Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religious Conflict
in the Southern Baptist Convention

by Nancy Tatom Ammerman
Rutgers University Press, 388 pages, $37

Writing about the bloody Battle of the Bulge in World War II, James Jones contends that the true heart of the battle was not in the major offensive during December and January of 1944-1945, but rather in the hundreds of “impromptu little battles at nameless bridges and unknown crossroads” that ultimately added up to a major German defeat. 

I thought of that passage when reading Nancy Tatom Ammerman’s voluminous account of the ecclesiastical war that has been raging in the Southern Baptist Church. Baptist Battles opens with the raucous and bitter Convention in Dallas in 1985 in which conservatives seized control. For the six years previous, a savvy fundamentalist coalition, led most visibly by Paige Patterson (President, Criswell Center for Biblical Studies in Dallas) and Paul Pressler (a Houston judge), had step-by-step been nurturing a Convention-wide organization, taking over local offices and boards. Confident, angry, resolute, the conservatives were at last ready to seize the Convention’s national leadership, and seize it they did.

That event, which caught the eye of the whole nation, had been preceded by hundreds of preparatory skirmishes. It is the special virtue of Ammerman’s book that she captures the flavor of those local encounters between Southern Baptist moderates and their angry, better organized, and ultimately victorious adversaries, the fundamentalists. While the book is the result of an exhaustive sociological inquiry with the requisite reams of data, comparative statistical tables, questionnaire results, and quantification, Baptist Battles manages to capture some of the fire and brimstone of the battle itself. (I could not put the book down, and I am not even a Baptist.)

After a quick survey of the history of the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention, we are given Ammerman’s assessment of the theological composition of the Convention. By her definition, most Southern Baptists are “Conservatives.” “Self-Identified Fundamentalists,” while only composing about 11 percent of the membership, provided the leadership for the insurgency movement that took over the Convention. The “Moderates” only composed a total of about 17 percent of the Convention and quickly lost their historic control once their leadership was openly challenged. 

For years shut out of the Convention’s leadership by the Moderates, Fundamentalists won by setting their sights on the Convention’s infrastructure. By the time the Moderates woke up, the Fundamentalists had taken control of the Convention, placing their men (no women) in all the top leadership positions. Forsaking old-style, good-old-boy Southern Baptist conviviality, the Fundamentalists carefully organized themselves into disciplined cadres of like-minded “messengers” (delegates) who voted as they were told by their leaders. By 1979, Fundamentalists had captured the presidency and, from there, gradually replaced every important board in the denomination. By 1990, their takeover was fairly complete. Furman, Baylor, and Wake Forest universities had severed their ties with their state Baptist Conventions and most of the denomination’s seminaries had either replaced most of their faculties and administrations or were busy doing so. 

Sociologically, Ammerman’s picture of the typical Moderate is a Southern Baptist from a white-collar setting, who attends a fairly large congregation, dwells in a city, and is better educated than his conservative counterparts. Fundamentalists tend to be less well-off, blue-collar, attend smaller-than-average churches, and remain in the rural Deep South. While Moderates show some diversity in their attitudes about matters like defense spending and women’s rights, Fundamentalists are much more monolithic in their views. 

Ammerman stops short of suggesting that Baptist theological differences are determined by a variance in social and economic classes, but in her telling such differences are noticeable. She prefers, however, to characterize the differences between the Moderates and the Fundamentalists as being differences between people who make sense out of their lives in different ways. 

At first glance, the main difference between the two warring groups seems to grow out of disagreements over interpretation of Scripture. However, while a fair amount of diversity emerges when Ammerman asks Southern Baptists to articulate their views on the specifics of biblical interpretation, it is mostly diversity within a thoroughly conservative biblical understanding. 

Ammerman shows clearly that while biblical interpretation is important to those who fought this battle, a wide array of concerns united the Fundamentalist-Conservative usurpers against the Moderate-Conservatives. She says that much of the battle was fought over “the value and limits of diversity in an admittedly conservative denomination.” That describes a wide range of conflicts about sexual mores, women’s ordination, war and peace, and social change. The battle was also about power, the political power to control a massive denomination with vast resources. It is hard to escape the suspicion that some of the theological rationale was secondary to a plain struggle for power, recognition, and control. 

For all its virtues, by the end of Baptist Battles one is still wondering if there is not much more to be said about the theological significance of what happened in the Southern Baptist Convention. Ammerman sets it up as a clash of left and right, liberal (“Moderate”) and conservative, and that makes sense as the combatants’ self-description of who they are. However, one questions whether there was not some flaw, some ticking time-bomb in Southern Baptist ecclesiology that merely took until the 1980s to explode. 

The fundamentalists deplore all things modern, yet their theology is a ringing endorsement of the modern American nation-state. They find it suitable to defend Genesis through something they choose to call “scientific creationism.” Do they actually honor the Bible as much as they claim? 

As for the moderates, when they defend Baptist “soul liberty,” it sounds suspiciously like a defense of conventional modern American individual autonomy and subjectivism. Have Southern Baptists at last reaped the bitter harvest of an ecclesiology that had inadequate notions of authority and insufficient liturgical and theological means for resisting the corrosive acids of the secular culture in which it found itself in late-twentieth-century North America? Finally, rather than speaking to the culture as biblical “Moderates” or “Fundamentalists,” Southern Baptists in conflict resembled nothing so much as a mirror of the ideological split within American society in general. 

These questions are not really those asked or answered by Ammerman. Fortunately, she gives us the data through which we can continue to pursue these issues in years to come. Students of the Southern Baptist Church will long continue to unpack the significance of what Ammerman has amassed for us, and any student of American Christianity must deal with her data and her interpretations. This is the book on Southern Baptists. 

One of the most generous, gentle men I have known, a dear person who gave his life preaching in Southern Baptist churches and then teaching in one of their seminaries, died a couple of years ago. I heard that he had died of a blood disorder. A friend of mine, a Southern Baptist pastor, told me, “No, he died of a broken heart. He was utterly unprepared for the anger, the rage, the cruelty that he encountered in this war we’re having among Baptists.” Behind Ammerman’s pages of data, accounts of maneuvering, endless floor fights, and late night strategy sessions is the sadness of a church with a broken heart.

William H. Willlimon is Dean of the Chapel and Professor of Christian Ministry in the Divinity School at Duke University.