The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the largest Protestant body in the United States. Baptists emerged after the First Great Awakening in New England and quickly found the southern United States a fertile region for growth. Committed in equal degrees to a conservative doctrine, aggressive evangelism, and local congregational autonomy, Baptists felt the strains of slavery. In 1845 tensions led to the formation of the SBC, which allowed Baptists in the South to pursue missions and educational efforts on their own. Their regional seclusion protected the denomination from the schisms of the early 20th century. Indeed, Baptists eschewed the kind of denominational controls exercised by many other churches, particularly regarding doctrine.
Free of theological controversies and experiencing numerical, institutional, and regional expansion, Southern Baptists enjoyed great self-confidence. Baptists believed that they were called to convert the South, that the South would lead the nation, and that the United States would lead the world. Denominational unity was critical to fulfilling this mission, but by the second half of the century expansion brought diversity, and a series of small theological rifts in SBC educational efforts portended greater controversies in the future.
Although their divisions were mild in comparison with debates in other denominations, Baptists in the South suffered a more shattering blow during the Civil Rights controversies of the 1940s–70s. Many southerners saw these changes as a threat to their traditional way of life. Conservatives grew anxious and less tolerant of change of any kind; progressives felt remorse over decades of SBC inaction. By the 1970s prosperity and urbanization seemed to be taking the South into the secular currents sweeping the rest of the nation. It was against that background that a bitter battle between conservatives and moderates exploded during the 1980s.
For years, conservatives contended, denominational boards and seminaries had been controlled by liberals who were allowing liberalism to undercut the theological foundation of the church’s evangelistic mission. Now they were organizing to take back their church. From the moderates’ perspective this same effort appeared a departure from Baptist traditions of respect for local autonomy and the right of believers to interpret the Bible for themselves. Moderates charged that conservatives were advocating the kind of coercive denominational intrusions and the mingling of religion and politics that Baptists traditionally rejected. Conservatives successfully framed the debate as one of accepting or rejecting the Bible, and the majority of SBC members sided with them. Moderates charged them with securing power through questionable parliamentary maneuvers, but, by the end of the 1980s, the conservative takeover of the SBC was all but complete.