A Story Every Baptist Should Know: A Convention Lost and a Fellowship Born

A Story Every Baptist Should Know: A Convention Lost and a Fellowship Born
By Jonathan Siktberg

   Baptists under the age of 30 are not known for their interest in Southern Baptist history. Nor do they know why the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship came about. If you ask, “What are the main differences between moderates and fundamentalists?” or even, “What are the core tenets of the Baptist denomination?” the odds are my generation will disappoint you. Few of my Baptist peers can answer these basic questions, and neither could I—at least not until I set foot on the campus of Baylor University three years ago. Sure, I vaguely remembered my grandfather, Dr. Bill Sherman, preaching on the controversy, and I noticed my parents always chose the CBF envelope instead of the SBC one for their missions giving; I was mostly ignorant, however, of the events behind that choice of envelopes.

   That all changed my freshman year when I picked up the autobiography of my great uncle, Dr. Cecil Sherman, entitled By My Own Reckoning. The first half of the book is an entertaining account of Uncle Cecil’s life and ministry. The second half is a comprehensive overview of the 1980s SBC controversy. The story fascinated me. I was taken by the courage of the “moderate” resistance and the creation of a new Baptist fellowship. How is it possible that my generation of Baptists does not know what happened? In a time when Christians are faced a wide variety political and ethical issues, we should heed the lessons that can be learned from the SBC controversy. To my generation of Baptists, I write this paper in hopes that it might help us understand the controversy that rocked our denomination. As Baptists, this story is one we should never forget, for it has shaped our past, informs our present, and will affect our future. Here’s what happened:

   It began in 1979 when two fundamentalists, Judge Paul Pressler from Houston and Paige Patterson from Dallas, began plotting to take over the Southern Baptist Convention (Reckoning, 133). At the time, the SBC was thriving. Five of the six largest seminaries in the US were Southern Baptist, and Baptists had recently passed Methodists to become the largest Protestant denomination in the United States (132). Missions, the production of literature for churches, and education of young ministers comprised the core of the SBC, consuming ninety percent of the Convention’s money (132). The Convention was diverse. No specific instruction about theology was given to churches, and each congregation was free to interpret the Bible as it saw fit (133). As Uncle Cecil wrote, “The differences were tolerated; little mention was made of them. The focus of the convention was missions, not theology” (133).

   The 1979 SBC annual meeting changed all of that. Pressler and Patterson led a fundamentalist group which based its theology largely on the absolute inerrancy of scripture (133). Still, Uncle Cecil noted, “As time passed, it became obvious that there was more to their agenda” (140). This group of men (and they were all men) designed a strategy to change the SBC to serve their political agenda and inerrantist theology. They did so by harnessing the power of the president, who had the authority to appoint anyone to the Committee on Committees, which in turn controlled all the institutions of the Convention (133). By winning the presidency, they could stack the various boards and committees of the SBC with other inerrantists and radically change the SBC and its institutions. At the 1979 meeting, the fundamentalists accused others of not believing the Bible because they would not call it “inerrant” (133). According to Uncle Cecil, the fundamentalists were “organized and militant” (135). The meeting suddenly seemed more like a political convention than a religious gathering (135). Pressler and Patterson succeeded in electing their candidate, Adrian Rogers, to the presidency on the first ballot with just a little more than 50 percent of the vote (135). The SBC was under attack.

   One might ask: Why is this so important? What are the major differences between moderates and fundamentalists? Uncle Cecil identified six:

1. The Bible: Moderates describe the Bible as trustworthy and reliable. Fundamentalists claim the Bible is literally inerrant, leaving no room for the human element of scripture or for widely acknowledged errors when the Bible speaks of science and history. Moderates believe that the Bible is without error for the purposes for which it was written—theology—but that it is not a perfect book of history or science, nor does it claim to be (138-140).

2. Women in church leadership: Moderates welcome women in church leadership roles. Fundamentalists reject women in any religious leadership role (140-142).

3. Pastors: Moderates see the pastor as the servant of the church, whereas fundamentalists see the pastor as the ruler of the church (142).

4. Missions: Moderates support missions on a broad front, including evangelism, medical missions, education, disaster relief, and service to the poor. Fundamentalists want missionaries to be strictly evangelists and church starters (144).

5. Separation of church and state: Moderates believe in religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Fundamentalists believe it is their duty to use government to reestablish their Christian values. Such an approach is of Puritan, not Baptist, nature (144-146).

6. Denomination: Moderates believe in the historical Baptist value of autonomy of the local church. Fundamentalists believe the denomination should establish “theological checkpoints” to ensure everyone agrees on the same theology (146-147).

   These differences were significant enough for Uncle Cecil and others to resist the Pressler—Patterson political machine.

   In June 1980, Pressler made a speech at Old Forrest Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he bragged that his party was “going for the jugular” of the SBC (135-136). Uncle Cecil said Pressler’s speech in Virginia “gave me a road map” (149). He soon recognized the fundamentalists’ strategy to control the boards and committees through the presidency and that the fundamentalists were organized where the moderates were not. If they waited much longer, the fundamentalists would soon control the SBC. So Uncle Cecil assembled a group of moderates, sometimes called the “Gatlinburg Gang,” in Gatlinburg, Tennessee,  in 1980 (150). This group of 17 pastors, which also included my grandfather, set out to “turn the Convention around” (153). (Unfortunately, each year since the 1979 Convention, a fundamentalist has been elected president of the SBC.)

   The moderates ran candidates against the fundamentalists but always came up just short—

receiving 39% of the presidential vote in 1981, 43% in 1982, 45% in 1985, 46% in 1986, 40% in 1987, 48% in 1988, 43% in 1989, and 42% in 1990 (Struggle for the Soul of the SBC, xi-xvi). I will not tell the stories of each convention in this paper, but By My Own Reckoning tells each one. At the 1985 meeting, a Peace Committee was created supposedly to reconcile the two sides (Reckoning, 180). However, by that time the fundamentalists had already taken control. Uncle Cecil, a member of the Peace Committee, lamented, “I had no idea our mission (to make peace) was impossible from the start” (179). Uncle Cecil and other moderate leaders offered several practical solutions but soon found that the fundamentalists did not seek peace (201). Instead, they wanted to buy time to eliminate moderates from Southern Baptist life forever (179).

   The fundamentalists began to press the six seminary presidents to affirm their inerrancy theology or lose their jobs. When the seminary presidents wrote the Glorieta Statement in October of 1986 to save their jobs, it became clear that the Peace Committee was a façade (207). The Glorieta Statement affirmed the absolute inerrancy of scripture (207). Calling it “shameful,” Uncle Cecil resigned from the Peace Committee, and other moderates followed him (207-209).

   After the Peace Committee report was released in 1987, the fundamentalists continued their theological genocide. According to Walter Shurden, it soon became required for SBC personnel to comply with the Glorieta Statement and the Peace Committee Report (Going for the Jugular, 278). In 1998, the Convention altered the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message with the approval of a “Family Article” that said, “a wife is to submit herself graciously” to her husband without requiring the same of the husband (1998 SBC Annual, 78). Such misogyny remains ingrained in the SBC today. The 1998 amendment fueled the idea of a new revision to the Baptist Faith and Message because fundamentalists were not satisfied with the 1963 version with respect to its statements on scripture (What Happened to the Southern Baptist Convention?, 120). In addition, fundamentalists longed for a single document they could use to control all SBC employees and missionaries. With a revised fundamentalist confession, now a creed, they could ensure that all SBC agencies followed fundamentalist principles.

   These events culminated in the SBC’s adoption of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, which put the tragedy of Southern Baptist fundamentalism in plain sight. Although it claims to be a confession, according to Walter Shurden, it is “an enforced creed that tramples on soul freedom and priesthood of the believer” (Struggle, 7) By eliminating important parts of the 1963 Preamble and calling itself an “instrument of doctrinal accountability,” the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message abolished the historic Baptist principles of the authority of scripture and priesthood of the believer. It also destroys those freedoms that have united Baptists across centuries: religious freedom, individual freedom, freedom to interpret the Bible, and freedom of the local church.

   The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message exposes the SBC’s shift away from mainline Baptist views on education, missions, and women. The fundamentalists used the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message to take over the six SBC seminaries. Any faculty member or seminary president who refused to sign it was eventually fired or forced to resign. Since then, the SBC has “gutted serious theological education” in the seminaries, according to Uncle Cecil (Struggle, 41). In addition, the document was used to catalyze a shift away from cooperative missions to missions focused on evangelism censored by the SBC. The International Mission Board (IMB) began requiring all missionaries to sign an affirmation of the Message soon after its adoption. Seventy-seven missionaries refused and were, in their turn,  fired or forced to resign by the IMB (Fundamentalism, 74). Finally, it demotes wives to servants of their husbands and restricts women from leadership roles in the church. After the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, the North American Mission Board stopped endorsing ordained women (Stand With Christ, 6). Because of fundamentalists, it would be virtually impossible for a female missionary like Lottie Moon to serve today. Ironically, the IMB still has the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering every year.

   The 77 missionaries, the seminary presidents, and all the other SBC employees who refused to sign the 2000 document took a stand for Baptists. In Shurden’s words, they refused to become the “theological clones” of the fundamentalists (Stand With Christ, 6). Fortunately, there was hope on the horizon for moderates—a new Baptist group called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

   After the 1990 SBC annual meeting in New Orleans, moderate leaders agreed the SBC was lost and decided to hold a public meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, to discuss the way forward (Reckoning, 217). Originally expecting 200 people to attend, Uncle Cecil and others were astounded when 3,100 Baptists showed up (217). Talk began of starting a new fellowship that would uphold Baptist principles. An Interim Steering Committee was formed to explore the idea (218). The following year, Uncle Cecil and Walter Shurden published the “Address to the Public,” explaining the reasons for starting a new fellowship (220). In May of 1991, 6,000 Baptists came to Atlanta to review the committee’s work (221). The proposal was approved, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was born (221).

   In December of 1991, Uncle Cecil accepted an invitation from the CBF coordinating council to serve as the first executive coordinator of CBF (223). Over the next five years, he worked tirelessly with others to build CBF from the ground up.

   CBF’s first focus was always missions (225). One of the first ministries of the CBF was to help save a Baptist seminary in Ruschlikon, Switzerland. In December of 1991, the SBC suddenly abandoned the seminary because it thought there was liberalism there (225). With the help of moderate churches across the US, CBF stepped in two months later and sent the seminary a check for $241,000 to help it keep its doors open (225). By September of 1992, CBF was already employing more than 20 missionaries around the world (226). The Fellowship received a giant boost in February of 1993 when Keith Parks joined the team as Global Missions coordinator after leaving the presidency of the Foreign Mission Board of the SBC (228). With an experienced professional like Parks leading missions, CBF’s ministries flourished over the next few years. By 1995, CBF employed over 100 missionaries around the globe (232).

   During those early years, building the fellowship of churches was one of Uncle Cecil’s primary goals. He traveled across the country to meet with congregations and tell the CBF story. It was a slow but rewarding process. In 1991, CBF received $700,000 from 391 churches (231). Those numbers grew to $3.8 million from 841 churches in 1992, $6.6 million from 1,210 churches in 1993, $10.9 million from 1,377 churches in 1994, and $12.3 million from 1,450 churches in 1995 (232).

   Another priority in the early CBF days was supporting the education of young Baptist ministers.  The fundamentalists had ruined the six SBC seminaries, but much to their consternation they never got Baylor. Thanks to the strong moderate Texas Baptists and shrewd administrators at Baylor, fundamentalists never took over the Baptist General Convention of Texas or the largest Baptist university in the world. Baylor recognized the need for serious graduate theological education and began plans to start George W. Truett Theological Seminary in March of 1991. CBF shared this commitment to theological education; so during the early years of the CBF, five percent of all undesignated money given to the Fellowship went to Truett, and another five percent went to the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (220). Today, CBF continues to support these seminaries and others, providing scholarships for students at 15 theological institutions.

   So, 27 years after the end of the controversy, where do we stand? The SBC is as fundamentalist as ever, but poor stewardship has weakened its ministries over the last two decades. Just last year, the IMB forced 983 missionaries to resign or retire so that it could balance its budget (Christianity Today). Still, the SBC controls the six oldest Baptist seminaries which are now completely fundamentalist. The CBF has united moderates across the country and reached out around the globe in missions. The Fellowship has grown steadily over the years, especially at the state and local level. Still, CBF faces its fair share of challenges; but there is reason to believe that CBF’s next quarter-century will be even better than its first.

   I hope this account helps Baptists of my generation understand what happened to the SBC and why moderates took a stand. For a more detailed account of the controversy, I recommend By My Own Reckoning by Cecil Sherman, The Battle for Baptist Integrity by John F. Baugh, or The Struggle for the Soul of the SBC by Walter B. Shurden.

   To my generation of Baptists: We did not live through this controversy, but if we forget what happened, we risk falling into the same traps that ruined the SBC. If you believe in equality for women or in serious Bible scholarship, I encourage you to join a moderate Baptist church. If you value the Baptist traditions of cooperative missions, religious liberty, congregational authority, and priesthood of the believer, I urge you to choose that CBF envelope for your giving. Our generation of Christians will no doubt face numerous trials, tribulations and political attacks from both the far-right and the far-left. But like those who came before us, we must persevere through the challenges and preserve the core pillars of the Baptist faith for the next generation.


Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1998.

Baugh, John F., The Battle for Baptist Integrity. Austin, TX: Battle for Baptist Integrity Inc.,        1995.

Cothen, Gary C., What Happened to the Southern Baptist Convention? A Memoir of the    Controversy. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1993.

Humphreys, Fisher and Wise, Philip. Fundamentalism. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys: 2004.

O’Brien, Robert, ed. Stand with Christ: Why Missionaries Can’t Sign the 2000 Baptist Faith and             Message. Macon, GA: Smith & Helwys, 2002.

Shepley, Randy and Shurden, Walter B., Going for the Jugular: A Documentary History of the    SBC Holy War. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1996.

Sherman, Cecil, “An Overview of the Moderate Movement” In Shurden, Walter B., ed. The         Struggle for the Soul of the SBC: Moderate Responses to the Fundamentalist Movement.           Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1993.

Sherman, Cecil. By My Own Reckoning. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008.

Shurden, Walter B., ed. The Struggle for the Soul of the SBC: Moderate Responses to the Fundamentalist Movement. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1993.

Zylstra, Sarah Eekhoff. “Southern Baptists Lose Almost 1,000 Missionaries as IMB Cuts Costs.”

24 Feb. 2016. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.

Jonathan Siktberg is a senior honors student at Baylor University majoring in pre-med and business.  He served as the student regent on Baylor's Board of Regents, has participated in three mission endeavors, is an active churchman.


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