The following article is offered as a prospectus for hopefully more extensive research into the invasion of the two main Baptist conventions in the USA during the 20th Century into local church autonomy. If anything, a Baptist church is to be an autonomous body that is ruled by congregational polity. Both conventions – Northern and Southern – disregarded Baptist polity and utilized the secular courts to force their organizational will on local autonomous congregations.
Charles Dickens began his historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities with the famous words: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Dickens goes on to weave a tale of intrigue and treachery midst the period leading to the French Revolution. The two cities of London and Paris reflect the contradictions and conflicts of that period when democratic ideals clashed with powerful political, and dominant social, forces.
Because my wife and I were members of two different unique churches, I am led to rephrase the Dickens dictum to say: “It was the worst of times, which led to the best of times.” These two church congregations suffered the loss of property and buildings, all because powerful denominational machinery and muscle was brought to bear to crush their congregational autonomy. But God meant it for good! New churches emerged that grew and flourished, and the old Convention controlled churches faded. One has relocated and exists under a new name, and the other exists no more.
Connie and I are perhaps the only people who were members of congregations that lost court cases to the American Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention respectively. In 1966 we moved to Normal, Illinois, where I became Assistant Pastor at the Calvary Baptist Church. That church came into being four years earlier after the majority of the members of the First Baptist Church of Normal were denied an appeal before the State Supreme Court due to a lawsuit filed by the minority of church members. Even though the majority won a Circuit Court decision, the minority gained an Appellate Court reversal that led ultimately to the majority being ejected from their house of worship.
That group of faithful believers mortgaged homes and raised money within a few weeks to purchase property one mile north of the original building. In God’s timing it became obvious this was a great blessing. The old brick building, known locally as the “Green Church” due to a curious paint job, was land-locked by the rapidly expanding campus of Illinois State University. When the legal battles began in 1955, ISU was an institution of less than 5,000 students. When we arrived over ten years later it had exploded to more than 15,000 students and continued to grow. Twin 16 story high-rise dormitories were built a half-block from the church and the old Green Church was dwarfed by the continual campus development. Today that church building no longer exists and an apartment building occupies the strategic corner lot at School and Mulberry.
Another facet of the story is that my dad, Dr. George Carlson, testified at the trial on behalf of the majority group in Normal, Illinois. Dad was called as an expert witness by the defense lawyers to give testimony relating to Baptist History and Baptist Polity. This trial was only months before dad was killed in an airplane crash while flying to a hunting camp in Northern Ontario in a small aircraft. Less than ten years later I was called as Assistant Pastor by that majority group in their new church. Today Calvary has a beautiful facility that has undergone six building programs over the past sixty years.
The second church we were members of that experienced a losing legal battle was the Falls Road Baptist Church of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. It was thirty years after going to Normal that we moved to Eastern North Carolina to join the staff of Positive Action for Christ, a Bible curriculum ministry that grew out of the Falls Road church. This church was birthed through the struggles of the North Rocky Mount Baptist Church that some Southern Baptist’s believe was the spark that ignited the fire that led to the conservative resurgence in the SBC. Many Baptists across the South were appalled that their beloved Convention would trample the autonomy of a local church, in order to advance the cause of bureaucratic power and control.
Like the Normal church body, the folks of the North Rocky Mount Baptist Church endeavored to practice democratic congregational church polity, and were sued by a minority of members. Both churches, by strong majorities of over 80%, voted to withdraw from their respective Conventions because of creeping theological liberalism and definite doctrinal deviation. The North Rocky Mount Baptist case went to the North Carolina Supreme Court who handed down a devastating decision flatly denying the historic Baptist distinctive of local church autonomy. The rejected majority went one block down the street and established the independent Falls Road Baptist Church.
Like the Illinois case the Rocky Mount case was messy, and both situations received negative news coverage that characterized the opposing sides as battling Baptists who just couldn’t find a way to get along. In both cases the new churches, with new names, eventfully escaped the bad press and local antipathy to become healthy, growing and productive churches in their communities. But their separate stories are fascinatingly similar in a number of ways, even though they fought different ecclesiastical organizations, in different sections of the country. The similarities are captivating and instructive to the current theological and ecclesiastical climate of the 21st Century.
In 1996 I was called to serve on the staff of Positive Action for Christ, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. That organization grew out of the ministry of Dr. Frank Hamrick, who first was the Youth Pastor and then Pastor of the Falls Road church. Frank founded and authored the club program and curriculum of ProTeens, which became the launching pad for Positive Action Bible Curriculum that now sends Bible teaching materials around the world. Today the Falls Road Church has been renamed Crossroads Baptist and is relocated four miles west on over fifty beautiful acres of prime land. God truly is faithful to His churches.
Here are some practical lessons, in abbreviated form, from these two churches that I hope could be investigated in the future by an interested research scholar.
- Theological liberalism is real
- Baptist churches are either autonomous or not
- Power can be corrupting
- Unbelief is degenerative
- God’s purposes are not thwarted
The purposes for a future study of this subject are threefold: (1) to tell the story of denominational intrusion into these two distinctive local churches, and other churches; (2) to highlight the pernicious encroachment of theological liberalism and legal/social progressivism; (3) to stimulate further serious research into the historical and legal record of denominational interference with autonomous Baptist churches.
- Central Bible Quarterly, Volume: (Summer 1966) Article: An Investigation Of The Abandonment Of Certain Historic Baptist Principles By The Northern Baptist Convention In Court Cases Against Local Churches. Robert Johnson
- Twenty Years of Faith: History of Calvary Baptist Church, Normal, Illinois. Compiled by Mrs. Lillian Stockton, May 1982.
- Southern Baptist Free Press (Periodical) December 1956.
- Tears to Joy: The Amazing Story of a People That Dared To Do Right. W. Gene Gurganus, 1985.
- Also archives are available at both Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, NC, and Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Plymouth, MN.