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Conservative Baptists
A Story of Twentieth-Century Dissent

"Causes of Dissent"
By Bruce L. Shelley

Centralized Polity

      When the Northern Baptist Convention was organized, there were those who expressed the fear that this organization would subvert all that was dear to the faith.1 The past fifty years attest the fact that those fears were not groundless. The Convention has become more and more centralized in its operation to the point where cherished Baptist principles of autonomy (self-government of the local church) and "democracy" are today little more than nice words used to gain the support for some program of the Convention.

      Any group's mode of government is its polity, "the sociological manifestation of doctrinal belief" as one writer defines it.2 The Fundamentalist, as nearly everyone knows, was chiefly concerned with the doctrinal beliefs of the Convention, but the "sociological manifestation" of those beliefs is actually what prevented the success of the Fundamentalist's program. Any serious study, therefore, of the rise of the Conservative Baptist Movement must take into account the polity of the Convention as well as its theology.

      As we have seen, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century the major denominations in America were feeling the influence of the big businessman, his money and especially his methods. The industrial revolution of that century had made the businessman the American symbol. It was only natural for the churches, as part of American life, to place increasing emphasis upon efficiency and organization while delegating more and more responsibility to boards, commissions and committees.3 How could the ideal of a regenerate church, which nurtured Baptist church life in the seventeenth century, survive in this tide of American modernity?

The Organization of the Northern Baptist Convention

      In the early efforts to unite Baptist work in the North, some saw the tendency "to presbyterianize."4 But the chaotic conditions created by the eight independent societies, often dominated by strong personalities, seemed to demand some type of unifying organization. The Southern Baptist Convention had been centrally organized since its inception in 1845, but northern Baptists struggled along in their disjointed way until May, 1907. That month, meeting in Washington, D.C., the societies agreed to form the Northern Baptist Convention.

      Theoretically, once the Convention was organized, it united in some loose way twelve thousand self-governing churches for purposes of world evangelization. The three-fold purpose of the Convention and the professed reasons for its formation were included in the preamble to the constitution: "The object of this Convention shall be to give expression to the sentiment of its constituency upon matters of denominational importance and of general religious and moral interest; to develop denominational unity; and to give increased efficiency to efforts for the evangelization of America and the world."5

      Like the earlier associations the principle of voluntary cooperation was the foundation on which the organization of the Convention rested.6 At Washington in 1907, Shailer Mathews, one of the organizers of the Convention, assured his audience that the proposed convention "cannot be a legislative body," for "we want no council with power."7 This absence of power was supposedly guaranteed when the preamble to the constitution announced that "the Northern Baptist Convention declares its belief in the independence of the local church, and in the purely advisory nature of all denominational organizations composed of representatives of the churches." 8

      This desire to avoid the usurpation of the powers of the local churches was not only constitutionally "safeguarded" but was also the declared intent of the founders. Shailer Mathews, who shared in the composition of the first draft of the constitution, later gave an account of the determination to preserve this independence. "By every means possible," he wrote, "the successive committees engaged in the dealing with the final shape of the constitution endeavored to protect the churches from anything like a centralized form of government, and to leave the independent local churches precisely where they had ever been, self-determining, independent democracies."9 The history of the Convention during the next half century is the story of this unfulfilled purpose

      The uniting, of the various societies was a second important feature of the Convention. They were called "corporate agencies" of the Convention because their legally corporate and autonomous status was theoretically preserved. A rather happy financial arrangement bound them to the Convention. They were to regulate their budgets in consultation with the finance committee of the Convention and in return the Convention promised the support of the churches.10

      One of the regulations on the budgets of the societies included the agreement to solicit funds "only on the approval of the Convention or on approval of the Finance Committee given between the Annual Meetings of the Convention." 11 This policy naturally applied to any future societies as well and unless such societies submitted to it they could not expect the approval of the Convention. The Conservatives found this a rather inflexible requirement in 1945. But, it was only one among many.

      Another organizational stone over which Conservatives stumbled in the forties had to do with voting privileges. From the time the Convention was organized it granted the right to vote at annual sessions to all delegates from the co-operating churches and organizations. This included all salaried personnel and members of the various boards of the societies. When the number of salaried workers amounted to a sizeable proportion of the voting delegates at a meeting, there was a chance that they could determine the way a vote went. Fundamentalists became acutely aware of this when their own program opposed that of the Convention leaders. In Grand Rapids (1946) they tried to amend the Bylaws in order to remedy this situation, but, as in nearly every other decisive vote, they lost. The Convention of Grand Rapids was simply not the Washington Convention of 1907. Some causes of Fundamentalist grief had come through developing centralization; other causes were there from the beginning.

      The "safeguards" for the autonomy of the local churches, the financial regulations for the societies, the voting privileges of the salaried personnel - these were the features which were either inadequate or outright barriers to the evangelical concern of the Conservatives but which were present in the Convention from the start.

Changes In 1919

      When World War I, like a violent tornado, had cut a destructive swath through a great portion of the world, the denominational missionary enterprise found that it too had been caught in the wake of it. Losses due to war and infla-tionary prices called for a reorganization of the denomination's financial policies in an effort to achieve great efficiency. It is the judgment of at least one student of the Convention that the finances of the societies more than any other one factor induced the organization of the Convention in the first place.12 Now that financial program appeared inadequate.

      In 1918 the Convention authorized a special layman's committee to study the situation and to report to the Con-vention a year later in Denver. When delivered, the introduction of the committee's report pointed to the rising cost of promotion and the vast opportunities for world service, and then it went on to assert that the study had been carried on with three words in mind: "Democracy, Unity, and Efficiency."13 Surely, the committee reasoned, unity would result if more democratic processes were employed. With this in mind the committee recommended a "General Board of Promotion" which would meet annually in November to review the work of the Convention, to make plans for the coming year and to prepare a budget. This "Unified Budget" meant a tight system of collecting and distributing funds by "headquarters." It also gave Convention officials a tangible index as to which pastors were particularly "cooperative" and therefore good candidates for positions on boards.14 The need for this Board of Promotion, the report asserted, arose from the size of the Convention which no longer permitted those deliberative sessions necessary in such matters.15 The Convention apparently agreed since it accepted the report.

      The composition of the Board of Promotion itself witnessed to the growing centralization of the Convention. The membership consisted of roughly one hundred and fifty members with a large majority of official representatives, whereas only thirty-six members-at-large represented the churches directly. When even this group proved too large, more centralization was thought necessary, and consequently a smaller committee of Administration was proposed which included only six members-at-large.

      Of course, voices of protest were not lacking. One contributor to the Watchman Examiner that year complained that the plan "creates a piece of machinery that may be effective but it is certainly not democratic nor in harmony with Baptist traditions."16 Such protests continued through the twenties adding to the more extensive theological complaints of the Fundamentalist Fellowship and the Baptist Bible Union. The mounting number of churches which cut support for the budget may be traced to these grave ques-tions about the Board of Promotion and the way the budget was imposed.17 Changing the name of the board in 1924 to the Board of Missionary Cooperation did little to obviate these complaints.

Changes in 1934

      Events preceding 1933 called for other major adjustments in the Convention. The crushing economic collapse of 1929 had affected practically every enterprise in America, and the denominations were not exempt. Because of these financial straits, Baptists were ready for drastic measures by 1933. Some believed that expenses could be reduced by merging the two foreign missionary societies then cooperating with the Convention. 18 Others urged more denominational interest in the churches.19 To meet the situation, the Convention in 1933 created a Commission of Fifteen to study the problem and to bring a report to the next Convention. The Commission was instructed to give proper consideration in its recommendations to three principles: historic Baptist democracy, an equitable basis of representation and coČoperation rather than centralization. Apparently the Commission believed that it remained true to these principles because its report stated: "Since the local church is the most important factor of organization in our Convention, our recommendations have been made with both its welfare and responsibility in mind. . . . We have . . . tried to avoid the evils caused by the centralization of authority."20

      The statement which followed, however, actually called for more centralization, not less. The report recommended the abolition of the Board of Missionary Cooperation in favor of a Council on Finance and Promotion, and it urged creation of a General Council which would assume the duties of the Executive Committee plus some of those of the Board of Missionary Cooperation.

      Because of the importance of this General Council in later events some extended explanation is necessary here. According to the new arrangement this council was composed of the officers and the immediate past President of the Convention and thirty additional members elected as the Convention prescribed. Except as otherwise expressly provided, the General Council, between sessions, was granted all the powers vested in the Northern Baptist Convention plus those powers which the Convention had not expressly reserved to itself.

      Among those powers were arrangements for meetings of the Convention, appointment of subcommittees, nominations of members to the Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board and the Board of Education, the appointment of one of its own members to the Nominating Committee without the right to vote, management of all properties of the Convention and the power to "borrow money in the name of the Convention and to pledge the credit of the Convention therefore."21

      In less than a decade, this control in matters of finance became a most distressing feature to conservatives. Especially significant were: the provision that any resolution offered on the floor of the Convention which involved expenditures of money should be referred, without debate, to the General Council, and the stipulation that the Council had power to approve all special financial campaigns.

      Organizationally this meant that approval of projects rested with the General Council, the promotion and collection with the Council on Finance and Promotion. Practically it meant two things: first, the agencies, which had been important and direct means of missionary expressions for the churches, were now caught up in the tensions of competition with one another for "their share" of the budget; and second, the people of the churches, the real source of the gifts, were separated by collection agents from the ministry of missions and evangelism.

      In the years following 1934, one more major feature centralized the denomination even further. In 1939, by a standing resolution the General Council created an Executive Committee of the Council. This committee, composed of the Convention President, Corresponding Secretary, Treasurer, and five members-at-large, acted on business between Council meetings. Because of powers vested in this Committee and the Council, one decision in 1945 by about twelve people affected thousands of Northern Baptists. In that year the Council refused to allow the issue involving the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society to be brought before the Convention sessions.

      It is safe to say that on the eve of the separation of Conservatives all important phases of the Convention were brought within the superintendence of the General Council and the Council on Finance and Promotion. The increasing delegation of authority was recognized not only by Fundamentalists but by discerning liberals as well.22

      In 1959 a bold but careful study presented striking evidence of the quiet revolution that had taken place in the American Baptist Convention. The results of Paul M. Harrison's social case study of the Convention gave ample documentation of the bureaucratic character of the organization and showed convincingly why the Fundamentalists were unable to implement their program. Delegates, Harrison asserts, have "little influence over the affairs of the Convention except in an indirect manner."23 The positions involving policy-making have shifted into the willing hands of salaried personnel, who, in order to accomplish the goals of the Convention, have gained increasing power, "in some cases considerably more than necessary for the performance of their task."24 Conservative Baptists, who became one of the organized protests against such centralization in policy, had learned all this by hard experience. They were convinced, even without Harrison's documentation, that the rights of the local churches had been sacrificed on the altar of efficiency and organization.25



1. Paul M. Harrison, Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1959), p. 41.
2. Ibid., p. 5.
3. W. W. Sweet, The Story of Religion in America (New York: Harper, 1950), p. 348
4. The Standard, June 1, 1901, p. 1,226. Quoted in Harrison, op. cit., p. 39.
5. Annual, 1907, p. 3.
6. W. C. Bitting, A Manual of the Northern Baptist Convention 1908-1918 (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1918), p. 9.
7. The Examiner, Editorial Report, May 23, 1907, pp. 653-654. Quoted in unpublished Th.M thesis by Robert Leonard Carlberg, "The Development of Centralizing Tendencies in the Northern Baptist Convention 1907-1946," p. 24. This work provided the general outline for the present chapter.
8. Bitting, op. cit., pp. 19-20.
9. Watchman-Examiner (from this point designated simply W. E.), May 16, 1940, p. 543.
10. Harrison, op. cit., p. 39.
11. Annual, 1910, p. 8.
12. Harrison, op. cit., p. 49.
13. Annual, 1919, p. 188.
14. Harrison, op. cit., p. 167.
15. Annual, 1919, p. 189.
16. A. C. Hill, "Present Day Denominational Movements," W. E., Aug 21, 1919, p. 1211.
17. See John W. Bradbury's "The Preliminary Report of the Committee of Fifteen," W. E., March 1, 1934, p. 210.
18. The proposal of C. Oscar Johnson, President of the Convention.
19. C. M. Gallup, "Are We Missing the Main Point?" W. E., May 17, 1934, p. 554.
20. Annual, 1934, p. 125.
21. Ibid., p. 15.
22. Shailer Mathews in W. E. May 16, 1940, p. 543.
23. Harrison, op. cit., p. 15.
24. Harrison, op. cit., p. 13.
25. John W. Bradbury's discerning article "The Crisis in the Northern Convention" in W. B. May 2, 1946, sketched the problems in Convention Polity as the conservatives approached the Grand Rapids meetings


[From Bruce L. Shelley, Conservative Baptists, A Story of Twentieth-Century Dissent, 1960. pp. 9-15. Formatted by Jim Duvall.]