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NEWS STORY: Baptist Conservatives Celebrate Takeover Resurgence

Hundreds of Southern Baptist gathered to celebrate Paige Patterson, Paul Pressler and other leaders of the conservative revolt in the Southern Baptist Convention during the 1980s and 1990s.

c. 2004 Religion News Service

INDIANAPOLIS (RNS)  — Hundreds of fans of the 25-year-old turn toward conservatism in the Southern Baptist Convention celebrated the milestone at a reunion event Monday (June 14).

“Remembering the Legacy, Reaching the Future,” was the theme of the Conservative Resurgence Reunion held on the eve of the annual meeting of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination at the Indiana Convention Center.

Memories of key moments in those 25 years were rekindled for an audience of more than 500 as leaders of the movement received standing ovations and video footage of the late W.A. Criswell carried his sermons from the 1980s that spurred on those seeking the conservative control that now holds the denomination’s seminaries and agencies.

Criswell spoke on “the curse of liberalism” in a 1985 speech _ whose mere topic drew cheers at that year’s annual meeting _ and said the people he considered liberals called themselves “moderates” at the time.

“A skunk by any other name still stinks,” said the conservative theologian who died in 2002.

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson and layman and former judge Paul Pressler were praised for their theological and strategic leadership of the denominational changes, called a “resurgence” by supporters and a “takeover” by opponents.

“We would not be in this room tonight had it not been for these two men,” said Jerry Johnson, president of The Criswell College, the Dallas school that helped sponsor the reunion.

Each of those leaders spoke briefly and emotionally about their own work but called the “real heroes” the people who sacrificed to turn out in the tens of thousands to elect conservative presidents in sometimes close elections.

Patterson recalled two Alabama pastors who traveled in a green Volkswagen Beetle to a convention in Los Angeles and ate at McDonald’s.

“They slept in the Volkswagen,” Patterson recalled. “They went out to a local truck stop to bathe and shave each morning. And they ate every meal that they did eat, which was just one a day, at the sign of the arches, and yet they were there every session to vote their conscience.”

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, a newer but now prominent member of the 16.3-million member denomination, praised the past actions that made membership attractive to him.

“I was not a Southern Baptist when you guys hijacked it, but I liked it so much that I joined shortly thereafter,” said Falwell, the pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., who gave the opening prayer.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, recounted some of the movement’s history and heralded what he considered a victory over liberalism within the denomination’s ranks.

“It was a dangerous interloper and would have been a lethal one had it been allowed to continue,” he said.

Podium speakers recognized the role of hundreds of trustees who were appointed to boards of agencies after conservative presidents were successfully elected starting in 1979.

The event was designed not only as an evening of memories but also a symbolic encouragement to maintain the denomination’s conservatism amid a new generation.

Land urged his fellow Southern Baptists to keep watch on agency heads like himself to ensure that the conservative direction is not reversed.

“You keep track of us and make certain that we keep these agencies latched to the cross and founded on the inerrant, infallible word of God,” he said.

While conservative leaders have long held that the Bible is inerrant _ or without error _ more moderate Baptists have left biblical interpretation up to the individual believer.

“Critics whined that the resurgence was about politics and power, but it was about saving the denomination,” said Jim Richards, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and an organizer of the reunion.

“Without the resurgence, Southern Baptists would be debating ordaining women and whether homosexuality is an acceptable alternate lifestyle.”

While conservative leaders who took turns at the microphone hailed the changes in the denomination over the last two and a half decades, those who were aligned with the moderate side of the battle said in recent interviews that they have moved on from that fight.

Boston University professor Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist who wrote extensively on moderate-conservative battles, said she doesn’t completely agree with conservatives’ view that the movement toward conservatism represented the denomination’s grass-roots constituency.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a set of changes that the grassroots of the convention would have chosen to make,” said Ammerman, the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher who served on the Coordinating Council of the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in the 1990s.

“I think probably most grass-roots Southern Baptists would have been content to have a relatively diverse convention that included both conservatives and relatively liberal people.”

Ammerman is now a member of a Newton, Mass., church affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA.

The Rev. Bill Leonard, another moderate chronicler of the Baptist controversy since its early days, is now dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. He no longer uses the term resurgence or takeover to describe the Southern Baptist transformation.

“Twenty-five years later, I’ve quit using those terms and just say it was the public beginning of the fragmentation of the denomination,” he said. “The conservatives control the national level but there’s still a debate over who controls the state conventions. Local churches are disengaging from the convention at both ends of the spectrum.”

The former Southern Baptist now writes about the diversity of Baptists and attends a predominantly African-American Baptist church in Winston-Salem, N.C. S

aid Leonard: “I’ve found other venues for being Baptist, so I don’t need to go back to that. They won. It’s their denomination. Peace to them.”