Vol. 7 No. 5

  The Jesse Mercer Plaza
  Mercer University, Macon Campus 


Produced by The Center for Baptist Studies, Mercer University
A Monthly EMagazine, Bridging Baptists Yesterday and Today

Bruce T. Gourley, Editor, The Baptist Studies Bulletin

Wil Platt, Associate Editor, The Baptist Studies Bulletin




In Response To . . . : Bruce T. Gourley

         "The Conservative Evangelical Wilderness Experience"

The Baptist Soapbox: Charles W. Deweese

         "First Amendment Issues: Why Care?"

From the Pulpit : John Finley

         "Lessons Learned From an Historical Pulpit"
Baptists and Presidential Elections: Doug Weaver

         "Election of Ronald Reagan: Baptists and the Religious Right"

Observations From the Intersection of Individualism and Ecclesiology:
Charles E. Poole

         "At a Busy Baptist Corner:  Perceptions of Authority and Responsibility"

Baptist Heritage Series: The First Baptist Church in America: Stephen Martorella

         "The Prayer of Song"

Dates to Note

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In Response to . . . :  Currently the Interim Director of the Center for Baptist Studies, Bruce has been on the staff of the Center since 2004.  He previously served as a campus minister and professor of church history.  In addition, he is involved in a number of areas of moderate Baptist life through the medium of the Internet.

"The Conservative Evangelical Wilderness Experience"
By Bruce T. Gourley

          "We despise all reverences and all the objects of reverence which are outside the pale of our own list of sacred things. And yet, with strange inconsistency, we are shocked when other people despise and defile the things which are holy to us." So declared Mark Twain at the very time that white Baptists in the South finally succeeded in muscling their way into religious and cultural dominance in the American South.
          A little over a century later, some Baptists in the South are loath to accept their steadily declining influence. Long the standard-bearer in the South, the Southern Baptist Convention reached its zenith of growth related-to-population in the 1950s, and a numerical peak in baptisms in 1972. It's been downhill ever since. A fundamentalist takeover of the denomination, ostensibly for the purpose of theological purification and numerical revival merely sped up the decline. Marriage to the evangelically conservative Religious Right only added to the problems. Frank Page, current SBC president, recently concluded that the decline of the SBC is in part because of widespread perception of Southern Baptists as "
mean-spirited, hurtful and angry people." Furthermore, Southern Baptists "have not always presented a winsome Christian life that would engender trust and a desire on the part of many people to engage in a conversation on the Gospel," lamented Page.
          While the SBC president places much of the blame on the shoulders of his own denomination, J. Gerald Harris, editor of the press arm of the Georgia Baptist Convention (affiliated with the SBC), exhibits the tendencies lamented by Page.  Agreeing with Page that conservative Christians are portrayed by the media as intolerant, "narrow and sectarian," Harris nonetheless revels in the negative labels, insisting that "evangelical Christians" are the "good guys" in America, while all others are "bad guys." Tolerance is evil and public schools are pagan, Harris insists, claiming to speak for all "Bible-believing, Christ-loving and soul-winning Christians."
          While Southern Baptist leaders alternate between regret and defiance, conservative evangelicals in general are having a larger-scale wilderness experience, their long-sought secular political ambitions largely unrealized and now fading fast. The recently released Evangelical Manifesto, recognizing serious problems among conservative evangelical ranks, is a half-hearted apology that skewers liberalism and refutes the excesses of the Religious Right without completely annulling the conservative evangelical marriage with the Republican Party. At least one prominent SBC leader disagrees with a softening of Religious Right rhetoric. Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, rejects the Manifesto acknowledgement that evangelical faith is merely one of many valid expressions of Christianity and scoffs at the affirmation that other faiths should have equal access to the "public square."*
          The wilderness sojourn of the Southern Baptist Convention and the conservative evangelical movement at large did not have to happen. Baptists of the 17th and 18th centuries understood the importance of diversity. Unafraid of pluralism, they insisted religious liberty applied equally to persons of all faiths and no faith, and in turn they put their lives on the line to secure the separation of church and state. Southern Baptist leaders of recent decades have strayed far from the teachings of the long-ago heroes of their own denomination. Marrying politics and religion in an arrogant effort to secure the rights of evangelical Christians above the rights of all others, they have boldly rejected their own faith heritage. And in their rebellion, they have led the way into a dry and desolate landscape of self-serving myths and self-glorifying rhetoric.
          Grudging regret, continued defiance and half-hearted apologies are not paths out of the wilderness.  As Jesus taught two millennia ago, a recognition of lostness must precede renewal and rebirth.

* Editor's Note:  For further reading regarding the significance of the Evangelical Manifesto, read Melissa Rogers, Marci Hamilton, and Joseph Conn.  Also of interest is an Associated Baptist Press story.

Visit Bruce's personal website.

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The Baptist Soapbox: Invited guests speak up and out on things Baptist (therefore, the views expressed in this space are not necessarily those of The Baptist Studies Bulletin, though sometimes they are).  Climbing upon the Soapbox this month is Charles W. Deweese, Executive Director of the Baptist History & Heritage Society, headquartered in Atlanta.

"First Amendment Issues: Why Care?"
By Charles W. Deweese

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . . .
          The Baptist History and Heritage Society believes that this Amendment possesses extreme importance for Baptists (and everyone else) in the United States. Therefore, the Society will dedicate its May 22-24, 2008, annual conference on the Atlanta campus of Mercer University to the theme, “Baptists and First Amendment Issues.”

●Mercer University President Bill Underwood will deliver the keynote address, “First Amendment Implications for Baptist Identity.”

●Doug Weaver, of Baylor University, will discuss “Baptists and the First Amendment: An Historical Overview.”

●J. Brent Walker and Holly Hollman, of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, will, respectively, speak at the Society’s Awards Luncheon and address “Religious Freedom in the Courts: Recent Cases and a Look Ahead.”

●Suzii Paynter and Stephen Reeves, of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, will jointly present “The Texas Bible-in-Public-Schools Bill: Reflecting National Political Controversy and the Emerging Landscape of Religion in Public Schools.”

●Twelve other Baptist leaders from nine states will offer break-out session papers on various aspects of the program theme.


First, although Baptists historically preceded the First Amendment, which was ratified in 1791, they put their lives on the line in the 1600s and 1700s advocating church-state separation. Baptists’ historic defense of the “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses of the Amendment and of free speech and a free press represent some of their finest contributions to human civilization.
           Second, opposition to the Amendment poses constant threats to Baptist identity. Hard knocks against church-state separation (in the heart of the Southern Baptist Convention), the erosion of freedom of the press (in most Baptist state newspapers), authoritarian oppression of the right to dissent (at the core of too much Baptist church life)—these and other factors contribute to a deterioration of key components of Baptist thought—and sacrifice.
           Third, Anna Quindlen, my favorite Newsweek writer, predicts (May 12, 2008, p. 64) that the next U.S. president will likely appoint several justices to the Supreme Court. Typical results of the court’s work are “the expansion of rights and liberties or their diminution.” Since the court deals with various church-state issues, whoever Baptists and other Americans elect as president in 2008 will have a big impact on future court decisions relating to the First Amendment. So, learning as much as possible about the Amendment’s history and significance during our Society’s annual conference could help participants want to study more carefully the church-state emphases of the candidates running for president.
           The Society’s conference will take place soon. Metro-Atlanta residents are especially encouraged to register and participate. To secure more details, e-mail Pam Durso at, call her at 770-457-5540, or check our website (

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Co-sponsored by McAfee School of Theology and
The Center for Baptist Studies

28-30 September 2008

The King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort
St. Simons Island, GA

Featuring Dr. Greg Boyd
senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., and noted author
And Dr. Joel Gregory
professor of preaching at Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University
and distinguished preacher

To register or for more information, contact Terri Massey by email
or phone her at 478.301.2943

From the Pulpit:  The Center for Baptist Studies recognizes the critical role of the pastor in the life of the local congregation.  Each September, the Center co-sponsors the annual Mercer Preaching Consultation (see box above).  For the first half of this year, we present a special series of articles highlighting the pulpit.  Each month a different pastor will provide insight From the Pulpit.  This month's contributor is John Finley, Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Savannah, Georgia, an historic Baptist congregation.

"Lessons Learned From an Historic Pulpit"
By John Finley

            My friend and mentor Walter B. Shurden enjoys quoting a line from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun which says: “The past is never dead.  In fact, it’s not even past.”  While Faulkner may have intended those words as a description of life in the American South, they speak of historic churches as well.  At 207-year-old First Baptist Church, Savannah, Georgia, I continue to glean insights from our long and rich history.  
            One of the lessons I have learned has to do with congregational personality.  A church is a unique creation, informed by its particular cultural context as well as the many persons who have been a part of its life.  In our case, we are heavily influenced by the port city of Savannah, where the colony of Georgia was founded in 1733, and the longstanding presence of a wide range of Christian denominations and other religions.  While a few of my pastoral predecessors may have been ne’er-do-wells, many of their names read like a Baptist Who’s Who – Henry Holcombe, William Bullein Johnson, Sylvanus Landrum, John E. White, W. L. Pickard, Norman W. Cox – and each left a distinctive mark on the congregation.  Perhaps just as importantly, every church is shaped by the long list of members born, baptized, married, and ordained there, who worked and taught and gave and sacrificed for the church of Jesus Christ.  Their service made our congregation what it is today, and on their shoulders, we are privileged to stand.
            Another of the lessons I have learned has to do with the importance of perspective.  While longevity alone is never a guarantor of orthodox theology, proper Christian ethics, or the best way of relating to other persons, I am convinced that there are certain lessons that congregations only learn over time.  After suffering through twelve years of separation following an 1847 church split, First Baptist Church has never again experienced a serious division.  Having been wrong on the issue of slavery in the 1860s, our church did a much better job of dealing with the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s.  Serving an established congregation is like viewing the universe through the lens of a powerful telescope and observing events that took place long ago, the light of which is only now reaching one’s eyes.  What can be learned is a better understanding of what matters most to God and the Kingdom, and one’s proper relationship to both.
          Yet another lesson I have learned has to do with the value of perseverance.  Our congregation has survived one of the worst fires to strike any community in North America, the capture of Savannah by General William T. Sherman at the end of the Civil War, an 1876 yellow fever outbreak that killed upwards of 5 percent of the city’s population in a single summer, an 1886 earthquake, a series of four hurricanes in the 1890s (one of which took the roof off the sanctuary), two World Wars and too many other military conflicts, several economic recessions, numerous floods, and both the beginning and the ending of the Southern Baptist Convention as we knew it.  Still, the church stands.  One might smile and say that it apparently takes a lot to kill a Baptist church.  Better phrased, we have learned that God watches over the fortunes of a congregation and that God’s people have a way of persevering over time.

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Baptists and Presidential Elections
  This series focuses on historical Baptist responses and interactions during previous United States presidential election years.  This month's contributor is Doug Weaver.  Doug is Director of Undergraduate Studies of Baylor University's Department of Religion.

"Election of Ronald Reagan: Baptists and the Religious Right"
By Doug Weaver

If the year 1976 was the “year of the evangelical” and the election of the “born again” Southern Baptist, Democrat Jimmy Carter, the irony of history was close by. The year 1980 was the year that the Religious Right wed itself to the Republican Party.  Baptists helped lead the charge.  In fact, conservative politics mirrored the “controversy” that had just begun to rage in the Southern Baptist Convention. 
            Baptist state papers ran articles describing the religious faith of the major presidential candidates, incumbent President Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan, former governor of California. Readers already knew about Carter’s long involvement in Southern Baptist life.  The Carters attended First Baptist Church, Washington, D.C., and he was a part-time substitute Sunday School teacher.  He had a well-worn copy of the King James Version of the Bible on his desk in the White House. Readers were also told that Reagan attended Bel Air Presbyterian Church but while the Reagans “come a lot” “they have never been involved in the life of the church.” 
            The dominant theme addressed in Baptist papers during the 1980 campaign was the issue of partisan politics and the creation of religious voting blocs through new Religious Right organizations like the Moral Majority. Ronald Reagan was their candidate to turn the nation back to God.  The Religious Right largely ignored Reagan’s divorce and remarriage, long issues for evangelicals.  His support for the growing “pro-life” movement was an answer to their prayers.
            Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and well-known Independent Baptist, was frequently in the news.  In August 1980, he said that he asked President Carter, “Sir, why do you have practicing homosexuals on your senior staff at the White House?”  When criticized for having fabricated the story, Falwell said that he did not intend a verbatim report of his conversation with Carter, but the story accurately reflected Carter’s position on gay rights.  Former SBC convention president Jimmy Allen retorted that anecdotes that don’t tell the truth should not be used. A White House official responded that Carter did not affirm a gay lifestyle.
            In September 1980, Chauncey Daley of the Western Recorder wrote an editorial entitled “Moral Majority is More Political Than Moral.”  Daley warned that Baptists must beware of letting Falwell tell them how to vote: “the Baptist principle of (the) priesthood of every believer holds that every Christian has the same access to the Holy Spirit for guidance as does Jerry Falwell.”  Daley was especially critical of Falwell’s call for pastors to endorse a presidential candidate (Reagan) from their pulpits because “his (the pastor) calling is far too high to ever be a mere politician.  He is a prophet, not a ward heeler; a shepherd, not a herder of votes….He should be pastor of all his flock, not one part of it which he becomes when he endorses a particular candidate.”
            The strength of the burgeoning Religious Right in Republican politics and in Baptist life was seen at a National Affairs Briefing that drew 10,000 people, including about 2,000 ministers (Dallas; August 1980).  It was sponsored by The Roundtable, whose officers included Ed McAteer, conservative political lobbyist and member of Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, and fiery evangelist, James Robison. Ronald Reagan was the key note speaker.  He told the supportive crowd that he was a “born again” Christian.  “I know this group can’t endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.”  The crowd roared.  Numerous Baptist leaders also spoke, including SBC president Bailey Smith and past presidents Adrian Rogers and W. A. Criswell as well as Baptist TV evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
            Speakers repeatedly warned America about its current political and spiritual crisis.  Adrian Rogers announced, “America needs to be born again or she will join the graveyard of nations.” W. A. Criswell hailed the organizers for conducting the briefing and said it was “dedicated to delivering the nation from the judgment of God.”  Bailey Smith related a story about a member of a gay political caucus raising questions about Robison, known for volatile rhetoric.  Smith said, “We are in deep trouble in America when we interview a pervert about a preacher.” James Robison told the gathering there must be redemption from “government-backed sin.”  And, he said the Religious Right was here to stay: “I’m sick and tired of hearing about all of the radicals and the perverts and the liberals and the leftists and the Communists coming out of the closet. It’s time for God’s people to come out of the closet.”
            Some Baptists again tried to counter the Religious Right.  Marse Grant wrote an editorial entitled, “Christian Party? There’s Not One in U.S.; They’re Both Political” (September 13, 1980).  Jimmy Allen agreed that a partisan religious party bloc was dangerous.  It had historically resulted in observers turning against the church because they rejected the political views of the religious leader.  In October 1980, Allen wrote that the bloc vote in the name of religion ”damages the churches by creating a political test for religious fellowship” and “damages the state by producing a religious test for public office.”
            Reagan easily defeated Carter (and Independent John Anderson) for the presidency of the United States.  The Carter presidency had been criticized on many fronts: the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 had complicated the political scene. But, the rise of the Religious Right had helped turn the tide toward Reagan. 
            Not all of the Baptists who were Democrat had been happy with Carter’s presidency.  And, not all Baptists were Republicans.  But during the 1980s (and beyond) to be a Southern Baptist conservative was to be part and parcel of the Religious Right.

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Observations From the Intersections of Individualism and Ecclesiology
Charles E. Poole recently returned to the pulpit of Northminster Baptist Church, Jackson, Mississippi, following four years of street ministry with LifeShare Community Ministries in Jackson. "Chuck" Poole, a provocative preacher and servant pastor, has ministered to both the poor and the privileged for over a quarter century. In addition to Northminster, he has served First Baptist Church, Macon, Georgia, and First Baptist Church, Washington, DC.

"At a Busy Baptist Corner: Perceptions of Authority and Responsibility"
By Charles E. Poole

During my four years as an inner-city minister, I spoke at a few of the annual pastors’ schools which are hosted by some of the CBF partnering seminaries and divinity schools.  In the course of those gatherings, I had many conversations with many Baptist pastors.  As you would imagine, some seemed glad to be serving churches, while others were weary, depleted, and longing for some way to stay in the ministry without having to pastor a church.
           While I’m sure there are as many reasons for that pastoral fatigue as there are pastors, I have a theory about one of those reasons.  It is a reason that rises from the corner where individualism intersects ecclesiology, and it is this: To serve as the pastor of a Baptist church is to often be responsible for things over which you do not have authority.  Because we Baptists place authority for congregational decisions in the hands of the majority of the individuals in the church (the intersection of individualism and ecclesiology), the pastor does not have authority over what the church does, but she or he is often assumed to be responsible for how the church does.
           That is certainly not the reason for the pervasive weariness among Baptist pastors, but it is likely a reason.  It isn’t unique to Baptist pastors, but it is a part of life for any minister who serves at the busy Baptist corner where Baptist individualism plus Baptist ecclesiology equal our deeply Baptist principles of congregational governance and the lay-led church.

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Baptist Heritage Series: The First Baptist Church in America:  As Baptists prepare to celebrate 400 years in 2009, this series highlights America's First Baptist Church.  Stephen Martorella,  Minister of Music of America's First Baptist Church, is the author of this month's article.
"The Prayer of Song"
By Stephen Martorella

           “Music is love in search of a word.” So declared the French writer Colette, while Plato said that music finds its way into the secret places of the soul. The First Baptist Church in America was one of the first significant voices in the artistic history of Providence, Rhode Island, and today stands as a beacon for those who would fill their souls with the sweet singing of praises to God. The psalmist says, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Our church strives to make worship beautiful in song and praise and prayer.
           To speak to future hope is to acknowledge the gifts we have received from our past musical heritage and to present them as today’s living music, the “new song” of life. Our congregation values the songs both new and old from many nations and peoples. What unites our singing is the purpose of praise to which all these voices are raised.
           Music too is a reflection of the human condition. We acknowledge both the pain and the joy that is a part of the world in which we live, and we present our musical offerings as we present our lives to the Creator and Author of life, even as we sing of praise and wonderment for the gifts we have been given.
           To live this philosophy in the world of the arts is to provide music that is genuine and authentic in its presentation, that seeks both historical integrity and poetic aesthetic in representing the whole range of human emotion offered up as the prayer of song. While music can both educate and entertain, it is also a vehicle for corporate praise and prayer, as a people broadly diverse sing in unity and harmony, one with another.
           With such a rich and diverse tradition of the arts, our church reaches deep into many faith traditions while preserving and supporting those that are in particular both American and Baptist, as appropriate to our place in the conference of American Baptist Churches. Our singing is global. It is historic. It is also new, contemporary, and vibrant. We are blessed with a treasure of musical instruments and the talent of so many gifted people who give of their time and talent to the tapestry of musical life in the church.
           Perhaps most telling are those works of musical art that were written specifically for worship at our church by those seeking to fulfill the Bible command to “sing a new song unto the Lord” and to proclaim His name with gladness. These are new creations of a living heritage that points ahead to tomorrow’s church. Historically informed, alive in the present, pointing to the future – this is the song of The First Baptist Church in America for the 21st century. And if the human soul is so moved by the truth of beauty so as to be both ennobled and enabled in proclaiming love, then we should say, “mission accomplished,” but that we know that the mission is never fully accomplished. As long as we have life and breath, the journey is all.

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Recommended Online Reading for Informed Baptists
Compiled by Bruce Gourley

Stewardship Resources from American Baptist Churches USA
(May 2008)
A helpful collection of resources.

Congregational Model for Caregiving
Christianity Today
(May 2008)
To really understand the politics of the Christian Right, we need to look not only to public activity, but to private matters.


Dates to Note

May 22-24, 2008, Baptist History & Heritage Society Annual Meeting, Mercer's Atlanta campus.  The theme is "Baptists and First Amendment Issues."  Visit the BH&HS website for more information.

June 19-20, 2008, Annual Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, Memphis, Tennessee, Cook Convention Center.  Information and registration.

July 16-19, 2008, British Baptist Historical Society Centenary Conference, International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague.  Theme: Baptists and the World: Renewing the Vision. Keynote Speaker: Dr. Bill Leonard. If you have a proposal for a short paper, email Dr. Ian Randall at by March 1, 2008.  Click here for more information and registration information.

July 26-29, 2008, The Baptist International Conference on Theological Education (BICTE), Prague, Czech Republic.  Visit the event website for more information.

September 28-30, 2008, Mercer Preaching Consultation 2008, King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort, St. Simons Island, Georgia.  Co-sponsored by McAfee School of Theology and the Center for Baptist Studies.  Featured speakers include Dr. Greg Boyd and Dr. Joel Gregory.  See advertisement above for more information.

If you know of a Baptist event that needs to be added to this list, please let us know.  For a full calendar of Baptist events, visit the Online Baptist Community Calendar.

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