As an unreconstructed “Northern” Baptist now living in the South, I find rather curious the endeavor of the Southern Baptist Convention to find a new name for itself.
After all, it is the church that was born in the controversy over slavery, did what it could to keep black folk down after the slaves were liberated, and was a solid supporter of the Democratic Party for a good many decades.
Then things shifted dramatically with school desegregation, the civil rights movement and Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” – and the stereotype of the “Solid South” quickly eroded.
I always thought “Southern” was an accurate descriptor of the church, and for that matter I still do.
The argument I hear is that Southern Baptist is simply too limiting because the SBC is now a national body with a global missionary outreach.
In the United States and even Canada, it followed the southern diaspora during and after World War II by providing these people with a church just like the one back home.
These “Yankee” churches were strange places with different orders of worship, hymnbooks and kinds of organizations to which congregational members belonged.
They had no Baptist Young People’s Union (BYPU) or “Training Union,” Woman’s Mission Union (WMU), Girls’ Auxiliary (GA) or Men’s Brotherhood.
“Southern” helped people to find their identity in this strange new world of the North and assist assimilation into the new social and cultural milieu.
Historian Leon McBeth has shown that as early as 1903 the SBC had toyed with the idea of a name change, and it was a live issue in the 1950s.
The question involves changing the name to what?
The Northern Baptists grabbed off the word “American” in 1950 and the black Baptists had appropriated “National” back in 1895.
Of course, “Cooperative” was much too tainted by the dramatic controversy of the 1980-90s to merit any consideration whatsoever.
“Fellowship” or “Association” was too weak an appellation for an increasingly centralized church with a firm creed, the Baptist Faith and Message as amended.
Besides, the Landmark faction had created the American Baptist Association in 1924, and a split from it a few years later was the Baptist Missionary Association.
The fundamentalist schism from the Northern Baptist Convention in 1932 called itself the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, thus denying the southerners both “Association” and the historical term “Regular.”
“Conference” or “General Conference” was used by several groups, including the Seventh-Day, German and Swedish Baptists, although the latter recently renamed themselves “Converge Worldwide.” Who knows what that means – certainly not the average person in the pew.
Retaining “Convention” is also problematic because the Baptist General Convention of Texas is the largest state body of its kind in America and in recent years its relationship with the SBC has become quite strained.
Given the current state of affairs, a number of appropriate monikers are out there. They are, however, already spoken for or hardly acceptable.
The SBC leadership speaks of the “conservative” resurgence in the previous century, but the name belongs to the group that split from the Northern Baptists in the 1940s known as the Conservative Baptist Association.
Since Southern Baptists now preach the “inerrancy” of the Bible, they could call themselves “Bible” Baptists, except that a million-strong body of fundamentalists who left the SBC decades ago already goes by that label.
Many SBC figures are strong Calvinists, but renaming the denomination as such would not sit well with those of a more Arminian persuasion.
Also there are an Association of Reformed Baptist Churches and a Sovereign Grace Association of Baptist Churches that would gladly welcome Al Mohler and his pals to their congregations.
One might say their beliefs are “primitive,” but the strongly Calvinistic and anti-mission Primitive Baptists date their existence back to the 1830s, and they exist today as both white and black communions. The latter, founded in 1907, is more progressive in outlook and practice than its white counterpart.
A term often applied to the Primitives is “Hard-Shell Baptists,” but it is highly unlikely that the SBC would accept this, although a columnist in the Hendersonville (N.C.) Times-News commenting on the nomenclature controversy recently suggested this would be quite apropos.
It used to be said that the Episcopal Church was “the Republican Party at prayer,” but surely this distinction has passed on to the Southern Baptists.
Just think of the recent meeting of Republican activists held at Judge Paul Pressler’s Texas ranch to settle on a suitable “evangelical” candidate in the South Carolina primary, or the SBC’s public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and its leader Richard Land, which is a mouthpiece for the Religious Right and Republican views on current social issues.
If Southern Baptists want to abandon their hallowed name, I can think of no more appropriate replacement than the “Republican Baptist Convention.”
It would apply nationally and be a good descriptor of its social and political outlook.