As the Republican presidential campaigns descend to ever-greater depths of schoolyard scrapping, I can’t help but recall some of the uglier spots in the devolution of the Southern Baptist Convention, when angry voices from the far right rose up to drown out and ultimately depose the more moderate leaders of the Convention establishment.
I thought of this after noticing a Facebook post from Timothy Brock, who noted that Ralph Elliott turned 91 last week. While younger folk (especially those who don’t read Baptist history) wouldn’t know his name, Elliott’s scholarship and his willingness to share it provided the spark that ignited a tinderbox of fundamentalist sentiment leading to the ultimate upheaval and transformation of the Convention.
Elliott was a pioneer professor at the new Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, which was founded in 1957. In 1961, Elliott published a book — through the SBC’s Broadman Press — called The Message of Genesis. In the book, Elliott employed very normative elements of historical criticism, which included an analysis of sources underlying the Pentateuch, along with observations that some of the stories in Genesis 1-11 could be more metaphorical than factual.
That was too much for fundamentalists, who called for Elliott to be fired and for Broadman Press (a subsidiary of what was then called the Sunday School Board) to withdraw the book. Elliott was dismissed from Midwestern Seminary, not for having written the book, but for standing by it, re-issuing it through another publisher against the seminary president’s wishes. It should be noted that most of Elliott’s colleagues teaching biblical studies in the seminaries held similar views regarding the value of higher critical methods of Bible study, but they tended to be less outspoken about it.
The conflict had far-reaching ramifications: the resulting “Elliott Controversy” and the Convention leadership’s attempts to smooth the waters led to the appointment of a committee chaired by Herschel Hobbs, and the 1963 revision of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message. The new “BF&M” tweaked a few sections, but still allowed room for interpretation and honored the hallmark Baptist tenet of “the priesthood of the believer.” Those who were most troubled by what they saw as a “leftward drift” in the seminaries were not placated.
A commentary on the Bible’s opening book became the genesis of another controversy in 1969 when the first volumes of the Broadman Bible Commentary were released. Volume 1 included introductory articles and commentaries on Genesis and Exodus. The section on Genesis was written by English Baptist G. Henton Davies, who also employed methods of critique and analysis that were widely accepted among biblical scholars, including the very defensible hypothesis that multiple sources lay behind the development of Genesis and many other biblical books.
While that was enough to generate controversy among those who held to the conviction that Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch, Davies also questioned whether God really told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Davies could not imagine that God would ever do such a thing, and argued that Abraham, deep in his psyche, must have convinced himself that God expected such a sacrifice. The resulting outcry forced Broadman Press to recall the volume and have it rewritten by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Clyde T. Francisco, who also employed critical methods but used more acceptable language and didn’t question God’s role in the near-sacrifice of Isaac. Criticism of the original volume continued to be cited in the run-up to the well documented fundamentalist “takeover” of the Convention that began with the presidential election of 1979 and culminated with a wholesale revision of the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000, giving it a wholly conservative slant.
As the Republican establishment scrambles vainly to prune back branches that have grown wild over the past decade, they might learn from Baptists that it’s very hard to manage a mass of people who are ill-informed, strongly-opinionated, amenable to hot-headed rhetoric — and armed with the power to vote.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.