The Baptist Struggle – an unfinished fight

A popular perspective of movements shaping fundamentalism from 1880s to the 1920s, being a lightly edited transcript of a series of lectures given for the Adult Bible Fellowship of Tri-Cities Baptist Church during the spring of 2012 (Part 2)

by Dave Sproul

The “Roarin’ Twenties” are known for illegal booze, crime syndicates, and dancing the Charleston. But the ultimate long-term effect on Christianity and our culture was fought in a battle for the Bible in the major denominations. Between 1905 and 1915, Lyman and Milton Stewart published The Fundamentals. These volumes were issued in support of the cardinal doctrines that are the essence of Christianity. The cardinal doctrines at issue, among others, were the verbal plenary inspiration of the Scriptures; the deity of Christ; the virgin birth of Christ; the substitutionary atonement made by Christ; and His physical resurrection and future bodily return [other lists of the five fundamentals differ in some particulars – in reality, there are more than five fundamentals – ed.].

They drew a sharp dividing line between belief and unbelief. Machen in his 1923 volume, Christianity and Liberalism, made it abundantly clear that a liberal was as lost as any heathen in Africa. The lines were drawn and numerous major denominations became involved.

I. The Northern Baptist Convention and the GARB

One of these denominations was the Northern Baptist Convention which met for its annual meeting in 1920 at Niagara Falls. Days before the annual meeting, some separatist Baptist pastors in the convention met for preaching, fellowship, and a time of discussing strategy in relation to the upcoming convention. This meeting of pastors prior to the convention each year came to be known as the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship.

Each year resolutions would be brought to the floor of the NBC Convention which would enunciate a clear Biblical view on certain doctrines and practices. Sometimes they were defeated by changed verbiage, a parliamentary procedure, or by an up or down vote. In those days there were approximately one-third liberals in the convention, one-third were avowed fundamentalists and the other one-third were moderates. On an up or down vote the moderates would almost invariably vote with the liberals.

In 1932 a segment of the separatist pastors in the convention withdrew from the convention and started an association of churches called the General Association of Regular Baptists. Their numbers grew and by the 1950s a number of Bible colleges and seminaries were developed under the umbrella of the GARB. I often preached in their schools. My wife and I were members of a GARB church in Englewood, Colo. for several years. From 1963-1980, we held over 200 revival meetings in GARB churches. There were hundreds of solid pastors and churches in the organization. We often attended the annual meetings with great blessing.

Nevertheless, by the mid 1970s, a discernible shift was taking place. Their music and standards were changing. There was great evidence of moderation. Questionable teaching and practices were developing in their schools but each year a vote of confidence was given to each one of the colleges and seminaries by the Council of Fourteen, later to be changed to the Council of Eighteen. The Council would normally have two or three presidents of the colleges as members.

As a personal observation, I noted that many of the GARB schools and churches were sending students to Dallas Seminary. In turn those same schools were employing Dallas Seminary graduates as their professors. It was only a matter of time until the full impact was felt.

Personally, I attended Dallas from 1959-61 and left over the separation issue. A good friend in my class was Charles Swindoll. He did not understand Biblical separation then and I still disagree with his position over 50 years later. He eventually became president of Dallas Seminary for eight years. He wrote a book called Grace Awakening, which the late Dr. Ernest Pickering masterfully refuted. In essence he, like many others, make a disgrace out of grace. His book completely omitted the strong teaching on grace that appears in Titus 2:11-14 and which refutes his position of making liberty a license.

As the defection continued in the GARB, 250 pastors and churches withdrew from the organization in 1993 over the issue of separation. Perhaps only Faith Baptist College and Seminary in Ankeny, Iowa could be recommended to fundamental separatists today. Their other schools in Washington, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere are sadly now properly identified as New Evangelical.

However, history is a great teacher if we will only listen and observe. In the fall of 1962 I attended San Francisco Conservative Baptist Seminary while working on my ThM (Master of Theology Degree). The class was taught by Dr. G. Archer Weniger, pastor of Foothill Boulevard Baptist church in Oakland, California and chairman of the seminary board. The course was called Ecclesiastical Separation and was attended by 15 men who were graduates of Western Baptist Bible College in El Cerrito, California; a GARB approved school. During the class lecture, Dr. Weniger thoroughly described the defections that were taking place in the CBA (Conservative Baptist Association). Some of the students chuckled a bit at the description of the CBA knowing their GARB alma mater was standing strong for biblical separation. Dr. Weniger responded by saying, “Gentlemen, the same ‘seeds of defection’ I am describing in the CBA are now working in the GARB.” You could have heard a pin drop. But the ever perceptive Dr. Weniger was right in his analysis and prophetic as he foresaw the change coming in the GARB.

Who could have imagined that fall day in 1962 that Western Baptist College would move to Oregon and rapidly get submerged by the influence of “soft” CBA pastors and churches. In less than twenty years after Dr. Weniger’s statement, Western Baptist College and Seminary was totally committed to a New Evangelical position.

I personally spoke in the chapel of Grand Rapids Baptist Bible College and Seminary in 1964.It held a strong position at the time. But by the 1970s it was wavering. It has long since given up the name of Baptist and turned violently to the left even to the place of a having a faculty member who denied the reality of Hell.

Cedarville Baptist College in Ohio was the largest of the GARB schools. By the 1980’s it was fully supporting the Moral Majority Movement of Dr. Jerry Falwell. In recent years it has voted to associate itself with the Southern Baptist position. In 2002 the GARB held their annual meeting at Cedarville Baptist College. Do birds of a feather flock together? Was Dr. Weniger right in 1962 when he said the “seeds of defection” were already in the GARB?

The GARB was founded on sound separatist principles when it withdrew from the Northern Baptist Convention in 1932. By the 1970’s it is wavering. Major battles were waged in the annual meetings during the 1980s. And by 1993 250 pastors and churches left the organization where all but one of its schools had capitulated to New Evangelicalism.

[Editorial note: it is encouraging to see that the GARBC broke ties with Cedarville University in 2006.]

II. The Northern Baptist Convention and the CBA

But now back to the Northern Baptist Convention. As the Methodist and Presbyterian denominations continued their slide toward apostasy, so did the NBC. The 30s brought the Great Depression and the 40s the Second World War. It was a time of great testing for the American people with upwards of 25% unemployed in the Great Depression with little or no safety nets and with World War II claiming some 500,000 lives with tens of thousands wounded. But those twin calamities did little to stop the march of liberalism in the denominations including the NBC.

In 1943 the separatists (fundamentalists) in the NBC started the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society to offset the liberalism of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society. This enraged the liberals in the convention. The annual meeting of the NBC was held in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1946. A resolution was introduced stating that the delegates from a church that did not financially support the ABFMS could not vote in annual meeting. Now the die was cast. Either support the ABFMS or have your voting privileges removed at the annual convention.

Earlier we mentioned the make-up in the convention was approximately one-third liberal, one-third moderate, and one-third fundamentalists. In that showdown vote the fundamentalists lost by a margin of 2-1. The moderates who could never be trusted to vote with the separatist pastors and churches gave an overwhelming victory to the liberals.

Immediately a meeting was called for the separatist pastors and church members at the Mel Trotter Rescue Mission. They voted to provisionally start the Conservative Baptist Association the next year. In 1947 the Conservative Baptist Association was formally voted into existence. Some years later it was renamed the Conservative Baptist Association of America. One would like to say, “Everyone lived happily ever after.” But that was not to be. More on that soon.

The Fundamental Baptist Fellowship that met every year onward from 1920 to 1946 in connection with the NBC, now started meeting in sessions a couple of days before the CBA meetings. In time it changed its name to the Conservative Baptist Fellowship.

But things were changing. In 1942 the National Association of Evangelicals was started. Both Dr. Bob Jones Sr. and Dr. Bob Jones Jr. became members of the organization. Dr. Bob Jones Sr. would often tell of the special meetings held annually at the campgrounds in Winona Lake, Indiana where upwards of 1,500 evangelists from different denominational backgrounds attended in the years from World War I through the 1930s. Every year each evangelist would sign a strong doctrinal statement. With that as a background Dr. Jones Sr. and Dr. Jones Jr. agreed to be an integral part of the NAE. But in a few short years they withdrew their support because of a noticeable compromise in the NAE. They were witnessing the seeds of compromise which would explode into New Evangelicalism in the 1950s.

One NAE defender said, “…The NAE does not insist that evangelical denominationalists separate from their churches just because some ministers and leaders of those denominations have apostatized.” Dr. Harold Ockenga provided the guiding light for the newly formed NAE. He said, “An up-to-date strategy for the evangelical cause must be based upon the principle of infiltration….”

As an important aside, may I tell you that young boys came back from World War II as mature men. They had seen carnage, death, and maimed soldiers firsthand. Some were their best buddies. Their travels had introduced them to another world where people were dying without any witness of the gospel. Burdened for the lost, they soon found themselves in Christian colleges all over the country. That fire in their souls caused a great missionary movement in the late 40s and 50s. Soldiers who had fought gallantly in Germany and Japan were now returning to evangelize them. It was an amazing time for evangelism, missions, and mission boards. God had used the hellish carnage of war to call missionaries into His army.

But meanwhile another theological watershed was developing. Dr. Charles Fuller in Long Beach, California rose to great national and worldwide fame during World War II. His radio ministry was broadcast nationwide and on short wave radio. Many soldiers left for the South Pacific via Long Beach, California. Many of them found themselves under the preaching of Dr. Fuller on Sunday morning. (My family often stopped the morning chores on Sunday to listen to Dr. Fuller. I first felt genuine conviction for my sin under his preaching.)

It is said that many thousands of soldiers were saved in Fuller’s tabernacle as they went to war and later as they returned home. Only eternity will reveal the full scope of that ministry.

In 1947 Dr. Fuller opened Fuller Seminary. The keynote speaker and first president of Fuller Seminary was Dr. Harold Ockenga, pastor of Park Street Church in Boston, Mass. and promoter of the NAE. In his address Dr. Ockenga coined a new term –New Evangelicalism. He reflected negatively on fundamental separatists who had come out of the denominations and insisted that the denominations could only be changed by penetration and not separation. Our position as believers should be inclusive and not exclusive. I wonder what his Scriptural basis is for that? Paul said: “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Eph. 5:11). Again he said: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal.1: 8.) Does that sound like fellowship to you?

Dr. David Sproul is a senior consultant with International Baptist Missions.