The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the world’s largest Baptist denomination, with over 13 million members. Their birth came from a split from the Triennial Convention in 1845. The division was mainly over the institution of slavery. The Southern Baptists favored enslavement, later segregation, and the Lost Cause Theory. Today you might think of them as the backbone of the religious right or the white Evangelicals that greatly influence Republican circles.
The Southern Baptists recently made news by kicking out congregations with female pastors, including the California megachurch Saddleback Church and Fern Creek Baptist of Louisville, Kentucky. Saddleback Church is led by Rick Warren, who wrote The Purpose Driven Life, which has been translated into over 50 languages and sold over 50 million copies.
While Warren is male, his church has women pastors, which is why they were expelled. In full disclosure, the Black non-denominational church I once attended used The Purpose Driven Life as a study guide for several weeks.
There are people who want to take the SBC back to the 1950s when white men ruled supreme and when the woman’s place was in the home. There are others who want to take it back 500 years to the time of the Reformation. I say we need to take the church back to the first century. The church at its birth was the church at its best. —Rick Warren
While Warren referred only to white male dominance in the 1950s, that policy began in 1845. Though church membership included small farmers and laborers, the control was ceded to plantation owners. The early Baptist Church competed with the Church of England, or the Anglican church, supported by general taxes. The Anglican Church opposed the spread of Baptists, especially in the South. Slaveowners Patrick Henry and James Madison defended Baptists from prosecution from requirements that the Anglicans license Baptist preachers. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that Madison used as a template when putting religious freedom clauses in the Constitution. The Church of England was disestablished, and the Baptist Church continued to spread, especially in the South.
Enslaved and free Black people were welcome in the church but only to a degree. Black people were segregated when attending white churches; they were allowed to have churches of their own which white pastors often led. Those with Black pastors were required to have white supervision. The Black churches were usually provided the “slave bibles” when Black people were encouraged/allowed to read at all. The “slave Bible” cut a significant portion of the Old Testament and some of the New Testament. For example, any reference to Moses setting his people free was omitted. The “slave Bible” became prominent in 1807 after the Haitian Revolution. I had the opportunity to look through one of the three remaining slave Bibles in existence.
While the Baptist Church was spreading across the South, the white population was outnumbered by enslaved people in many locations. White pastors were always concerned about revolt, especially after the planned or actual revolts like Gabriel Prosser in 1800, the Haitian Revolution ending in 1803, the 1811 German Coast Uprising, the Denmark Vesey Rebellion in 1822, and the Nat Turner Revolt in 1831. One of their primary goals was to control an unwilling populace. They preached willing submission to their Black congregations and domination to the white ones. Most of all, they twisted scripture to justify enslavement while the Northern Baptists increasingly denounced slavery as immoral. In 1822, Richard Furman, pastor of First Baptist Church, Charleston, South Carolina, and namesake of Furman University, declared:
Had the holding of slaves been a moral evil, it cannot be supposed, that the inspired Apostles, who feared not the faces of men, and were ready to lay down their lives in the cause of their God, would have tolerated it, for a moment, in the Christian Church. If they had done so on a principle of accommodation, in cases where the masters remained heathen, to avoid offences and civil commotion; yet, surely, where both master and servant were Christian, as in the case before us, they would have enforced the law of Christ, and required, that the master should liberate his slave in the first instance. But, instead of this, they let the relationship remain untouched, as being lawful and right, and insist on the relative duties. In proving this subject justifiable by Scriptural authority, its morality is also proved; for the Divine Law never sanctions immoral actions.
Just as the Southern Baptists of today use God’s words to justify excluding women from positions of power, their predecessors said that slavery was God’s will. I’m sure they found a divine right to rape Black enslaved women and sell their own children for profit, as Thomas Jefferson intended when eliminating the International Slave Trade while encouraging the Domestic Slave Trade to flourish via forced breeding and rape. This plan wasn’t limited to Southern Baptists, but they adopted it wholeheartedly.
By 1845, the Southern Baptists could no longer coexist with their Northern counterparts. They split from the Triennial Convention to go their own way, condoning slavery, the Black Codes, and Jim Crow over the next 150 years. In 1995, for a moment in time, they acknowledged they’d done wrong, formally apologizing for their participation in systemic racism that they no longer acknowledge exists.
We apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and or perpetuating individual and systematic racism in our lifetime . . .
We ask for forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters, acknowledging that our own healing is at stake . . .
We hereby commit ourselves to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry.
One of the early televangelists, Jerry Falwell Sr., could be counted on to let us know what Southern Baptists were thinking. He had this to say after the 1954 Brown v. Board decision outlawing segregation.
If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. —Jerry Falwell
Falwell spoke on integration.
The true Negro does not want integration . . . He realizes his potential is far better among his own race.
He also outlined his choices if he were doing something against God’s will; I think you know which path he took.
If I were doing something that the Bible condemns, I have two choices. I can straighten up my act, or I can somehow distort and twist and change the meaning of the Bible.
What we consider the religious right wasn’t founded by Falwell, James Dobson, or Ralph Reed. The movement started within the Southern Baptist ranks with a woman, Anita Bryant. While she wouldn’t have been allowed to lead a church, Anita Bryant led a movement targeting gays and alleging they were out to convert your children. Her intolerance was the recruitment tool for the Southern Baptists who saw nothing wrong with what Bryant [she] was saying.
If gays are granted rights, next we’ll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Bernards and to nail biters.
If homosexuality were normal, God would have created Adam and Bruce.
As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children.
Homosexuals cannot reproduce-so they must recruit . . . and to freshen their ranks they must recruit the youth of America.
The current attacks by Southern Baptists on “groomers” and claims of “indoctrination” tie directly back to Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell, and other Southern Baptist leaders who use God as a means to an end, built on the condemnation of others. Their current focus on Transgender people suggests they have no message other than hate as a way to stay relevant.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the church is currently under investigation for widespread sexual abuse of children and a pattern of covering up the abuses. I guess Anita Bryant didn’t save the children after all. A 2022 report indicated church leaders had stonewalled and disparaged clergy sex abuse survivors for nearly two decades; reform efforts had been met with criticism or dismissal from other organization leaders; and known abusers had been allowed to keep their positions without informing their local churches.
You might understand some politicians better if you knew of their ties to the Southern Baptist Church. If they’re willing to twist God’s word, what else will they lie about?
I’ll end with a few relevant quotes about or from Southern Baptists.
Well, you could become a Southern Baptist. I mean, instead of having to obey the Pope, you could just obey your husband. —Arianna Huffington
Christianity has a built-in defense system: anything that questions a belief, no matter how logical the argument is, is the work of Satan by the very fact that it makes you question a belief. It’s a very interesting defense mechanism and the only way to get by it — and believe me, I was raised Southern Baptist — is to take massive amounts of mushrooms, sit in a field, and just go, “Show me.” —Bill Hicks
I grew up in a Southern Baptist-style church with a choir, a band, and music, but I’ve been asking myself my whole life, “Why is my own church, my own community, rejecting me because of my sexuality?”. —Roger Ross Williams
I separated from the Southern Baptists when they adopted the discriminatory attitude towards women, because I believe what Paul taught in Galatians that there is no distinction in God’s eyes between men and women, slaves and masters, Jews and non-Jews — everybody is created equally in the eyes of God. — Jimmy Carter
The truth is that family values, as used by the American Family Association, Dan Quayle, and the southern Baptists, has nothing to do with either family or values, nor does it really have anything to do with homosexuals, abortionists, or pornographers. Those groups actually only serve as windmills to tilt at. The true agenda is power — power over the intellectually weak, emotionally immature, and ethically deficient Americans who are incapable of critical thinking and independent decision-making, and who are easily manipulated by the basest of human emotions — fear and the desire for revenge. —Morris Sullivan
The Southern Baptist Convention, as you know, decided in the year 2000 that women should not be permitted to be pastors or deacons or chaplains in the military service. Some Southern Baptist seminaries don’t even permit women to teach male students. I don’t agree with that. But they can go in and quote a few passages of Paul that women should be restricted in their services. — Jimmy Carter
When I took over from my father, he came from the Southern Baptist background, and back 40–50 years ago, there was a lot more of that. I don't believe — maybe it was for a time. But I don't have it in my heart to condemn people. I'm there to encourage them. —Joel Osteen