When the SBC was formed in 1845, it started with two main entities, the “Board of Domestic Missions” and the Foreign Mission Board, later to become NAMB and the IMB. Over time the entity list has grown to include 6 seminaries, Guidestone, Lifeway, and the ERLC. Most of these institutions have easily understood purposes, such as the seminaries to train pastors. Recent events in the SBC show that many misunderstand the reasons behind the formation of the ERLC and what role it plays in the SBC today. The following is a brief history about the work of the ERLC, their purposes, and their leaders. It is by no means comprehensive but meant to shed light on the current work of the ERLC today.
In 1913 the SBC Annual meeting approved the formation of a standing committee on Social Service in order to address “wrongs which curse society today, and call loudly for our help.” This included things like liquor trafficking and child labor. That committee was later formed in the Social Service Commission with Hugh Brimm as the First Executive Secretary. The SBC also organized a standing Committee on Temperance that served from 1908-1913. In the early years the work of the Commission was sporadic and focused mainly on “social issues” as implied by the name. An excellent explainer article notes that as the years changed the work of the entity changed too. Often their name changed to reflect a new focus.
For example, the Committee on Temperance and Social Service had little to say about the 1918 flu epidemic, whereas the ERLC has written extensively about the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. The name change from the Christian Life Commission (the previous name of the organization) to the Ethics and Religious Liberty Organization represented the absorption of other committees and a commitment to the importance of this first freedom.” Explainer: A History of the ERLC by Alex Ward
In 1947 the SBC Executive Committee brought together the Public Relations Committee and the Social Service Commission and gave them new priorities. The list of tasks recommended by the EC is quite enlightening.
- Explore, study, and advise Baptists concerning any and all federal legislation that violates the principle of the separation of church and state
- Maintain the Baptist witness in the nation’s capital
- To act when given instruction by the Convention in regard to domestic situations
- to protest when Baptist principles are violated by our own government
- to appeal through diplomatic means when any in other lands are made to suffer for conscience’s sake
- Stimulate a comprehensive and general program of education in Baptist historic principles and witness
All of these tasks and more were given to the Social Service Commission by the Executive Committee and adopted by the 1947 SBC Annual Meeting.
In 1960 Foy Valentine became the leader of what was now called the Christian Life Commission. In his first report to the SBC during the 1960 annual meeting, he told messengers that the CLC “interprets its grave responsibility to this convention to speak to the conscience of Southern Baptists on the application of Christian principles in everyday life.”
Under Valentine the CLC was a pioneer in race relations among Baptist groups, helping to create Racial Reconciliation Sunday in 1965, refusing Jim Crow laws, and supporting equal rights for all races. BP reported that some called for the abolishing of the CLC for helping promote the observance. Praise, Criticism, Greet Race Relations Sunday
The nature of the CLC meant that Valentine often spoke on controversial political and religious issues, such as the ongoing public affairs in Washington and in the office of the President. He stated in 1976 that
“cogs of religion ought not to engage the gears of the state and vice versa. This does not mean that religion and politics are not to mix. We saw a sinister and cynical manipulation of religious symbols by the previous administration. That we can and should and must reject.”
Valentine was a controversial figure in the Conservative Resurgence in no small part because he served the SBC during a controversial time on many fronts. He led the CLC through the end of Jim Crow laws, school busing, Vietnam, Watergate, and more. Although Valentine was biblical and correct in his views on race and other issues, he also was a representative of the moderate views of the convention regarding abortion and other fronts. He firmly supported abortion and was a frequent target of attack during the Conservative Resurgence.
In 1988 Dr. Richard Land became the Exec Sec of the Christian Life Commission, which in 1997 changed its name to the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Land was a Texas-born, Princeton and Harvard educated leader in the Conservative Resurgence. He taught at Criswell College along with longtime friend Paige Patterson in the ’80s. Under Land, the ERLC supported the sanctity of marriage, racial reconciliation, worked against abortion, and other issues. Land was known for his willingness to speak out on political issues and others that impacted Southern Baptists. He also spoke boldly on the most pressing moral issues of the day.
In 1998 Land stated that President Bill Clinton “richly deserves and has thoroughly earned” impeachment for his immoral affair in the Oval Office. Land also deplored the partisan response to the political scandal.
“I think that it shows that at least a majority of representatives in the U.S. House are committed to the rule of law despite the political consequences,” he said. “And it’s to the Democrats’ shame, not the Republicans’, that this has been a largely partisan process. No one has defended the president’s behavior. They have just said we should lower the standard for holding office … that’s both irresponsible and shameless.”
Richard Land was also a key proponent of racial reconciliation in the SBC, and favored immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally, and criticized the Bush administration’s support of waterboarding. Land helped craft the 1995 SBC apology for its role in promoting slavery and racism but resigned in 2012 amid backlash over comments made about Trayvon Martin.
In 2013 Russell Moore was elected to be the 8th leader of the organization that had held many names over the years. Moore continued the work of his predecessors by speaking into current events, the sanctity of life, racial reconciliation, in support of religious liberty, and on many other fronts. Moore has also led the ERLC to continue the work it has done in leading Southern Baptist work on poverty, gambling, morality in public office, hunger, public policy, and popular culture. The predecessors of the ERLC were founded in support of the belief that Christians need to speak the truths of the gospel to the culture.
In his 2013 inaugural address as the new President of the ERLC Russel Moore said that “We are ministers, brothers and sisters, not of condemnation. The devil can do that. We are ministers of reconciliation. This means that we will speak hard words, and we will speak truthful words, and we will address the conscience, even when that costs us everything.”
Over more than a century the ERLC and its precursors have led Southern Baptists to stand for the gospel no matter how unpopular it might be. It has often been a target of criticism and speculation, and it has not always gotten it right. But they have been a needed and helpful voice in keeping the SBC focused on the gospel and engaged on cultural issues.
Today the ERLC recognizes the need for thoughtful engagement in every realm of society and seeks to provide Christians with resources for engaging the culture with the truths of the gospel. A history of the ERLC
Read this excellent overview of the work of the ERLC in 2020 to see just how they accomplished those goals.