Fundamentalism and the SBC—Still More Reflections of the 2021 SBC Convention

by | Jul 1, 2021 | Theological Issues | 0 comments

In the aftermath of the Nashville meeting of a few weeks ago, SBC pundits are still musing on the successes and failures of the 2021 convention. On the plus side, the meeting was the largest in a quarter of a century, since the end of the Conservative Resurgence (CR) (1979–2000). With 15,726 messengers (4928 less than 1995 which registered 20,654 messengers), the meeting will be remembered for several major reasons. It will go down in history first for what it didn’t do. Despite preconvention efforts to prepare for this, no resolution was adopted that specifically named Critical Race Theory as anti-Christian. While a resolution was made on racial issues (Resolution 2), it made no mention of CRT. Efforts were made from the floor to repeal the infamous Resolution 9 of 2019 but to no avail. Also, important for this year’s convention, and again, despite efforts to the contrary, there was no significant shift to the right. Not in the presidency, and not in other issues such as the pulpit presence of women preachers in SBC pulpits, with the possible exception of Abortion Abolitionism which I addressed last week. I think that resolution passed because messengers liked the sound of what they heard (NO ABORTIONS, PERIOD!), without appreciating the entailments of the position which was adopted. IMO, look for a counter resolution next year—one that is less harsh on the criminality of women who abort their babies. Are they murderers in the same way as Jack the Ripper or Aileen Wuornos (1956–2002), an American serial killer executed by lethal injection for killing seven Florida men between 1989–1990? On my last trip to Russia, I was told by my host that abortion is the preferred method of birth control, with some women having upwards of twenty abortions in their lifetime. If we call the women who abort their babies murderers, then wouldn’t we call some women serial killers? What should we do with serial killers? Does AA intend that a woman with multiple abortions for whatever reason be tried, convicted and executed as a serial killer?

However, this essay is not a further discussion on abortion and the SBC, as interesting as that might be but an essay on the aftermath of the convention and the presence of an apparent fundamentalist element within its churches. The presence of fundamentalists in religious movements is certainly not new but defining fundamentalism is a difficult task. Just what constitutes a fundamentalist and whether someone is a fundamentalist even though they may be actually unwilling to own that moniker is a matter of considerable disagreement. Is the term descriptive or pejorative? Does it really matter? If someone refuses the label but otherwise owns the position, are they de facto fundamentalists, whatever they choose to call themselves?

The term itself was first used in 1920 by Curtis Lee Laws, editor of the Watchman and Examiner, a prominent Northern Baptist newspaper, in the aftermath of the Northern Baptist Convention (NBC) annual meeting, to suggest that those who would do “battle royal” for the fundamentals should be called “fundamentalists.” Hence the first to use this term of themselves were Baptist conservatives who held to the fundamentals of the faith, taken from a series of essays distributed about ten years earlier by Milton and Lyman Stewart, California oilmen, who paid for the publication and distribution of ninety pamphlets sent to clergymen by the hundreds of thousands. These essays dealt with important matters of Christian orthodoxy.

At first, the fundamentalist element, primarily through the Fundamentalist Fellowship of the NBC, tried unsuccessfully to rout the progressive (liberal) elements from the convention, returning the NBC to historic orthodoxy. For a fuller history of this conflict especially what caused it, see my book, The Making of a Battle Royal. Here is a review by Owen Strachan. When the battle royal failed, conservatives left the convention in droves, forming new movements. See Kevin Bauder’s One in Hope and Doctrine for part of that story.

That was then and nearly one hundred years has passed since the battles in the NBC. What about the use of the term today? Many reject the descriptor fundamentalist, thinking the position is “no fun, too much damn and not enough mental.” Who wants to be described with that name? Calling one’s opponents fundamentalists is certainly not new, especially in Southern Baptist life. As the CR was winding down, books (also this) and essays (also this) were written by those who lost their battles to maintain their grip on the reins of power over SBC agencies, castigating the winners—their adversaries—as fundamentalists. Yet fundamentalist was not a title that Southern Baptist leaders embraced. (See Al Mohler’s essays and response in The Spectrum of Evangelicalism. Also, his summary here.) So too, after the wins and losses of Nashville 2021, the specter of SBC fundamentalism is again making news. Is there a new fundamentalist movement in the SBC or perhaps a dormant movement awakened? Will there be an effort by fundamentalists to retake the convention again?

In order to even begin to answer this question, one needs an understanding of the core issues. Is fundamentalism an ideological movement or a theological position that one is forced to take under times of pressing need? As Martin Marty and his colleagues demonstrate, fundamentalisms exist across religious faiths. There are Jewish fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists, Hindu fundamentalists, etc. The idea of being a fundamentalist is the idea of strict adherence to one’s core beliefs without accommodation to modernity (cultural pressures) or theological accommodations. For instance, there is a real fear that when the US troops withdraw from Afghanistan, Islamic fundamentalists (aka the Taliban) will undo twenty years of American presence, returning the country to Islamic law which is particularly repressive for women. Fundamentalisms are a global presence. And fundamentalism, because of these iterations, which are often militant, has taken on a very negative connotation.

Perhaps this is the reason why Southern Baptists and even former self-identified Christian fundamentalists have distanced themselves from the term fundamentalist. Even Christian fundamentalism has taken on a very negative connotation from its original use in 1920. Today, the number of those who self-identify as fundamentalist is dwindling. Some still own the name but their dogma does not represent early 20th century Christian fundamentalism. The KJV controversy is a part of the negative legacy of Christian fundamentalism. Christian fundamentalism was never necessarily KJV only, though in the past forty years, KJV onlyism has pressed its claim to being the heirs to early fundamentalism. For more on KJVO, see this Bill Combs essay. Peter Ruckman was perhaps the most well-known proponent of the KJV only movement. There are also those (often ex-insiders) that believe that independent fundamental Baptists (IFBs) are a cult movement. This view was further enforced by Topeka, KS Pastor Fred Phelps, whose rhetoric was notorious for its anti-gay condemnations.

So, for all practical purposes, calling someone a fundamentalist today, at least in Christian terms, is only useful as a pejorative term. It is in this sense, that the SBC observers have been discussing this year’s convention of a few weeks ago. Is the SBC struggling with a new or resurrected form of Christian fundamentalism? Some of those present were castigated as fundamentalist pirates, as if being a fundamentalist wasn’t a severe enough accusation, or “toxic fundamentalists.” Is there another kind in the minds of adversaries? I watched a webinar just before the annual SBC meeting in which one of the participants described the conservatives as espousing “the heresy of hateful faith, which is a global phenomenon, whether you’re talking about (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi in India or whether you’re talking about the hateful faith of the Taliban, or you’re talking about the hateful faith of the SBC, or hateful things someplace else.” This person linked the SBC conservatives with the strongest examples of Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism. Militant fundamentalism!

So, do we see a new fundamentalism taking root in the SBC? SBC historian Nathan Finn recently addressed that very question. According to Finn, fundamentalism is “militant conservative dissent against progressive trends in the church and the culture. Fundamentalism is first and foremost a reactionary posture born out of concerns about real or perceived drift away from orthodox theology and faithful piety.” By this definition, then yes, what is happening within the current SBC is a kind of fundamentalism, even if conservatives abhor the label. Frankly, the Church will always have its fundamentalists—whether Roman Catholic fundamentalists or SBC fundamentalists. There will always be those who reject the diminishing of theological commitments and the liberalizing of Christian practice. But Finn warns against “a reinvigorated fundamentalism that would divide us over personalities, preferences, and politics.” He rejects the efforts at a new CR because there is the danger of following “the spirit of J. Frank Norris, not Adrian Rogers.” So . . . is every lover of truth in the SBC who laments perceived drift like Norris? Of course not, but what current SBC person wants to wear the Norris legacy? Norris shot DE Chipps in Norris’ office at First Baptist of Fort Worth claiming that Chipps threatened him with a gun. Militant fundamentalism!

Perhaps Finn is correct that the SBC is still on a conservative pathway, although I think he is overstating his case—there are significant issues still before the SBC such as CRT and women in the pulpit. However, a question must be asked. At what point in a theological conflict does one cease the discussion and take further action? Endless debates seem pointless. As the conservatives found out one hundred years ago with the NBC, the progressives are only too happy to keep the ball on the court, so long as they control the referees. They can continue to score points, while the other team accumulates fouls. Without a fair game, what is the point of playing? Who gets to pick the rules to be followed? One would think that all Christians play by the same rule book—the Bible. But clearly this is not the case. Well known in the fight within the NBC was a plea by Jasper Cortenus Massee at an annual NBC gathering inviting the progressives to “depart in peace” since they were interlopers. Lesser known was the response, published later in The Baptist, a Chicago Baptist paper and strong ally of the liberal cause in the NBC, by Baptist progressive H. C. Vedder—“we believe everything you believe. We just define the terms differently! We’re not going anywhere. Like it or lump it!” (He didn’t say it exactly this way, but this is a loose paraphrase.) Endless debate solves nothing. At some point decisive action must be taken. Consider Neville Chamberlain the British Prime Minister at the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power. His policy of appeasement was summarized in the phrase “Peace at any price.” Did James Merritt, pastor of Cross Pointe Church near Atlanta, affirm this position when he blasted those who were more worried about CRT than evangelism? In the early days of the proto-fundamentalist (pre-1920) agitation in the NBC, Shailer Mathews, dean of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School and president of the NBC (1915), placed a banner above the convention platform. “Let’s get together by working together.” Hummm. It seems that appeasement works, except when it doesn’t. Eventually the conservatives in the NBC could surrender no more ground.

Jeff Straub

Jeff Straub

Church Historian

Jeff is an experienced professor of Christian history and theology. He regularly travels internationally to train Christian leaders. When stateside, he publishes in the field of American religion. Research interests include Baptists and slavery, racism, Pentecostalism, and global Christianity. Jeff has taught around the world including Canada where he resided with his family for his first nineteen years of ministry; Romania, Russia and the Ukraine in Europe; India and a limited access country in Asia; and Zambia and Kenya in Africa.

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