Kevin T. Bauder
In a recent edition of “In the Nick of Time,” I wrote about the founding of the New Testament Association of Independent Baptist Churches and the renaming of the Conservative Baptist Fellowship to the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship. The CBF was the parent organization of both the NTAIBC and the FBF(I). Unfortunately, I wrote that the CBA was the parent organization, which it certainly was not. The Nick is rigorously edited and proofread, but that one slipped past all of us. None of us would have been the wiser (at least until some future reading) if Gerry Carlson hadn’t written to point out the error. It was a slip of the pen for which I take full responsibility.
While we’re on the subject, however, it might be worth revisiting that history in a bit more detail. Under the leadership of J. C. Massee, a committee from Brooklyn called for a protest meeting of conservatives before the 1920 Northern Baptist Convention which met in Buffalo, New York. That is the meeting that led Curtis Lee Laws to coin the label fundamentalist. The meeting became an annual event, and at some point around the middle of the 1920s a permanent organization was established. That organization became known as the Fundamentalist Fellowship of the Northern Baptist Convention.
Led by Earl V. Pierce, the strategy of the FFNBC was always to protest religious liberalism. Later on, protests against Communist influences were added to the agenda. The FFNBC soon gave up on trying to oust liberals from the convention and it had no intention of ever separating.
That stance changed in the early 1940s when the liberalism of the foreign mission society became too scandalous to endure. In response, the Fundamentalist Fellowship organized a new mission society, the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society, planning to operate the new society within the Northern Baptist Convention as an alternative to the foreign mission board. The convention, however, would not allow it. Effectively, it disenfranchised the churches that were supporting the CBFMS.
By that time the Fundamentalist Fellowship had renamed itself the Conservative Baptist Fellowship and sought new leadership. Pierce was ousted and Chester Tulga was put in charge of the CBF. Since the Conservative Baptist churches were now denied a voice in the Northern Baptist Convention, the CBF decided to organize a new association. The organization was carried out by a committee of fifteen. There was some talk of merging with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, but that came to nothing. The Conservative Baptist Association was launched in 1947.
The CBA of A was divided into three regional fellowships: East, Central, and Western. Each fellowship operated in a more or less autonomous way with meetings every year. To the CBF, the CBFMS, and the CBA of A (with its three regionals) other organizations were soon added. These included a new Conservative Baptist Home Mission Society (1950) and a Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary (also 1950, now the Denver Seminary). Also, Western Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon added “Conservative” to its name and identified with the movement (1953).
There was a problem, however. The Conservative Baptists had not really been aiming to separate from the Northern Baptist Convention. From the beginning the CBA of A made it clear that it would welcome churches that were still in fellowship with the NBC. Conservative Baptists saw this “dual affiliation” (as it was called) in different ways. Some of them really did mean to separate sooner or later, but they needed time to lead their churches out of the convention and they hoped to carry some of the convention machinery with them. Others simply had no intention of leaving the convention, ever. They were happy in a state of permanent fellowship with apostasy.
Obviously, those two groups had to come into conflict sooner or later. It happened sooner. In 1953, the CBA of A was meeting in the West, and it adopted a document known as the “Portland Manifesto” that committed it to a separatist policy in principle. Very quickly, however, it became clear that many leaders did not intend to be bound by this policy. Instead, they favored what was called a “soft policy” that was very similar to the developing New Evangelicalism. The separatists who opposed the “soft policy” were known as the “hard core.”
Two other issues aggravated the conflict. One was eschatology: the hard core favored premillennialism and pretribulationism; the soft policy downplayed pretribulationism and seemed weak on premillennialism. As the conflict heated up, the other issue came into play: church polity. The hard core favored a fairly independent vision for local congregations, while the soft policy seemed to be using key institutions (especially the Denver Seminary) to override the leadership of pastors within their own churches.
These issues reached a boiling point after Billy Graham’s 1957 crusade in New York City. The hard core completely rejected Graham’s “cooperative evangelism,” which led him to place liberal ministers in positions of prominence and to send converts back into liberal churches. The soft policy believed that Graham’s evangelistic success outweighed all drawbacks. In fact, Vernon Grounds of Denver Seminary brought Graham to Colorado, using a variety of political maneuvers to manipulate hard core churches into supporting the campaign. Thanks to this tactic, Colorado became ground zero of the Conservative Baptist conflict.
The conflict was devastating for the churches. Many of them had been forced to fight their way out of the Northern Baptist Convention, which was in the habit of trying to seize the properties of recalcitrant congregations. Now they were faced with another fight inside the Conservative Baptist Movement. How that fight developed helps to explain a good bit of the landscape of Baptist fundamentalism today.
Oh, yes—this story will be continued.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
How Can I Sink?
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
How can I sink with such a prop
As my eternal God,
Who bears the earth’s huge pillars up,
And spreads the heav’ns abroad?
How can I die while Jesus lives,
Who rose and left the dead?
Pardon and grace my soul receives
From mine exalted Head.
All that I am, and all I have,
Shall be for ever thine;
Whate’er my duty bids me give
My cheerful hands resign.
Yet if I might make some reserve,
And duty did not call,
I love my God with zeal so great
That I should give him all.