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Religion Library: Baptist

Modern Age

Written by: David Buschart

Like many other Protestant Christian traditions in America, the "fundamentalist/modernist" controversies of the early- and mid-20th century expressed itself in divisions within the Baptist tradition. Theological differences over such matters as the inspiration and authority of the Bible, the person (particularly the divinity) of Jesus Christ, and adaptation to contemporary thought and culture led to heated controversies within churches and associations, and, in some instances, to divisions within churches and associations. For example, the Conservative Baptist Association of America was created largely as the result of fundamentalist churches withdrawing from the Northern Baptist Convention (now American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.) in 1947. Many of the associations that were born out of the fundamentalist/modernist controversies still exist today, and in varying degrees continue to reflect those differences.

Two of the most widely known and most significant Baptist ministers of the 20th century are Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), and Rev. Billy Graham. King was educated at Baptist-related Crozer Seminary, and served as a pastor of two Baptist churches, Dexter Baptist in Montgomery, Alabama (1954-59) and Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, Georgia (1959-68), where his father had been the pastor. Influenced in part by the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and liberal Baptist social theologian Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), King was the premier spokesperson and leader for non-violent protest and civil disobedience in the cause of civil rights, particularly for African Americans, in the 1960s. He was the founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an ecumenical organization that works for civil rights and constructive social change, and was one of the leaders in the establishment of a more socially active network of Baptist churches, the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.

William Franklin ("Billy") Graham (1918- ) is probably the best-known and most influential Christian evangelist of the 20th century. Ordained as a Southern Baptist Convention minister, he has spent most of his life in large-scale evangelistic ministry, literally around the world. In addition to founding the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the work of which is much larger than his own ministry, Graham was instrumental in the creation and establishment of a number of evangelical Christian ministries, such as Christianity Today magazine, and was an advisor to a variety of evangelical colleges and institutes. Known for his humility and strength of character, he was a confidante of many U.S. presidents, and engaged celebrities and political leaders around the world.

The 1980s and 1990s saw heated controversies, and subsequent organizational divisions within and separations from, the largest Baptist group in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Some observers regard this as a sequel to the earlier fundamentalist/modernist controversies. Once again, the debates centered upon a variety of conservative/liberal (or conservative/moderate) theological and culturally-related issues.


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