EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the latest article in a year-long series, commemorating the history of the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in honor of its 40th anniversary. To read previous articles, visit www.mbcpathway.com/ConservativeResurgence.
KANSAS CITY – In 1984, agency heads of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) broke their silence after watching conservatives win SBC presidential elections year-after-year since the election of Adrian Rogers in 1979. Russell Dilday, then president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was the first to publicly speak his mind during his convention sermon at the 1984 SBC annual meeting in Kansas City.
“In his famous novel, George Orwell painted a grim picture of society in 1984, a society of forced uniformity,” Dilday said. “Everyone was obliged to mouth the party line or else. Spies listened and reported any diverse unorthodoxy to the Ministry of Truth. Individual disagreement was punished as heresy.
“Incredible as it sounds,” he added, “there is emerging in this denomination … an incipient Orwellian mentality.”
By this, Southern Baptist journalist James C. Hefley later wrote, Dilday “clearly meant the conservative movement” in the SBC. But, of course, the primary aim of SBC conservatives – their “party line” – was to call the convention and its agencies back to a belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, which was taught by most SBC churches at the time.
Two months later, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Roy Honeycutt joined the attack against conservatives in his fall convocation address. He called for a “holy war” against the “unholy forces” that threatened to “destroy essential qualities both of our convention and this seminary.” He described the leaders of the Conservative Resurgence as “independent fundamentalists” determined to “hijack the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Indeed, in 1979 with the election of Adrian Rogers as SBC president, the direction of the convention began to change. As Dilday and Honeycutt realized, Rogers and the conservative SBC presidents who succeeded him – namely, Bailey Smith and James T. Draper, Jr. – were intent upon using their appointive powers. In other words, they appointed only conservatives to the SBC’s Committee on Committees, and this conservative committee would then appoint a conservative Committee on Nominations, which would then appoint conservative trustees for the various SBC agencies. And those trustees would determine the direction of these agencies.
Given enough time, this would reshape the denomination. Though more time would be needed, SBC agency heads like Dilday and Honeycutt feared that time would soon run out. In fact, as current Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Jason Allen wrote in 2014, the efforts of Dilday and Honeycutt to “stem the conservative tide would prove too little, too late.”
“Declaring holy war on a majority of one’s own denomination, however you nuance the phrase, is never a winning proposition,” Allen wrote in an online essay, titled “To Your Tents O Israel: A 30-year Retrospective on Roy Honeycutt’s Holy War Sermon,” on his personal website, www.jasonkallen.com.
“This is especially true,” Allen explained, “when the denomination both owns and funds your entity. Since the SBC owned the seminary, they had the legal standing to redirect it. Since they funded it, they had the added incentive to do just that.
“Sociologist Nancy Ammerman’s 1985 survey found 85% of Southern Baptist pastors and lay leaders believed that ‘the Scriptures are the inerrant word of God, accurate in every detail,”’ Allen added. “With statistics like that, a Southern Baptist Cicero could not have reversed the tide in the SBC through oratory alone. Honeycutt acknowledged this fact a mere two years later …, noting that simple math (as in vote counting) has a way of chastening us all.”
In 1984, the moderates in the convention (that is, those who opposed the Conservative Resurgence) were “midway to losing 14 straight presidential elections,” Allen wrote, and in 1992 they would surrender altogether and leave the SBC to form “alternative networks and entities” – most prominently, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF).
But 1992 was eight years away, and the height of battle lay before Southern Baptists. Nevertheless, the tide was turning in the conservatives’ favor in 1984. During the annual meeting that year, conservatives gained another presidential victory, electing Pastor Charles Stanley of First Baptist Church, Atlanta, Ga., with a 52 percent vote. He would preside over the annual meeting in Dallas the following year. Meanwhile, both conservatives and moderates began to rally their troops for a showdown in Dallas.