Controversy is not new to Baptist life. More than sixty years ago many promised fireworks at the annual meeting if their issues were not addressed, others predicted a convention divided, and everyone was grumbling about supposed problems with professors. I’m not talking about our most recent controversy though. Those issues and more were at stake in the early 1960s. In 1961 doctrinal controversy was set off by the release of the book “Message in Genesis” by Ralph Elliot. The release of the book merely brought to the surface tensions which had long been simmering. There was a concern among many that parts of the convention were becoming more “liberal” in their theology and the book was just the proof they were looking for.
The leaders of the SBC were aware of the crisis at hand. So early in 1962 Porter Routh and Albert McClellan met in the office of Herschel Hobbs to discuss how to avoid division. Routh was Executive Secretary of the Executive Committee. McClellan was a long time employee of the EC, then serving as director of programming planning. At that time Hobbs, the long time pastor of FBC OKC, was president of the SBC, and as they discussed things they came to an agreement. At the next meeting in 1962, a plan would be put forward for a study and review of the 1925 statement of the Baptist Faith and Message.
Discussion ensued about just who should serve on the committee. They wanted to stay as close to the grassroots as possible and so it was decided that the president from each state convention would serve on the committee, along with Hobbs as president of the SBC. It naturally followed that in order to have representation from the theological community the presidents of the six seminaries should serve as well. A group was put together to make a presentation to the annual meeting to accomplish their goals.
When Hobbs arrived for the meeting in San Francisco in 1962, a group of state paper editors convinced Hobbs and the others to leave the presidents of the seminaries off the proposed committee. Days later at the annual meeting, the messengers approved the motion that a group be formed to “present to the Convention in KC (in 63) some similar statement which shall serve as information to the churches, and which may serve as guidelines to the various agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Over the next year, the committee went through the 1925 statement, word by word according to Hobbs, often spending several days together at a time to accomplish the task. The committee reduced the 25 articles of 1925 to 17, adding scripture references under each article to prove their biblical basis. They added words, clarified others, and sought to make the statement applicable across the diversity of the SBC. In the book “Fibers Of Our Faith,” a collection of the Hobbs lectures at Oklahoma Baptist University, Hobbs expressed some of the challenges they faced.
The committee was ever mindful of the unity in diversity of Southern Baptists with respect to various sections of the Convention territory. A good example of this is the statement on the Lord’s Supper. About 11:00 o’clock one night, we had completed the statement on “Baptism.” Since we were physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, I suggested that we wait until the next morning to take up the statement on the “Lord’s Supper.” When we assembled the next morning, one member asked if he might read a prepared statement on that ordinance. It was closed communion of the most rigid sort. After a moment of silence another member spoke: “That statement pleases me very much. It will please the people of my state, for that is exactly what we practice. But we must remember that we are not drawing up a statement for the Baptists of one state or section. This is to be a statement for all Southern Baptists. And it must be flexible enough that all of them may be comfortable with it.” After much discussion, such a statement met with agreement.”
Over the year the committee continued their work, sending drafts to seminaries, newspaper editors, and more. At the 1963 Annual Meeting, the newly revised Baptist Faith and Message was adopted by an overwhelming majority with no change whatsoever. In both 1969 and 1970, the Convention voted against efforts to make the BF&M mandatory on agencies and their employees. Of course, we know that in 2000 it was revised again to more clearly state the core beliefs of solid Baptists.
Hobbs was adamantly against making the Message mandatory for any church or agency, stating that would make it a creed and not a confession. To Hobbs, the preamble to the 1963 statement that defended is one of the most vital parts of the whole statement which says that confessions are to have no authority over the conscience. He stated that the ‘63 convention would not have adopted the statement without the preamble defending the individual conscience.
His belief in the sufficiency of God’s word allowed him to welcome those who might see some small things differently than him. Hobbs and the committee wanted to make sure that they maintained the “unity in diversity” within the SBC. To Hobbs, the Baptist Faith and Message was the balance between the two warring factions in the SBC. He called the statement the anchor “amid the swirling waters of liberalism and conservatism.” In a time of great pressures on the convention Hobbs and the committee purposefully kept the statement simple enough for all baptists to agree with.
Still today the Baptist Faith and Message is a statement for all Southern Baptists who want to take the gospel across the street and across the world. To make others conform to our political or cultural beliefs is to go against some of the very foundational values of Baptist belief. It’s clear that our convention faces challenges still today, from many of the same pressures that it faced in the 1960s. It’s also clear that our world needs the saving grace of Jesus Christ. The reason that Baptists cooperate together in the SBC is not that we all see things the same way. Uniformity is boring. It’s the unity in diversity that makes the SBC strong. When we lose diversity in the SBC we lose part of the very thing that Hobbs and others sought to maintain. We partner together because we are stronger together than we are apart.
Story and other notes pulled from
Fibers Of Our Faith: The Herschel H. and Frances J. Hobbs Lectureship in Baptist Faith and Heritage at Oklahoma Baptist University, Providence House Publishers, 1995
Luke Holmes (@lukeholmes) is husband to Sara, father to three young girls, and pastor to many at First Baptist Church Tishomingo, Oklahoma since 2011. He’s a graduate of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and can be found online at LukeAHolmes.com