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Historical Review: Baptists and Genesis

Nineteenth century Southern Baptists debated many issues–missions, the church, slavery, even Baptist history–yet simple biblical faith helped them avoid heated confrontations over the Bible which would come in the 20th century. When the agenda changed, however, the Book of Genesis was often at the center of the controversy.

Charles Darwin’s theories on natural selection alongside modern biblical scholarship produced the “Evolution Controversy” of the 1920s. Personified by the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tenn., the controversy was largely over whether or not creation passages in Genesis could be interpreted symbolically rather than literally.
Baptists north and south, as well as Canadian Baptists, debated these issues with varying degrees of division. Fundamentalists like J. Frank Norris and C. P. Stealey allowed no room for evolutionists. Moderate leaders like E. Y. Mullins of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary tried to recast the debate in terms of “supernaturalism” versus “naturalism” rather than a vote up or down on evolution.
At its annual meeting in 1923, the SBC adopted Mullins’ views seeking a more balanced relationship between science and religion. The original Baptist Faith and Message statement was adopted two years later to bring theological consensus in denominational life. This was not enough for hardline fundamentalists, who put the SBC on record in 1926 with a strong statement against evolution and passed a resolution requiring convention employees to agree to it.
These actions preceded the fierce debate over Genesis yet to come in the Elliott and Broadman controversies.
In 1961, Broadman Press published The Message of Genesis by Ralph Elliott, a professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Using historical-critical methods, Elliott wrote a “theological interpretation” of Genesis which suggested that the symbolic “message” of the creation stories mattered most.
When K. Owen White, pastor of First Baptist Church Houston, Texas, criticized Elliott’s views in Baptist state papers, an intense debate ensued.
The “Elliott Controversy” consumed the 1962 SBC meeting. The convention refused to ban Elliott’s book, but it distanced itself from his methods and conclusions. Midwestern trustees asked Elliot to promise not to republish the book, but he refused and was promptly dismissed for “insubordination.”
Similar disagreement surfaced in 1970 in response to the first volume in the new Broadman Bible Commentary series. G. Henton Davies, an English Baptist, had been chosen to write the exposition on Genesis, and his views quickly fell under criticism. Of special concern to many conservatives was Davies’ interpretation of Genesis 22:1-19, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac.
Again, fierce debate soon followed in Baptist state newspapers. At the 1970 SBC meeting, messengers asked the Baptist Sunday School Board to withdraw the volume and rewrite it “with due consideration of the conservative viewpoint.” Clyde Francisco, professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, later wrote a revised commentary on Genesis.
Since the “Broadman Controversy,” Southern Baptists have engaged in some of their most spirited denominational debate. Not surprisingly, Genesis has often been the catalyst.
During the 1980s, seminary professors were often quizzed on whether they believed in seven literal days of creation and whether Adam and Eve were real, historical persons. The 1984 SBC resolution on women drew upon the narrow argument that Eve was “first in the Edenic fall.”
Genesis continues to ignite debates over creationism, the environment, and the roles of men and women.
John M. Finley is senior minister of First Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga.