When History Is All We Have

by Will Campbell

Will Campbell, a Christianity and Crisis columnist, has described himself as a Bapist preacher of the South which is different from being a Southern Baptist preacher. Known as the sage of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, he is author of Brother to a Dragonfly and Forty Acres and a Goat other books.

This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis September 24, 1990. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis, used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


“What does this mean?” a journalist from Fort Worth asked me. “It means that the Baptist movement is over,” I replied. “Over. Done. Gone. Dead.”

They say that Baptists have always fought among themselves. And that there is no fight like a family fight. The latter is true. But the original Baptists, whether the Anabaptists of sixteenth century Europe or the English Separatists of the seventeenth, were too busy struggling for physical survival to engage in internecine squabbles. However, on July 17 Baptists in Nashville, Tennessee were-fighting each other. With the force of arms.

I suppose I had no reason to be there. Probably had not even a right to be there, having deserted the steeples a long time ago. ‘‘I just came to smell the flowers," I answered when a reporter asked me what I was doing there. Really, I had just gone to watch. I soon discovered that I was not prepared for what I was watching: Hired guards armed with .38-caliber revolvers or 9mm automatic pistols standing between two hostile groups, each claiming to be authentic Baptists. What’s going on here?

C & C readers are familiar with the events leading up to the showdown. For twelve years the event has been brewing, since Paul Pressler, a Houston judge who, as a magistrate. would not have been allowed to join the original Baptist movement, and Paige Patterson, a Dallas preacher, underling of W. A. Criswell, senior pastor of that city’s First Baptist Church, met at Café du Monde in New Orleans and devised a scheme to wrest control of the Southern Baptist Convention from those they considered too liberal to be trusted with the business of God.

Their plan was simple. Members of all hoards of trustees and committees are appointed by the president on a rotating basis. By electing a president sympathetic with their views for ten successive years. total control would be theirs.

It worked. Year after year thousands of messengers (the Southern Baptist term for delegates) poured into convention centers in Dallas, Miami, St. Louis, Atlanta, San Antonio, Las Vegas for the annual gathering. They came in cars, church buses, recreation vehicles, airplanes. and on trains to cast their ballots. Each year the Pressler-Patterson faction won. The mission was accomplished.

Divided into what came to be known by the press as moderate and fundamentalist camps, neither group pleased with what it. was called, the struggle escalated. This year 38,000 gathered in the New Orleans Superdome and elected Morris Chapman of Wichita Falls, Texas. It was the twelfth victory for the fundamentalists. The occasion was marked by a raucous celebration at Café du Monde where plaques were presented to the founders of the "takeover" movement The moderates cried ‘‘foul!" The fundamentalists went about it.

To the victors belong the spoils. Two years ago. perhaps to test their strength, they took on the administration and faculty of Southeastern Seminary, a school many considered to be the most progressive of their six theological schools, Southeastern, in Wake Forest, North Carolina, is now an academic skeleton of what it had been; the president replaced by one to the liking of the fundamentalist, the faculty in disarray.

Caesar’s Centurions

All of that was prelude to what happened in Nashville on July 17. Immediately following the New Orleans convention, members of the Southern Baptist Executive Committee -- a body of seventy-seven members appointed by past and present presidents to carry on the business of the church between annual meetings -- demanded the resignations of the director and news editor of Baptist Press, an agency charged with writing and distributing news stories concerning Southern Baptists. For some years they had drawn fire for filing news stories many considered not in the best interests of Pressler and the fundamentalist side. When the two men, Al Shackleford and Dan Martin, both nationally respected journalists, refused to resign, a special session of the Executive Committee was called for July 17.

The meeting was scheduled to begin in the auditorium of the Baptist Building at 901 Commerce, Nashville, Tennessee, at ten o’clock in the morning. Two hours earlier more than two hundred people had gathered in support of the two men. And in support of the historic Baptist notion of freedom of information. Speculation inside the auditorium was that the first order of business would be a vote for executive session. Instead, at about a quarter past the hour word spread that the Executive Committee was in secret session in a room upstairs. Earlier, barricades of tables and chairs had blocked the stairs to the second floor. Discovering that they had been removed, the group hurried upstairs. Instead of a barricade armed guards blocked entry.

It was strange for me at first. Why were we surprised? Why did any of us even care? Had we not seen the so-called moderate groups when they were in control, do little better? Had we not watched as they said little, and did less, during the civil rights era? Vietnam? Who among them lifted an editorial voice? And who among them offered leadership to give equality to the women in their ranks, who constituted more than 50 percent of their numbers? Had we forgotten that sometimes our own writings had been kept from the shelves of their bookstores? Was it not they who built the abomination in which we were now standing from the tithes of the poor?

What are we to make of this multimillion-dollar building with its flaunting display of opulence and tight security dedicated to the lowly Galilean? Where are they at this moment, the holdover moderates who have not yet been purged from their plush offices here but probably will be soon, who hang onto the security of Mammon and vow to speak out as soon as retirement age is reached? Why do they cringe behind their own closed doors instead of storming the guards and money changers screaming, "In the name of Almighty God, stop it! Why don’t we? What freedom of information, what historic principle are we defending with our silent presence? Is this not what many of us thought we had walked away from in frustration and despair years ago? Just what is going on here?

Why Are They Singing?

A young woman I had known earlier, a seminary graduate still unemployed and unordained by the church of her rearing, came up to me and whispered one of the questions I had been asking myself, her words lost in the rising clamor of the crowd facing the gunmen. "Why are we here?" she asked. I couldn’t recall her name, so 1 addressed her as "Pastor." It proved to be an appropriate title. I told her I didn’t know. She seemed less puzzled than I; like she did know. She drifted away.

Someone was trying to make a statement. I assumed that it was for the press. I couldn’t hear much of what he said. Something about Al and Dan each being offered five minutes to defend their work over the years for Baptist Press. I made out that as journalists and as Baptists they were refusing to participate in this secret meeting. Instead, they stood near the guarded door -- their trial, with neither stated charge nor defense, continuing inside.

I watched the woman who had spoken to me. She moved from one person to another, whispering as she went. "Roger Williams." She mouthed the words, turning in my direction and then to others. Yes, I thought. That’s why we’re here. For Roger Williams. He who stood against the intolerance of another religious establishment of another day, bent as surely as this one on stopping the free flow of religious communication. Roger Williams, who gave us our beginning in the new country: the first Baptist church of America. The lone courage of Roger Williams. Of course. For him we are gathered.

The woman drifted away again, then caught my eye as she formed the name of Isaac Backus on her lips. Yes, yes, Isaac Backus. He who stood against king and court in defense of religious liberty, and saw his mother spend thirteen weeks in prison for refusing to pay a church tax. This would be a familiar scene to him, watching Caesar’s centurions guarding the Faith. The raw fortitude of Isaac Backus. We are here for him. And for his mother.

I watched as the young woman whispered another name. "John Leland," Ah, yes, I remembered. The Baptist preacher of Virginia. who would grant no peace to his neighbors, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, until the First Amendment to the Constitution spoke of religious liberty and separation of church and state. Without him those rights would not have been. I thought of Bill Finlator, a Carolina preacher, asking why every Baptist in America is not a card earring member of the ACLU, since it was a Baptist notion from the outset. I heard someone say that we were there in honor of, and with apology to, John Leland. And to a host of Baptist martyrs besides.

"What does this mean?" a journalist from Fort Worth asked me. "It means that the Baptist movement is over," I replied. "Over. Done. Gone. Dead."

"Then why are they singing?" he asked, scribbling hurriedly on his note pad, then moving through the crowd. I had been so occupied with my own thoughts, and the names spoken by the young woman, that I had not heard the singing at all. Now I listened. Two hundred people, barred from participating in, or even hearing the business of their church, lifting their voices in disruptive hymn-singing, surely stopping the proceedings on the other side of the secured door. Young and old, male and female, standing there. Some smiling as if in jubilation. Some sobbing as if in deep mourning. I had second thoughts and searched the area for the Fort Worth journalist. I wanted to amend my answer to his first question. And try to answer the second. When I couldn’t find him, I spoke to the woman who had moved back beside me. "What do you think, Pastor?" I asked her.

"Maybe history is all we have left," she replied. She seemed somehow joyous. "But there is something here in which to exult as well. For so long as a little band of believers stand huddled together facing armed guards, in a house allegedly built for the glory of God; standing, singing, smiling, weeping, hoping, the historic Baptist notion of freedom will never die." I asked her to write down what she had said. It seemed important to remember.

At about 1:30 it was announced that Al Shackleford and Dan Martin had been relieved of their duties with Baptist Press. Effective immediately.