Conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention are nudging it away from its leftward drift. This has never before happened in a mainline denomination without a schism.

It is a given, in American church history, that Protestant churches drift to the theological left. Mainline Protestant intellectuals, infused with European theories of Bible criticism, retain little of what their ancestors held about the Bible’s authority.

The largest American Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, hasn’t escaped the trend, although compared with other denominations, the drift has been barely perceptible. Within the convention, however, the change has never passed unnoticed. Southern Baptists have feuded over the issue throughout much of this century.

Since 1979, the fuss has been furious. At that time, conservatives in the denomination began organizing to prevent further slippage, and since then they have been outmaneuvering the “moderates” (as the more liberal Southern Baptists have become known) at every turn. Today, it appears the conservatives have not only stopped the leftward trend, but they are turning the huge denomination back toward its historic roots.

It is not a lurch, nor even a swerve, Jimmy Draper, the president of the convention, likens it more to a deliberate course correction of a ponderous aircraft carrier. Even so, the new course is unmistakable. And it is historic, for never before in American church life has a major denomination turned back toward theological conservatism without a schism.

The word “largest” seems hardly apt to describe the Southern Baptist Convention. It has 14 million members, half again as many as the next largest church, the United Methodist. It has 36,000 congregations, 6,630 career ...

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