Review: Fundamentalism, Fundraising, and Transformation

Barry Hankins

Barry Hankins is Professor of History at Baylor University.

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Barry Hankins, "Review: Fundamentalism, Fundraising, and Transformation," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

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Andrew Smith. Fundamentalism, Fundraising, and the Transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1919-1925. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2016. xiii + 249pp. ISBN 978-1-62190-227-0.

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With Andrew Smith’s volume, the University of Tennessee Press launches its new series, America’s Baptists, edited by Keith Harper. The book makes a significant contribution to understandings of the Southern Baptist Convention and the relationship of fundraising and fundamentalism.

Most historians who have worked on Southern Baptists know about the infamous Seventy-Five Million Campaign. After World War I, many Protestant denominations, flush with postwar confidence, launched massive fundraising endeavors for missions. Talk of “winning the world for Christ” abounded in northern and southern Protestantism. The SBC’s effort in this respect was the Seventy-Million Campaign, which has been called an “inglorious flop” (7).

But was it? Smith makes a compelling argument that although the campaign fell far short of raising $75 million, combined with the influence of fundamentalism, leaders used the campaign to centralize the SBC, forever changing its organizational structure and therefore its history. The contribution here is significant in at least two ways. First, Smith gives us a clearer picture of just how much the SBC was transformed into a centralized Baptist denomination after WWI. He uses Max Weber’s organizational theory, in an appropriately light way, to show the institutional nature of that centralization. The SBC developed a bureaucracy with “specially trained experts . . . a steady flow of funds . . . compliance to its rules . . . [and] resistance among those strongly committed to democracy” (8).  Second, Smith shows how the key leaders of the SBC—E.Y. Mullins and L.R. Scarborough, in particular—used the threat of fundamentalism to further the centralization of the denomination. Fundamentalist controversies fostered division and strife, threatening denominational efforts to raise funds for evangelism and missions through the Seventy-Five Million Campaign. Outright opposition to the campaign—whether motivated by fundamentalism, concerns for Baptist democracy, or both—amounted to opposition to cooperation, which equaled opposition to evangelism and missions, which was tantamount to theological heresy. In short, denominational loyalty became a theological imperative, and resistance to the denomination became heterodoxy. One might say that after 1925 denominational loyalty was part of the SBC’s creed.

In doing this, Southern Baptist leaders created a middle or third way. They adopted from modernists in northern denominations the centralizing strategy but rejected their theological liberalism. At the same time, SBC leaders adopted from northern fundamentalists their insistence on sound doctrine but rejected their militant and divisive infighting. Insightfully, Smith claims plausibly that Southern Baptists emerged from Seventy-Five Million with their own set of “fundamentals of the faith”—the authority of scripture, the divinity of Christ, and denominational loyalty. Referencing the famous Five Fundamentals of the Faith that northern Presbyterian fundamentalists developed, inerrancy of Scripture, the Virgin Birth of Christ, his substitutionary atonement, his bodily resurrection, and the authenticity of miracles, Smith writes, “In the minds of Southern Baptist leaders, denominational loyalty was becoming the sixth fundamental” (71).  

Crucial to this transformation was the belief in the uniqueness of the South or southern exceptionalism. Here, Smith coins the term “Scarborough Synthesis.” After Scarborough became the point man for promotion of the Seventy-Five Million Campaign, he developed a two-pronged argument for the importance of the denomination. First, the Southern Baptist Convention was the best guarantor of sound doctrine within Protestantism. This idea was connected to the Lost Cause idea of southern uniqueness—the South lost the war, but its spiritual values would nevertheless succeed. The SBC should remain separate from the ecumenical efforts of the North precisely because by standing alone as a southern institution it could best defend sound doctrine. Second, the above mentioned cooperation of congregations within the SBC became itself one of the doctrines to be defended. As Smith quotes Scarborough, “There is not only danger in heretical teachings in theology and in ecclesiology, but there is danger of heresy being taught and practiced in non-co-operation as well. I believe that there is a doctrine of co-operation. . . . It is fundamental, too” (94). Coming out of the Seventy-Five Million Campaign, this Scarborough Synthesis was codified in the 1925 confession, the Baptist Faith and Message, which included an article on cooperation. The result was a denominational identity that rejected northern modernists and northern fundamentalists, forging a third way that emphasized orthodoxy, evangelism, and cooperation.

The middle third of the book explores the ways Southern Baptist leaders cajoled and coerced participation in the Seventy-Five Million Campaign, the effects the campaign had on defending doctrine within Southern Baptist educational institutions, and the dissent from the campaign. The latter included those who rejected the campaign on democratic grounds, theological grounds, or both. Dissenters who combined these, Smith seems to say, can be properly understood as Southern Baptist fundamentalists, as opposed to J. Frank Norris who identified with northern fundamentalism. The star of this Southern Baptist fundamentalism was V.I. Masters, editor of Kentucky’s Western Recorder. He offered an alternative to the Scarborough Synthesis, arguing that centralization and cooperation actually protected modernism, which had already seeped into the denomination, rather than protecting the SBC from modernism. Masters wanted to root out modernism, while Southern Baptist leaders wanted to avoid controversy. Here there is a bit of a lost opportunity for Smith, as he could have connected the desire of Southern Baptist leaders to keep theological controversy at bay for the sake of the Seventy-Five Million Campaign with the development of Bill Leonard’s “Grand Compromise.” Smith does, however, make the connection between resistance to the Scarborough Synthesis and SBC conservatives during the Controversy of the 1980s. As Smith writes, “Although Masters did not live to see his dream realized, he helped inject into the bloodstream of the Southern Baptist Convention an alternative to the centralizing goals of many other SBC leaders” (185). I think it is safe to say Masters’s resistance coursed through the theological bloodstream of the SBC conservatives who desired to shore up doctrine during the Controversy.

The Seventy-Five Million Campaign failed to raise $75 million. But its centralizing focus succeeded in the development of the Cooperative Program in 1925 and the strengthening of denominational boards in 1931. Smith acknowledges there were factors identified by previous scholars that contributed to Southern Baptist centralization. But he makes a compelling case that none were as important as the fundraising of the Seventy-Five Million Campaign, fundamentalism’s threat to that centralizing effort, and the southern exceptionalism that made it all unique.