What "Being Baptist" Meant for Southern Baptists during World War II

By Shurden, Walter B. | Baptist History and Heritage, Summer-Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

What "Being Baptist" Meant for Southern Baptists during World War II


Shurden, Walter B., Baptist History and Heritage


My purpose is to describe the Baptist identity from the perspective of Southern Baptists during the years from 1938 to 1946.

In other words, I am concerned with a single question: what did being Baptist mean for Southern Baptists during these years? The focus, therefore, is not, as the title may suggest, on Southern Baptists' attitudes toward war or their commitment, or lack of it, to peacemaking during World War II. (1) Rather, the concern here is to depict Southern Baptists' understanding of the Baptist identity during the war years.

Moreover, I am not seeking to describe the major features of the Southern Baptist Convention itself during these years. Except as those issues may have impacted their perception of the Baptist identity, I will not address Southern Baptists' celebrated commitment to denominational evangelism and missions, their passion for Christian education at the seminary and college levels, their concern--indeed, almost fixation--for the denomination's financial solvency, their growth and expansion patterns, their social concerns or lack of them, their constitutional revisions and by law changes, the almost total lack of women in their deliberations, or other such factors characterizing the internal life of the denomination. While important-even crucial-issues for the denomination's history, these have been addressed in varying degrees in the three standard denominational histories by W. W Barnes, Robert A. Baker, and Jesse C. Fletcher. (2) What these denominational histories failed to address clearly, however, was how Southern Baptists understood the Baptist identity during the period of World War II.

World War II began in 1939, although the United States did not enter the fray until 1941. The war ended in 1945. So, the chronological parameters of this paper include one year prior to the war to one year after the war. To fudge on the dates just slightly, therefore, I have portrayed here the Southern Baptist perception of what it meant to be Baptist at the middle of the twentieth century.

Southern Baptist Documents Profiling the Baptist Identity

Where does one go to find answers to the question of what Southern Baptists considered to be the Baptist identity at mid-century? Baptists are not a creedal people--a point made abundantly clear in the sources for this paper--so, one lacks access to a Baptist Book of Concord, such as the Lutherans possess, or a Book of Common Prayer, such as the Episcopalians own, or even a Westminster Confession, such as the-Presbyterians treasure.

One could analyze the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message (3) (BFM-25) in search of the Baptist identity, but that was ill-advised in this study for two reasons. One, the BFM-25 did not fit the chronological period under study. And two, even though still on the Southern Baptist books and unrevised at the beginning of the war, the BFM-25 never held much sway or achieved denominational prominertce. Certainly, it had not been creedalized as a kind of Baptist Westminster by the beginning of World War II.

W. W. Barnes, for forty years crusty professor of church history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, underscored the virtual irrelevance of the confession of faith in Southern Baptist life. In 1934, almost exactly a decade after the adoption of the BFM-25 and in one of the most prophetic books on Southern Baptist history I know anything about, Barnes teased about the denominational insignificance of the BFM-25. He wrote: "The convention adopted the statement by a large majority of the messengers present, but it has been received by Southern Baptist churches generally with a tremendous outburst of silence." (4) So, while the BFM-25 possessed-and possesses-valuable descriptions of the Baptist identity, it had not shaped the Southern Baptist awareness of the Baptist identity in a powerful way by the beginning of World War II. Indeed, few, if any, references to the BFM-25 appeared in the research for this particular paper. …

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