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SBC Presidents Before 1979: Just How Liberal Were They?

Revisionist historians in Baptist life sometimes argue that moderates controlled the Southern Baptist Convention prior to the election of Adrian Rogers in 1979, squeezing conservative voices out of leadership positions, including the SBC presidency. Yet, an examination of the preceding generation of SBC presidents offers quite a different view.

In the 30 years prior to Rogers’ election in 1979, the vast majority of presidents were drawn from the ranks of prominent SBC pastors. All were theological conservatives. Two of these, R. G. Lee (1948-1951) and Ramsey Pollard (1959-1961), actually preceded Rogers as pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis.  Others included J.D. Grey (1951-1953), J.W. Storer (1953-1955), C.C. Warren (1955-1957) and W. Wayne Dehoney (1964-1966).<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” /> 

Herschel H. Hobbs (1961-1963) presided over a tumultuous period surrounding the publication of The Message of Genesis by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Ralph Elliott. Widely respected for his biblical scholarship and denominational loyalty, Hobbs was seen as the perfect choice to lead the special committee of state convention presidents that had been asked to recommend a new confessional statement in 1963.  
By contrast, K. Owen White (1963-1964) was elected not so much as a denominational insider as for his fundamentalist views. Early in 1962, White had published an article in the Texas state Baptist newspaper that attacked Elliott’s book as “poison” and described it as “liberalism, pure and simple.” At the annual session of the SBC later that same year, he introduced resolutions affirming “the entire Bible as the authoritative, authentic, infallible Word of God” and requesting that denominational trustees rid their institutions of unorthodox views. 
W.A. Criswell (1968-1970) also was embraced as an ultra-conservative candidate. Although he first proposed the creation of the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies just one year after his election as president, Criswell’s method for bringing about change relied more on persuasion, eloquence and prayer than on manipulating the denominational machinery. Duke McCall argues in his memoirs, “I don’t think it would ever have occurred to [Criswell] to read the constitution and bylaws of the Convention to see how to change things.”   
Similarly, Jaroy Weber (1974-1976) was considered to be a very conservative president, but apart from the later political strategizing of Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson. Again, in McCall’s words: “I just don’t believe Weber would have been party to this. He would have been like R.G. Lee, willing to argue for a more conservative theological posture for agencies, seminaries, colleges, and so on. But trying to change the political power structure of the Convention would have been off limits to him, in my judgment.”  Paige Patterson, while president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1994, apparently agreed with such an assessment in a paper entitled “Anatomy of Reformation: The Southern Baptist Convention, 1978-1994.” In the paper, Patterson argued that previous attempts by fundamental-conservatives had failed because they relied on little known leaders or people who did not understand the political process. He added, “Furthermore, conservatives generally suffered from a paucity of political acumen and sophistication which made it almost impossible for them to outflag the experienced operatives of the denomination.” 
Among the 13 pastors to hold presidential office between 1949 and 1979, three might be fairly characterized as “moderate-progressives.” Yet none of the three could accurately be called a theological liberal.   
H. Franklin Paschall (1966-1968) served during a period of profound social unrest and was instrumental in the SBC adopting “A Statement Concerning the Crisis in Our Nation” in 1968. Carl E. Bates (1970-1972) presided over much of the furor resulting from G. Henton Davies’ exposition of Genesis in the The Broadman Bible Commentary. Jimmy Allen (1977-1979), while elected as a popular, evangelistic pastor from Texas, remains the only former president of the SBC to assume a high profile role with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. 
Two presidents in this period were laymen and one was a retired denominational executive: Brooks Hays (1957-1959), Owen Cooper (1972-1974) and James L. Sullivan (1976-1977). Cooper was a respected businessman from Yazoo City, Miss., while Sullivan had been the revered president of the Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville.  
Hays was arguably one of the more “liberal” SBC presidents in modern times, but the label represented his social views more so than his theology. As a member of the U. S. House of Representatives from the fifth district of Arkansas, he opposed Gov. Orval Faubus during the 1958 Little Rock school desegregation crisis, and was defeated for re-election by an avowed segregationist. He remained a staunch advocate of civil rights, social justice and the poor as a special assistant to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. 
In the three decades preceding the “conservative resurgence,” the SBC elected 16 presidents. Most were pastors of large city congregations who represented the mainstream of Southern Baptist life; four or five could be described as fundamental-conservatives and three or four as true moderate-conservatives.   
Ironically, it was a layman, not a pastor, who was the most progressive of them all. One is hard-pressed to find even one theological liberal in the whole group.  
John M. Finley is senior minister of First Baptist Church, Savannah, Ga. 
Buy Duke McCall: An Oral History from the Baptist History and Heritage Society.