The Minnesota Baptist Association held its 155th annual meeting the second week of July. According to Baptist usage, an association is a fellowship of churches. An association that covers a large geographical territory is sometimes designated as a general association, or more frequently, a convention. As a statewide association, the MBA began its existence as the Minnesota Baptist Convention.
The MBA had existed for several decades before the formation of the Northern Baptist Convention in 1907. When the NBC was organized, it automatically included the state conventions within its purview. Consequently, from 1907 onwards, the MBA was identified with the Northern Baptist Convention.
Soon after the NBC was founded, its liberalism became evident. While some state conventions were even more liberal than the national group, Minnesota was dominated by W. B. Riley and his Northwestern Bible Training School. Of all the state conventions, it was the most conservative, readily identifying with the fundamentalist movement.
Fundamentalism began as a “purge-out” separatistic movement that hoped to expel the liberals from the NBC. By the 1930s, Regular Baptists across the nation saw that the liberals could not be disenfranchised, so they committed themselves to a “come-out” version of separatism. Riley, however, continued to hold out hope for a fundamentalist victory. Earle V. Pierce, pastor of Lake Harriet Baptist Church in Minneapolis and president of the Fundamentalist Fellowship of the Northern Baptist Convention, shared the dream of rescuing the convention.
The two versions of separatism tended to work at cross-purposes. To win the convention by purging out the liberals, Riley and Pierce needed to keep as many fundamentalists in the convention ranks as they could. They opposed the come-out pastors almost as vehemently as they opposed the liberals, especially in Minnesota. There are ugly stories about purge-out leaders in Minnesota (including Riley) stirring up churches against their come-out pastors.
The fundamentalists never would recover the NBC. Even Pierce eventually admitted that too many compromises had been made. In Minnesota, however, the fundamentalist contingent was much stronger. As leadership shifted to a new generation, Richard V. Clearwaters led the way in pulling the Minnesota convention out of the NBC. He later became fond of observing that Minnesota fundamentalists rescued “not only the faith, but the furniture.” The furniture included Pillsbury Academy, which Clearwaters refashioned into Pillsbury Baptist Bible College. The MBA and PBBC, together with Central Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, became the backbone of Minnesota Baptist fundamentalism.
Even after the state convention separated from the liberals, it continued to be a hotbed of ecclesiastical politics. Clearwaters used his power to keep Regular Baptists from gaining ground in Minnesota. He threw his influence behind the Conservative Baptist Movement, where he became a prominent leader of the so-called “hard core” of fundamentalists. When the CB movement broke up, he led in organizing the New Testament Association of Independent Baptist Churches. Through all, he used his political savvy to hold the churches of the MBA loyal to his ideals.
Over the years, the MBA was rent by several divisions, each of which cost Clearwaters some of his backing. Eventually the fellowship restructured itself to limit Clearwaters’s power. Subsequent leaders of the fellowship lacked the vision and energy to maintain the high level of commitment that Clearwaters had attracted from both followers and opponents. In the long run, Pillsbury closed its doors and the association lost a clear sense of purpose.
While the group appeared to be drifting, a new generation of young leaders began to energize pastorates across the state. Most (though not all) of these young leaders are recent products of Central Seminary. They are committed to doctrinal rigor, expository preaching, healthy congregationalism, and church planting. They are strong separatists who are trying to apply their convictions thoughtfully in a changing environment. They are allergic to power politics, but highly value formal and informal collaborations with pastors of like faith and order.
A year ago, some of these young leaders stirred up a bit of controversy when they invited Phil Johnson to address the MBA Men’s Retreat. Phil was happy to sign the association’s very strong statement on separatism, but some critics (mostly outside the association) thought that he was not enough of a fundamentalist. The episode provoked some reflection and discussion internally. The present attitude seems to be that a fellowship has to be built upon what is held in common. Consequently, those in decision-making positions are reluctant to use their power to inflict choices upon the association that some churches or pastors would find objectionable. For example, leaders are committed to avoiding speakers and musical styles that might divide the fellowship.
The MBA does not take a position either for or against Calvinistic doctrines like unconditional election or irresistible grace. It has not made an issue out of lordship salvation or of progressive dispensationalism. Nevertheless, a recently-proposed revision to the doctrinal statement makes it clear that the Association continues its commitment to dispensationalism, pretribulationism, young-earth creationism, cessationism, and biblical separatism.
There is a growing sense that the differences between the Minnesota Baptist Association and the Minnesota Association of Regular Baptist Churches are negligible. The beliefs and practices of the two groups are nearly identical. The younger leadership of the MBA has been pressing strongly for greater involvement between the two groups. The two groups already jointly support a church planting missionary. This year, the MBA specifically invited the Regular Baptist churches (and several unaffiliated churches) for informal fellowship at its annual meeting. More than one church responded.
The meeting itself offered a minimum of business and a maximum of fellowship. The speaker, Sam Horn, preached with conviction on the power of an intercessory ministry. Churches and institutions pitched in to make the fellowship sweet: Prior Lake Baptist Church, Cornerstone Baptist from Pine Island, Central Baptist Theological Seminary, and even Camp Chetek from Wisconsin. Representatives were present from Faith Baptist Bible College and International Baptist College.
The MBA appears to be rebounding from a series of hard knocks. Older and younger leaders are working together to rebuild the MBA as a model fellowship. The spirit of politics has largely been replaced by a spirit of mutual deference, not only toward each other, but toward outsiders who share the group’s faith and practices. Fellowships like the MBA are part of the reason that I think fundamentalism may just have a future.
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.
Lord, What a Riddle Is My Soul
Joseph Hart (1712–1768)
Lord, what a riddle is my soul!
Alive when wounded, dead when whole!
Fondly I flee from pain, yet ease
Cannot content, nor pleasure please.
Thou hid’st thy face; my sins abound;
World, flesh, and Satan all surround:
Fain would I find my God, but fear
The means, perhaps, may prove severe.
If thou the least displeasure show,
And bring my vileness to my view,
Timorous and weak, I shrink, and say,
“Lord, keep thy chastening hand away.”
If reconciled I see thy face,
Thy matchless mercy, boundless grace,
O’ercome with bliss, I cry, “Remove
That killing sight, I die with love.”
My dear Redeemer, purge this dross;
Teach me to hug and love the cross;
Teach me thy chastening to sustain,
Discern the love, and bear the pain.
Nor spare to make me clearly see
The sorrows thou hast felt for me:
If death must follow, I comply;
Let me be sick with love, and die.