They plan a Washington, D.C., convention to show that “we’re not snakehandlers.”

Independent fundamentalist Baptists are planning a well-publicized reunion in 1984 to reestablish family ties that have been severed for an entire generation. “Baptist Fundamentalism ’84” (BF ’84), scheduled for April 11–13 in Washington, D.C., may signal a new era of cooperation and visibility for people who have traditionally valued low-profile self-sufficiency.

“The bottom line is that the war’s over. We’re coming together,” said Raymond Barber, pastor of Worth Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, and president of the World Baptist Fellowship. Late last year, Barber presented the idea for the conference to Jerry Falwell, who helped organize a series of planning meetings.

The support they have garnered for this Bible-preaching congress is impressive, with a central committee of 20 leading fundamentalist pastors and five cochairmen. They include Tom Wallace of Beth Haven Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky; Dan Gelatt of First Baptist Church, Elkhart, Indiana; and John Rawlings, Landmark Baptist Temple, Cincinnati, Ohio, along with Barber and Falwell. Well-known independents who are absent from the list include Jack Hyles of Hyles-Anderson College and pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, and Bob Jones III.

Lee Roberson, chancellor of Tennessee Temple University and pastor of Highland Park Baptist Church, both in Chattanooga, is undecided about participating. He has misgivings about being identified with Falwell’s Moral Majority, despite the fact that the conference is designed to ignore politics. Hyles and Roberson pastor the two largest churches in the country—of any stripe. In fact, three of the five largest churches are fundamentalist Baptist: Roberson’s Highland Park Baptist Church, 54,989; Hyles’s First Baptist Church, 52,355; and Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church of Lynchburg, Virginia, 17,000. (The other two among the top five are Southern Baptist Convention churches: First Baptist of Dallas, 21,137; and First Southern Baptist of Del City, Oklahoma, 14,210.)

The organizers say their purpose is not 100 percent participation, but an opportunity for fellowship and preaching among like-minded pastors and lay persons, and a chance to debunk myths about fundamentalist Christianity. “There’s a tremendous amount of confusion in our country over snakehandlers and segregationists—so many things that we are not,” Falwell said. “There’s no question we have a lunatic fringe—everybody does. But we disavow them. We feel Baptist fundamentalists need to say for themselves who they are.” The conference will be held in Washington partly to generate national press publicity about fundamentalists.

Article continues below

Planners expect registrations to reach 26,000, with participants representing roughly 75 percent of the various fundamentalist Baptist groups in the country. There is no reliable means of determining just how many churches of this type exist, according to Fred Allen at the conference’s main office in Kansas City, but Falwell ventured a guess of 70,000 separate congregations. Already 50 state chairmen are beginning to promote the conference among eligible churches.

Leaders from each of the major independent Baptist fellowships in the country are taking part in BF ’84 as individual pastors rather than as spokesmen for any group or fellowship of churches. The congress will not seek any new organizational alignments nor will it “form any permanent organization, fellowship, super-movement, council [or] board,” says an official fact sheet. A “fellowship” is a loose-knit association of churches that promotes joint missionary endeavors but imposes no governing authority.

The emphasis on participating as individuals, not as group spokesmen, is crucial because of the fragile alliances formed for the meeting. Many of the fellowships, which include General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC), World Baptist Fellowship (WBF), Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF), and Southwide Baptist Fellowship, have been at odds with one another since the early 1950s.

Before a planning meeting last April, Falwell said, “We decided that if we could come away without bloodshed, that would be a good meeting. That first meeting was a revival. The president of one movement told the leader of another across the table ‘That 30-year-old battle wasn’t my battle, and I want to ask forgiveness.’

“Both men stood up and embraced. In ten minutes, what we had prayed we’d get directed toward in four hours happened. Then we planned the meeting.”

Reconciliation among fundamentalist factions has been occurring over the past four or five years at the grassroots level, say several observers, and this conference will be the first cooperation at leadership echelons. It’s a moment some fundamentalist leaders have sought for years. Truman Dollar, active with Baptist Bible Fellowship and pastor of Kansas City Baptist Temple, helped melt the ice two years ago when he addressed the World Baptist Fellowship, which includes about 1,200 churches.

Article continues below

Considering fundamentalism’s fragmented history, this particular occasion was especially noteworthy. Fundamentalism emerged in the 1920s, when traditionalists in mainline denominations battled theological liberalism. When the immediate crisis appeared to have passed, they began battling each other.

The World Baptist Fellowship, founded in 1931 by J. Frank Norris, split in 1950, with dissenters forming the rival Baptist Bible Fellowship. BBF is now the largest of the independent fellowships, with 3,500 churches representing between 2 and 3 million people. The reconciliation of the two leaders, the BBF’S Dollar and the WBF’S Barber, is something that Dollar said he has been “praying on and trying to cultivate for many years.” Feisty, outspoken Frank Norris also clashed with GARBC’S predecessor group when his church was denied admission.

Strong personalities split fundamentalism in the 1950s, and today strong personalities are pulling the movement back into alignment behind one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. Falwell, in particular, sees himself in a position to encourage likemindedness and unity. “The times in which we live,” he said, “are bringing people together. The hazards of our generation are making us realize it’s a much smaller world than it was before.” Falwell’s own exposure to the world outside fundamentalism has brought an increasing recognition of spiritual needs among people who are totally oblivious to the fine points that divide Christians.

“I think it’s important for those who name the name of Christ to love one another and have communication with one another,” he observed. Raising the movement’s stature in the eyes of outsiders is a secondary goal.

One outsider, church historian Martin E. Marty, believes fundamentalists have already gained a stronger foothold than they have had in the past. “They are being taken somewhat more seriously and seen as more than just tent revivalists” because of their recent, splashy entry into political life, as well as television exposure.

“The whole movement spooks out the broader public much less than it did two years ago,” Marty said. “Now its outer limits are known and the statistics have been corrected.” Marty said two years ago the questions put to him by lecture audiences across the country were “obsessively about the New Christian Right. Now, I almost never get questions about it. People know it’s there, but they realize it’s just an organized subculture, not a sweeping force.”

Article continues below

To gain broad acceptance for BF ’84, Falwell has studiously had to avoid political overtones. Organizers insist the meeting has no political agenda and will endorse no candidates.

That assurance has not been enough for some fundamentalists who are highly critical of Falwell for what they perceive as his slide toward secular humanism. His most outspoken foe from the Right is Bob Jones III, chancellor of Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. Jones is planning his own World Congress of Fundamentalism in August 1983, hoping to attract 10,000 people.

These plans are stirring no concern among BF ’84 planners. As Dan Gelatt put it, “Nobody tells a fundamentalist what to do. That’s the beauty of being a fundamentalist.” Barber pointed out that “some men will not become involved outside of their own immediate circles. They are great men doing great things for God, and they feel they’re most effective working through their own channels.” Barber said the attitude of BF ’84 committeemen is one of “love toward all and malice toward none.”

BF ’84 is intended to be an expression of what fundamentalists are for, including evangelism, inerrancy of the Bible, and church planting. Gelatt predicts “it will be good for fundamentalism because pastors who aren’t part of any association will see there are thousands who believe as they do. It will be a great source of encouragement, with zero organizational impact but tremendous spiritual impact.”

The Abortion Mess In Los Angeles

Last February, a private pathology lab in Los Angeles, which collected aborted fetuses for disposal, fell behind in payments on its 20-foot-long storage container. It was repossessed, and when workers began unloading it to haul it off, they were horrified to see the headless body of an infant spill to the ground. The stench of rotting flesh and formaldehyde overwhelmed some of the workers, and a few vomited. Inside the container they found the bodies of some 17,000 unborn infants.

The incident aroused the furor of California’s antiabortion organizations and highlighted for them the reality of abortion as nothing before. A few of the babies were well formed, some of them certainly past the 22-week cutoff point for legal abortion in California.

The bodies still have not been disposed of. They rest in a jurisdictional no man’s land, as several prolife groups, as well as the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, want them released for burial. In June, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit to prevent the release of the fetuses (normally they would be cremated). The county district attorney’s office, which has custody of the bodies, is in the middle and wants to keep them as evidence for possible prosecution of illegal late abortions. James Dobson, the Los Angeles psychologist and popular evangelical author and lecturer, has used the incident on his syndicated radio show to highlight the issue of abortion and to bring pressure on the county prosecutor to allow the bodies to be buried.

Article continues below

Nick Mikulicich, deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County, asserts that eventually the babies will be buried. But, he says, “When or by whom it will be done, I can’t tell you,” because the applicable law is unclear.

Those wanting to give the infants what prolife activist Philip Dreisbach calls “a decent burial,” argue that anybody who claims a deceased body for burial can be given that body. As evidence, they cite the case of a pastor in Chino, California, who recently claimed from the coroner’s office the bodies of three aborted infants found hanging from nooses in a particularly gruesome incident near his church. The church held a funeral service and those bodies were buried. It is not clear who hung the bodies, nor why.

Apart from the legal entanglements of who gets the 17,000 bodies, Dreisbach and his allies are sickened at what they see as the inhuman, grotesque criminality of the abortion industry in California, and in the country as a whole. Dreisbach is a Palm Springs physician.

Several days after the fetuses were discovered last February, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors asked the district attorney’s office and the health department to see if any laws had been violated, to file charges, and to have the fetuses buried. State senator Alex Garcia, describing the event as a “mass murder,” made an official request to claim the bodies for burial.

When progress got bogged down, the board of supervisors requested that a private coroner be allowed to perform autopsies on a number of the larger bodies—some of which were determined to be as old as 30 weeks.

Meanwhile, Dreisbach wrote a letter to President Reagan, who responded by telling of his “horror and sadness” at the situation. Reagan told Dreisbach, “Your decision to hold a memorial service for these children is most fitting and proper.” The president called abortion “an evil” and said, “We must strengthen our resolve to end this national tragedy.”

In May, several prolife people, including Senator Garcia and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, demanded that the district attorney release the bodies for burial. To tell the public what was happening, a press conference was held. “But,” says Dreisbach, “the reporters present concentrated on the insignificant question of how photos of the aborted fetuses were obtained, instead of asking questions about the brutal deaths of the infants.”

Article continues below

Finally, in June the ACLU filed its lawsuit to enjoin the district attorney from releasing the fetuses to the prolifers.

Not much has happened since June. The district attorney’s office has cataloged all the specimens. Of the 17,000 fetuses, 150 are believed to be beyond the 20-week gestation period.

It is a news story that is grabbing more and more attention, though. Dobson, director of the Focus on the Family ministry, said, “As often as I’ve addressed the issue of abortion, seldom have I been as sickened as during our coverage of this particular news story. It’s one thing to talk glibly about the sacrifice of 1.5 million lives per year in America. Such a massive number is difficult to visualize. However, when 17,000 fetuses are exposed in a storage container, the real meaning of the abortion phenomenon is suddenly depicted in graphic fashion.”


North American Scene

A recent federal court ruling holds that refusing federal funds does not exempt a private school from laws prohibiting sex discrimination. Grove City College, a Pennsylvania Christian institution, was not charged with sex discrimination but refused to assure the Education Department it was complying with Title IX of the 1972 education act amendments. Title IX touches on sex discrimination. The college argued assurances are required only of schools accepting federal aid, which it does not. A lower court agreed, but an appeals court said Title IX applied to acceptance of “indirect” aid, or government loans and grants to students. The ruling appears to extend Title IX requirements to all schools, since almost every school has at least one student receiving federal aid.

North American Baptists adopted a statement of beliefs at their triennial conference in Niagara Falls last month. Church officials stress the statement is a guideline, not a creed, and is to be used to identify the conference theologically in its extension efforts and to other churches considering joining the conference. The statement is strong on scriptural authority. It says the Bible is “trustworthy, sufficient, without error—the supreme authority and guide for all doctrine and conduct.” The North American Baptist Conference is of German origin and has a membership of about 60,000.

Article continues below

Alabama’s new voluntary school prayer law has been barred from use until a trial is held on its constitutionality. The prayer law, passed in July, said any public school teacher, “recognizing that the Lord God is one,” may pray or lead willing students in prayer at the beginning of class. A prayer written by Fob James III, the governor’s son, was recommended. It refers to God as “Almighty,” “Creator,” and “Supreme Judge.” But a Mobile lawyer and agnostic said his children were ostracized after refusing to join in classroom prayer. The lawyer brought a lawsuit, which led to the decision by federal judge W. B. Hand. The judge also said the law was a state attempt to encourage religious activity.

Southern Baptist peace activists are mobilizing to advance the cause of arms control in the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC, regarded as a stronghold of conservatism, at its recent convention threw out peace resolutions that called for disarmament. A group of Baptists meeting at the National Peace Convocation in August are optimistic anyway. Participants included Foy Valentine, executive director of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission, and Jimmy Allen, president of the denomination’s Radio and Television Commission. Glenn Hinson, editor of the Baptist Peacemaker, declared the group’s enmity to the SBC’s conservative wing. He said the conservative wing is “actually radical and … trying to uproot all our traditions.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.