How Herschel Hobbs Preserved Baptist Heritage and Missions
By Bruce Prescott
Herschel Hobbs presided over the SBC from 1961-63. His was a time of doctrinal controversy. In his words, Ralph Elliot’s book on the Message of Genesis, “was not the cause but the occasion of this controversy. For several years it had been simmering beneath the surface. There was a growing sense that certain segments of our Convention were becoming more liberal in theology.”1 To avert a division within the Convention, Hobbs met with Porter Routh and Albert McClellan, both officers of the SBC’s Executive Committee, and devised a plan to resolve differences by appointing a committee to review the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message.
Initially the committee was to be composed of the elected presidents of the state conventions and the presidents of the six seminaries. The idea to include the presidents of the six seminaries was dropped over concerns about a conflict of interest. Ironically, decades later, the work of this broadly representative committee would be undone by a select committee stacked with seminary presidents and appointed by a single elected leader.
In his account of the committee’s proceedings, Hobbs emphasized the respect for diversity and the kind of Spirit that prevailed in the work of the 1963 committee. When one committee member insisted on a narrow and rigid interpretation of one of the articles, he quotes another member as saying,
“We must remember that we are not drawing up a statement for the Baptists of one state or section. This statement is for all Southern Baptists. And it must be flexible enough that all of them may be comfortable with it.”2
Herschel Hobbs was a tireless protector of liberty of conscience and an unrelenting opponent of creedalism.
That is why he led his committee to add three paragraphs to the preamble of the BF&M. They made more changes to the preamble than they did to any other part of the 1925 BF&M. Central to the preamble of the 1963 BF&M is the assertion that confessions of faith “have never been regarded as complete, infallible statements of faith, nor as official creeds carrying mandatory authority.” (Emphasis added.)
Ever after Hobbs insisted that, “No one should lose sight of the fact that the preamble to the statement, protecting individual conscience, is a vital part of the overall statement of ‘The Baptist Faith and Message.’ If we ignore it and seek to enforce any one of the seventeen articles, then the statement becomes a creed. And Baptists are not a creedal people. Without this preamble the Southern Baptist Convention would not have adopted the statement. Therefore, no person or group of persons has the right to ignore it.”3 (Emphasis added.)
There can be no doubt that Hobbs and the 1963 BF&M committee, as a whole, were concerned to preserve our Baptist heritage of liberty of conscience. Their efforts served to keep the SBC united around our common commitment to missions for nearly another generation.
Unfortunately, those determined to replace conscience with conformity and to substitute uniformity of beliefs for unity around missions never accepted the work of Hobbs and his committee. The ink had not dried on the pages of the 1963 BF&M before SBC Fundamentalists were trying to rewrite it. Informal groups were organizing as early as 1964. A formal organization was established in 1973 under the name of the "Baptist Faith and Message Fellowship." The BFM Fellowship was the beginning of the "conservative resurgence" that took control of the SBC in the 1980’s and steered it in a creedal direction.
Hobbs’ legacy — the pronounced anti-creedalism of the preamble to the 1963 BF&M — was a constant source of irritation for the Fundamentalists who seized control the SBC. It constantly accused them of exceeding their moral authority when they fired the conscientious missionaries, educators and administrators who refused to bow down to their creedal mandates.
To salve their guilty consciences, SBC Fundamentalists revised the BF&M. Not surprisingly, all three paragraphs that Hobbs and his committee added to the preamble of the BF&M were removed. They were replaced by a three paragraph prelude to creedalism. Central to the preamble of the 2000 BF&M is the assertion that confessions of faith are adopted as “instruments of doctrinal accountability.” (Emphasis added.)
Leadership is best measured by its effects. When Hobbs and the 1963 BF&M committee finished their work, Southern Baptists remained united and we moved forward to a quarter century of unparalleled mission effectiveness. When Rogers and the 2000 BF&M committee finished their work, long serving career missionaries resigned, entire state conventions began to sever relationships with the SBC and more churches began redirecting their mission resources elsewhere.
If only Baptists had paid more attention to Herschel Hobbs. Forty years ago he correctly predicted that, “In all likelihood the only thing that would divide Southern Baptists with regard to their faith would be for one group — to the right or left of center or even in the center — to attempt to force upon others a creedal faith.”4
1 Hobbs, Herschel H. The People Called Baptists & The Baptist Faith and Message. The Herschel H. & Frances J. Hobbs Lectureship in Baptist Faith and Heritage at Oklahoma Baptist University, 1981, p. 28.
2 Ibid., p. 32.
3 Ibid., p. 34.
4 Hobbs, Herschel H. The Baptist Faith and Message. Nashville: Convention Press, 1971, p. 11.
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