Friday, June 11, 2010

Early 20th century SBC denominationalism

Part of an ongoing series on Southern Baptist history . . . 

Sunday School Board
J.M. Frost (1848-1916)
The Southern Baptist Publication Society formed May 13, 1847, and headquartered in Charleston, SC, but remained unconnected to the new Convention and ceased with the War. Subsequent efforts for Sunday School literature were hampered by Landmarkist influence, but in 1873 responsibility for Sunday School literature came to the Home Mission Board, which continued to publish the children’s take-home paper, Kind Words. Isaac T. Tichenor said in 1885, “We need literature for our churches or they will disappear.” The American Baptist Publication Society saw in Tichenor’s action a competitor, and it was not going to relinquish $30-50,000 receipts per year in Southern customers. Tichenor called this challenge from the ABPS “the heaviest denominational conflict of the last century.” An 1888 meeting with the ABPS ended “unable to arrive at any agreement.”

In 1891, James Marion Frost (1848-1916) became the first head of the Sunday School Board, now called Lifeway. At the time, few Southern Baptist churches had an organized Sunday School, and were not interested in starting one. Four previous initiatives for Sunday Schools had failed, but with support from Annie “Strongarm” Armstrong who seemed always to want something printed, they published Sunday School and missions literature. For many years Armstrong kept the Sunday School Board afloat financially, and she felt betrayed by Frost when he did not defend her in regard to the female institute at Louisville.

Through his printing press and his theological conservatism, Frost had a formative and strong influence on Southern Baptist churches, remaking them into a denomination. His intense denominationalism influenced the way Southern Baptists began to see themselves, not as isolated congregations, but as a world force for evangelization of the non-South and the entire world. His focus on curriculum for training leadership, organizing the Sunday Schools, and expanding and centralizing efforts created what we know today as the SBC.

Ironically, while the Sunday School Board consolidated and mobilized the Convention for missions, it also created an inherent isolationism that would breed an attitude of denominational self-sufficiency and later form the environment for theological liberalism to grow and flourish at the denominational level while the loyal SBC local churches which had remained conservative were completely oblivious to it. It would in the late 20th century lead to a conservative revolt by the local churches to restore the theological conservatism of J.M. Frost and others to the upper eschelons of Southern Baptist leadership and education.

At his death in 1916, Frost was hailed as one of the greatest of all Southern Baptist statesmen because of his vision that printed curriculum would unite and consolidate thousands of autonomous local congregations into a massive force for world evangelization.

In 1913, Southern Baptists formed the Social Service Commission as an arm of the SBC to monitor the ills of society and keep Southern Baptists informed about social issues. In the early days, they were interested in keeping state and local blue laws in force, as most Southern Baptists were Sabbatarians. The SSC also went after the new motion picture industry which was polluting Baptist youth. It was opposed to the use of tobacco in all forms and advocated anti-lynching legislation in the South.

In 1950, the SSC became the Christian Life Commission, and it changed, beginning to resonate over time with more liberal politics in contrast to Southern Baptists in the pew. The Christian Life Commission advocated a quietly pro-choice position on abortion and was sympathetic to the Vietnam era’s anti-war movement. These positions tagged the CLC as the left wing of the SBC.

In 1997, in the denominational reorganization at the end of the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC, the CLC became the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC under conservative Richard Land.

In 1898, a committee to celebrate a new century suggested the need for a committee to form to oversee orderly denominational activity between annual meetings. The idea was shot down at the SBC that year, but by 1917, the first World War was on, and planning and efficiency were values stressed in that generation. The SBC that year created the Executive Committee of the SBC to handle administrative responsibilities of the SBC during the year.

E. Y. Mullins (1860-1928)

The year 1925 was pivotal in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention. At the 1925 Convention, messengers adopted the SBC’s first official statement of faith called the Baptist Faith and Message. It was based on the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith.

Southern Seminary president Edgar Young Mullins had observed the failure of the Northern Baptist Convention to adopt a statement of faith and the doctrinal decline which followed among them. Mullins stressed that the SBC needed a statement of what is “commonly agreed among us.” He knew that a general articulation of Southern Baptist beliefs was needed as a hedge against the creeping liberalism gaining ground in SBC circles. Evolution, for example, was being taught as fact at Baylor, Furman, Wake Forest College -- all of them state Baptist convention schools receiving funds from Southern Baptists who would have disagreed with that position.

This wise move by Mullins and the 1925 Convention supplied the doctrinal bulwark needed to overcome the rising tide of liberal doctrine in the SBC in the decades to come.