Book Critique: “The Making of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message”

The Making of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message is a work denoting the history of a potential crisis point in the Southern Baptist Convention and how it was averted by a reworking of their 1925 statement of faith. In doing so Hobbs and others deliberately obfuscated potentially controversial theological points in such a way that both those of the conservative and liberal wings of the Convention could read and agree with the Baptist Faith and Message.

In the introductory first chapter of Smith’s work, he introduces the reader to the 1925 and 1963 and also the scope and limitations of his work. He introduces the characters, primarily Herschel H Hobbs, who was on the committee whose task was to rewrite the BFM. He also introduces a brief overview of the context of confessional statements of faith and how they were understood by Baptists. This subject would be reexamined in greater detail in chapters four and five.

The second and third chapters provide the immediate context in which the 1963 BFM was written. Chapter two focuses on the theological controversy that was the impetus for the work. The immediate context was the words and writing of two individuals. The first was Dale Moody who had come to realize that an honest examination of biblical teaching points to the fact that eternal security is a false doctrine. Because nothing had been published, when called to task on his statements, Moody was able to backpedal and doublespeak enough to prevent a more serious scandal.

The second individual was not so fortunate. Ralph Elliott had written a controversial work, The Message of Genesis. This work was purported to introduce modern hermeneutical methods into Baptist Academia. What he did introduce was a storm of angst as many more conservative influencers within the SBC called for retractions, Elliott’s removal from his teaching post at Midwestern, and banning the book from being used at Baptist seminaries.

Both of these controversies, especially the latter, exposed a much deeper problem. There was a present and growing divide between what was being taught within the seminaries and what was being preached from the pulpits. The academic world seemed to be adapting to some of the changing contemporary thought by embracing some of it and moving further to the “left”. The pastoral world, however, seemed to be doing the opposite. They were reacting to the apparent liberalization of theology and society by becoming even more conservative. Something had to be done before this ideological gap grew into a split as was happening in other denominations.

In addition to the controversy stirred up by Moody and Elliott, there were many contemporary social issues that also needed to be addressed. The first of these was the Civil Rights Movement. The late fifties and early sixties were a very turbulent time where many great strides towards equality were made in the Jim Crow south. However, these gains were not made without opposition and controversy and this controversy found its way into the churches as well. Two major issues regarding civil rights that were impacting the SBC were the integration of the schools and a visit by MLK Jr to Southern Seminary. Many regional conventions had already called for integration but this move was not universally well-received. In addition, many “pastors” took serious offense to the fact that Southern Seminary had invited Martin Luther King Jr to come and speak. When faced with the threat of losing funding, the seminary felt forced to issue an apology for inviting him.

Another major societal issue was the recent election of JFK as the first Catholic president. They embraced the fact that he had appointed a theologically diverse cabinet, his association with Billy Graham, and his public statements. On the other hand, the fact that many influential Catholics were now calling for federal funding of private schools. This did not sit well with the Baptist ethos of Separation of Church and State.

A third key concern that Smith brings up his book is Communism. Although Berlin and McCarthyism were mostly issues of the past and Vietnam was not yet a full-blown issue, the 1963 BFM was being created in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the moment in history where the Cold War was inevitably looking to go hot. In addition, it appeared that some Baptist missionaries in South America and Southeast Asia seemed to be viewing Communism in a favorable light when contrasted with Catholicism.

In addition to these societal concerns, Smith highlights some theological concerns that were prevalent in the US at the time of the writing of the 1963 BFM. Two of these, the doctrine of scripture and eternal security pointed back to the controversies highlights in Chapter Two by the issues surrounding Moody and Elliott. Two others mentioned by Smith were the doctrine of the church and the role of confessions vs personal liberty. Both of these are addressed at greater length in the following chapters.

Chapter four gives a historical overview of various confessions found in the Baptist past as well as how they were viewed and meant to be used by those for whom they were created. Chapter five looks more closely at Mullins, who was influential in transitioning Baptist thought into the twentieth century as well as in the creation of the 1925 BFM. It also takes this historical view and moves it forward up to the views of the Committee in 1963.

Chapters six and seven look at the actual creation of the 1963 BFM from the formulation of the Committee right through to its final draft. Smith highlights how Hobbs did his best to make sure both sides of the current controversy were well represented. He also shows some of the proposed changes by others who were given early copies of the draft. Wayne Ward’s proposed changes appear to be the most significant while Dale Moody’s were almost completely ignored or rejected.

The book also includes four Appendices. The first two are the Ward and Mercer drafts of the BFM. The third is a comparison of the two, and the final Appendix is a Declaration of Basic Beliefs by James Garrett which also was influential of the BFM.

This work by Smith actually has a larger significance for our time than it would at first appear. At first glance, the book seems to be on the creation of one minor document by one specific denomination at a moment in time when far more significant events were happening in history. However, this group was dealing for the first time with issues that still must be faced today and how they dealt with them can be both positively and negatively instructive for us today.

On the positive side was the way this committee dealt with the theological issues presented by Moody and Elliott as well as the deeper problem the conflict highlighted. From the way Smith tells the story, it looks as though the Committee creating the new BFM did its best to create as broad a base as possible. It also did what it could to make sure as many voices as possible were heard and thoughtfully considered.

In many ways, the exact opposite is happening today without most of us ever realizing it. The content most of us receive both through our internet searches and in our social media can be very different than the content our neighbor might be seeing. These internet companies are using algorithms tailored by our search history as well as what “those like us” are most likely to click. To a large extent, this means that we are more and more reading and seeing things that will only serve to further entrench us in our current way of thinking. In turn, this makes us less likely, or even able, to honestly hear and give consideration to those who might think or believe differently.

It could have been an easy thing for Hobbes and the committee to only listen to the side that most closely aligned with their way of thinking. In reading between the lines, it is clear that there was certainly pressure to do so. But they went against the grain to bring in a diversity of voices and then worked just as hard to formulate their final product as much as possible to be worded in such a way as to be acceptable by as many as possible.

This same impetus which seemed to be wisdom when applied to theological controversy proved foolish when applied to the social controversy of the civil rights movement which was so prevalent at the time. The fact that this issue is barely addressed and largely downplayed both by the Committee and by Smith in his writing of this book is a glaring failure by both.

This has been a major failure throughout the history of the Southern Baptist Convention. Smith speaks of the creation of the SBC with these words, “the SBC owed its birth, in part, to the controversy over slavery over one hundred years prior left its mark on both white and black Baptists in the South.” (Smith, 41) The two words, “in part” make it seem as if other issues played an equal part in the break. In reality, these other issues, like the representation of northerners vs southerners in baptist missions organizations and the structure and polity of the churches also tied back in one way or another to slavery. For example, the reason the Southern churches were underrepresented in missions was because most mission boards refused to appoint slaveholders as missionaries.

This shameful, slaveholding racist past for the most part had been consistently ignored or swept under the rug from the moment of the SBC conception in 1845 right up to the time of the writing of the 1963 BFM. With the civil rights movement being such a large and relevant issue throughout the South at this time, there never was a better moment for this wrong to be righted. Unfortunately, only one sentence was devoted to the issue and even that only obliquely. With regard to man, the first draft proposed to say, “As such he possesses dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love, regardless of race or class.” (Smith, 121) That’s it. Nothing more.

But even this was too much. Even this “bold assertion” was too much and never made it past the first draft. Smith writes that the dignity of man, worthy of respect and love was included in the final statement “because the Committee understood the difficulties attending the Civil Rights Movement.” (Smith, 145) But the words “regardless of race or class” had been quietly omitted. If there was a reason they had been cut, Smith does not mention it. In fact, this review has already spent more time discussing the civil rights issue than Smith does in the entirety of his book.

Considering how large of an issue this was in the 1960’s south, this silence is deafening. Unfortunately, this has been and continues to be a faulty mindset that has plagued the SBC from its conception almost right up to the present. There is an unspoken hope that if the issue is ignored, perhaps it will just go away. This is what the committee did in their creation of the 1963 BFM. It is the same thing Smith did in writing his book. At least some work has been done in the recent past to correct this sinful avoidance. In 2018, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary released a 71-page document confronting slavery and racism embedded in the SBC’s past. That document, far more than this book, should be required reading for anyone interested in getting a deeper look into the SBC’s past.

BJ Richardson

Liberty University, Antalya, Türkiye

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