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The Conservative Baptist Conflict

In the Nick of Time

Kevin T. Bauder

The Conservative Baptist Movement formally began when the Fundamentalist Fellowship organized the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society in 1943. The CBFMS was originally meant to function within the convention, but it was rapidly rejected by convention officials who effectively disenfranchised its supporters. In response, the Fundamentalist Fellowship renamed itself the Conservative Baptist Fellowship and organized a new association of churches, the Conservative Baptist Association of America, in 1947.

The CBF and the CBA were organized on different principles. The CBF was a fellowship of individuals. The CBA was an association of churches that operated in three regionals (Eastern, Central, and Western). For years the two organizations operated side-by-side within the Conservative Baptist Movement, but the CBF was the parent organization of the CBFMS, the CBA and, indeed, of the entire Conservative Baptist Movement.

Was the CBA a separatist organization? On the one hand, it did allow for dual affiliation of its churches with the Northern Baptist Convention. On the other hand, it was formed because its churches had more-or-less been thrown out of the convention. Probably most of the churches and pastors genuinely intended to separate, but they needed time to break free of convention entanglements. In some cases (especially Minnesota and Arizona) they hoped to capture the convention machinery.

This separatist bent was expressed in the statement of purpose of the CBA. It was also reinforced in 1953 by the adoption of the so-called Portland Manifesto, which declared the Conservative Baptist Movement to be “separatist in spirit and objective.” This manifesto was adopted by the boards of all of the Conservative Baptist organizations, which by this time included a home mission society and a seminary in Denver.

In 1953 the CBA numbered about 500 churches. Its General Director was B. Myron Cedarholm, who promoted the organization as a separatist body. Under his leadership it grew more rapidly than any other fundamentalist organization. Underneath, however, three issues were festering.

First was the question of separation, aggravated by the recent appearance of neoevangelicalism. Second was eschatology, including debates over both pretribulationism and premillennialism. Third was polity, and specifically the role of the various Conservative Baptist organizations and their relationship to the local churches.

Over several years, battle lines were drawn between the “hard core” of the movement and those who favored a “soft policy.” The CBF and the Central Regional of the CBA were definitely hard core. The Eastern Regional, the Denver seminary, and eventually CBFMS were definitely soft policy. Indeed, the seminary was so aggressively soft policy that the hard core organized its own seminaries in both Minneapolis and San Francisco. The one in Minneapolis was named Central Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, and seats on its board were reserved for representatives of the Central Regional of the CBA.

The issue that finally splintered the Conservative Baptist Movement was neoevangelicalism. Billy Graham’s 1957 crusade in New York City brought cooperative evangelism into the spotlight. After New York, Graham continued to practice cooperative evangelism, using religious liberals and Roman Catholics in leadership through dozens of crusades. Then, during the early 1960s, Vernon Grounds of the Denver Seminary became active in a move to bring the Graham Crusade to Colorado. He was determined to gain full support from the Conservative Baptist Churches in his state.

That crusade did not occur until 1965, but the damage was done during the planning stages. Grounds used every political trick in the book to get compliance from the Colorado pastors. He sent spies into their churches. He curried favor directly with church members and encouraged dissident factions within hardcore churches. Many pastors reported receiving an ultimatum from Grounds: either support Graham or see their churches split under them.

The episode reverberated throughout the Conservative Baptist Movement. Fellowship and board meetings became occasions for intrigue and maneuvering on both sides of the debate. Leaders like Chester Tulga of the CBF who tried to adopt a moderating position were excoriated by both parties. The debate reached a point at which everyone had to take a side.

The CBFMS had already positioned itself with the soft policy. Recognizing that this situation was not going to change, the leaders of the CBF decided to create another new mission as a hard core alternative within the Conservative Baptist Movement. That mission is now known as the Baptist World Mission. Its first president was Bryce Augsburger and its vice president was Ernest Pickering.

The new mission was of course rejected by those who held the soft policy, and they demanded a formal rejection by the Conservative Baptist organizations. The Conservative Baptist Witness, a soft policy paper, sniped constantly at the hard core and especially at the new mission. The mission was even denied display space at Conservative Baptist meetings—a surprising move, since displays for interdenominational agencies were allowed at these meetings. Finally, the mission was formally declared to be no part of the Conservative Baptist Movement.

The CBF and the Central Regional were still sympathetic to the hard core. So was the CBA office, under the directorship of B. Myron Cedarholm. Led by Richard V. Clearwaters, the Minnesota Baptist Convention, with Pillsbury College and Central Seminary, dominated the hard core in the Midwest. In California, San Francisco Baptist Seminary under the leadership of Arno and Archer Weniger advocated the hard core cause.

By this time it was clear that a breach was coming. The hard core discussed the possibility of incorporating the Central Regional and breaking it away from the CBA. This tactic proved to be legally impossible. Consequently, conversation turned toward forming another new association—the association that would be known as the New Testament Association of Independent Baptist Churches.

The story of that association will be told in the next Nick of Time. It is worth noting, however, that the hard core began to unravel from this point. One can understand why.

Many of the hard core churches had experienced difficulty in disentangling themselves from the Northern Baptist Convention. After less than ten years, they found themselves embroiled in another battle within the Conservative Baptist Movement. Not surprisingly, many churches and leaders simply opted for complete independence in the future. Others like Bryce Augsburger and Ernest Pickering eventually found their way into the GARBC. Of those that remained, serious difference remained over the form of organization that would best safeguard the interests of the churches. That is where the story will pick up next week.


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.


Easter Monday

Christina Rossetti (1830–1894)

Out in the rain a world is growing green,
On half the trees quick buds are seen
Where glued-up buds have been.
Out in the rain God’s Acre stretches green,
Its harvest quick tho’ still unseen:
For there the Life hath been.

If Christ hath died His brethren well may die,
Sing in the gate of death, lay by
This life without a sigh:
For Christ hath died and good it is to die;
To sleep whenso He lays us by,
Then wake without a sigh.

Yea, Christ hath died, yea, Christ is risen again:
Wherefore both life and death grow plain
To us who wax and wane;
For Christ who rose shall die no more again:
Amen: till He makes all things plain
Let us wax on and wane.

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is 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 this post expresses.