Modern Age

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.

Perhaps the most notable theological issue was one that is foundational to Baptist belief, namely, the authority of the Bible. Some Southern Baptists, including some faculty members at Southern Baptist seminaries and colleges, embraced more "critical" views of the Bible and, correspondingly, reformulated their understanding of its infallibility and authority. Other Southern Baptists rejected these developments, seeing them as inconsistent with both the Baptist doctrinal heritage, including that of the SBC, and the teaching of the Bible itself.

Furthermore, the controversy over the Bible entailed other, related Baptist beliefs, including soul competence, with its commitment to freedom of conscience, and the autonomy of Baptist churches and institutions. Some people within the SBC contended that individuals who had come to a different view of the authority of the Bible were within their rights to hold such views by virtue of the Baptist commitment to freedom of conscience. Similarly, they held that Baptist church congregations and their ministers were also within their rights to hold such views by virtue of the Baptist commitment to the autonomy of the local church. Opponents replied that there are indeed some boundaries associated with Baptist identity, including those of the "Baptist Faith and Message" (the confessional statement of doctrinal beliefs of the SBC) and one's voluntary participation in the convention. The result was more than a decade of intense maneuverings within the SBC, and many realignments of churches, associations, and educational institutions, realignments reflective of these doctrinal differences.

In recent years, the Baptist tradition has wrestled with many of the same issues and experienced some of the same changes as many other Christian traditions. Three of these may be noted here. Beginning in the 1960s, questions of the ordination of women and the roles they could or could not fill were raised throughout many Baptist churches and organizations. Some Baptists, such as the American Baptist Churches, USA, eventually embraced the ordination of women and their role as senior pastors. Others, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, eventually rejected women's ordination and women as senior pastors.

Some Baptist churches have been among the leaders in the so-called "mega-church" movement that flourished in the 1980s and 1990s, and continues today. The most well-known Baptist mega-church pastor, and the one who is the most influential outside the Baptist tradition, is Rev. Rick Warren, of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. A graduate of Southwestern Theological Seminary, of the Southern Baptist Convention, and author of the best-selling books The Purpose-Driven Life and The Purpose-Driven Church, Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church, which has a weekend attendance of approximately 20,000. Most recently, he has had a prominent role in leading evangelical Christians to engage more seriously a variety of social, political, and health issues.

Study Questions:
     1.     What theological doctrines have become controversial within contemporary Baptist practice?
     2.     Who are two of the most widely known Baptist ministers of the 20th century? What did each contribute?
     3.     How did the issue of biblical authority divide the Baptist tradition?
     4.     What struggles have Baptist Churches shared with other contemporary Christian denominations?

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