A Tale of Two Baptist Conventions in Indianapolis

Marc Minter

How the Northern Baptist Convention of 1922 Serves as a Warning to Southern Baptists in 2024

On June 14, 1922, representatives of the Northern Baptist Convention (NBC) gathered for their annual meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana. In less than two months from now, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) will meet in Indianapolis as well, and the controversy of our day is not unlike the situation faced by the NBC one hundred years ago. The cultural and theological milieu of their day is known to history as the “Fundamentalist and Modernist Controversy.” The battle lines had been drawn, and proponents for each side were stating their case and making their moves.

Modernists were identified by an optimistic view of human nature, often redefining essential Christian doctrines (such as original sin, the atonement of Christ, and the inspiration of Scripture). Fundamentalists were identified by their convictional adherence to a core of fundamental doctrines. These “fundamentals” are often summarized as the inerrancy of Scripture, the historical reality of Christ’s virgin birth, the exclusive and substitutionary atonement of Christ, the genuine resurrection of Christ from the dead, and the authenticity of miracles recorded in Scripture.

Since the early twentieth century, the label “fundamentalist” has taken on a more negative connotation. Fundamentalists are more commonly known today as those who seem unable to differentiate between those doctrines that are truly fundamental and those that are non-essential to Christianity (such as a particular and detailed view of the millennium). There are certainly some Christians who produce a lot of heat on lesser doctrines, but an honest survey of history must agree with J. Gresham Machen’s assessment of the controversy. Machen published his classic book, Christianity and Liberalism, in 1923, wherein he argued that liberal Christianity was not Christianity at all. Machen himself was a fundamentalist in the technical sense during a time when his sort of fundamentalism was sorely needed.

At their meeting in Indianapolis in 1922, fundamentalists among the NBC proposed that the convention adopt the New Hampshire Confession of Faith. They argued that clear and public theological boundaries were necessary for unity and cooperation. But the proposal was voted down by a 2-to-1 margin. The convention delegates were assured by their leaders that the New Testament was a sufficient guide for Christian faith and practice, and the voters ultimately agreed that they did not need a confession of faith to specify their beliefs and practices any further. That vote was not quite three years before the Scopes Trial of 1925 made a mockery of fundamentalist views in America’s public square, but it was clear in 1922 that many evangelicals wanted to distance themselves from the bad press and public scorn that would inevitably come upon those Christians who held their theological ground.

On May 21, 1922, shortly before the NBC annual meeting, Harry Emerson Fosdick ascended the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church of New York. He was a Baptist professor at Union Theological Seminary, but he was the guest preacher of a church in the modernist camp that day. Fosdick’s now infamous sermon was titled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” In it, he lamented the “controversy which threatens to divide the American churches.”[1] He called for a vigorous response against those “illiberal and intolerant” fundamentalists whom he perceived as a “strange new movement in Christian thought.” Fosdick was a quintessential theological liberal, and he was exercised over the fact that theological conservatives were not only clinging to “the Christian faith” but also demanding that others resist the liberal tendency to “think our Christian life clear through in modern terms.”

Almost exactly three years after Fosdick’s sermon, Southern Baptists gathered in Memphis, TN, for their annual meeting. On May 15, 1925, the Committee on the Baptist Faith and Message presented a resolution to the convention to adopt the confession of faith they had offered on the previous day. They said that the adoption of a convention-wide confession of faith was “necessary at this time” due to the “general denominational situation.”[2] Every Southern Baptist present at their original convention in 1845 came from churches that already had the Philadelphia Confession, the New Hampshire Confession, or some abstract that summarized the core substance of these. And nearly all of the messengers in 1925 came from churches with a confession of faith written into their church constitution or by-laws. Even thought they came from confessional churches, Southern Baptists recognized the importance of clarifying their theological boundaries in writing for the entire convention.

In something of a symbolic answer to Fosdick’s question, Southern Baptists said, “Yes, fundamentalists must win in order to preserve the historic Christian faith.” They seemed to agree with Machen that liberal Christianity was an altogether different religion from historic Christianity. And Southern Baptists chose faithfulness to orthodox doctrine over public admiration.

Lessons From Baptist History Applied Today

It is now one hundred years later, and Southern Baptists are facing yet another watershed theological and cultural moment and gathering in Indianapolis. The Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M) was revised in 1963, 2000, and (ever-so-slightly) in 2023, and by now we clearly have a confession of faith that articulates what we believe on many articles of faith. Every generation has their battlegrounds, and ours are multiple, but two obvious arenas are those of complementarity and church polity. These overlap in our present controversy over female “pastors.”

Leading up to our annual meeting in 2023, Mike Law (an SBC pastor of Arlington Baptist Church in Arlington, VA) successfully brought a motion to the floor of the convention that aimed to clarify an article of the Baptist Faith and Message. Law proposed the amendment in 2022, and after a slight change suggested by Juan Sanchez (an SBC pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, TX), the amendment received strong support and easily surpassed the necessary vote of the messengers. Yet, according to the SBC constitution, amendments require two successive votes of affirmation; thus, the upcoming convention meeting in Indianapolis has taken on outsized significance.

The amendment (known as the Law Amendment) articulates that the convention will only deem a church to be in friendly cooperation with the convention which: “Affirms, appoints, or employs only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.” This is merely an additional clarification of what we already say we believe, joining others that have recently been added to the constitution under Article III. And each of the clarifying statements under Article III, like the Law Amendment, are practical restatements of what is already expressed in the BF&M 2000. The necessity of these clarifications arises from the particular cultural and theological controversies of our day.

Like our Southern Baptist forbearers, we are being urged by some Baptist leaders and by the watching world to jettison (or at least downplay) our biblical convictions in order to gain public admiration, to maintain unity, and to emphasize mission over doctrine. However, time and history have proven that no theological or ethical compromise will ever earn the respect of the world, and neither will it lead to greater vitality for gospel ministry and evangelism.

Those churches and denominations that embraced modernist views and theological liberalism are dead today. Again, the NBC serves a good example and a stark warning on this point. Now called the American Baptist Churches USA, they have less than 5,000 churches in their association, practice women’s ordination, permit congregations to perform same-sex “marriages” and appoint homosexual “pastors,” and even “boasts” of having the “first openly transgender minister to be ordained in the Baptist tradition.”

We should not assume that the SBC would be spared such a disastrous decline and immoral trajectory as the NBC if we refuse to submit to God’s Word on who can serve as a pastor in God’s church.

Choosing Clarity Over Compromise

The choice for Southern Baptists in 2024 is clear. We can compromise for a false unity that will lead to our demise, or we can stand for true unity on our existing convictions. If we choose the path of compromise and ambiguity, we may receive the applause of the world for a moment, but even that is unlikely. We will most certainly turn a blind eye to liberalizing trends among Baptist churches that are now affiliated with the SBC, and the Convention itself (along with its various entities) will suffer the consequences. But if we choose to take a stand, though we may endure the mockery of those who disagree, we can enjoy true unity and get on with the mission at hand.[3] We may give our wholehearted efforts to evangelism, church planting/revitalizing, and missions.

As we plan to gather for our Indianapolis convention (102 years after the NBC did for theirs), let us reaffirm what our Southern Baptist forbearers affirmed in their own day (in 1925). Let us reaffirm our commitment to historical orthodoxy and our commitment to maintain theological boundaries. Let us reaffirm our commitment to answer Harry Emerson Fosdick, and others like him, “Yes, the fundamentalists must win! And we will hold fast to the historic Christian faith!”

This is a lightly edited version of a post first published by Marc Minter at his blog: marcminter.com.

[1] Shall the Fundamentalists Win? http://baptiststudiesonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/01/shall-the-fundamentalists-win.pdf

[2] Minutes from the May 15, 1925, convention meeting. https://www.reformedreader.org/ccc/1925bfam.htm

[3] Here are Five Reasons to Support the Law Amendment. https://centerforbaptistleadership.org/five-reasons-to-support-the-law-amendment/  

  • Marc Minter

    Marc Minter has served as the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church Diana, in Diana, Texas, since 2014. He is married to Cassie and has two sons, Micah and Malachi. He has an M.Div. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is a Ph.D. student in historical theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.