Mississippi Baptists, Darwin’s theory and a confession of faith

Copyright by Robert C. Rogers and the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.

     The hottest topic among Baptists in the 1920s was alarm over the teaching of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution; this concern resulted in the adoption, in 1925, of the very first confession of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention. Mississippi Baptists were directly involved in these events.

     The controversy heated up in 1921 when J. Frank Norris, the outspoken conservative pastor of First Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas, accused Baylor University of supporting Darwinism. Mississippi Baptists expressed concern over the teaching of the theory of evolution as early as 1922. On October 24, 1922, the Simpson County Baptist Association appealed to the State Convention to appoint a committee “to investigate the character of text-books used in the free schools and colleges of our state… especially if in these schools any teaching is discovered that contradicts the unmistakable teachings of the Word of God.” The State Convention president appointed a committee made up of Baptist educators, to investigate the matter. The committee failed to report in 1923, but that year, Mississippi Baptist evangelist Thomas T. Martin published an anti-evolution book entitled Hell and the High Schools: Christ or Evolution, Which? Martin criticized the educational elite, “a lot of high brows supported by your taxes,” and called on parents to take control of their children’s education.1    

    In 1924, J. W. Provine asked that the committee be relieved of its responsibility, “since the Committee is composed of those connected with the schools.” The Committee on Committees appointed a new committee at the 1924 State Convention, which reported a resolution the very next day, decrying that public school textbooks “almost universally teach Evolution,” and saying “the teaching of this hypothesis is both a perversion of science and a violation of the religious freedom of our people.” The resolution protested the use of tax dollars to oppose Christian doctrine, warned schools not to employ books or teachers that taught evolution, and petitioned the legislature of Mississippi to instruct the Text Book Commission “to adopt no books for use in our schools that teach the unproven hypothesis of Evolution.”2

     In 1925, the state superintendent of schools responded by banning the teaching of evolution in the state’s classrooms, although the Mississippi legislature rejected a law against teaching evolution. However, Tennessee did pass an anti-evolution law in 1925, which sparked a controversy that was literally heard around the nation. John Scopes, a teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was put on trial for violating the law. The famous lawyer Clarence Darrow defended Scopes, and the prosecution was led by William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic nominee for president. The Scopes “Monkey Trial,” as it was nicknamed, turned into a media circus, as it was aired live on the radio and heard by millions. The following year, Mississippi also passed a law against teaching evolution. The American Civil Liberties Union offered to represent any teacher willing to challenge the Mississippi bill in the courts, but no one took them up on the offer.3  

     It was in this environment that the Southern Baptist Convention adopted its very first doctrinal statement in 1925. Although local churches and associations had published statements of faith for years, larger Baptist organizations had resisted doing so, believing their only creed should be the Bible. In response to concerns raised by J. Frank Norris and others about liberalism, particularly evolution, Baptists began discussing the possibility of having an official statement of faith. This feeling was strong in Mississippi, as in 1924, Mississippi Baptists adopted a resolution that requested that the trustees and faculties of Mississippi Baptist schools prepare a statement of beliefs to which each teacher would be required to subscribe. Similar discussions were happening in other states and at the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1924, the Southern Baptist Convention rejected a call to make a doctrinal statement binding, but it did elect a committee to write a confession of faith, chaired by SBC president and Mississippi native, E. Y. Mullins. With the national attention of the Scopes trial, Southern Baptists were ready to adopt the Baptist Faith and Message, a statement of faith recommended by Mullins’s committee in 1925.4

     Mullins chose to model the Baptist Faith and Message after the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, which modified some of the strong Calvinist language of other Baptist confessions. Regarding God’s work of grace, the new faith statement said, “Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which he regenerates, sanctifies, and saves sinners. It is perfectly consistent with the free agency of man…” Instead of saying that Baptists were the only true church, as Landmark Baptists would have it, it simply said, “A church of Christ is a congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel…” While the statement did not mention evolution, it affirmed that “Man was created by the special act of God, as recorded in Genesis.” The next year, in 1926, George W. McDaniel explicitly stated in his presidential address that Southern Baptists rejected evolution. A resolution was adopted making this “McDaniel Statement” binding on all those working for Southern Baptist institutions. Likewise, in November 1926 the Mississippi Baptist Convention adopted a statement of faith that all college faculty were required to sign. In the first sentence, it affirmed belief in “God the creator of all things.”5

SOURCES:

1 O. S. Hawkins, In the Name of God: The Colliding Lives, Legends, and Legacies of J. Frank Norris and George W. Truett (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2021), 95; Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1922, 28; Randy J. Sparks, Religion in Mississippi (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), 182.

2 Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1924, 20, 26-28.

3 Sparks, 182; Thomas S. Kidd, American History, vol. 2 (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2019), 130-131.

4 Jesse C. Fletcher, The Southern Baptist Convention: A Sesquicentennial History (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 141-142; Robert A. Baker, The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People, 1607-1972 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1974), 398-399; Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1924, 28.

5 Fletcher, 142-143; Baker, 398-399; Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1925, 72-73, Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1926, 21-22.

About Bob Rogers

Hospital chaplain in Mississippi. Adjunct history professor (online). Formerly a pastor for 33 years in Mississippi and Georgia. Avid cyclist.

Posted on September 7, 2022, in history, Mississippi, Southern Baptists and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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