A Critical Lesson from the History of Baptist World Mission

Bud Steadman

FrontLine March/April 2016 feature article.

The abundant fruit of Fundamental Baptist missions around the world in the twentieth century can be directly related to the separatism of that movement, which spawned a number of biblically based mission agencies. A critical lesson concerning the core of a scriptural mission philosophy can and must be learned from the history of modern Baptist missions.

To set the context it is necessary to define historic Fundamentalism. David O. Beale gives one of the best summaries of the movement: “Ideally, a Christian Fundamentalist is one who desires to reach out in love and compassion to people, believes and defends the whole Bible as the absolute, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God, and stands committed to the doctrine and practice of holiness. … Fundamentalism is not a philosophy of Christianity, nor is it essentially an interpretation of the Scriptures. It is not even a mere literal exposition of the Bible. The essence of Fundamentalism goes much deeper than that—it is the unqualified acceptance of and obedience to the Scriptures.”[1]

Fundamentalism as a modern identifiable movement can be traced to a reaction against liberal theology coming out of Europe in the latter part of the nineteenth century. True believers were faced with a number of critical issues, all of which had a profound effect on the entire theological landscape:

  • Philosophers began to elevate reason and materialism above the objective revelation of the Bible.
  • Naturalistic science rejected the traditional biblical concepts of the world and humanity. The primary manifestation of this unbelief was Darwinism.
  • Historical and literary criticism as systems began to reinterpret traditional Christianity by the new parameters of the Enlightenment.
  • Higher criticism, typified by the works of Friedrich Schleiermacher, sought to re-interpret Scripture. There was a distinct emphasis on humanism, elevating man rather than God. Revelation was “not an in-breaking of God, but an upsurging of divine humanity.” Religion was not an objective truth but more of a subjective feeling.[2]

In the first three decades of the twentieth century Fundamentalists primarily practiced biblical separation by attempting to purge their denominations of liberal theology; the publication of a twelve-volume series of articles called The Fundamentals (1910–15) illustrates this point. The authors, mostly Bible-believing Presbyterians and Baptists, hoped The Fundamentals would win over those sitting atop the theological fence and convince the liberals of the error of their ways. Though the writers were interdenominational in their perspectives, this series is viewed as the starting point of Fundamentalism as an identifiable movement. Early historic Fundamentalism was therefore interdenominational in scope and intradenominational as to separation.

Beginning in 1930 and continuing to the present day, however, Fundamentalists have practiced separation by removing themselves from liberal and apostate churches and denominations. A study of the battle in the Northern Baptist Convention relating to missions illustrates this point and teaches an important lesson for us today.

The Northern Baptist Convention Missions Controversy

In the early 1900s theological liberalism spread from the schools to the pulpits of the Northern Baptist Convention, and likewise spread to its mission societies. One of the great battlefronts in the conflict was the missions controversy. “It was the most important issue in the Northern Baptist Convention in 1924 and 1925.”[3]

In 1920 the Fundamentalists within the Northern Baptist Convention were so deeply concerned about the liberalism in that group that they called for a meeting of Bible believers before the next annual meeting of the convention. Those who met in advance of the convention meeting organized the National Federation of Fundamentalists of the Northern Baptists. It was the first Fundamentalist movement to be organized within the convention.

In 1922 the Northern Baptists met in Indianapolis. The National Federation of Fundamentalists attempted to move the various convention organizations to a biblical position by securing the adoption of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith as a doctrinal standard. The attempt failed. Jasper C. Massee led the Fundamentalist cause during the floor debates. “Many felt that he had, in his willingness to compromise, betrayed them.”[4] Following the failure of the Fundamentalists at Indianapolis, some leaders in the convention determined to form a new group, naming it the Baptist Bible Union. Those involved indicated that the BBU “was originally a separatist movement.”[5] A loose fellowship of Fundamentalists from across Canada and the United States, the organization survived functionally only until 1931; the ultimate impact of the Baptist Bible Union was the subsequent formation of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches in 1932. This association of churches led in the formation of the earliest separatist Baptist mission agencies, such as Baptist Mid-Missions.

The Inclusive Evangelical Policy

At the core of the debate relating to liberalism and missions among the Northern Baptists was the position which became known as the “Inclusive Evangelical Policy.” It directed Bible believers and modernists to work together in the same organization, especially on the mission fields of the world. This term found common usage for about forty years in the struggle over biblical separatism.

The inclusive policy was reaffirmed and clarified at the 1924 Northern Baptist Convention meeting in Milwaukee. The Board of Managers announced that “it would appoint and retain missionaries of varying theological beliefs provided they came within certain limits which the Board regarded as ‘the limits of the gospel.’”[6]

From this point through the 1940s the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society sent out missionaries of liberal theological persuasion. All of this greatly disturbed Bible-believing people within the Northern Baptist constituency. They decided a mission board was needed that would send out only evangelical missionaries to the field. Thus, the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society was organized in 1943. The Conservative Baptist Association came into being as a national fellowship of churches in 1947. In 1950 the Conservative Baptist Home Mission Society was born.

Around this same time the historic National Federation of Fundamentalists, also known as the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship, changed its name to the Conservative Baptist Fellowship and, along with the other entities mentioned, became a part of the Conservative Baptist movement. It was not long before the movement began to show signs of strain. There actually existed within the Conservative Baptist framework two distinct groups. One group was more openly Fundamental in its stance and more militant in its defense of the faith. This group became known as the “hard core.” The Conservative Baptist Fellowship formed the nucleus of this group. On the other side stood a group that had embraced the philosophy that would become known as the “New Evangelicalism.” It was a compromised position which gained increasing acceptance in the 1950s. Those espousing this position became known as the “soft core.”

New Evangelicalism

The March 1956 issue of Christian Life carried an article that articulated the philosophy of New Evangelicalism, outlining differences between the old Fundamentalism and the new movement: “The fundamentalist watchword is ‘Ye should earnestly contend for the faith.’ The evangelical emphasis is ‘Ye must be born again.’” The rest of the article outlined eight theological areas where the Evangelicals proposed changes in emphasis. They were

  • A friendly attitude toward science (including theistic evolution).
  • A willingness to re-examine beliefs concerning the work of the Holy Spirit.
  • A more tolerant attitude toward varying views on eschatology.
  • A shift away from so-called extreme dispensationalism.
  • An increased emphasis on scholarship.
  • A more definite recognition of social responsibility.
  • A re-examination of the subject of biblical inspiration.
  • A growing willingness of evangelical theologians to converse with liberal theologians.[7]

This article proved to be a road map for the direction that the New Evangelicals would travel over the next several decades. The issue of separation from apostate religious leaders became an intense battleground, and the plain biblical commands concerning separation were minimized or explained away.

When it finally became apparent that Fundamentalists could not win the battle with New Evangelicalism within the Conservative Baptist movement, Biblical separatists withdrew. In 1961 Dr. Monroe Parker, president of Pillsbury Baptist Bible College and a leader in the separatist movement, called for the formation of a new mission agency—thus, another Fundamental agency, Baptist World Mission, was born.

While we have taken the time to provide a history of the battle relating to the Northern Baptist Convention, other mission agencies, such as Baptist International Missions, Inc. (BIMI), arose out of parallel battles with compromise in other regions of the United States. Many independent Baptist churches and multiple mission agencies in the South were the result of separation from the compromise of the Southern Baptist Convention. Their unique histories likewise demonstrate the link between doctrinal fidelity and the progress of New Testament missions.

In reviewing the history of Baptist missions in the twentieth century, we have discovered that a primary tactic Satan used to attack biblical Christianity was theological compromise based on a redefinition of the criterion for unity and ministry cooperation. The “Inclusive Evangelical Policy” of the 1920s called for unity based only on a shallow assent to the gospel. The “New Evangelicalism” of the 1950s called for a modified form of the same concept; a popular phrase often heard in the movement was that ministry was “all about the gospel.” Today separatist Baptists are hearing the same siren song from many conservative Evangelicals and even some within Fundamentalism. We must never forget that Biblical fidelity and obedience are not just about the gospel. Neither is New Testament missions just about the gospel. While the good news of Christ’s redemptive work is at the core of Christianity, God has given His people a comprehensive body of truth in the Scriptures, the “faith once delivered to the saints.” The great fundamental doctrines of the Word of God still demand our loyalty and commitment. A philosophy of missions that reduces ministry cooperation to the lowest common theological denominator must be rejected. Those concerned about pleasing Jesus Christ must embrace an orthodoxy and orthopraxy that fulfill Christ’s challenge, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” This is the critical lesson that we must learn from Baptist missions in the twentieth century if we would continue to be faithful to the Savior in impacting our world for Him.

Dr. Bud Steadman has served as the executive director of Baptist World Mission since 2009. He previously ministered as pastor of Community Baptist Church in South Bend, Indiana, for thirteen years and at Catawba Springs in Raleigh, North Carolina, for ten years.

Special appreciation is expressed to Dr. Fred Moritz and Dr. David Cummins. Many of the resources for this article came from their writings in the archives at Baptist World Mission.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2016. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. David O. Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism since 1850 (Greenville, SC: Unusual Publications, 1986), 3. []
  2. George Cross, ed., The Theology of Schleiermacher (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1911), 50. []
  3. Jeffrey P. Straub, “George William Lasher—Baptist Proto- Fundamentalist,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal (2006): 137. []
  4. Kevin Bauder, “Biography of O. W. Van Osdel” (ThM dissertation, Denver Baptist Theological Seminary, 1983), 56. []
  5. Robert George Delnay, A History of the Baptist Bible Union (Winston-Salem, NC: Piedmont Bible College, 1974), 118. []
  6. Chester E. Tulga, The Foreign Missions Controversy in the Northern Baptist Convention (Chicago: Conservative Baptist Fellowship, 1950), 62. []
  7. “Is Evangelical Theology Changing?” Christian Life (March 1956): 16–19. []