Three-time Southern Baptist Convention president Adrian Rogers, whose 1979 election sparked a revolutionary leadership change in America’s largest Protestant denomination, died early Tuesday of complications from cancer.
Rogers, 74, was hospitalized Nov. 3. According to his ministry Web site, Rogers had been undergoing chemotherapy treatments for colon cancer. Due to complications, a blood clot formed in his lungs causing double pneumonia. He was put on a ventilator to help his breathing.
Rogers was the first of a string of SBC presidents elected in what supporters called the “conservative resurgence” and hailed as a return to denomination’s historical, conservative roots.
Progressive and mainstream Baptists shut out of leadership, on the other hand, used different terms. They described a fundamentalist “takeover,” marked by a decade of character assassination and political dirty tricks.
In a 1979 Pastors Conference sermon Rogers outlined an ideal of all Southern Baptist churches, large or small, as having a pastor “who believes in the inerrant infallible Word of God.” He also quoted another conference speaker, who appealed to cast out the “liberal rattlesnakes and termites” in the convention.
Rogers was elected on a first ballot that year with 51.4 percent of the vote, setting up a string of presidential wins by fundamentalist pulpiteers, who for 15 years energized the conservative movement with annual convention sermons defending the Bible as “inerrant”–meaning literally true in every word and line–and denouncing those who disagreed as “liberals.”
In their 1999 book, In the Name of the Father, Carl Kell and Raymond Camp, both communications professors and lifelong Baptists, said moderates failed to come up with a counter-rhetoric to the theme of an “error-free” Bible trumpeted by charismatic SBC presidents such as Rogers, Bailey Smith and Jerry Vines.
“From a rhetorical perspective, the victory of the battle was won on national rostrums in the sermons of the presidents,” observed Kell and Camp.
“For 15 years, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention produced the finest defense of pulpit sermons on a single theme that had ever been seen or heard in the 150-year history of the denomination,” they wrote.
In 1980, Rogers set the tone for future leaders in the first president’s address of the inerrantist movement. In a sermon titled “The Decade of Decision and the Doors of Destiny,” Rogers quoted Bible verses describing Scripture as the Word of God, God-breathed, God-given, eternal and, therefore, perfect.
“So when we speak of the Bible as ‘truth, without any mixture of error’ (from the 1963 Baptist Faith & Message) we are referring to the original manuscripts,” he said. “The Holy Spirit guarded the original writers from error.”
Rogers’ rhetoric went far beyond the spotlight of the annual convention, however.
He once told ministers in a discussion of academic freedom that professors at Southern Baptist seminaries should be required to teach, “Whatever they are told to teach. And if we tell them to teach that pickles have souls, then they must teach that pickles have souls.”
Rogers was influential on the SBC Peace Committee, appointed in 1985 to determine the sources and solutions to the SBC controversy. Among findings reported to the convention in 1987 was that most Southern Baptists believed Adam and Eve were real persons, that the books of the Bible were written by the authors they are attributed to, that miracles described in Scripture actually occurred and that history in the Bible is accurate and reliable.
“We call upon Southern Baptist institutions to recognize the great number of Southern Baptists who believe this interpretation of our confessional statement and, in the future, to build their professional staffs and faculties from those who clearly reflect such dominant convictions and beliefs held by Southern Baptists at large,” the committee recommended.
Rogers chaired another committee charged with revising the Baptist Faith & Message in 2000. Revisions included altering a statement from the 1963 version on Scripture that read “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted in Jesus Christ” and adding a sentence on the church that says, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
“We have sought to clarify the intention of both previous editions of the Baptist Faith and Message as reflected in ‘Article I: The Scriptures,'” Rogers wrote in a statement. “We have made the total truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Bible even more explicit, and we point to Jesus Christ as the focus of divine revelation. We have removed the statement that identified Jesus Christ as ‘the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted,’ because it has been subject to misunderstanding. Jesus Christ cannot be divided from the biblical revelation that is testimony to Him. We must not claim a knowledge of Christ that is independent of Scripture or in any way in opposition to Scripture. Likewise, Scripture cannot be set against Scripture.”
In addition to shifting SBC theology, Rogers’ presidency also started a trend toward political alliances with the far right. In 1979, SBC leaders believed moderates had moved too far to the left in their political and theological course.
During a visit to the White House in 1979, Rogers told President Jimmy Carter, a lifelong Baptist whose 1976 campaign introduced the term “born again” into America’s political lexicon, “Mr. President, I hope you will give up your secular humanism and return back to Christianity.”
Rogers believed that Christians have a duty to be involved in government and said it is a sin for a Christian to abstain from voting in an election.
He wrote that it is a pastor’s duty to influence the political decisions of the members of his congregation, but it can be done without endorsing a specific candidate, which under IRS regulations a church cannot do without losing its tax-exempt status. If a pastor “has done his job,” Rogers wrote, “his members will prayerfully and correctly use the standard of God’s Word to select the right candidate.”
One of Rogers’ longtime members at BellevueBaptistChurch, Ed McAteer, who died last year at age 78, was founder and president of the Religious Roundtable. McAteer organized a gathering of evangelical during the 1980 presidential campaign at which candidate Ronald Reagan said, “I know you can’t endorse me, but I can endorse you,” a key moment in formation of the religious right.
In 2003 Rogers was one of 25 religious leaders to sign a letter from Gary Bauer’s American Values organization commending President Bush for his decision to go to war in Iraq but criticizing his proposed “Road Map for Peace” initiative as being too lax toward Palestinians.
“Mr. President, it would be morally reprehensible for the United States to be ‘evenhanded’ between democratic Israel, a reliable friend and ally that shares our values, and the terrorist-infested Palestinian infrastructure that refuses to accept the right of Israel to exist at all,” the letter said in part.
A native of Florida, Rogers was pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., from 1972 until March 2005. During his tenure church membership grew from 9,000 to 29,000. The church moved into a new megachurch facility in suburban Cordova, Tenn., in 1989.
Rogers published numerous books. He was founder and president of Love Worth Finding Ministries, a syndicated television and radio ministry available in 120 million U.S. households, as well as in Africa, the Middle East and Caribbean.
Rogers supported the SBC Disney boycott. “Do you think that we’re going to change Disney?” he once said in an American Family Association video. “I don’t think so. That’s not the point. The point is we don’t want Disney to change us.”
But he opposed the rise of Calvinism, a movement embraced by a number of younger SBC leaders including Southern Seminary President Al Mohler. In 2000 Rogers published a booklet titled Predestined for Hell? Absolutely Not. In it he argued the Bible says nothing about God picking only a selected few to go to heaven while willing for the rest of the world to perish.
In 1993 Rogers said Woman’s Missionary Union should be “hard-wired” into the SBC structure or lose key positions on denominational boards.
Though criticized at the time, his suggestion turned out to be prescient. The SBC Executive Committee is currently studying a motion referred by last year’s convention to consider inviting WMU to abandon its historic auxiliary status and become an SBC entity.
Asked by a non-fundamentalist pastor how he interpreted a Bible passage that appeared to condone slavery, Rogers reportedly once said: “I feel slavery is a much maligned institution. If we had slavery today we would not have such a welfare problem.”
His committee’s revisions to the Baptist Faith & Message, however, included addition of a new phrase affirming “every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love.”
In a foreword to Kell and Camp’s 1999 book, moderate leader Ken Chafin, who died in 2001, told a story about Rogers’ attacking then Southern Seminary President Roy Honeycutt’s interpretation of an Old Testament story about a she-bear coming out of the woods and devouring some children as punishment for calling the prophet Elisha “baldy.”
Rogers assured his crowd God had done the right thing, because the word translated “children” really meant teenage punks from a pagan temple, who got what they deserved for not showing proper respect to a prophet.
Chafin shared a tape and transcript with Page Kelly, a longtime Old Testament professor, who told him the Hebrew word translated in II Kings is the same word used in the messianic passage in Isaiah 9:6, “For unto us a child is born.”
“I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to be at BellevueBaptistChurch when Adrian preached his Christmas sermon on ‘Unto us a teenage punk is born’?” Chafin said.
Later, at an SBC meeting in Dallas, Chafin asked Rogers how he arrived at his interpretation not supported by the text of the Bible.
“With a sense of pride he said, ‘I got that from the footnotes of the New Scofield Bible,'” Chafin said, “as though that was the most responsible source of biblical authority.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.