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Infighting in the Southern Baptist Convention shouldn’t be a surprise – the denomination has been defined by such squabbles for 400 years

Baptists believe that each person can have a personal relationship with God. This theology, a scholar writes, has also contributed to disagreements within the denomination since the 17th century.

Each local congregation  of the Southern Baptist Convention is autonomous and self-governing. Disagreements take place frequently. (Joe Raedle/Getty images)

(The Conversation) — Concerned over the direction that some leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention have recently taken, a number of pastors in the denomination have formed the “Conservative Baptist Network.”

This comes after some of the denomination’s most high-profile figures, including Bible study leader Beth Moore and former president of the denomination’s moral and public policy agency Russell Moore (not related), have left the denomination, citing its leadership’s support of Donald Trump and its mishandling of clergy sex abuse and racism. These are far from the only departures the Southern Baptist Convention has suffered as membership has declined over the past 14 years.

The disgruntled pastors cite a number of grievances, from the SBC’s desire to address the denomination’s racist past to some leaders’ willingness to engage secular theories of social justice to understand contemporary social problems.

As a former Southern Baptist and now a scholar working in religious and gender studies, I’ve watched these recent controversies with interest. Such disagreements have defined Baptists since the 17th century.

Baptist battles

In 1972, historian Walter B. Shurden wrote how disagreements across the centuries had shaped the history of Baptists.

Baptist Battles” – a term coined by sociologist Nancy Ammerman in 1990 – are rooted in Baptist theology. Baptists believe that God speaks directly to individuals and that each person can read the Bible and interpret it themselves. Because of these beliefs, Baptists reject hierarchy in religious governance.

The Southern Baptist Convention does not tell individuals what to believe or churches what to do. Each local congregation is autonomous and self-governing. They have generally agreed upon shared beliefs, but no Baptist or Baptist body can tell anyone else what they must believe.

With each Baptist having the authority of the individual conscience before God, disagreements are an inevitable and frequent occurrence.

Although such agreements can be healthy and push issues forward, more often they can also lead to skirmishes, battles and divisions. Here are just a few of the Baptist battles that have taken place over the past four centuries.

The battle over salvation

Two distinct strands of Baptists emerged in England in the 17th century. The first were General Baptists, who believed in a “general” salvation, meaning that anyone could be saved. Salvation is believed to be a right relationship with God that leads to eternal life. General salvation is open to all, and each individual has free will to choose or reject salvation.

John Smyth, who founded the first Baptist church in Amsterdam around 1609 after fleeing religious persecution in England, believed that God allowed humans to make their own choices. People can choose to sin, and people can choose to repent, he said.

The second strand of English Baptists were known as Particular Baptists. They believed in a “particular” salvation, reserved for only those who have been chosen by God to be saved from eternal damnation.

People have no choice in the matter of their salvation or damnation. In 1644, Particular Baptists issued a confession of faith repudiating the “heresies” of General Baptists, especially the idea of free will.

The battle over hymn singing

Early Baptists, who had separated from the Church of England, were highly suspicious of the practices of Anglican worship, including of “set” – written and recited – prayers. They believed practices of worship should include only those directly authorized by Scripture.

General Baptists rejected congregational singing as a “fixed” form of worship. They feared fixed prayers and fixed singing could lead newly separated churches back into the errors of the Church of England.

Many Particular Baptists accepted the singing of Psalms, since these words were a part of the biblical text, although each Particular Baptist congregation made its own decisions about singing them or not. By the 1650s, a number of Particular Baptists were using congregational singing, and in the 1670s singing hymns that were not the Psalms began to be practiced.

In 1690 a bitter public debate erupted in printed tracts as Baptists attacked and defended the practice of singing hymns in worship. The controversy became so acrimonious that the 1692 Assembly of Particular Baptists took it up and asked its participants not to write publicly about it anymore.

The battle over enslavement

In the U.S., Baptists formed a national organization, the Triennial Convention, in 1814. Around the same time, attitudes of Baptists in the South toward the enslavement of Africans began to harden as the 1792 invention of the cotton gin, a machine that made it easier to separate the cotton fibers from their seeds, made enslavement more profitable. By the 1830s, abolitionism took firm hold among Northern Baptists, and both they and Baptists in the South argued they were upholding Scripture through their views on slavery.

Soon a debate erupted in the Triennial Convention over whether or not people who held enslaved Africans could be appointed as missionaries. Finally, the board of the convention announced it would not appoint such a person.

Baptists in the South decided to withdraw from the Triennial Convention and formed the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. Rather than issuing a statement in support of slavery, however, the new SBC declared civil issues, such as slavery, outside the purview of religious issues with which the denomination concerned itself.

The battle over Baptist history

In the 19th century, most Baptists staked their claim as the one true New Testament church on their belief that the denomination started with John the Baptist and continued in an unbroken line ever since.

In 1893, Southern Baptist seminary president W. H. Whitsitt published an article arguing that Baptists began around 1640 when some of those who broke from the Church of England rejected infant baptism and began to practice adult believers’ baptism by immersion.

The backlash to Whitsitt’s essay was swift and furious from prominent Baptists, local pastors and denominational newspaper editors who insisted Baptists could trace their origins to A.D. 30. Whitsitt resigned from the seminary, but eventually, Baptist historians vindicated him, and his version of 17th-century Baptist origins prevailed.

The battle over the Bible

In 1961, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Ralph H. Elliott wrote “The Message of Genesis,” a scholarly book that suggested that the stories of the first 11 chapters of the biblical book of Genesis were theological rather than historical. Many Southern Baptists considered these stories literal and believed Elliott had challenged the trustworthiness of the Bible by questioning the historical accuracy of Genesis.

After the 1962 meeting of the SBC affirmed the Bible’s historical accuracy and infallibility, the seminary demanded that Elliott agree not to republish the book. He refused, and the seminary fired him.

But the battle continued. When the denomination’s publishing house issued a commentary on Genesis in 1969 that challenged literal interpretations, the opposition was so great that the SBC demanded the publishing house withdraw the volume and issue a new edition with a different writer.

The battle for the denomination

People take part in a worship service during the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting in June 2021, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Dwindling numbers and internal divisions are posing a challenge to the Southern Baptist Convention.
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

These battles have continued into the present day. From 1979 to 1993, Southern Baptist fundamentalists and moderates fought for control of the denomination, with fundamentalists wresting away power and moderates leaving to form splinter organizations.

While fundamentalists framed the controversy as one over biblical fidelity and authority, the role of women was central. The SBC passed a 1984 resolution excluding women from ordination and becoming pastors and changed the denomination’s confessional statement to call for women’s submission to men.

Baptists have also fought over missions, other denominations, education, evolution, segregation, abortion, sexuality and social work. Now, Southern Baptists are fighting, again over salvation, race and gender.

(Susan M. Shaw, Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Oregon State University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

The Conversation