Members of the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination (12.5 million members, an increase of nearly a quarter of a million over the previous year) came to the city of the palm—outstretched, grumbled some—this month and opened their 118th annual session with the ringing of a Mississippi-made replica of the Liberty Bell. But this year’s convention was no bell-ringer for the media people whose editors back home kept dinging them for hard news. The most excitement seemingly came on the second night during a talk by former Miss America Vonda Kay Van Dyke. One of the 16,212 registered messengers (delegates) shouted “Hallelujah!” and awakened two children, who ran screaming from the bleachers in panic.

The most applauded message was delivered by potato-faced Jerry Clower, a 275-pound yarn-spinning deacon from Yazoo City, Mississippi. A Grand Ole Opry star, he became the first comedian ever to address the SBC, though a few preachers have tried to play the role. He repeatedly got serious points across with a light touch.

A sampler from the corn-pone comic who bills himself as the world’s greatest fertilizer salesman: “King Solomon said it is better to eat poke salad and turnip greens, drink branch water out of a gourd dipper, live in a shotgun house, and be dirt poor but have Christian love … than to live in a mansion with charbroiled rib-eye steaks three times a day, having all the money you can spend, a wash hole in the back yard, and a big car while bickering and arguing without love.” Then he called for “everybody lovin’ one another and … gettin’ it on for the glory of God!”

While the messengers were gettin’ it on with election of officers, pageantry, reports, sermons, and occasional mild parliamentary debate, reporters tried to discern the state of the only mainline denomination in America that continues to enjoy healthy growth. They concluded that the SBC still is conservative, cooperative, concerned, and non-charismatic.

Champions of biblical infallibility were elected to the two most prestigious posts. Pastor Jaroy Weber of First Baptist Church, Lubbock, Texas, was reelected convention president. (Second-term election is customary: a motion to limit a president to a single one-year term failed this year.) Adrian Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church of Memphis and the one who nominated Weber for the convention presidency in 1974, was elected to head the pre-convention pastors’ conference. Conservatives are expected to promote Rogers for the convention presidency next year.

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Some observers noted the hand of the unofficial Baptist Faith and Message Fellowship (BFMF) in the elections of both Weber and Rogers. Weber was the BFMF’s candidate for his first-term election in Dallas. He was nominated by Rogers, a BFMF director. Rogers was, in turn, nominated this year for president of the pastors’ conference this year by Pastor Charles Stanley of Atlanta’s First Baptist Church who is also a BFMF director. However, both Weber and Rogers said that the BFMF (see following story) played only a minor role in their elections.

Weber, in his presidential address, referred specifically to the 1963 convention statement on the Bible,* declaring, “Let us hear the ring [of God’s bell] calling us to biblical authority.” Remarked Rogers in an interview: “Jaroy and I both stand where the rank and file of Southern Baptists are: for the Bible as the infallible word of God, evangelism, and the local church.”

A celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the SBC’s cooperative program was begun with the arrival of the final bearer of a torch relay. More than 1,200 SBC youths carried the torch in a 1,300 mile run from Memphis, birthplace of the pipeline program that has channeled $1.6 billion to SBC mission causes. Prior to 1925 SBC agencies raised support through fund-raising “agents” who canvassed churches. T. V. Herndon, a Louisiana messenger at the 1925 Memphis convention helped to pave the way for the new program with his reported criticism of the agent system as being “too spasmodic, and we just can’t have enough spasms to meet the needs.”

The cooperative program “divine game plan” (Weber’s term) calls for individual churches to send a percentage of offerings to state offices. State conventions divide their pie between SBC state causes and national operations. The average division this year is approximately 65–35 per cent in favor of states. Then SBC messengers vote on how the convention’s percentages will be apportioned to agencies (foreign and home missionary boards, the six seminaries, the Radio and Television Commission, and so on). The Miami convention adopted a cooperative program budget of $51 million for 1976 (up 25 per cent from 1975), half of which will go to foreign missions.

Speakers at every session clanged for social concern. Weber asked SBC churches and agencies to “set aside at least one day a month for fasting and praying for our nation and for the starving multitudes of the world.” But he cautioned that “speaking” to the “social problems of the world … must be in the context of biblical revelation and not from the lips of liberal sociologists, philosophers, or theologians.” A world-hunger resolution was passed after brief floor debate in which a Texas messenger reminded that “feeding with the Word of God” should be “our primary concern.”

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Weber also reported that a new nine-member Disaster Assistance Coordinating Committee had been set up for “immediate” response to “great disasters.” This, he said, would satisfy past criticism that SBC agencies had been slow to respond. (Southern Baptists shouldered a major role in the Vietnamese refugee resettlement program. See story on refugee work, page 60.)

At a mid-convention news conference, Weber branded the charismatic movement as “divisive” anywhere it appeared. And he said he hoped it would not be brought before the convention because it would “destroy the spirit of fellowship.” He suggested that the subject could better “be resolved in the local church by good, strong Bible teaching.” He declined to term the movement as “near heresy” (as Pastor W. A. Criswell of Dallas characterizes it), but he felt this was the sentiment of about 95 per cent of the SBC pastors.

Nevertheless, the issue was raised by messenger Tommy French of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who urged Baptists to refute “certain practices and teaching of neo-Pentecostalism, more commonly known as the charismatic movement” The resolutions committee edited his motion, calling instead for a reaffirmation of the 1963 convention statement on the Holy Spirit (which does not mention baptism in the Spirit or speaking in tongues).

On another issue of current interest, Mrs. R. L. Sappington, a Houston pastor’s wife and arch-foe of SBC feminists, suffered her first setback in three years. She wanted a committee of “men” to draw guidelines on “family structure.” Presumably such guidelines would have prevented an agency from employing ordained women. By a large majority the convention declined to support her proposal.

In contrast, Christine Gregory, the newly elected president of the SBC Women’s Missionary Union, said she “respected the right of women to be ordained as pastors when they feel this is God’s will for their lives.” In a press conference she stated: “If a woman feels she is called to be a pastor, this is between her and God, and it should not be our perogative to deny her.” However, she added, she would never seek ordination for herself.

SBC luminary Criswell noted that “some churches have just not caught on” that Baptist deaconnesses are “perfectly biblical.”

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In other actions:

• a resolution calling for a tougher stance on abortion on demand was aborted. The promoter, layman Wade M. Jackson of Dayton, Ohio, charged afterwards that his resolution was “illegally censored” by the committee on resolutions, leading to its rejection. Jackson wanted the SBC to “disapprove the widespread practice of abortion and its commercialization and exploitation by irresponsible advocates.”

• a study committee’s recommendation that the SBC name be retained was accepted. A constituency survey had shown only 35 per cent in favor of change (first choice: Cooperative Baptist Convention).

• the Christian Life Commission and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs were instructed to “keep the public aware” of school curricula and to report back next year on the experimental National Science Foundation’s MACOS (Man: A Course Of Study) now being taught in selected school systems.

Perhaps the most incendiary resolution was dropped because the author had to return home early for a funeral. M. O. Owens of Gastonia, North Carolina, a director of the BFMF, had planned to ask for the clarification of a crucial phrase in the 1963 statement. He wanted the convention to decide whether the Bible itself or the truth contained in the Bible is without any mixture of error. The key sentence in the statement says the Bible “has … truth without any mixture of error.” Inerrancy advocates interpret “has” as “is” while those inclined toward neoorthodoxy read it as “contains.” BFMF’s Powell says he called every member on the 1963 committee that drafted the statement. All of them said their intended meaning was that the Bible in itself is truth without error, Powell claims.

All together, a record number of resolutions were introduced. Among those shelved were: a protest against the “building of temples to idols on government property” (a reference to Buddhist worship tents in Vietnamese refugee camps), opposition to federal welfare programs, and support for the right of astronauts to read the Bible from the moon. Among those adopted: condemnation of media depiction of violence, “not only physical acts … but also psychological violence such as racism, chauvinism, and economic discrimination, as well as profanity and vulgarity”; a call for U. S. government agencies to launch a “vigorous campaign” against alcohol abuse; and a commitment to “pray and fast” for persecuted Christians “whom our missionaries had to leave behind [in Viet Nam].”

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Potpourri: A “joggers’ jubilee” attracted only thirty-six in the humid morning heat. A Jewish hotel employee praised a Baptist preacher who, after hitting a parked car, “went to every room looking for the owner.” San Antonio pastor Jimmy Allen proposed a network of Christians to counsel politicians making decisions affecting society. Past SBC president Criswell “deplored” a recent “striptease service” in a Dallas-area Unitarian Church (see June 6 issue, page 46).

The Mississippi Liberty Bell will ring again at the 1976 convention in Norfolk. This prompted a Miami wag to muse that “maybe we ought to elect a ding-a-ling.” But first, said he, “we’d have to check his clapper for orthodoxy to the 1963 statement and loyalty to the cooperative program.”

This may be difficult, for among the vast amorphous body of Southern Baptists one person’s ding-a-ling is another’s bell-ringer.


Ex-con Charles Colson of Watergate ill-fame told applauding Southern Baptist pastors in Miami that a “rough-hewn” Baptist preacher had helped him find a “new freedom” in prison and that his incarceration had been “one of the richest experiences of my life.”

“Before going to Maxwell [the federal prison in Montgomery, Alabama] I felt awkward and uneasy about speaking of Christ,” he recalled. “But as I saw and heard Brother E. W. Bloe [a Montgomery area minister] preach Christ boldly, all of those awkward reservations passed from my life. It was yet another step in my journey.”

Colson said he had felt “lost” his first night in jail. “I was brought into a bare, sterile room, stripped naked, photographed, given a number, put in a shower and scrubbed down for lice, given a pair of soiled, worn underwear, and deposited in a crowded dormitory with forty other men where the loudspeakers ground, the lights burned, and the urinals smelled all night long.”

“While despairing my fate,” Colson said, “I heard an announcement that prisoners could attend services in an auditorium. The country preacher [Bloe] was so overflowing with Christ’s love and the Holy Spirit that tears rolled down his cheeks. They began to roll down mine as I felt that night a tremendous surge of strength and the thrill of Christ’s presence.”

Back in his sleeping quarters, Colson was “drawn to the radiance” of Paul Kramer, a 27-year-old Viet Nam Marine war hero, serving time for the sale of hard narcotics. “I found that he, too, had asked Christ into his life.” The former Presidential counsel and the convicted pusher formed a prayer team that night and began looking for other believers.

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A week later they met a man in “terrible trouble.” His wife was ill and broke with five children to support. Colson, the ex-Marine, and several others knelt with the man on the cold tile floor in a dingy little room and prayed for his release. The next day he was paroled to care for his family.

After that, the prayer group in the room grew rapidly. “They didn’t know what we did in there each night,” said Colson, “but whatever was going on they wanted it. As men’s lives were changed, I discovered the same Christian fellowship at the bottom of society that I had known at high levels of government.” (Colson was converted in August, 1973, shortly before Watergate began unraveling, then became active in Christian government circles.)

The men in Colson’s prison fellowship carried Bibles and prayed over meals in the mess hall. “Whenever we would sit at a table,” Colson noted, “men around us would fall silent, stop eating and talking, and bow their heads with us. We could feel the Holy Spirit working.”

Some of his prison mates who have since left prison are in full-time lay ministry and one is in Bible college.

Colson said that since being released he has been “talking with senators and congressmen, officials at the Justice Department, and others in the Washington fellowship about a vision of encouraging Christian fellowships in prison.” He told the Baptist pastors, who endorsed his talk with hearty amens, that the head of federal prisons had given approval for selected Christian prisoners to attend a Christian retreat where they will be taught “basic discipleship and then sent back to be witnesses for Jesus Christ.”

Baptist Bill Powell: Inerrancy The Issue

The Southern Baptist Convention’s most controversial preacher wouldn’t be recognized by most convention messengers if they saw him: a vocal, feisty, former denominational worker who has something of the build, profile, and tenacity of George Wallace. William A. “Bill” Powell also carries a bit of Wallace’s appeal: the image of a little man bucking a big establishment with simple-sounding but hard-to-answer questions. And, as Democratic party leaders may be doing with Wallace, some Southern Baptist leaders may be ignoring at their peril the questions Powell has raised: (1) Do most Southern Baptists interpret the 1963 SBC Baptist Faith and Message statement on biblical inerrancy (see preceding story) to mean that the Bible itself, in its original form, is truth without any mixture of error? (Powell says they do.) (2) If so, should SBC agencies employ persons, notably teachers and writers, who hold that the Bible contains a mixture of truth and error?

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Powell, 50, is editor of the Southern Baptist Journal, the official organ of the independent Baptist Faith and Message Fellowship (BFMF). The BFMF was organized by a group of SBC pastors and laymen in March, 1973, at the First Baptist Church, Atlanta, because of their “deep concern” over “the inroads that liberalism is beginning to make within our great denomination.”

In the first Journal issue Powell insisted that the BFMF was in the “middle” of the Southern Baptist doctrinal “stream,” and would “shun relationships” with schismatics. Through the Journal, BFMF members would “magnify the Bible as the infallible and inerrant Word of God, as well as mission and evangelism.”

Powell’s track record is that of an SBC loyalist: New Orleans Seminary graduate, SBC pastor for over ten years, superintendent of missions for the Chicago Southern Baptist Association for four years (during which the association grew from eleven to fifty-five congregations), and eleven years with the SBC Home Mission Board, where he pioneered and developed new procedures for telephone and bus evangelism. In his last three years with the HMB he held bus ministry conferences throughout the nation (flying his own plane) and established himself as a sort of “Mr. Bus Ministry” among Baptists and other evangelicals. In all this, he was of no controversy.

When publication of the BFMF journal was announced, that changed quickly. The first press release brought a shower of brickbats and roses. Critics charged that the use of “Southern Baptist in its name indicated a lack of integrity; Powell and the BFMF were parading under false pretenses. John E. Roberts, editor of the “official” South Carolina Baptist Courier, said the BFMF publication posed a “dangerous threat” to the SBC for two reasons: (1) It presumed to be the “only journal among us willing and able to tell the truth about Baptists”; (2) “it would censure any who do not conform to the Fellowship’s views on theology and orthodoxy.” James Cole, editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message, lamented “how sad it is to watch an individual or a group … develop a messianic complex.”

The roses came mostly from pastors of small to medium-sized churches. Several said they had planned to leave the convention; now they would stay and await the developments. A former denominational worker in Indiana called the BFMF and the Journal “the only hopes Southern Baptists have from the human standpoint.”

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While disavowing “Gestapo tactics,” Powell vowed to “expose” any agency employee “raising doubts about the inerrancy of the Bible. “Southern Baptists,” he said, “have every right to know the doctrines of the teachers and writers they support. Every time we can get a quotation we can document, we’re going to name them, the agency, and how much money they get from the Cooperative Program to pay this man who is raising the doubts.” This wouldn’t be character assasssination, he insisted.

One of the first “named” was William E. Hull, provost (dean) of the School of Theology at Louisville’s Southern Baptist Seminary. After reprinting a Hull article entitled “Shall We Call the Bible Infallible?,” Powell challenged the professor to present his views on Scripture before the first nationally sponsored BFMF activity. At the conclusion of Hull’s address, Powell asked him to give straight forward answers to nine questions (such as: “Was Adam the first man?” “Did some fish swallow Jonah?” “How can the average Christian determine what parts of the Bible are true and what parts are error?”). Hull replied in part, “When the Bible presents something as history, I will believe it as history. When the Bible presents something in symbolic language I will accept it as symbolic literature and believe the truth to which it speaks.” Powell, calling Hull’s answer unsatisfactory, pecked away at him in succeeding issues of the Journal.

When Hull accepted a call to the First Baptist Church of Shreveport, Louisiana, shortly before the Miami convention, suspicions abounded that the controversy had influenced him to change jobs. Friends say not. In an interview, Hull, 45, said, “It never crossed my mind. I simply answered the call of God to the pastorate.” Powell retorted that “reliable groups say he resigned under pressure … because of his liberal views about the Bible.” Reacting to this, one of Hull’s state editor friends snorted, “Powell would take credit for the sinking of the Titanic.”

Most “exposures” in the Journal have related to biblical inerrancy. An exception was a “brewery prayer” delivered by Randall Lolley, now president of Southeastern Seminary, at the dedication of the new Schlitz brewery near Winston Salem, North Carolina. Lolley was then pastor of the First Baptist Church of Winston Salem. The prayer, as printed in the Journal, was noticeably ambiguous. Beer can be seen only indirectly in the plea, “Grant to them [the employees] all the resources, wisdom, and skill that shall be demanded of that industry.” Powell devoted several columns to the incident.

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The week before the Miami convention Powell called on “friend” Grady Cothen, new head of the Sunday School Board (1,400 employees; $52 million worth of sales in 1974; even its own zip code) to announce Powell’s plans for an “alternative” Southern Baptist Sunday-school curriculum “with a strong commitment to verbal inspiration.” In an interview, Powell conceded that his BFMF directors had voted not to sponsor the curriculum. He envisions its being published under a non-profit board friendly to the BFMF. Scripture Press materials, published by an independent firm in Wheaton, Illinois, would be used after being “baptized, edited, and imprinted.”

Powell called Cothen a “good man” but one “who has inherited some men who don’t share his point of view [on the Bible]. I pray that he can change things, but there’s no instance in history where a denominational publishing agency has gone as far as ours and reverted back to the orthodox position. If ours does, we’ll thank God.”

At Miami, Powell was apparently having trouble rounding up all the board members he wanted for the new publishing venture. Convention president Jaroy Weber was “surprised” to learn of the intended alternative curriculum. “Our churches have the freedom to use any literature they want,” he said in an interview. “But we already have the finest literature in the world and the freedom to correct it when necessary.”

How much influence Powell and the BFMF have in the SBC is hard to gauge. Weber, whose first-term SBC presidency was promoted by the BFMF, will “not say anything critical against them. They are friends of mine.” Adrian Rogers, the BFMF director who was elected president of the SBC pastor’s conference this year, said, “Nothing would make me happier than for the BFMF to work itself out of a job.” (Rogers’s Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis will be the temporary home for the independent Mid-America Seminary when the “alternative” school stressing verbal inspiration of Scripture moves to Memphis this fall.)

Some others who hold to the BFMF’s views on inerrancy tend to agree with a Texas pastor (not W. A. Criswell) who said, “I’m a verbal inspirationist from the word go. I deplore liberal trends. But I have reservations about [the BFMF’s] spirit and tactics.”

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LaVerne Butler, 49, the new chairman of the BFMF’s board of directors, said in a Miami interview that the group would continue the fight. (Butler is pastor of the 3,900-member Ninth and O Baptist Church in Louisville, which has led Kentucky Baptists in baptisms for the past five years.) But, he warned, “if BFMF ever becomes a rabble-rousing group I will publicly disavow my support.”

The Journal (30,000 circulation, partly paid) currently has a deficit of $23,000, mostly in salaries due Powell and one or two others, according to Powell. “But we were $30,000 in the red last Christmas. We’re doing better.”

Powell has “heard” that he is now an unmentionable for most state papers, although the SBC Baptist Press news service provided a convention release on the BFMF that he called fair. Tongue in cheek, he quipped that “a couple of seminaries have offered me doctor’s degrees if I’ll only go away.” This seems unlikely. “It took seven years for the Christian News to win its first victory over seminary liberals in the Missouri Lutheran synod. We’re only two years old.”

The SBC may be hearing a lot more from Powell and the BFMF.


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