How Fundamentalist Myths Changed the SBC

By David Flick

Southern Baptist leaders thrive on perpetuating myths. Over the past two decades since 1979, several somewhat believable myths have been spun by the fundamentalists leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention. Denominational leaders have adopted a "Chicken Little" attitude toward those who disagree with them. This attitude persists even to this day.  Fundamentalists can find a "liberal" behind nearly every tree and under nearly every rock. To hear them tell it, the SBC was forced to deal with liberalism in order to save the denomination.

If a myth is told often enough by a large number of denominational leaders, unthinking people begin to believe the myth to be true. Myths go beyond truth. In fact, some myths border on being untruth. Many Southern Baptists are quick to believe and repeat myths as though they are verifiable and documentable truths.

For example, one of the most prominent myths ever to be spun by Southern Baptists came from the pen of Dr. K. Owen White, pastor of  Houston's First Baptist Church. In February of 1961, Dr. White wrote a militant article ("Death in the Pot")  that was published in a number of  Baptist papers. The article was a polemic against Ralph Elliott's book, (The Message of Genesis.) While White's article wasn't the only such polemic to appear in opposition to Elliott's book, it may have been one of the earliest  to start the movement that brought Elliott's demise as a professor of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

White cited selected statements from the book, concluding, "The book from which I have quoted is liberalism, pure and simple.  ... The book in question is poison." The Houston pastor, who also served a term as the SBC president, perpetuated a myth that Ralph Elliott was little more than a heretic who advanced unacceceptible views of inspiration.  While it's true that Elliott held a different view than the fundamentalists of the day, it's a myth to declare that he was a "Liberal."  Ralph Elliott was not a Liberal.  To call him a Liberal is to perpetuate a myth.

Most Southern Baptists believed White and a myth arose from the thinking of people who agreed with him. The myth that grew out of the Elliott Controversy was that the Southern Baptist seminaries were rife with liberal, unbelieving professors.  W. A. Criswell picked up on this myth and began preaching powerful sermons, perpetuating the myth that the seminaries were filled with professors who did not believe the Bible.

Southern Baptists bought the myth, hook, line, and sinker.  Soon Southern Baptists were hearing from seminarians who wanted their day in the sun. Seminarians  began carrying tape recorders, attempting to capture audio reports of heretical seminary professors.  "Bad professor" stories became standard fare for fundamentalist students and pastors.   Fundamentalist seminarians were having field day after field day, "exposing the heresy in the seminaries."  It became the order of the day, using the fundamentalist myths circulating around the convention,  to destroy the careers of professors.  Seminaries began to be graded by whether they were conservative or liberal. Midwestern, Southern and Southeastern seminaries were judged to worst of the bad liberal seminaries.

Paul Pressler got into the act, joining W. A. Criswell in perpetuating myths about the terrible "liberal" professors in the seminaries.  Pressler's claim to fame was his introduction of a secular method of politics into denominational life.  But that which gave rise to his fame was a letter ("Report to Second Baptist's Deacons, August, 1964") he wrote to the deacon body of Houston's Second Baptist Church.  It was a polemic against the seminaries, focusing primarily on Ralph Elliott.

Pressler's "Report" was little more than putting a number of fundamentalist myths on paper.  Pressler and Criswell gained a tremendous amount of fame when they perpetuated myths of liberalism in the seminaries.  Criswell's stature among Southern Baptists had much to do with creating the myths.  He was so believable to the unsuspecting and often unthinking Southern Baptist pastors.  If Criswell and Pressler said the myths were truth, then who was anyone to question their judgments?

The myths of "liberalism" in the seminaries and churches snowballed, becoming a strong factor in the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Paul Pressler led the movement, formally initiating it at the 1979 convention in Houston.   He secured the skyboxes of the Summit  where the convention as being held. He collected a group of followers and began to execute a plan to elect a series of fundamentalist denominational presidents.  Actually, the plan was put into action prior to the convention through a series of clandestine meetings of fundamentalist pastors and leaders.

Using the myths about a wide-spread liberalism in the ranks of the Southern Baptist seminaries and leaders, Pressler and  the fundamentalist leaders who occupied the skyboxes managed to elect Adrian Rogers, whom they planned to be the first of at least ten consecutive denominational presidents.  The plan was to elect fundamentalist presidents and seize control of all boards and agencies in the convention. The plan was to take over the convention by expunging anyone who was deemed to be liberal. Pressler gave new meaning to the phrase, "Going for the jugular."

 By 1990, the plan had been largely executed. The fundamentalists had secured complete control of all the boards and agencies of the convention.  They fired or excluded many seminary professors and presidents.  All the seminary presidents were replaced with fundamentalists.  One new president was Paige Patterson, a member of the skybox party of fundamentalists, a man who had been president of Criswell Bible Institute. Exactly twenty years following the beginning of the takeover, Paige Patterson was elected president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Two additional myths perpetuated by the fundamentalists are the "slippery slope to liberalism" and the so-called "conservative resurgence" myths. The slippery slope myth posits that Southern Baptists were plunging headlong into liberalism of the mainline  denominations. The fundamentalists falsely believed that Southern Baptists were moving in the direction of the liberal Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, et. al. They believed Southern Baptists were moving away from their theological moorings.

They saw some of the moderate Southern Baptists beginning to accept the ordination of women. They saw moderates rejecting the new fangled doctrine of inerrancy of Scripture. They saw a precious few liberal Southern Baptist churches beginning to welcome and affirm homosexuals into their fellowship. They saw  an even smaller number of Southern Baptist churches allowing homosexuals to become staff members. They saw moderate professors writing theology that reflected the moderate views rather than the hard-line fundamentalist views. They believed they saw a form of incipient universalism in the more moderate churches in the convention. They falsely believed that the extremely small number of churches (less that 1%) meant the entire denomination was on a slippery slope into liberalism. 

To say the entire Southern Baptist denomination was on a slippery slope into liberalism because of what less than 1% of the churches were doing is a myth, pure and simple. In truth, the denomination was never  on a slippery slope toward liberalism.  Southern Baptists would never have moved wholesale toward the liberalism of the more liberal mainline denominations. The slippery slope myth was born out of the Chicken Little mentality.  Chicken Little mentality is one of a false sense of fear. It is a kind of fear that believes the sky is falling. The fundamentalists believed the sky was falling in on the SBC because a few churches were conducting themselves differently than they believed the Bible teaches. 

The slippery slope myth was a factor in the rise of the conservative resurgence myth. The conservative resurgence is the mythical fundamentalist term attached to the fundamentalist takeover. They did  an excellent job of perpetuating this myth. One of the most prominent books to perpetuate this myth is Jerry Sutton's book, The Baptist Reformation. To call the movement a conservative resurgence attempts to take the hostile edge from what it really was. In truth, the takeover of the Southern Baptist convention was indeed a "reformation."  The denomination was "re-formed" from being generally conservative to being generally fundamentalist in theology.

The fundamentalist leadership has controlled the heart and soul of  denomination for twenty-two years. It is the leadership that claims the SBC is fundamentalist in theology. After more than two decades now, much of the rank and file of Southern Baptists believe the myths of the slippery slope to liberalism and the conservative resurgence to be the truth.  Such is the power of popular myth in the denomination.

Another myth handed to us by the strong fundamentalists is one concerning the election of presidents.  The fundamentalists believed and perpetuated the myth that SBC presidents elected prior to 1979 were done so by political power brokers in private.   They claim that SBC presidents did not adequately represent the fundamentalists.  The claim insisted that powerbrokers made decisions about who should be presented in nomination before the conventions. The myth claims that the denominational power brokers prior to 1979 were "kingmakers." They sought to bring a halt to the activities of the so-called "kingmakers," who, as they viewed the situation, failed to present candidates who represented the fundamentalists. Never mind that Herschel Hobbs, R. G. Lee,  K Owen White and W. A. Criswell all served terms as SBC president prior to 1979. 

Of course, it's a myth to believe that anyone, or group of persons could --from behind closed doors-- actually  force the election of a future president of the SBC. Prior to 1979, there was no such thing as a political caucus formed for the express purpose of electing a president of the denomination.  While it's true, there has always been a measure of political activity in private sectors in the denomination, there had never been a secular political model/method involved prior to 1979.

The denominational leaders prior to 1979 were not "kingmakers."  It's impossible to conclude such nonsense. The true "kingmakers" among Southern Baptists are those who spent thousands of dollars and thousands of man-hours doing political caucusing,  campaigning, and advertisement of candidates that were pre-selected months in advance of the annual convention. Since 1979, the Southern Baptist Pastor's Conference has been the primary staging ground for publicly introducing the next pre-selected candidate for the office.

The top leadership of the convention has, for the past two decades, pre-chosen a single candidate for each election.  All political energy and advertisement has gone toward electing the pre-chosen "King" of Southern Baptists.  Furthermore, the denominational powerbrokers have given an exceeding abundance of power to the president. This measure of power did not exist prior to 1979.  Such is the power of myth in today's Southern Baptist Convention.

False stories, such as those associated with the Elliott Controversy, the "bad professors" in the seminaries, the slippery slope to liberalism, the conservative resurgence, and the "kingmakers," are but a few of the myths that have been perpetuated by the fundamentalists Southern Baptists.  All are the result of a Chicken Little mentality found among Southern Baptists.  Of the five mentioned myths, perhaps the notion of the conservative resurgence is the strangest. If anything, it was a fundamentalist insurgence.  For it cannot be accurately or honestly termed a conservative resurgence.

Myths perpetuated by the fundamentalist leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention have forever changed the face of the denomination.  The  myths have been the source of the greatest period of continued controversy the denomination has ever known.  History may record that many of the myths brought the downfall of a once great Christian denomination.  The controversies resulting from perpetuated myths have affected virtually every facet of denominational life.  Mistrust abounds everywhere. Good and godly people have been thrown to the lions.  Careers have been ruined.  Missionaries have been put in jeopardy. The seminaries have been dumbed down. The controversies have made enemies out of friends.  They have divided state conventions.  They  have raised up a generation of people who deal more in hate than love. And all because of some well spun and strategically placed political myths. 

-- June 9, 2002

 (This article was written for  BaptistLife.Com Discussion Forums)