Southern Baptists, meeting in Miami Beach during the somber Paris summit crisis, reviewed a record year in membership gains and stewardship and chartered further advances in evangelism and missions.
Goals for 1961 include 600,000 baptisms and a $2,100,000 budget increase (to $20,013,000). However, such strides will be relatively meaningless, speakers warned, unless churches begin to weigh members as well as count them, seeking quality along with quantity.
The outstanding personality at the sessions was evangelist Billy Graham, who drew the week’s biggest crowd to the weakest program spot. Graham also helped set the mood of the meetings by calling the summit smash-up perhaps the most serious crisis civilization had ever faced. “This is no time for business as usual,” he declared.
News dispatches from the superb new Convention Hall were dominated by a flurry over veiled charges of heresy in at least one seminary and a lengthy debate over the religion-in-politics issue.
The seminary issue flared up during the annual address of President Ramsey Pollard, a blunt pastor-evangelist who recently succeeded Dr. R. G. Lee as pastor of the second largest Southern Baptist church, Bellevue in Memphis. Pollard loosed a broadside against any professors who doubt the miracles of the Bible or water down its inspiration. “If you don’t believe … get out!” he thundered as hundreds of messengers applauded.
The fat was really in the fire when Pollard added that he had suspicions about one professor in a seminary he did not name. “I’m not sure,” he said, “but when I am sure I’m going to the president and the board of trustees.” The blaze was fanned next morning when a Miami newspaper quoted a local pastor as “indicating” that the suspect is at Southeastern Seminary, Wake Forest, North Carolina. The story also said a general inquiry into theological soundness at the seminaries is planned.
Convention leaders quickly scotched the story that a general inquiry is in the works. A survey of seminaries and other institutions is under way, they said, but it is confined to organization and procedures, looking to a manual to avoid overlapping. However, it was reliably reported that certain members of the study group had intended to cock a weather eye for heterodoxy.
President Syndor Stealey of Southeastern Seminary told the convention it is news to him if any member of his faculty is suspect. The newspaper reporter stuck by his story although his informant denied having told him anything to justify the implication that Southeastern was the target. President Pollard told a press conference meanwhile that he had not intended to attack any of “our five seminaries” but merely wanted to stress the need for “eternal vigilance” against the inroads of unbelief.
A Virginia Baptist editor, Reuben Alley, challenged Pollard’s entire assumption that one Baptist can call another a heretic. “Where is our creed?” he asked at the press conference. Pollard started listing some “fundamentals,” such as the Virgin Birth and the miracles. A reporter helped him by recalling a quasi-creed adopted by the Convention in 1925. Another bystander asked if the Baptists’ creed is not still the New Testament.
Editor Leon Macon of the Alabama Baptist asked seminary presidents for a plain and simple answer to the question whether unbelief and mythology are being taught. The reply was twofold: 1. All the seminaries have orthodox statements of faith which professors are sworn not to contradict and 2. “We can trust our seminary presidents.”
Macon noted the claim, by some, that the American Association of Theological Seminaries was involved in the situation as a potential supporter of “liberal” professors who might be fired. The seminary presidents unitedly indicated they would reject any such AATS pressure. None has been experienced, they said. But one seminary president indicated that a new and supplementary accrediting agency might be needed as a cushion in case AATS affiliation should become untenable.
Resentment against Pollard’s statements bubbled up on the convention floor. A Texas pastor introduced a resolution calling it inappropriate and inadvisable to express “vague and generalized doubts and suspicions concerning the integrity” of Baptist professors. Scores of messengers applauded. The resolutions committee, however, declined to report out the motion, holding that it tended to limit freedom of discussion.
Later, a handful of messengers almost succeeded in preventing publication of the convention president’s address. They objected when the question arose at a time when unanimous consent was required. A special order of business was then set and a motion to print the address passed handily.
The resolutions committee took some of the force out of a blow aimed indirectly at any Roman Catholic candidate for the presidency. The resolution was further watered down from the floor. The implication that any candidate is inescapably bound up in his church’s stand on public issues was challenged on the ground that Baptists have no dogmas. The resolution as passed said a candidate is suspect when he is bound by a church which denies freedom. Thus a Catholic who breaks with the hierarchy in this area might be approved The resolution reaffirmed support for the constitutional ban on religious heads for public office.
At a press conference arranged by convention officials, Billy Graham declined comment on the religion-in-politics resolution. Citing a recent opinion poll which indicated most Catholics would support any Catholic candidate, Graham said this was “just as bad” as voting against a man solely because he is a Catholic. The evangelist said he agreed generally with a recent Look article by Eugene Carson Blake and G. Bromley Oxnam.
The real issue, said Graham is the seriousness of the world situation. The nation’s leader should be a man of experience and world stature. “This is no time to experiment with novices,” he commented. Some reporters, ignoring Graham’s direct statements that he was not taking sides and that both parties have experienced candidates, interpreted his statement as an endorsement of Vice President Nixon.
The convention took no direct action on the racial issue. Several speakers said Southern Baptists’ numbers and position give them a special responsibility in the field. The Christian Life Commission, whose pronouncements often have been challenged, was given a small budgetary increase. The commission’s report, which was received as information, called on Baptists to use every opportunity to help Negroes obtain equal rights, especially the right to vote, and to “thoughtfully oppose any customs which may tend to humiliate them in any way.”
A proposed resolution against federal grants to schools of nursing was referred to the Public Affairs Committee after it was pointed out that its phraseology might be in conflict with the current policy of some Baptist institutions to accept low interest rate government loans.
The question of moving the convention’s executive committee headquarters out of Nashville was postponed by committee action. Members are divided over where to go. In the background are two factors: Nashville’s efforts to tax denominational properties and a desire to underscore the executive committee’s neutral, supervisory role by separating it physically from major agencies which it guides or evaluates.
A new procedure designed to forestall development of a clerical hierarchy began going into practical effect at the convention. Adopted last year, the new rule requires that at least one-third of the members of each board must be laymen.
A proposed resolution asking the Sunday School board to sever alleged ties with the National Council of Churches died aborning after a vigorous statement by executive secretary James Sullivan, who said the board had no more affiliation with the NCC than with the Atomic Energy Commission. It is true that the board pays copyright fees for use of a uniform lesson plan, but all Baptist lesson materials are written by Baptist editors and participation in the lesson plan does not involve membership in the council, he said.
The two greatest cohesive elements in Southern Baptist life are the foreign mission board and the Sunday School board. As usual, foreign missions night was a major convention attraction. The Sunday School board’s unlimited offer to be open to inspection enhanced its already high standing. A wordy, dull presentation of home missions was rescued by fresh testimonies from converts and grass roots workers and by Bev Shea’s singing and Billy Graham’s preaching. Seminaries are generally conceded to be doing a good job but there are rumblings of discontent and not all of them can be dismissed as age-old differences between scholars and country preachers.
President Pollard was renamed without opposition to an expected second term. Two pastors, W. O. Vaught of Arkansas and John Slaughter of South Carolina are the new vice presidents. The pastors’ conference elected Roy McClain of Georgia, who was in a run-off for the convention presidency last year.
The convention, which already had 19 boards and commissions, got another when the stewardship committee of the executive committee was given independent commission status. The Relief and Annuity Board became the Annuity Board with the dropping of part of its name.
Nearly 10,000 new churches and missions have been established since 1956, but new life is needed for a “30,000 Movement” if its goal is to be reached by 1964.
New satellites have opened a golden age of communications, making world-wide radio and television realities instead of possibilities, according to Paul Stevens of the Radio-TV Commission who said “Southern Baptists must be alerted and must prepare themselves adequately to make use of these facilities at once.” The convention rushed passage of a resolution calling for Christian patience and an emphasis on spiritual foundations and moral regeneration in world peace negotiations.
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