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.
“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:
“You saw a greater commitment to the Bible and the conservative resurgence that happened there in the ‘80s and ‘90s, because we couldn’t have gotten that passed in the ‘70s, probably.”
“The more we learned, the more we see that Roe v. Wade was a wrong decision,” he said.
The 2003 resolution unequivocally and powerfully affirmed that Roe v. Wade was immoral.
“… we reaffirm our belief that the Roe v. Wade decision was an act of injustice against innocent unborn children as well as against vulnerable women in crisis pregnancy situations, both of which have been victimized by a ‘sexual revolution’ that empowers predatory and irresponsible men and by a lucrative abortion industry that has fought against even the most minimal restrictions on abortion” “… we humbly confess that the initial blindness of many in our Convention to the enormity of Roe v. Wade should serve as a warning to contemporary Southern Baptists of the subtlety of the spirit of the age in obscuring a biblical worldview.” “… we urge our Southern Baptist churches to remain vigilant in the protection of human life by preaching the whole counsel of God on matters of human sexuality and the sanctity of life, by encouraging and empowering Southern Baptists to adopt unwanted children, by providing spiritual, emotional, and financial support for women in crisis pregnancies, and by calling on our government officials to take action to protect the lives of women and children” “… we pray and work for the repeal of the Roe v. Wade decision and for the day when the act of abortion will be not only illegal, but also unthinkable.”
“We were privileged to be part of the process of Southern Baptists in taking a stand for the Word of God in trying to be salt and light in our culture. I believe that in those years we were strengthening, because we knew it was going to take a while to overcome Roe v. Wade, because it was now obvious, even at that time, what was going to happen and what had to happen at the Supreme Court in order for that to take place, which is what we’re seeing now.”
But once the Convention’s conviction was established, the full force of its resources and voice was directed against the forces of death. Today, we are seeing, in part, the fruit of their work, by the grace of God.
In anticipating Roe’s overturning, the current Acting President of the ERLC, Brent Leatherwood gave a speech to the SBC 2022 meeting:
“While overturning Roe will go a long way toward correcting the errors of the past made by the state, it is up to Christians to realize that such a decision — as momentous as it will be — is not the end of the challenge before us. “In fact, it will represent the starting point for a new pro-life generation, because we will not be satisfied with a post-Roe world. We are striving for a post-abortion world.” (Emphasis added)
A Powerful Voice for LIFE to This Day
Reacting to the recent Dobbs decision by the US Supreme Court, numerous high-profile SBC leaders celebrated.
Leatherwood rejoiced that “More lives are now protected today than yesterday.”
“The release of the Dobbs decision marks a true turning point in the pro-life movement, a moment that Christians, advocates, and many others have worked toward tirelessly for 50 years.”
Sandy Wisdom-Martin, the executive director of the SBC’s Woman’s Missionary Union, reflected on her experience as an adoptive mother:
“I have 8,499 reasons to celebrate today’s ruling. Exactly 8,499 days ago an adoption agency placed a sleeping baby in my arms. I have had 8,499 days of profound gratitude a birth mother chose life. All are image-bearers of our Creator God and are of infinite value and worth. Let us stand ready to minister to vulnerable women and children.”
Adam W. Greenway, the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote that Christians “must seize this opportunity to enact just laws that protect unborn human life.”
In Australia, as in America, Christians and those in the pro-life movement must not slacken their efforts to see life preserved and defended. Continue praying; keep supporting organisations that are doing fantastic work, and, where possible, take practical steps to help vulnerable women and babies.
I hope you’re as encouraged as I was by the amazing work pursued by Christians in America for decades leading up to the reversal of Roe.
Photo: The Tennessean.
This article was originally published in The Daily Declaration.