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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

The Theological Diversity of the Southern Baptist Convention

As any Southern Baptist might attest, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And what stays the same in Southern Baptist life is diversity. 175 years after its first meeting in Augusta, Georgia, the Southern Baptist Convention remains one of the most diverse religious groups in the world. In fact, since 1845, Southern Baptists have almost been defined by their diversity. Only in the SBC can one find a multi-site, non-Calvinistic, egalitarian church in the same association as an elder-led, Calvinistic, complementarian congregation. Southern Baptists are indeed a diverse people. However, in recent years, the diversity in Southern Baptist life has felt more like division. According to Albert Mohler, “Southern Baptists have lost our ability to talk respectfully and convictionally. We had better recover that ability fast, or we will destroy the very foundation of cooperation that has brought us to this moment.” In an era of clicks and likes (and dislikes), the art of reasoned theological discourse has begun to fade. In the wake of scandals that have tarnished the legacy of the Conservative Resurgence and with the rise of “conservative” Baptist networks claiming that the SBC is in serious theological error, Southern Baptists cannot seem to agree on the definition of “conservative” nor what exactly constitutes “Southern Baptist” theology. As Southern Baptists continue to talk past one another, each claiming the true legacy of their conservative heroes, the hodge podge of characters in today's SBC seems to mirror the hodge podge of theologians that convened 175 years ago in Augusta. In order to make better sense of the SBC in 2020, Southern Baptists would do well to recall that the Convention wasn’t born in Dallas in 1985. Diversity isn’t something that occasionally emerges in Southern Baptist life and must be combatted. It’s actually a part of Southern Baptist DNA.

If Southern Baptists are startled by female pastors and critical race theory in 2020, the theological diversity in Augusta in 1845 would shock most Southern Baptists today. Unlike today, where social, political, and racial issues have become the most divisive even among those of similar theology, in 1845 the specific points of doctrine were the most divisive and the social, political, and racial issue of the day was the most unifying: slavery. William B. Johnson’s Address made one thing clear: the Southern Baptist departure from the Triennial Convention wasn’t about any one “article” of doctrine, but about advancing the glory of God and the good of mankind through human bondage and missions. The Southern Baptist Convention has since issued a statement in 1995 denouncing its dark and tragic origins. However, what hasn’t always been acknowledged is the role that slavery played in the theological beginnings of the Convention itself. Baptists as a denomination had long been a diverse people, but the role of slavery – not theology – in the inception of the Convention further ensured that Southern Baptists would long be marked by a kind of theological inclusivism. An inclusivism that persists today. In addition to Baptist distinctives like credobaptism, religious liberty, and local church autonomy, because slavery was the single most unifying feature at the inaugural Convention, the earliest Southern Baptists cast a wide theological net that allowed for an eclectic blend of doctrines. Perhaps the most striking picture of just how inclusive and eclectic Southern Baptists could be is found in its inaugural president: William B. Johnson.

In Johnson’s official address, likely penned just days after the Convention, he described his fellow Southern Baptists in a way in which many at the Convention would not have: “We have constructed for our basis no new creed; acting in this matter upon a Baptist aversion for all creeds but the Bible.” But this wasn’t exactly true, not even for those in Augusta. John L. Dagg, for instance, who was present at the Convention, would certainly not have expressed any aversion to the historic Baptist creeds. Like most Baptists in the Triennial Convention, Dagg affirmed the Philadelphia Baptist Confession of Faith (1742). As opposed to Johnson who rejected the doctrine of limited atonement, Dagg was a 5-point Calvinist and subscribed to the New Hampshire Confession (1833). Richard Furman, Johnson’s theological mentor, adhered firmly to the Charleston Confession and quizzed the children at First Baptist Church of Charleston from the well-known primer of Benjamin Keach, one of the framers of the Second London Confession. But Johnson did not affirm any creeds. In fact, he rejected the authority of all creeds, insisting they were unbiblical and that they diminished the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura. Although Johnson’s views did not reflect the majority of the delegates at the Convention, he wasn’t alone. Jesse Hartwell, one of the two secretaries of the SBC in 1845, also rejected the authority of creeds. Baptists were bound by their allegiance to the Bible, but even the authority of Scripture was a somewhat relative idea in 1845.

Johnson’s most controversial doctrine was his view of justification. The first president of the Southern Baptist Convention denied the doctrine of imputation, at least in the traditional, forensic sense. Simply put, Johnson did not believe that Christ’s righteousness was accounted to individual believers by faith. In 2017, at its Convention in Phoenix, Southern Baptists passed a resolution affirming the penal substitutionary atonement. However, ironically, not even the first president of the SBC would have affirmed such a resolution. (Nor would Jesse Hartwell, who was questioned about his views on justification at Howard College in Alabama) Years after the Convention, J. L. Reynolds, the corresponding secretary for the board of domestic missions in 1845, would seek to oust fellow Furman professor James Mims for the same beliefs. Mims kept his job. Johnson and Hartwell and Mims held to a popular theory of the atonement in America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries called the moral governmental theory of the atonement. Johnson didn’t believe that the atonement was a saving act in itself. According to Johnson, “it is not the payment of the sinner’s debt on the principles of pecuniary or commercial justice, but a satisfaction to moral justice, to open the way for the consistent exercise of mercy.” Johnson added boldly, “In itself considered, the atonement of Christ does not deliver any soul from condemnation.” In today’s Southern Baptist Convention, where issues of gender and race are the primary arena for theological dispute, the creed-rejecting, imputation-denying, moral governmentalist Johnson stands as a reminder that there was indeed a time when Southern Baptists were led by those who did not even affirm some of the most basic of Protestant principles. These were our founders.

Not even Calvinism was a settled debate in 1845. Richard Fuller, the third president of the SBC who also chaired the committee which authored the preamble of the Convention in Augusta, once remarked bluntly, “None but an idiot can reject the doctrine of predestination.” However, Fuller also roiled against those who promoted “hyper-Calvinist and fatalist” schemes to which so many were “committed inevitably…by their creed.” W. T. Brantly, who pastored the First Baptist Church of Augusta, Georgia, where the Convention was held, adhered to unconditional election yet concluded, “the grace of God as put forth and exerted in the in the salvation of sinners, is not irresistible.” Brantly also pushed back against the idea of substitution as an exchange, indicating the influence of his teacher Jonathan Maxcy in Columbia, SC, who also denied penal substitution. And the doctrine of limited atonement was by no means uniformly held in Southern Baptist life, as “moderate Calvinism” seemed to rule the day in 1845, largely owing to Andrew Fuller and especially before the days of Mell and Boyce. Southern Baptist theology began as a mixture of doctrines underneath a broad Baptist umbrella, not to mention the various social and political and deeply moral issues of the day which should turn contemporary Southern Baptists aghast. Governor Wilson Lumpkin of Georgia, one of the vice presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention, was one of the leading pro-removal politicians in the United States who campaigned for the displacement of the Cherokee Indians. Due in large part to his efforts, just seven years before the Convention in 1845, one of the greatest tragedies in Georgia history occurred when President Andrew Jackson forcefully resettled 47,000 southeastern Indians to lands west of the Mississippi River. One in four Cherokees died on the 800-mile march westward from their homeland around their capital of New Echota (outside of present day Calhoun, Georgia).

The evil of slavery and the specter of ethnocentrism is simply part of the Southern Baptist history. This history should neither be wielded as a weapon nor should it simply be dismissed as if the past can be shelved in a closet and simply forgotten. When Southern Baptists contend for a “conservative” theology in the midst of a culture hostile to the gospel, we do not have the luxury, indeed we will never have the luxury of leaving our past behind. The spotlight will always be brighter and our room for error less in a denomination forged from slavery. Yet, oddly enough, the overarching mission of the SBC remains the same: evangelism. We can neither escape our history nor our mission to the world. Thanks in part to its ecumenical beginnings, and remaining within the doctrinal bounds of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, the Southern Baptist tent remains large enough to receive a number of Christians whose beliefs differ from our own yet who desire to reach the lost - many of whose ancestors were enslaved by our own. And 175 years later, when we wonder why the SBC is such a mixture of people with seemingly opposite beliefs on so many contemporary issues, our history reminds us that we will be judged more severely for our lack of brotherly love than for our lack of doctrinal consensus, and that our willingness to fulfill the second commandment will demonstrate our ability to fulfill the first. If early Southern Baptists could put aside some of their major doctrinal differences in order to promote injustice, certainly Southern Baptists today could put aside even less to fight against it. The Southern Baptist Convention is called by God to remain theologically vigilant and to proclaim the truth without ceasing, even on issues of gender and race. But not without the very thing we lacked in the beginning: love. Southern Baptist theology has changed immensely since 1845, and yet, strangely, not at all. In this season of disunity, may we practice our own preaching. In 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention was marked by theological diversity for the sake of political unity. In 2020, in a denomination with no less diversity, let us be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace for the sake of Christ. (Eph. 4:3)

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Mar 23, 2023

Having finished reading this article, I am reminded of Paul's admonisions to the Churches at Corinth and Philipi, 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 and Philippians 2:1-11. In short as belivers our loyalty is to Christ our preoccupation must always be that of reconciling men to God and our spirit in this process is that of humility and love. Anything less, anything other is to miss the point of our calling to follow Christ and our responsiblity to represent Him as His Church and function as His body in this present Gospel age.

Jim LaBerge

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