The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was born in 1845 when 293 delegates-frustrated with regulations passed by Northern abolitionists preventing slave owners from becoming missionaries-met in Augusta, Georgia, and adopted a plan for "eliciting, combining and directing the energies of the whole denomination in one sacred effort, for the propagation of the gospel."
Does this "sacred effort" continue today? This month marks the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the SBC's founding-an ideal time to consider the theological foundations of America's largest Protestant denomination and how they can be made to serve the church in the next era.
The framers of the SBC developed an orthodox Baptist consensus that was able to withstand, despite some stumbling, the crises of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and denominational schism. (For a survey of the SBC's progress in race relations, see "Black Southern Baptists," in this issue.)
More recently the SBC has been preoccupied with battles over the control of the denomination. This painful struggle needs to be understood in context: After a hundred years of orthodox consensus, denominational pragmatism became the infallible dogma of Southern Baptist life in the three decades following World War II. At the same time, Baptist bureaucrats and denominational elites gradually led the SBC toward alignment with mainline Protestant concerns. For example, as amazing as it now seems, the SBC Christian Life Commission was once an ardent supporter of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. Without a conservative resurgence, Southern Baptists would doubtless have followed many of the mainline denominations in the path of spiritual decline and theological erosion.
The conservative victory ...1