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Pressler: Conservative resurgence was grassroots movement
April 05, 2004
By Jeff Robinson
Judge Paul Pressler, right, speaks with Gregory A. Wills, associate professor of church history. Photo by David Merrifield
The true heroes of the conservative resurgence that returned the Southern Baptist Convention to biblical orthodoxy 25 years ago are scores of laypersons who made deep sacrifices to attend the denomination’s annual meetings and vote their consciences, Judge Paul Pressler told students at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on March 23.
Pressler, one of the architects of the resurgence, addressed more than 600 students and faculty members during a symposium marking the 25th anniversary of the movement, which began in 1979. Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. and Gregory A. Wills, associate professor of church history, interviewed Pressler during a 90-minute presentation.
Pressler, a retired Texas appellate judge and SBC layman, first identified a leftward shift in the SBC during the 1960s and 70s. He sought to reseat the convention back upon its biblical moorings by putting conservatives in key positions of denominational leadership. Pressler authored a book detailing the resurgence in 1999 entitled A Hill on Which to Die: One Southern Baptist’s Journey.
While names such as Pressler, Adrian Rogers, Charles Stanley and Paige Patterson are synonymous with the resurgence, Pressler credits concerned laypersons with effecting deep changes that ultimately righted the denomination.
“I remember one family from South Bend, Ind. They had five children and drove non-stop to Los Angeles to the Southern Baptist Convention in 1981,” Pressler said. “They voted and [then] drove non-stop back [home], eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They didn’t spend a night in a motel because they didn’t have the money.
“That’s the type of sacrifice that won. The heroes of the conservative movement are not those whose names were in the press. They were the grassroots people who loved the Lord and loved the convention and loved God’s Word and wanted to make sure that Southern Baptists returned to what [the Bible] teaches.”
Mohler agreed, adding that without the conservative resurgence, the SBC most certainly would have become as liberal as mainline denominations such as the Episcopal Church that recently ordained an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. Because members of local churches have the final say in SBC matters, concerned laypersons were able to rescue the denomination, he said.
“Look where those mainline denominations are,” Mohler said. “You have the Episcopalian church ordaining an openly homosexual bishop. The United Methodist Church, just on Saturday, refused to even admit that homosexuality is dealt with clearly in their standards. Do you have the sense that if the conservative resurgence had not happened, that’s exactly where we would be? I am absolutely certain it’s right.
“Because of [mainline churches’] hierarchy, the grassroots people have almost no opportunity to bring correction in the church. There is no doubt if the laypeople got to vote, there would not be a gay Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire. If Methodist people in the churches got to vote, I am convinced there wouldn’t have been this atrocity on Saturday.”
While many moderate Baptists often brand the conservative resurgence as being a “takeover” through a “carefully orchestrated plan,” Pressler said it was anything but a seamless operation.
But the fact that it wasn’t such a smooth process from a human perspective points to the truth that the resurgence was wholly a work of God, Pressler said.
“We went into several of the presidential elections not knowing until the day of the election whether or not we’d have a candidate to run,” he said. “This was the so-called carefully organized machine that regained control of the convention.”
Pressler first grew deeply concerned with the direction of the SBC in the early 1960s when the controversy broke over Ralph Elliott’s commentary on Genesis. Elliott, a professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote a book, The Message of Genesis, which was published in 1961 by Broadman Press. In it, Elliott departed seriously from historic Christian teaching on Genesis.
“When Ralph Elliott wrote his book, I remember telling [my wife] Nancy, ‘We’re going to see Southern Baptists rise up as a man and take care of this problem that is so blatantly liberal.’ Instead, we saw nothing happen. ... I was absolutely appalled by the way that was handled, and that let me know there was liberalism.”
Pressler said he decided to take action when he discovered the kind of teaching a number of Christian young people with whom he had worked were receiving at Baylor University.
“They [the students] called me to come and see what their textbooks were saying -- what they were being taught at Baylor -- so that they could know what was right and what was wrong,” he said. “The books were just liberal garbage. We worked it through with these young people ... to try and keep them from going down the tubes.
“Driving back from Waco that night after looking at those textbooks I promised myself that I wasn’t going to sit back any more, that something had to be done. I called Paige Patterson the next day, and that’s where it all [began].”
Pressler said he did not imagine the resurgence would take hold and grow in strength for 25 years. He said the best he hoped for was to cause a few conservative professors to be hired within the six SBC seminaries -- all of which were largely in the hands of moderates.
Part of what made the resurgence a success was moderates’ underestimation of conservative efforts, he said. Moderates angrily attacked conservatives, which strengthened the conservative case in the eyes of SBC laypersons, he said.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I think we’d be sitting here 25 years later talking about this,” Pressler said. “If I had known I had 25 years, I don’t think I could have measured up to it. God didn’t show us how difficult [it would be] until we were in the middle of it.
“I thought what would happen was that we might add conservative professors to each seminary campus. ... But God’s design was to clean house. Nobody could have made more tactical errors than the liberals. Instead of being gracious, they attacked us on everything. ... They thought we’d run out of steam.”
Pressler expressed satisfaction and gratitude at what Southern Seminary has become in the more than two decades since the conservative resurgence began.
“To come here [today] and to see this room filled -- there is no way I can express my gratitude fully,” he said.
“We have 15,000 students in our seminaries. Every single one of our seminary presidents is a godly man who believes the Word and has a burden for souls. I literally weep for joy at what God has done and the future we have as Southern Baptists because of the victory that has been won.”