It was during the years I spent at Mercer that I began to gain some knowledge of and appreciation for who Baptists were and what Baptists had traditionally championed. I remember no particular lecture or conversation or book that set the process of enlightenment in motion; it must have happened to me by osmosis over the three years that I was consistently exposed to the influence of such fine Baptist scholars and churchmen as Howard Giddens, Harold McManus, and Robert Otto. All I know is that by the time I graduated from Mercer in 1978 I understood that Baptists had emerged from the English Separatist movement of the early 17th century—thus that we did not go all the way back to John the Baptist (unless one uses that name to refer to John Smyth)—and that such principles as the authority of the Bible, believer’s baptism, local church autonomy, the priesthood of believers, and separation of church and state were the time-honored convictions that stood at the heart of the Baptist identity.
Debra Johnson and I were married six days after I graduated from college in June 1978; she had a year to go at Mercer so we stayed in Macon until she graduated in August 1979. From January to August I served in a full-time temporary staff position at First Baptist Church of Macon, a congregation that understood and practiced historic Baptist principles more faithfully than any congregation of which I had to that point been a member; my eight months there served to solidify my commitment to those principles.
It never occurred to me, even as I realized that I was becoming a different kind of Baptist than I grew up being or a different kind of Baptist than those of the more fundamentalist variety, that I would not be able to work in loving cooperation with them for the sake of the cause of Christ—but it would unfortunately occur to some of them that they could not work for that cause beside me and the kind of Baptists with whom I was finding and would continue to find that I had the closest connection.
It was in June 1979 that the Conservative Resurgence in or Fundamentalist Takeover of, depending on your perspective, the Southern Baptist Convention commenced with the election of Adrian Rogers as president of the convention in Houston, Texas. Rogers’ election proved to be the first step in a successfully sustained multi-year strategy to gain and maintain control of the SBC through the slow but sure takeover of the boards of trustees of the seminaries and agencies of the convention.
I entered the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky in August 1979 and would spend the next seven years of my life earning two degrees from that fine institution. My entire seminary career was lived out in the shadow of the controversy that was raging in the SBC. Indeed, SBTS was one of the prime targets of the verbal and written pot-shots that were regularly being delivered by the foot soldiers of the Takeover.
In early 1980 someone issued a “hit list” of seven professors serving at various SBC seminaries who were, in the judgment of the list issuers, “liberal” and therefore unfit to be teaching at their respective institutions. As it happened I was taking classes with two of those professors, Church History with Glenn Hinson and a Greek translation course on the book of Revelation with George R. Beasley-Murray.
Dr. Hinson was not happy about being included on that list. On the first day of class after news of the list hit the Baptist news, he let a little of his anger show which was very unusual for him. It is true, I am sure, that Dr. Hinson was and is not “orthodox” enough by the standards by which the forces arrayed against him were measuring him and everybody else they had in their crosshairs but I will say here what I have said many times over the years: if the good Lord would give me a choice between being judged on my own Christian faith or that of Glenn Hinson, I’d go with Hinson’s. I have never known a more genuine Christian gentleman
Dr. Beasley-Murray, on the other hand, found the whole thing funny. On the first day of class after the list came out, he pointed out the irony of his being included on a list of “liberals.” Back home in Great Britain, he said, when a Bible Society was producing a new translation, they liked to put him on the committee as the “token fundamentalist.” One’s application of such labels depended heavily on the vantage point of the labeler, I learned.
I for my part was deeply troubled over the attacks that my school and my professors were enduring. My seminary, as well as all the Southern Baptist seminaries, eventually fell and almost all my professors left SBTS, much to my sadness.
It was during my seminary years that I had my first experience attending an SBC annual meeting—and it was the mother of all meetings that I attended, namely, the 1984 meeting in Dallas, Texas in which some 45,000 Baptist brothers and sisters gathered to fight it out in the name of the Lord. I traveled, along with many other students, on a chartered bus from Louisville to Dallas and stayed in a Dallas motel with all the arrangements having been made by the SBTS administration, although we did pay our own way.
After I became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Adel, Georgia in the fall of 1986 I made attendance at SBC meetings and at Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) meetings a priority; indeed, I attended every SBC annual meeting from 1987-1991. Over those years, as is well documented, the Takeover forces won victory after victory until finally, by the early 1990s, they controlled every board of every SBC institution and agency.
Here nausea becomes a player in my story.
When I went to Adel, a county seat town in rural South Georgia, I admit that I wanted to shine as a “Moderate,” as my ilk had unfortunately labeled themselves in an effort to deflect the admittedly inaccurate “Liberal” moniker, Baptist; I wanted to lead the way for those who, as I did, knew the true Baptist history and heritage and who, as I did, wanted to preserve Baptist principles in the face of the encroaching darkness—and I wanted to convert those Baptists who did not see and want the things about and for Baptists that I saw and wanted.
And I tried. I really tried. I attended meetings. I voted for Moderate candidates in Baptist presidential elections. I gathered up members of the church to serve as messengers and shuttled them to several state convention meetings and to one national convention meeting—I was able to entice them with a visit to New Orleans, including a very nice dinner at Commander’s Palace and a late night stroll around the French Quarter.
Then one year in the late 1980s—and I really don’t remember which year—I agreed to serve as something like a zone chairman for a Moderate political operation in Georgia; my assignment was to identify churches and pastors that might be friendly to our cause and to contact them to encourage them to have their full allotment of messengers present at that year’s SBC meeting to help us elect the Moderate candidate.
I made two or three such phone calls and with each one my queasiness increased. I found that I was a prime illustration of the truth observed by historians of the Controversy that one reason for the success of the Takeover forces was that Moderates did not have the stomach for the fight. Finally I called the state coordinator and told him that, while I would be present at that year’s convention to vote for our candidate, I simply could not continue to serve as a political operative. It was making me sick.
The last SBC annual meeting I attended for a very long time, and I have attended only one since then, was the meeting in Atlanta in 1991. Every time I walked into the convention hall and took a seat, that nagging nausea would return; it would increase when we stood to sing some song about Christian love and fellowship. SBC meetings were making me sick. So I stopped going.
Perhaps that says about all that needs to be said about me: Moderate political activity to attempt to stem the Takeover forces made me sick and participating in the meetings run by the Takeover forces also made me sick.
I attended the meetings in Atlanta in 1990 and 1991 that led to the formation of what is now known as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). One of my regrets is that I did not return to Adel from those meetings determined to try harder to lead those good folks to go down that road; my one defense is that I believed that most of them did not want to go there and I loved the church too much to inflict such division on them.
I believed then, though, and I believe now, that any Southern Baptist congregation that is not dominated by fundamentalism and that has an appreciation for and a commitment to Baptist principles would be best served by aligning itself with the CBF or the American Baptist Churches or by becoming non-aligned.