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Humphreys: The Way We Were

As careful long-time readers of this blog know, I come from a fundamentalist background, and attended several churches that formed as splits off Southern Baptist churches in the Fifties and Sixties in central Virginia, just prior to the conservative resurgence within the SBC. Not all of my family made the jump; some of them had made the jump from the United Methodist Church to the SBC twenty or thirty years earlier, and were disinclined to leave churches where the extended family had become fairly deeply entrenched, where they were serving as deacons and Sunday School teachers, and where they had already purchased plots in the church cemetery. So as a result part of my family watched the SBC gyrations of the last thirty years from inside the SBC, while others watched from outside.

Regardless, we were on balance in agreement with the conservatives within the SBC; we believed that they had a higher regard for Scripture than the old guard they were replacing, and we expected that all sorts of evil would be avoided by the SBC’s move to the right. In particular, I think we assumed that the creeping secularism and liberalism we saw in other similar churches (read: the United Methodist Church) would be avoided if we conservatives took back the SBC.

I suppose in retrospect that we were right to a degree. I don’t know how I would measure something like that. I can say with some confidence that if I visit a local SBC church today it bears a closer resemblance to the independent Baptist churches I grew up in than does say a local UMC church, in both good ways and bad. On the other hand, the path the SBC has taken in the last thirty years has had its own difficulties, only some of which it would have encountered had it stayed the course in the Seventies. For example, I suspect the SBC would still have become richer and more suburban and some of its churches would still be megachurches if the conservatives hadn’t taken over.

Fisher Humphreys was one of the losers in the SBC internecine conflict; he is a self-avowed progressive, and he lost his position at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary during a purge of liberals. I’m not sure when; details are sketchy.

His 1994 book The Way We Were: How Southern Baptist Theology has Changed and What it Means to Us All [link] is an attempt to put some of the disagreement between the two sides (the conservatives or fundamentalists on one side; everyone else on the other) in some sort of a historical theological context. If I understand him correctly he is making the argument that there is, always has been, and always will be, a mainstream of Baptist-ness within the SBC, and an assortment of minority views and voices that are not part of that mainstream, and the fundamentalists are not in the historical mainstream of the SBC. Along the way he more or less lays out the case of the Mainstream Baptists [link, link].

I have been carrying this book around with me for more than a month, trying to decide whether to blog about it and if so what angle to take. I think it is helpful to go back and read the perspectives of people like Humphreys who were both part of the history and who bothered to put pen to paper talking about it later. I have to admit I am mostly accustomed to hearing his views represented from a fundamentalist perspective, and I thought it was helpful to hear what he and people like him think of the changes in the SBC, even if at times I can’t figure how what he’s saying corresponds to what I thought were the issues at the time.


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