Progressive Theology and Southern Baptist Controversies of the 1950s and 1960s -- By: Gregory A. Wills

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 07:1 (Spring 2003)
Article: Progressive Theology and Southern Baptist Controversies of the 1950s and 1960s
Author: Gregory A. Wills


Progressive Theology and Southern Baptist Controversies
of the 1950s and 1960s

Gregory A. Wills

Gregory A. Wills is Associate Professor of Church History and Director of the Center for the Study of the Southern Baptist Convention at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of the highly acclaimed Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785–1900 (Oxford University Press, 1996).

In Uneasy in Babylon, Barry Hankins argues that the conservatives who orchestrated the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention since 1979 sought principally to save America from the advance of secularist culture. They promoted inerrancy and orthodox theology as a means to this end. The most important difference between conservatives and moderates then was not their theology but how they viewed American culture—conservatives opposed the cultural mainstream and moderates endorsed it. Conservatives thus sought to control the convention—“in order to wage the national culture war.”1

But their primary concern was a bit less grandiose. They sought to control the convention not to save America but to save the seminaries. They were not seeking a platform for countercultural political endeavors but an orthodox foundation for advancing the faithfulness of Southern Baptists in fulfilling the divinely ordained mission of the church. The truth revealed in the inerrant scripture, conservatives held, was fundamental to the church’s mission.

Conservatives believed that the denomination was drifting from orthodoxy. Although they raised some accusations against other denominational agencies, the seminaries were the main targets. Many aspects of the post-1979 campaign to expunge liberalism from the seminaries arose from denominational experiences in the 1950s and 1960s.

Since the late nineteenth century, progressive or liberal theology spread significantly as many Southern Baptists sought an “intelligent” response to the threat of irreligion posed by the established scientific approaches to evolution and biblical criticism rooted in historicism and comparative religion. By the 1960s conservatives became convinced that liberalism originating from the seminaries gravely imperiled the denomination. They agitated against liberal professors and successfully pressured the seminaries to dismiss some of their most vulnerable faculty members. The seminary faculties nevertheless remained overwhelmingly progressive. The chief impact on the seminaries was to frighten the faculties into becoming more cautious in their writings and public statements. Conservatives sensed that they were losing the war. The seminary purges of the 1950...

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