Editor's note: This is the first part of a five-part series in which Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, reviews the steps that led him away from fundamentalism.
I went to a Baptist youth camp when I was 15 years old and I haven't been the same since.
The camp was run by independent fundamental Baptists who called Billy Graham a "Graham cracker" and denounced Southern Baptists as "liberals." J. Frank Norris, the controversial pastor of First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, who once shot a man dead in his office and who was so vituperative and disruptive that he got booted out of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, was their icon.
Neither theology nor politics mattered a whit to me then. At that age, I couldn't tell a liberal anything from a conservative whatever and I didn't care. Don't get me wrong. I was a Christian. I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior at the age of 12, and I was striving to live a life of sincere discipleship.
But I have to confess that I wasn't going to that youth camp to have a happy week with the brethren. I went because it was the only place I knew where a guy could meet girls from Texas (mostly west Texas) and from every corner of the state of New Mexico. I went to expand my horizons – or, at least, broaden my view of the dating pool.
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The pool, however, was the one place at camp where you were forbidden to get a view. Fundamental Baptists don't permit "mixed bathing." In this context, "bathing" has nothing to do with taking a bath. It meant the swimming area was segregated by gender. (Segregation by race was implicit; only whites were invited.) Boys could hang around the pool during certain hours. Girls hung around the pool different hours. Never did the twain meet around the pool.
In my eyes, and those of many others, the "no mixed bathing" rule took all of the fun out of swimming. And that wasn't the only rule that rubbed us the wrong way. They didn't permit boys to put their arms around girls or hold hands during chapel services either.
That rule produced an irresistible impulse in certain boys that prompted them to test the patience of camp preachers. I confess that I was chief among those who sat close to the front and deliberately held hands with girls, or put my arm around one, for no other reason than to see how long it would take for the preacher to call me down from the pulpit. I always looked forward to that part of every sermon at youth camp. It made my day.
Then, one day at youth camp, a storm blew through at the very moment the preacher was rising to speak. The storm knocked the lights out, and the preacher couldn't see whether my arm was around the girl beside me. In fact, it was so dark I couldn't see my own hand in front of my face. That night there was only the voice of the preacher – booming like the voice of God – or, at least shouting to be heard above the storm without the aid of amplification.
I don't remember hearing a thing that the preacher said that evening. Instead, I heard the still, small voice of God speaking in my heart and issuing an unmistakable summons for me to devote my life to the ministry.
"Whom shall I send and who will go for us?" God said.
"Here am I. Send me," I said.
Though all of this transpired at an independent fundamental Baptist youth camp, responding to the call to ministry was truly my first step away from fundamentalism.
When the invitation was given and we all sang "Wherever He Leads, I'll Go," I really meant it.
Bruce Prescott is executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists. This column appears on his blog, Mainstream Baptist.