant to be enforced.

Certainly, with E. Y. Mullins—staunch defender of soul freedom and the leading theologian among Southern Baptists—at the helm, Baptist distinctives were well preserved in the face of the controversy.  In fact, were the convention to still accept the 1925 confession, it is likely that the denominational landscape would be very different today.  Save OBU probably would not have cause to exist.

But revisions to the Baptist Faith and Message did not end there.  The confession was reformulated again in 1963 and 2000—both in response to the ongoing fundamentalist crisis in the SBC.  Although the 1925 BFM attempted to subdue divisive tensions by taking a middle approach, each subsequent revision further confined the spectrum of Baptist thought and practice.  Indeed, the 1926 resolution—arguably the first revision to the BFM—narrowly defined Baptist thought and carried with it the expectation that SBC seminaries would abide by its declaration.

Soon, evolution would become central to a second fundamentalist controversy within the convention.  When Midwestern Seminary professor Ralph Elliott published The Message of Genesis in 1961—in which he took a symbolic rather than literal approach to the Genesis narratives—fundamentalists reacted strongly, and a much more substantial revision to the Baptist Faith and Message was required to appease their demands.

Please join us for that discussion tomorrow.


  1. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford, 1980), 117.
  2. Ibid., 122.
  3. J. J. Reeves, "My Personal Experience with the Higher Criticism," In The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, ed. R. A. Torrey and A. C. Dixon, et al., vol. 1 (The Bible Institute of Los Angeles, 1917), 302-303.
  4. Marsden, 122.
  5. 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.
  6. Ellis, 41.
  7. L. Rush Bush and Tom J. Nettles, Baptists and the Bible: The Baptist Doctrines of Biblical Inspiration and Religious Authority in Historical Perspective (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 386.
  8. E. Y. Mullins, The Axioms of Religion (1908), edited by Douglas Weaver (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press), 60, 66.
  9. Ellis, 190.
  10. Bill J. Leonard, God’s Last & Only Hope: The Fragmentation of the Southern Baptist Convention (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 78-9.
  11. The Baptist Standard, “Comparison of 1925, 1963 and 2000 Baptist Faith and Message,” The Baptist Standard Online [database on-line]; available from http://www.batiststandard.com/postnuke/themes/PostNukeBlue/comparison.html; Internet; accessed 6 November 2004.
  12. "The New Hampshire Confession of Faith."  [database on-line]; available from http://home.christianity.com/local/107573.html; Internet; accessed 9 April 2005; "Comparison."
  13. "Comparison."
  14. Ibid.
  15. Thompson, 30.
  16. "Comparison."
  17. S. E. Tull, Article of Business No. 113, Annual of the Southern Baptist Convention 1926, by the Southern Baptist Convention (Nashville: Marshall & Bruce, 1926), 98.

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