How the Southern Baptist Convention Became Pro-life

Messengers to the 1980 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis approved the first of more than 20 pro-life resolutions adopted by the convention over the next several decades. SBHLA Photo
Messengers to the 1980 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis approved the first of more than 20 pro-life resolutions adopted by the convention over the next several decades. SBHLA Photo

In 1979, Larry Lewis picked up a copy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and saw a full-page ad listing the Southern Baptist Convention among denominations that affirmed the right to abortion.

“Right there beside the Unitarians and universalists was the Southern Baptist Convention,” Lewis, a St. Louis pastor who went on to become president of the Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board), told Baptist Press. “… That bothered me a lot.”

So Lewis did something about it, proposing in 1980 the first of more than 20 pro-life resolutions adopted by the SBC over the next few decades. When Lewis became HMB president of in 1987, one of his first actions was to create the office of abortion alternatives to help churches establish crisis pregnancy centers.
Thanks to Lewis and others, newspapers do not call the SBC pro-choice anymore.

Before Roe v. Wade

In 1979 though, it may have seemed a reasonable classification.

Baptists and Roman Catholics had long agreed that life begins at conception, but Baptist scholars, unlike their Catholic counterparts, generally did not develop biblical and theological arguments regarding unborn children. By the mid-20th century, abortion rarely came up among Southern Baptists, and average church members had only “a general feeling that abortion was wrong,” Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, told Baptist Press.

Things got worse in the ’60s. “The whole nation and culture kind of went off the rails and lost its moral moorings, including any kind of understanding of the sanctity of pre-born life,” he said.

Between 1965-68, abortion was referenced at least 85 times in popular magazines and scholarly journals, but no Baptist state paper mentioned abortion and no Baptist body took action related to the subject, according to a 1991 Ph.D. dissertation by Paul Sadler at Baylor University.

In 1970, a poll conducted by the Baptist Sunday School Board found that 70 percent of Southern Baptist pastors supported abortion to protect the mental or physical health of the mother, 64 percent supported abortion in cases of fetal deformity and 71 percent in cases of rape.

Three years later, a poll conducted by the Baptist Standard newsjournal found that 90 percent of Texas Baptists believed their state’s abortion laws were too restrictive.

Support for abortion rights was not limited to theological moderates and liberals. At New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the early 1970s, some conservative students who went on to become state convention presidents and pastors of prominent churches supported abortion for reasons other than to save the life of the mother, Richard Land, former president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told BP.

“They pretty much bought into the idea that life begins when breath begins, and they just thought of [abortion] as a Catholic issue,” Land, who attended New Orleans Seminary between 1969-72, said of his fellow students.

A 1971 SBC resolution on abortion appeared to capture the consensus. It stated that “society has a responsibility to affirm through the laws of the state a high view of the sanctity of human life, including fetal life.”

But the resolution added, “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 fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

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SOURCE: Baptist Press
David Roach

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