George Arthur Buttrick, the legendary Presbyterian preacher of the 20th century, insisted that all preaching is venue specific. Indeed it is. The day I preached the Southern Baptist Convention annual sermon in downtown San Antonio in June 1988, recalls a painfully specific venue.
The SBC had endured nine years of controversy. That summer the convention stood at the threshold of the 10th contested election in the fundamentalist takeover.
Someone had suggested to the program committee the previous year that I preach the annual convention sermon. For the worse, I had been one of the “non-aligned” in the 1980s, and I presumed that was why I was asked.
From one perspective the sermon was an act of naivete. The message embraced several verses of Ephesians that called for civility. Forty years old and still believing that 80 percent of Southern Baptists might come together, I hoped to sound a note of reconciliation.
What I did not know then was the Nietzschean will-to-power of the fundamentalists. Having known Baptists of a more genteel character, I did not credit the juggernaut its actual motivation.
A friend of mine asked, “Gregory, are you the last one to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny?” I did indeed think that most Baptists could still come together. I was wrong, that idea was wrong and it was too late.
From another perspective the sermon was a realistic proclamation. That convention may be recalled as the “animal-name convention.” The combatants were calling one another skunks, opossums and other such Christian epithets.
The dailies of the South had a field day with the internecine fight in the largest Protestant denomination. The rhetoric undermined the Baptist witness to such an extent that it has never recovered.
The fundamentalists tattooed the denomination with a belligerence that the general public has never forgotten.
My sermon had a pragmatic intention of calming the rhetoric, cooling the tempers and appealing for the same kind of civility that occurs in most corporate board meetings.
The sermon did succeed, for at least the 30 minutes it took to preach it.
Paradoxically, some on both sides thought I was castigating their side or the other side. The principals in the battle saw it as a pusillanimous act of appeasement aimed at both sides.
The cynics thought I was posturing. Some thought it was a great sermon, and others thought it was a whey-faced, lily-livered, spineless, Neville Chamberlain-style, time-serving act of pusillanimous rhetoric.
Everyone agreed with it in principal but few in particular application.
Looking in life’s rear-view-mirror 19 years later, I see both the naivete and the realism of the message. I now wish I had joined with the next generation older than I who saw clearly the threat of fundamentalism.
Kenneth Chaffin, Cecil Sherman, Herbert Reynolds, Winfred Moore, Jimmy Allen, Russell Dilday, Keith Parks and others saw the truth early, clearly and inerrantly, to use the word a different way.
The clarity with which they saw the destructive trajectory of fundamentalism stamps them as prophets of the first order.
I would trade that sermon quickly for an opportunity to take back time and stand with them. I looked for a middle that was not there. They are heroes of Baptist history.
Joel Gregory is professor of preaching at George W. Truett Seminary of Baylor University and distinguished fellow of Georgetown College.