July 1, 2003
KANSAS CITY — Forty years ago Southern Baptist Convention President Herschel Hobbs looked over the capacity crowd of messengers gathered in Kansas City for the denomination’s annual meeting, unable to finish reading the proposed revision to the Baptist Faith and Message. It appeared to him as though the crowd had begun swaying back and forth.
Noticing that her husband appeared dizzy, Hobbs’ wife feared he was having a heart attack and pled with him to return to their hotel and consult a doctor. He refused and years later recalled saying, “Hon, I must stay here for any debate which may come. I feel that it is so important that this report be approved. I am willing to die on this platform, if necessary, in order to see to its adoption.”
Hobbs was battling a persistent bronchial infection and sat down as the committee’s vice chairman finished reading the first revision ever made to the Baptist Faith and Message. “Naturally, it was a matter of great interest to the messengers,” Hobbs recalled. With only a few failed attempts to modify the language, the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message was approved with only scattered dissent.
The Oklahoma pastor had spent most of his tenure as SBC president looking for a way out of the theological crisis that consumed the denomination. Behind the scenes he had met and corresponded with SBC Executive Committee President Porter Routh, Sunday School Board President James Sullivan and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Millard Berquist find a way out of the firestorm that was brewing.
“For several years the feeling had been growing that certain elements among Southern Baptists were drifting toward liberalism,” Hobbs told a 1978 Historical Commission gathering. “The matter threatened to come to an explosive head at the Convention in San Francisco” in 1962, he said. “Some even predicted that the Convention might divide.”
Hobbs felt that a call for a new confession of faith would curtail criticism over Broadman Press printing Midwestern Seminary professor Ralph Elliott’s critical treatment of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. “This book was not the cause but the occasion for a strong protest by many,” Hobbs remarked.
“If, in 1962, Midwestern’s administration and trustees, and the Sunday School board’s editors had concluded that Ralph H. Elliott’s writings were incompatible with Southern Baptists’ doctrinal confession, the crisis might have been headed off,” wrote Baptist historian Jerry Sutton in his book The Baptist Reformation. Those acknowledgements, along with conservative parameters for the Broadman Bible Commentary and the admission of some problems by seminary presidents, might have stopped the emerging movement in its tracks, Sutton concluded.
Instead, Midwestern President Millard Berquist backed Elliott during trustee inquiries into the substance of Elliott’s Message of Genesis. Only a few years into his administration of the SBC’s youngest seminary, Berquist found himself caught in the middle—defending a professor considered by many to be teaching outside the bounds of Southern Baptist doctrinal beliefs—while opposing a call for a special meeting of trustees to “get the dirty work done” to fire Elliott.
Berquist regarded Elliott’s manuscript as “one of the finest pieces of biblical scholarship produced by Southern Baptists since the days of Dr. A. T. Robertson and Dr. H. E. Dana,” according to a letter he sent to Broadman editors. He and Elliott appealed to professors at other Southern Baptist seminaries and colleges for support, soliciting 40 such letters that they shared with trustees. (See related article demonstrating widespread support. These and other letters in which Southern Baptist leaders express their concerns are a part of Midwestern Seminary’s library archives.)
The Midwestern president wrote Routh to say he feared “the loss to Southern Baptists of one of the most able and devout scholars in Southern Baptist ranks,” asking the Executive Committee leader for advice in fighting “the intensive campaign” to “crucify Elliott.”
By January of 1962, even Sullivan expressed reservations about reprinting the book, making it clear to Elliott that it wasn’t a done deal. He questioned whether the book would be used beyond Midwestern’s classrooms, a point that infuriated Elliott who saw his work as having broader appeal.
“No one regrets any more than do I the horrible furor which has been created with reference to The Message of Genesis,” he responded to Sullivan. He defended his “honest effort to understand its [the Bible’s] message as dynamic and relevant for our age.”
Elliott told Sullivan, “Few of our seminary professors have ever held to the mechanical dictation view as desired by the critics,” blaming an organized campaign by a few men for causing the uproar. A few days later Berquist wrote Sullivan as well, expressing his hope that Sullivan’s board “will not yield” to “aggressive intimidations” of critics at an upcoming SSB trustee meeting.
“The critical approach to the Scriptures has for years been pursued in all of our seminaries, even to some degree in Southwestern. There is no reason why this field of writing should not be entered by Southern Baptists, nor that Midwestern should be singled out as though the approach was unique here.”
A Broadman editor’s March 7 letter to Elliott claimed that Sullivan heartily agreed with the book division’s support for The Message of Genesis, reporting that 2,470 copies had been distributed.
Throughout the crisis, Berquist kept Hobbs, his old friend and former seminary classmate informed of the situation at Midwestern, taking some pleasure in the progress the seminary was making toward accreditation. “I hope that nothing happens in San Francisco that will jeopardize it,” Hobbs wrote back just prior to the annual meeting in 1962.
The SBC president informed Berquist of a plan he and Porter Routh of the SBC Executive Committee had conceived to recommend that an EC member call for appointing a committee to study the 1925 BF&M statement. The committee they envisioned would feature Hobbs as chairman, state convention presidents, seminary presidents and the SSB president, James Sullivan.
Hobbs foresaw the study as “an indirect approach to the overall problem,” believing the inclusion of state convention presidents would provide representation “at the grass roots level.” Adding seminary presidents to the committee would involve those “responsible for our theological teaching,” he said in his letter. Noting that Southern Baptist theologian E.Y. Mullins had presumed a restatement might be desirable in another generation, Hobbs added, “It has been 37 years since that was adopted. So another generation must look at its own problems.”
About the same time Routh wrote Executive Committee members, seminary presidents and Sullivan at the SSB, noting “a growing number of suggestions by members of the Executive Committee and other interested Southern Baptists that the Executive Committee should present some recommendation in its report at San Francisco which would face the broader context of our problems, and which would provide an opportunity for calm and deliberate discussions of the issues involved frankly and honestly, without having some things said in passion in the great mission territory to the West which would disrupt our fellowship and which might well create more heat than light.”
Messengers to the 1962 convention went along with the motion offered by J. Ralph Grant of Lubbock to call for a study of the 1925 BF&M to provide “some similar statement which shall serve as information to the churches, and which may serve as guidelines to the various agencies.” Absent from the motion was Hobbs’ original desire to include seminary presidents on the committee. That notion was criticized early on by several state Baptist paper editors who thought there would be a conflict of interest. Texas Baptist Standard Editor E. S. James said if the Texas paper were being investigated, he, as editor, should not be on the investigation committee.
Ultimately, the very seminary community that critics suspected of pulling the denomination to the left was asked by Hobbs to review the preliminary draft he offered on Nov. 27, 1962 and make suggestions. “We want our seminaries to share with us their wisdom in these matters so that it may be reflected in the report itself,” he wrote in a letter to Berquist.
Sunday School Board staff members responsible for theological and doctrinal writings—the group that recommended books published by professors like Elliott—also received a draft for study. “Where it seemed wise, suggestions were followed,” Hobbs said later of their input.
The president’s address at the 1962 convention also sought to stifle criticism. Entitled “Crisis and Conquest,” the message addressed the need for “unity in diversity” and “time-honored belief in the priesthood of all believers.” Hobbs spoke of having met all of the seminary faculties, discussing any problems and pronouncing them “worthy of our trust and understanding.” Calling for both academic freedom and academic responsibility, Hobbs said Southern Baptists have always turned a crisis into a conquest.
Days after the convention, Berquist wrote Hobbs, congratulating him for the “magnificent message” and for fairly presiding over “a very difficult Convention session.” He confessed the hopelessness he felt in wanting to present Midwestern’s perspective in light of “the awful spirit that had been engendered in the Pastors’ Conference,” further describing it as “a sectional mob” facilitated by “well-organized conspiracies” of “men marked by aggressive and uncontrollable political ambition.”
While attending the convention, Berquist hand wrote a 10-page report using the stationary of the St. Francis Hotel where he was staying in San Francisco. In it he defended Elliott, along with the historical-theological approach to the Scriptures and the science of biblical criticism. Such methods seek to rescue the Bible from “avowed friends, often sincere, but who by a rigid and zealous literalism or traditionalism, would shackle and destroy its meaning and power for a changing but lost and needy world,” he wrote in the draft. Later, he added a note on his report—“never had opportunity to deliver.”
Afterward, Berquist wondered why Hobbs had discouraged him from speaking out in the school’s defense, adding that “Wayne Dehoney quickly devised to cut off debate” when concerns were raised about the seminaries. While granting that Hobbs felt it was in the seminary’s best interest for him to remain silent, Berquist wrote, “Nothing I planned to say would have been at all explosive.”
Berquist told Hobbs, “The other seminaries have all been as quiet as the Sphinx, willing to let Elliott get the axe in their stead, though they know that Elliott has done nothing except make general property what all of them to some degree have been teaching for years. We have at least 40 letters from seminary professors and Bible professors in the Baptist colleges assuring us that they take the same identical approach and stand with us.”
Citing particular examples, Berquist wrote, “Out at San Francisco John Newport told me that at least two-thirds of the faculty at Southwestern stood with Elliott. Franklin Segler said more than that—that almost to a man they stood with him, but I told them both that that kind of support meant nothing—that there were only two men in theological education who had released a statement to state papers and they were [John] Steeley and [George] Shriver of Southeastern.” He added, “You know of course that some of the men at Southern and Southeastern are much farther to the left of center than is Elliott. Dean [William] Carleton told Dr. [H.I.] Hester that practically all of Golden Gate faculty shared in his viewpoint.”
Berquist added, “Actually Elliott is very conservative in comparison with some men on each of the other faculties. I have been sickened at heart and disillusioned at the duplicity, deceit and political chicanery I have seen and heard since coming to my job here.” He criticized Southern’s Clyde Francisco for having called Elliott’s book “Pandora’s box of liberalism,” although he possessed a letter telling Elliott he had done “a yoeman’s job” and pledged to use the book as a textbook at Southern.
Soon after, Berquist shared similar sentiments with Routh, wondering if Midwestern had been wise to not refute critics in the public press. He asked both Hobbs and Routh to help him save Elliott and the school for which he said they had literally given their lives. “I feel confident if these politicians, and one or two crusading editors would just leave us alone to go on about our business until the committee of state presidents were given time to see us as we are in relation to the other schools, we would have nothing whatsoever to fear next spring.”
Routh thanked Berquist for writing to share “the deep concerns of your heart” and for sending copies of supportive letters. “You can be assured that we join with you in wanting to do everything possible which will make Midwestern the kind of theological institution it ought to be.” He ended the brief letter, writing, “Keep your chin up, keep your eyes on the stars and remember that God is still on his throne.”
A week earlier Berquist and other SBC agency heads were reminded by Routh and Hobbs of a motion passed at the 1962 convention “that we express our abiding and unchanging objection to the dissemination of theological views in any of our seminaries which would undermine such faith in the historical accuracy and doctrinal integrity of the Bible, and that we firmly instruct the trustees and the administrative officers of our institutions and agencies to take such steps as shall be necessary to remedy at once the situations where such views now threaten our historic position.” After receiving the letter, Berquist underlined the mention of “such views and repeatedly circled the words “historic position” before filing the letter away.
Hobbs thanked Berquist for his remarks in the lengthy letter written after the convention and pledged to do what he could to resolve existing problems. He disputed Berquist’s characterization that Hobbs had tried to prevent the seminary president from speaking in defense of the school, explaining the necessity of ending debate when he heard a call for the previous question.
“I know the burden which you are carrying on your heart, and I share much of the load with you,” Hobbs wrote. “It is a lonely place to be president of anything. There come times when you have to make decisions that no one else can make for you.”
Another consequence of Elliott’s book was the election to SBC president of one of the strongest critics of the Midwestern professor’s views, First Baptist of Houston Pastor K. Owen White. “The Elliott controversy propelled White into the SBC presidency in 1962, beginning the trend for Convention presidents to be elected on the basis of their theology,” stated Baptist historian Leon McBeth in his sesquicentennial history called Texas Baptists.
Meanwhile, Elliott accused Hobbs and Sullivan of arranging a deal in the midst of the recent convention to quell criticism of his book. Hobbs responded by rejecting the professor’s contention that messengers had given “a green light to continue to publish it.” A motion instructing the SSB to cease publication of Elliott’s book was withdrawn, Hobbs explained, because the convention had not wanted to issue a mandate toward any denominational entity.
As to allegations of a deal, Hobbs explained that he had walked over to Sullivan on the platform to find out whether the SSB planned to reprint the book and was told it was up to trustees to consider in July.
After receiving word from Berquist that a seminary executive committee had been scheduled to consider issues involving Elliot, Hobbs expressed regret “that Ralph did not feel led to follow through on the suggestion.” He reiterated his insistence to Elliott that “he is going to have to eat some humble pie, and I thought this would be a rather inoffensive piece.”
Hobbs added, “Unless there is a relaxing of tension on both sides of this thing, I frankly do not see any peaceful solution to it.” He added that it would be a violation of the will of the convention if he, as president, sought to work out the solution, preferring to “work quietly in the background” while the trustees consider the matter.
For Berquist the news only got worse. Sullivan sent him a hand-written letter apologizing for a decision not to reprint Message of Genesis, calling it “a failure to meet an obligation that we had to Midwestern and to you.” Berquist later wrote a Broadman editor, expressing deep disappointment in the “backward step which the Sunday School Board has very definitely taken.”
Later, another editor wrote Berquist asking if there was anything he could do to support the struggling president and professor in anticipation of a rocky trustee meeting.
In August of 1962, Southern’s Henlee Barnett circulated a list of 20 pastors, suggesting “men of this caliber and in important pastorates should be speaking out on the issues before us now.” He added a note at the bottom of the letter: “We must get our stronger pastors to write and speak out on the nature of the Scriptures and genuine academic freedom.”
Southern’s New Testament Professor William Adams wrote Berquist, stating his familiarity with the Midwest as a region where Baptists “kept fussing and wrangling.” He urged Berquist to seize the opportunity to tell the trustees that the seminaries had failed to teach comprehensive, scientific biblical hermeneutics to students preparing to preach. As a result, Adams said, “massive ignorance of the Bible” existed in the pews, leading to the misguided criticism of Elliott.
Upon his arrival in Kansas City for the fall board meeting where Elliott’s fate would be decided, Hobbs received a handwritten note from Berquist, thanking him for coming and encouraging the president to “graciously and tactfully interject your comments at a suitable time, and perhaps save Southern Baptists from rash action that would blot their history forever.” He left the decision of whether to speak to Hobbs, thanking God “that you have come to the presidency for such a time as this.”
After the board fired Elliott for insubordination (by refusing their request that he not republish the book), Hobbs wrote to assure Berquist of continued prayer, adding, “You have done your best! But as I said, ‘Even the Lord can’t save one who doesn’t want to be saved,’ in an apparent reference to Elliott. “The committee went the second and third miles.”
A month later, Hobbs wrote Berquist to share that he had received no more than 30 letters relative to the trustee decision to dismiss Elliott. Following the seminary’s spring meeting, he congratulated Berquist for “patience and wise counsel during a very difficult period.” He anticipated brighter days for the SBC based on comments received across the denomination.
“When a storm system passes you can still hear the rumbling thunder, but it is going the other way. I believe that is something of what is happening now. We shall pray to that end.”
With the overwhelming passage of the 1963 BF&M that Hobbs and Routh proposed as a solution to the brewing controversy, Hobbs expressed hope for calmer days. He predicted sporadic fighting for awhile, but insisted the storm was over. “Erwin McDonald predicts that the weather will be partly cloudy and warm in the future,” Hobbs told the discouraged Midwestern Seminary president. “This means that the thunder storms are passed.”
As it turned out, the storm was just beginning. For several decades Southern Baptists examined allegations of unorthodox teaching at Midwestern and every other SBC seminary. “The Elliott controversy was our wakeup call to be more protective of doctrinal integrity,” concluded Ron Rogers, a professor at Midwestern. He believes liberalism had already gained a strong foothold in the seminaries and Elliott’s book and the ensuing controversy was proof.”
Author and historian Jerry Sutton agrees, noting the lasting impact of the response from conservatives. Elliott’s book, he wrote, “was one of the catalysts motivating conservatives to work together to correct the liberal drift in the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Rogers added, “Had his approach won the day, the door would have then been opened wide and the lock removed from it, and liberalism would have taken us where it has taken every other denomination for over a hundred years. Elliott’s approach to biblical interpretation, which became the aborted victory cry of theological liberalism in the seminaries, would have continued worming its way into our pulpits and pews and over a period of time would have rendered our churches empty and powerless, and our missionary efforts nothing more than humanitarian good works.” (Courtesy of The Southern Baptist Texan.)