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Sometimes I might say something

In the abortion debate, it seems like it's mainly a debate between evangelical Christians and everybody else. The modern Christian political action in support for life largely stems from Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority. Falwell pastored at Thomas Road Baptist Church, which eventually joined the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention and its members have long been among the strongest opponents of abortion. However, would it surprise you to know that before, in 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention issued a statement in support of abortion?

This seeming reversal of policy was not so much because of people changing their opinions on abortion after Roe v. Wade in 1973 as it was because of the change of leadership within the Southern Baptist Convention.

For background, the early 1900s saw the rise of liberal Christianity within America in the wake of historical criticism. This led to schisms throughout basically every denomination. For the most part, the Modernists prevailed over the Fundamentalists, but obviously just because the leadership had largely changed positions did not mean that everyone was so willing.1

The Southern Baptist Convention was a little late to the party. Baptists typically believe in the autonomy of the local church, so the organization of the SBC was born out of practicality rather than trying to unify the church in doctrine.2 The rise of modernism did motivate them however to draft a statement of faith to try to stave off "the prevalence of naturalism in the modern teaching."3 Modernism still came however, and the convention eventually still became divided like all the others.

By the 1970s, the SBC was very contentiously divided. At the 1970 SBC meeting, Herschel Hobbs, a former president of the SBC, was booed off the stage for trying to defend a Bible commentary that called Genesis a fantasy.4 Yet, the abortion statement in question was issued the next year at their meeting in St. Louis. I think it's important to note here that this was the largest endorsement of abortion the SBC would ever give, even though they would fight over it for the next decade and beyond. Also, while this was definitely not a conservative position, it was not the complete reversal of position that many other Protestant groups had taken during 60s and 70s.5 It only endorsed abortion in cases of "rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother." They were still opposed to abortion in 99% of cases and said that "society has a responsibility to affirm through the laws of the state a high view of the sanctity of human life, including fetal life, in order to protect those who cannot protect themselves."6

Throughout the 1970s, the SBC started to drift back towards conservatism. During this time, the conservatives realized that the SBC President nominated members of the Committee on Boards, who nominated the Committee on Nominations, who nominated appointees for vacant positions—all meaning that if they just held the presidency until the disagreeing committee members had been replaced, the liberals could not nominate any opposition.7 Long story short, they succeeded in their plan. Beginning in 1979 and over the course of the 1980s, the conservatives gained total control over the SBC.8

Along with the Conservative Resurgence came the convention's reversal of their policy on abortion. Once they won their first election in 1980, the conservatives reversed the SBC's policy and began to adamantly oppose abortion in all cases except when the mother's life is in danger.9 They then remained in power, and the SBC has unequivocally opposed abortion ever since.

There are also, of course, scriptural reasons for people changing their minds, and I assume the Conservative Resurgence helped bring these to the attention of members of SBC churches.

In summary, Evangelicals have always generally opposed abortion, even before Roe v. Wade. Many just saw it as just a Catholic doctrine to strongly oppose it in all cases, and they generally supported separation of church and state. Christianity was growing more liberal, but the SBC was a more conservative branch. The conservatives prevailed in the convention and reversed their predecessors' policy. More broadly, the churches that became more liberal and began supporting abortion were no longer considered to be conservative churches. So of course, the churches that remained Evangelical would still be Evangelical. The SBC just almost moved away from that.

  1. Randall Balmer, Protestantism in America

  2. Leon McBeth, Baptist Beginnings

  3. Preamble to the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message 

  4. Faught, Jerry L, II. 2003. “Round Two, Volume One: The Broadman Commentary Controversy.” Baptist History and Heritage 38 (1): 94–114. 

  5. Sauer, R. 1974. “Attitudes to Abortion in America, 1800-1973.” Population Studies 28 (1): 53–67. doi:10.2307/2173793. 

  6. 1971 Resolution on Abortion

  7. Harry McBeth, Texas Baptists: a Sesquicentennial History

  8. James, Rob B., The Fundamentalist Takeover in the Southern Baptist Convention

  9. 1980 Resolution on Abortion

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