Comments on Baptist Fundamentals

Don Johnson

Editorial note: We are in the midst of a series of posts from the messages delivered at the Pre-Convention Conference of the Northern Baptist Convention, 1920. From the Conference the Fundamental Fellowship was formed which is today known as the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International. The messages from the conference were published in a book called Baptist Fundamentals. The book has been digitized by Maranatha Baptist University and is available as part of the Roger Williams Heritage Archives collection in Logos format, available here. Links to previous posts will appear at the end of this post.

This post concludes our commentary on the series.

The last message published in the book Baptist Fundamentals was “Baptists and World-Wide Missions” by J. Whitcomb Brougher, pastor, at the time, of Temple Baptist Church, Los Angeles, California. He would later become the president of the Northern Baptist Convention (1926) and then serve as pastor of the prominent Tremont Baptist Temple in Boston (1930-1935). Beale characterizes him as a “soft conservative.”[1]

One’s first reaction to his message might be, “How can anyone say anything negative about this? Aren’t we for missions? Wasn’t Brougher clear on the gospel?” All of that is true enough, but one must remember that missions was a battleground in the convention (and rightly so) and that one has to notice what is not said as well as what is said. One thing that is striking about the message is its overwhelmingly positive tone in the midst of a conference where the theme was concern over the threats to orthodoxy in the Northern Baptist Convention. For example, Brougher commends the work of missions with this statement:

At the present time, our denomination is bearing witness along four great lines: Our missionaries are preaching Christ; they are conducting educational work with a view to building Christ character; they have their ministry of healing that they may introduce Christ to the sick and distressed; they have their industrial work through which they are seeking to establish the principles of Jesus Christ in the industrial life of the people of all nations. Out of all these combined efforts, the one great objective of evangelizing the world and hastening the coming of the kingdom of God is to be found.

That may sound positive, but I am wondering where “establishing the principles of Jesus Christ in the industrial life” is mentioned in the Great Commission? In this statement we see the softness of Brougher’s conservativism — open to the work and words of the social gospel thereby obscuring the real gospel (though he seems to understand that well enough as you read his whole message).

Brougher mentions the example we have in Christ with these words:

We get a still further revelation of his wonderful purpose for humanity through the actual deeds he performed. “Go with him to the wedding, learn there his thoughtful consideration for the housewife in an embarrassing circumstance. Follow him to the side of the sick, and see his compassion as he heals them. Kneel with him as he washes the disciples’ feet, and behold his wonderful forgiveness.

All of that sounds well, but his next line seems to be a dig at his more militant brethren:

Most of us would be willing to wash our enemies’ feet if we could use boiling water.

These are just hints at the softness of Brougher’s conservatism. His message otherwise is orthodox enough, but is also fairly ordinary. It is not an example of soul-stirring rhetoric as some of the other messages in this series have been.

Brougher’s softness leads me to a broader comment on the whole series. It was eye-opening to me to read this book. When I think of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, I have in my mind the tense confrontations between the fundamentalists on the one hand and the liberals on the other. I had heard of the Pre-Convention Conference, but to me it was a gathering of all those concerned about the direction of the Convention with no wavering voices included. I was surprised (but perhaps I should not have been) to read of the careers of the men represented here. Some of them were no real allies of the fundamentalists, though they would posture as such for a time. I should have remembered this passage from Beale, assessing this conference:

The preconvention conference was indeed a heterogenous group of conservatives: many weak, some strong, and a few (perhaps unwittingly) on the threshold of embracing liberal ideas. They had met with a common purpose against the common enemy of rank modernism. Such a diverse group, however, could never succeed in purging their denomination of apostasy. …

Jasper C. Massee, the chairman of the preconvention conference and first president of the Fundamentalist Fellowship, invited the moderately liberal Augustus H. Strong to write the foreword to the thirteen published messages. [The book we have serialized here, Baptist Fundamentals.] Annoyed by newspaper accounts depicting the meeting as militant, Strong declined; but the incident illustrates Massee’s broad spirit. Massee was hardly ready “to do battle royal for the fundamentals.” Unfortunately, he represented the attitude of most NBC conservatives. Laws himself was silent on the doctrine of inerrancy and disagreed with the Fundamentalists’ assertion that a modernist could not be a true Christian.[2]

Through its history, Fundamentalism finds itself hobbled by two weaknesses. On the one hand, the very militancy of Fundamentalism can attract extremists whose behaviour gives the rest of the crowd a bad name. It is a perennial problem that has yet to be resolved. On the other hand, as this series has illustrated, Fundamentalism failed in its objectives because its sincere, erudite, sober friends could not bring themselves to engage the fight, though they professed belief in orthodoxy. There is always a pressure to be less confrontational, to be more irenic, to make our speech more winsome, or else, we are told, we will drive our friends away.

The problem of extremists seemingly can’t be helped. But the problem of the squishy conservatives might be overcome if we are willing to recognize it, call out its compromises, and call believers to bold pursuit of God’s approval, rather than man’s.

The Pre-Convention Conference ultimately led to what we know today as the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International. I am grateful for the good work our organization continues to do and hope that as we proclaim the truth and defend the gospel we will gain the approbation of the One Man who matters.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

Link to Baptist Fundamentals and other works available in Logos format as part of the Roger Williams Heritage Archives, produced by Maranatha Baptist University.

Baptist Fundamentals series:


Baptist Fundamentals: Opening Address

Comments on Baptist Fundamentals: Opening Address

Historic Baptist Principles? … or the seed of defeat in the soil of revival

Baptist Fundamentals: Fidelity to Our Baptist Heritage (1)

Baptist Fundamentals: Fidelity to Our Baptist Heritage (2)

Comments on Baptist Fundamentals: Fidelity to Our Baptist Heritage

Baptist Fundamentals: The Divine Unity of Holy Scripture

Comments on Baptist Fundamentals: The Divine Unity of Holy Scripture

Baptist Fundamentals – The Significance of the Ordinances

Comments on Baptist Fundamentals – The Significance of the Ordinances

Northern Baptists and the Deity of Christ

Comments on Northern Baptists and the Deity of Christ

An Unexpected Message

Comments on An Unexpected Message

The Bible at the Center of the Modern University (1)

The Bible at the Center of the Modern University (2)

Comments on The Bible at the Center of the Modern University

The Baptist Program of Evangelism

Comments on The Baptist Program of Evangelism

Things Not Shaken

Comments on Things Not Shaken

Modernism in Baptist Schools (Part 1)

Modernism in Baptist Schools (Part 2)

Baptists and World-Wide Missions

  1. David Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism since 1850 (Greenville, S.C: Unusual Publications, 1986), 231. []
  2. Beale, In Pursuit of Purity, 195-196. []