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America’s Most Influential Protestant Denomination Once Advocated Abortion: What Changed?

Updated: Dec 21, 2022

In 1971, America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, passed a pro-abortion resolution. Today, it is one of the most influential proponents of life. What changed?

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) — according to its website — is “a collection of like-minded churches working in cooperation with one another to impact the whole world with the Good News of Jesus Christ”. It is the largest Protestant denomination in America and the largest Baptist institution in the world.

The Convention is known within Christian circles for its strong emphasis on evangelism, its powerful defence of theological conservatism, and its denunciation of the Prosperity Gospel. However, within the American political landscape, the SBC is renowned for its resolute stand on religious liberty and abortion.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the public policy arm of the SBC, has achieved a number of high-profile ethical and humanitarian legislative wins. Moreover, the ERLC (alongside the entire SBC) was passionately involved in campaigning for the revocation of Roe v Wade.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Social and Theological Liberalism Within the SBC

Richard Land was the president of the ERLC for two and a half decades (between 1988 and 2013). A Princeton and Oxford graduate, Land was named on Time’s list of “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America” in 2005.

Following the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v Wade, Land reflected on what Baptist Press called the Convention’s ‘rocky road’ towards its current pro-life position.

In 1971, the SBC passed a convention — Resolution On Abortion — that was effectively pro-choice, according to Land. While it affirmed “a high view of the sanctity of human life”, the resolution also contained the following controversial words:

“… we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother”

Effectively, the resolution called on the 16 million-member SBC to advocate for the killing of children to be legalised even for reasons of ‘severe’ disability and ‘the likelihood’ of ‘emotional’ and ‘mental’ harm to mothers.

Nevertheless, even then, the Convention would have considered itself pro-life.

Land disagrees.

“At the time, the Christian Life Commission (CLC) [the forerunner to the ERLC] staff, including President Foy Valentine, was all pro-choice, as was James Wood and James Dunn at the Baptist Joint Committee. Paul D. Simmons, who was radically pro-choice, was teaching ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. That’s when we got the 1971 pro-choice SBC resolution.”

He surmises that “They used that resolution to support the Roe v. Wade decision. They were anticipating the liberalization of abortion laws.”

The Conservative Resurgence

So what happened to change the Convention from its pro-abortion stance to its current pro-life one?

The tensions during and following 1971 reflected a deeper theological divide in the Convention between conservatives and so-called “moderates”. Conservatives held strongly to the doctrines of Biblical inspiration and inerrancy, while moderates held more theologically liberal views of scripture.

In the 1970s and 80s, there was a “conservative resurgence” in the denomination, led by figures like Richard Land, Paige Patterson and Albert Mohler. Theologically, this led to conservative leaders being elected to influential positions in SBC seminaries across America.

Michael Hamlet is the senior pastor at First Baptist Church, North Spartanburg, and a Distinguished Professor of Pastoral Ministry at Clamp Divinity School. He explained the changing climate that ultimately led to a resolution of repentance on abortion being passed in 2003: