Introducing Southern Baptists©
C. B. Hastings
TOC  Forward    Chapter 1  2   3  4  5   6   7   8  9  Aftward   Appendix  Glossary   FAQ  Bibliography (Start Page)

In 1920 the annual meeting of the Baptists of Virginia made the following statement which was characteristic of Southern Baptists from their founding: "The Baptist attitude towards all social reform work and service is that the unadulterated gospel preached and accepted solves all social problems, rightly adjusts all industrial inequalities, removes domestic frictions, adjourns divorce courts and supplies adequate protection and uplift to the weaker part of humanity."'

In 1975 Broadman Press, the official publisher of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board, published the book, Applying the Gospel, "Suggestions for Christian Social Action in a Local Church." Written by the then professor of Christian Ethics of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, it was sponsored by the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention as "an invaluable book for church leaders." In his introduction William Pinson says:

With the Bible as our guide, Christians need to become as concerned about dirty air and water as we have been about dirty books and movies. We need to become as concerned about the immoral use of sex in marriage for irresponsible procreation as we have been about it apart from marriage in fornication. We need to become as concerned about people who are kept out of Baptist churches because of race as we have been about those let in without benefit of Baptist immersion. We need to become as concerned about what the poor have for supper as we have been about who is eligible to partake of the Lord's Supper. This we must do if we are true to the Bible.2 ???

Now we must not conclude that Pinson represents the majority of Southern Baptists in his passionate advocacy of Christian social action. But the fact that his book was published with such sponsorship indicates that Southern Baptists have come a long way in social awareness. What are some reasons for this changed attitude?

  1. Critical reflections on some basic assumptions. It is clear that Pinson does not accept the broad statement that "the unadulterated gospel preached and accepted solves all social problems." It is unrealistic to believe that a gospel designed primarily for individual regeneration is, ipso facto, applicable to the evils entrenched in social institutions. It is overly optimistic to hold that congregations will "accept" for long the kind of prophetic preaching of the gospel that condemns its cherished cultural mores. Finally, it is wishful thinking to trust even "changed lives" to solve social ills apart from concerted action directed at their causes. Those Baptists who are doing this kind of critical thinking have also recognized that Baptist bodies have never refrained from engaging in direct political and social action when the issue was one of personal or family morality, such as temperance, gambling, and divorce. It is inconsistent then to cry "politics" or "social gospel" when it is a matter of racial or economic injustice.

    One of the pioneers in this kind of critical evaluation, J. M. Dawson, held that "much of the evangelism to which people are exposed is incapable of inspiring brotherhood and solving social problems. This incapacity is due to the limited appeal of evangelism. Some preachers put a larger emphasis upon justification than upon regeneration. The result is a people who have faith in justification without the experience of regeneration. Their main business is to get to heaven. They continue in their insensitivity to any moral obligation to change unrighteous social conditions because they are the products of an evangelism which has not drawn upon the prophetic tradition of Christianity."3
  2. Cultural change. The South is no longer "solid" politically and Southern Baptists are less "southern" than before World War II. That war caused great migrations of Baptists to nonsouthern states, whereas before they had been largely confined to the eighteen states of the South and Southwest. Postwar industrialization in the South brought large migrations of people from the North and Midwest. Southern Baptists are now in all fifty states, and the once all-southern congregations in the newer states are giving way to indigenous members and pastors. The growing number of ethnic churches is leavening the Convention with their social concerns. The invasion of the State into all areas of human welfare and service, formerly the preserve of the Church, has made impossible a strict separation of the Christian as church member and as citizen. With snore and more welfare programs of the State, there is less emphasis upon denominational institutions of hospitals, orphanages, and other remedial and custodial ministries. In their place has come a new concern for the moral quality and just measures of the State in its functions.

    Southern Baptists are increasingly aware of our cultural conditioning throughout our history. Even the limited contacts with other Baptist bodies in the Baptist World Alliance and our own language missions have helped to distinguish between what is Christian and deservedly Baptist from what is only Southern.
  3. A generation of socially aware leaders among Southern Baptists. Authority among Baptists allows only leadership by moral suasion and spiritual example. There can be no Pope Leo XIII setting forth social principles as in an encyclical like Rerum Nouarum (1891). The resolutions passed annually at Baptist conventions cannot have upon the churches the impact of a Vatican Council in its Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Social progress may be slower, but Baptist polity generally keeps its leadership closer to the growing edge of lay involvement than in those denominations capable of juridical decrees.

In the light of this, some critics even within the denomination, have been frustrated with the slow growth of social concern of Southern Baptists. But there have been forces at work that are remarkable in the light of Baptist history. Four of these deserve appreciation. The Christian Life Commission of the Convention has set the pace for Baptists in a rising social consciousness. The Home Mission Board has pioneered in Christian social ministries, aided greatly by the action groups of the Woman's Missionary Union and more recently by the Baptist Men's organization. For more than a generation the six seminaries have had able and courageous men teaching social ethics to future pastors and denominational leaders. Finally, there have been a few pioneers, often ostracized, who have dared a radical social application of the Gospel.


Southern Baptists organized their Convention in 1845 over a social issue that divided other denominations also. That does not mean that they were in principle dedicated to the social application of the Gospel. Strongly influenced by pietism with its focus upon private religion, they were caught up in the great revival movements of the frontier. Largely a rural people with uneducated pastors they were untouched by the theological movements which produced the "social gospel" in the latter part of the nineteenth century. They were suspicious of liberalism and so early tagged the social gospel as being subversive of individual regeneration.

These were the guiding principles of the early period. Responsibility for public morals rests primarily upon the individual Christian citizen. Social change comes about only through changed lives, through the new birth. Private morality is the chief focus of preaching and family discipline. Churches and denominations are not to engage in partisan politics, except, of course, where great moral issues are at stake. The chief contribution of churches is the remedial ministry to the victims of social ills: orphanages, hospitals, homes for unwed mothers and juvenile delinquents. Even though the editors of state papers seldom hesitated to express their views on every moral, political and social issue of their day, still the nature of Baptist polity and the lack of strong denominational loyalty in that era prevented any concerted action by Southern Baptists on any issue except temperance.4

Through the Civil War Baptist editors were able to give biblical justification of slavery. Baptists were the most successful in evangelizing the Negro because of their emphasis upon personal regeneration and the hope of a better world to come. Eighmy points out the irony of their success:

Masters usually welcomed Baptist preaching, which stressed an other wordy hope and personal morality, because such teaching did more to strengthen than to undermine the slave system. Those who preached to the slave population were fully conscious of such practical considerations. One minister, in an appeal for the sum port of work among the slaves, calculated that conversion would increase the value of slaves by more than 10 percents

The Reconstruction Period with its racial bitterness led the Negro Baptists to form their own congregations and later conventions. These became the chief source of social identity and human refuge that eventually provided the civil rights movement of the 1960's with its leadership and power.

It was the temperance movement that laid the foundation of later Baptist involvement in social concerns. Prior to the latter half of the nineteenth century Baptists had everywhere preached moderation but seldom total abstinence. As the frontier expanded westward the evils of liquor took its increasing toll upon personal and family life. With the law sore pressed to stem the tide of criminal activity, the churches provided the only bulwark of morality, even of justice, in interpersonal affairs. The shield of temperance seemed the most available recourse in the struggle. It provided a clear-cut answer for every individual and family and societal group. It could be defended biblically and it provided a worthy cause around which otherwise divided Protestants could readily unite. The early champions of the "social gospel" also made temperance their foremost concern.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century Baptist conventions were urging their members to support the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon leagues and the budding prohibition movement. A Temperance Committee was formed by the 1910 Southern Baptist Convention with A. J. Barton as chairman. In early reports to the Convention Barton urged Baptists to become involved in every aspect of concern for social ills, primarily, though, with a view to the support of temperance.

The first Social Service Commission was formed in 1911 by the Georgia Baptist Convention. E. C. Dargan, its founder and chairman, showed a wide range of social interests including poverty, labor relations, political corruption and criminal justice. In the same year there was a call at the Baptist World Alliance for a committee on social progress to work with like committees of other denominations.

In 1913 the Southern Convention established a Social Service Commission with W. L. Poteat, president of Wake Forest College in North Carolina, as chairman. Two years later this was merged with the Temperance Committee under Barton's leadership. His importance in the social consciousness of Southern Bay fists during a whole generation is stated by Welton Gaddy:

He personally dominated the Social Service and Temperance Committee writing every one of its reports as well as every report of the [succeeding] Social Service Commission up until 1942. His dominant concern for the anti-liquor movement was readily accepted by Southern Baptists. Only after some time as leader of the Committee did he attempt to move it and the Convention into a consideration of other social issues.5

At times he could evidence a broader concern: "So long as there is social inequality, industrial injustice, or political crime, the Kingdom of God is not fully come, and you and I have a message and a mission."6 Specific mention was made of sweat shops, child labor, prostitution, tenant problems and political corruption. Proposals were offered, however, only for action in the field of temperance. When World War I involved the United States, Barton urged war-time ministries, but no judgment on the war itself.

In 1920, with national prohibition assured, the report to the Convention for the first time took note of the needs of the Negro population. Segregation was assumed without mention. Better education, housing, employment opportunities, and justice in the courts were the emphases. Cooperation was urged with interracial committees to cultivate understanding.

Barton's methodology is clear in his 1933 report to the Convention: "Society is to be saved through the salvation of the individual; social service is not in any sense or to any degree a substitute for individual personal regeneration and salvation."8

Frequently the Commission followed cultural attitudes rather than challenging them. In the years of peace, war was denounced and peace treaties and movements encouraged. The 1932 report favored "the renunciation of war, the reduction of armaments and the development of internal institutions such as the World Court, for the peaceful settlement of controversies between nations."9 But the 1940 report justified a "purely defensive war" and urged resistance to the Axis powers. Support for the war was immediately forthcoming after Pearl Harbor. The Convention did recognize the right of conscientious objectors and provided a means for registering them.

In the 1930's the Social Service Commission broadened its interests, while continually urging a return to prohibition, at least of the local option variety. There were increasing pronouncements on issues of Church and State, particularly on the matter of a diplomatic representative to the Vatican. The Vatican State was never recognized as other than the religious headquarters of world Catholicism. Hence to send a representative is to acknowledge the temporal power of the papacy and provide a governmental link with one religion over all others. This in Baptist eyes was the "nose of the camel under the tent" which could lead to the establishment of the Catholic religion in America (and elsewhere) in defiance of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Other concerns of the 1930's were race relations, divorce laws, gambling, ballroom dancing, and salacious movies. A far reaching move of this year was the launching of Christian Life Conferences annually at the Southern Baptist Assembly, Ridgecrest, North Carolina.

In 1933 Edwin McNeill Poteat, a nephew of President W. L. Poteat, and a North Carolina pastor, sought to lead the Convention to establish a Social Research Agency. At the time Barton's Commission had no paid staff and was limited to its annual reports and the articles Barton wrote for state papers. Poteat's acknowledged liberal stand in theology and ethics caused fear among many that the Southern Baptist Convention would be drawn into the Social Gospel Movement. The proposal was tabled and killed in 1936. It was not until 1948 that the effort was resumed.

Gaddy evaluated the Barton era thus: "A. J. Barton had moved Southern Baptists from their pre-twentieth century and pre-World War I stances to at least a recognition of several social problems and the formation of an agency to deal with them. Where Southern Baptists had said nothing in the past, they were now voicing opinions on social issues through their Social Service Commission."1°

J. B. Weatherspoon became chairman of the Commission at Barton's death in 1943. He greatly expanded the philosophy and strategy of the Commission. His chief contribution was his effort to combine evangelism, education and ethics into a practical social action program. In 1947 he succeeded in getting the Southern Baptist Convention to fund the Commission and employ a professional staff. During his leadership growing attention was paid to race relations.

A. C. Miller became Executive Secretary of the Commission in 1953 and moved the office to Nashville. This brought the Commission into closer relationship with both the Executive Committee of the Convention and the nearby Sunday School Board. It greatly improved communication of its message to Baptists in the churches. At the instigation of T. B. Maston, Professor of Christian Ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, the Convention changed the name to the Christian Life Commission. Miller sought to under gird social action with a broad biblical basis in a vastly expanded series of tracts and articles.

When the 1954 Supreme Court ruled on desegregating public schools, the Commission recommended and the Convention urged its people to support the peaceful implementation of the ruling. The Convention voted overwhelmingly, being the second religious body in America to announce public support. Then opposition arose. Miller observed that "great numbers of our people were aroused to hostility toward us because they had never known of the work of the Social Service Commission and felt that this Commission out of Nashville was something their leadership had fostered upon them to force the racial question down their throats.'''! But the Convention leadership stood by the Commission's stand. Miller attributed the survival of the Commission to the long-term effects of the teaching in the (then) three seminaries, the influence of the Woman's Missionary Union and the groundwork of the old Social Service Commission.

With this the die was cast and a new era of wider social responsibility among Southern Baptists was begun. In 1960 Foy D. Valentine became the Executive Secretary of the Christian Life Commission, coming from a like post at the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Under his leadership the Commission has greatly extended its scope, enlarged its staff to the present nine professionals, and helped to guide the Convention through the stormy years of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

During the 1960's the Home Mission Board plaited a strategic role in the progress of Southern Baptists in social responsibility. For years it had pioneered in cooperative work with National Baptists under the direction of Guy Bellamy and Victor Glass. In 1965 the new Executive, Arthur Rutledge, led in the creation of two new departments of work: Christian Social Ministries, to provide skilled leadership to churches and associations in all kinds of ministry to people without regard to their race or religion, and the Department of Interfaith Witness, to aid Baptists in understanding and relating to peoples of all world religions.

While the nation flamed with racial tensions the Convention met in Houston in 1968. Glass and Rutledge felt Baptists must speak to the issues that were threatening to rend asunder the whole fabric of national life. They brought to the Convention an eleven hundred word statement, signed by seventy-one leaders of every agency, state convention leaders and editors. The statement acknowledged Baptists' responsibility: "Along with all other citizens we recognize our share of responsibility for creating in our land conditions in which justice, order and righteousness can prevail." It called for immediate focusing of the resources and influence of the denomination in effecting social change.

The Home Mission Board was given the role of leadership in implementing the statement. Executive Secretary Arthur Rutledge quickly called the leaders of thirteen Southern Baptist agencies together to map strategy. All avenues of communication were used to create a climate of reconciliation and practical ministry. Among other moves, the Mission Board assigned twenty-two college student summer missionaries to serve in the Watts area of Los Angeles, a grant was made to the Opportunities Industrialization Center of Philadelphia, a black self-help program, and a million-dollar loan fund was established for non-SBC black churches. All of this was not without strong opposition from certain churches, a few of which withdrew affiliation from the Convention. But with the crisis came a new commitment on the part of Southern Baptists in race relations. The first black director of any agency, Emmanuel McCall, now heads the Black Church Relations Department of the Home Mission Board. There are now over six hundred black churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist and state conventions and an estimated 3,780 other Southern Baptist churches with black members.

In 1978 the Christian Life Commission led the Convention in Atlanta to adopt a "Declaration of Human Rights" which urges among other things, "Let Southern Baptist churches be boldly involved in championing justice for the oppressed, providing food for the hungry, supporting changes in those laws and systems which abuse the poor while providing loopholes for the rich, doing the things that make for peace, and effecting change where change is needed to support basic human rights."

Eighmy has helped Southern Baptists realize their cultural conditioning. His conclusion is worth noting:

Whether a democratic church can exercise loyalty to an authority that transcends its cultural environment remains an open question. But, as demonstrated by the civil rights controversy, when a question with clear moral implications demands commitments, Southern Baptists can be led to translate Christian principles into practical declarations.

He expressed his hope for the future shortly before his untimely death: "The main source of hope is the ever-growing number of enlightened leaders who are vocal, influential, and strategically located in pastorates, schools, and denominational positions. For the character of Southern Baptist influence in the secular world will be determined largely by the extent to which leaders of this sort are allowed to shape denominational social attitudes and action."'3


Many social issues are of growing concern to all Christians. The Christian Life Commission, which qualifies as nearly as any other agency of Southern Baptists as their social conscience, prm duces pamphlets and study guides for the use of pastors and churches. The range of issues treated by current literature of the Commission is quite revealing in the light of the history sketched above. The topics and number of separate pamphlets available (1980) are as follows:

Aging 4
Alcohol and Drugs 5
Citizenship 6
Ecology and Economics 6
Marriage, Family, Sex, 24
Poverty, and Hunger, 2
War and Peace, 6
Miscellaneous 3

For those who are interested in current pronouncement on these issues, Appendix I is taken from "A Statement of Social Principles for Christian Social Concern and Christian Social Action" issued by the Christian Life Commission in 1979. The Appendix contains that part of the "statement" which gives a brief summary of positions on every issue addressed in recent years by the Commission. It is important to note their conclusion: "This statement of social principles is provided for Baptists concerned about thinking biblically and acting responsibly in the arena of applied Christianity" [italics mine]. The italics indicate the Commission's self-understanding of its role. It does not try to speak to the churches authoritatively. It recognizes that not all Baptists agree with its stand. It sees itself rather as a resource agency and a catalyst "in the arena of applied Cllristianity.'''14


1. Minutes of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, 1920. Italics mine.

2. William M. Pinson, Jr., Applying the Gospel (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1975), p. 11.

3. George D. Kelsey, Social Ethics among Southern Baptists, 19171969 (Metuchen, N. J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1973), pp. 12-13.

4. Kelsey, op. cit., relies upon state Baptist papers for voluminous quotes on the moral and social issues that concerned Southern Baptists up to 1969.

5. Eighmy, op. cit., p. 25, referring to the Minutes, Alabama Bad fist Convention, 1846, p. 18.

6. Curtis Welton Gaddy, "The Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention: A Critical Evaluation" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1970), p. 33.

7. Ibid., p. 34, quoted from a Barton report.

8. Ibid, p. 44.

9. Ibid, p. 50.

10. Ibid, p. 80.

11. Ibid., p. 121.

12. Eighmy, op. cit., p. 198.

13. Ibid, p. 199.

14. The full pamphlet, which contains a like amount of material on "Basic Concepts Related to Social Principles," is available from the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, 460 James Robertson Parkway, Nashville, Tennessee, 37209. Single copies free; quantity prices available on request. Other pamphlets on specific issues are available likewise.

Last updated Tuesday, December 29, 1998

©Copyright 1998 All rights Reserved. C.B Hastings
Text was scanned and OCRed from Introducing Southern Baptist ©Paulist, Press 1981.
ISBN: 0-8091-2364-9
Library of Congress Number: 81-80052
Contact the Author