Even for historians as gifted as Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins, three hundred pages is not nearly enough to do justice to the full diversity of Baptists in America, the title of their new book from Oxford University Press. So I’m not surprised that they pay little attention to the rather pietistic Baptists I know best. Founded as the Swedish Baptist General Conference in 1879, what I’ll henceforth call the BGC dropped the ethnic qualifier at the end of World War II and has been “doing business as” Converge Worldwide since 2008.
Hankins and Kidd certainly aren’t unusual among scholars for their relative disinterest in the Baptist General Conference. Searching six decades’ worth of articles in the ATLA Religion Database, I turned up only a dozen pertaining to the BGC, half from a single issue of American Baptist Quarterly that published the proceedings of a colloquy held in 1986 at Bethel Seminary.
It might be argued that Converge/BGC doesn’t deserve as much attention as the Southern Baptists, American Baptists, or the other five or six Baptist groups claiming more than its quarter-million adherents. But especially since it began to move out of its ethnic, rural enclaves after WWII, the Baptist General Conference has wielded influence out of proportion to its numbers.
Kidd and Hankins name the Calvinist Baptist pastor-scholar John Piper as the “most recognized leader” of the BGC, but at the other end of one theological spectrum, they might have mentioned Greg Boyd, who also taught at Bethel University (founded by Swedish Baptists in 1871) for several years and pastors a megachurch in the Twin Cities that is still linked to the BGC (even as it explores ties with Anabaptist denominations). Or they could have pointed out that the president of the National Association of Evangelicals is Leith Anderson, who spent thirty-five years as senior pastor of a leading Converge/BGC megachurch in the Minneapolis suburbs. For that matter, Anderson served on Bethel’s board of trustees during the presidency of George Brushaber, who doubled as editor of Christianity Today for several years. Or Bethel professor Mike Holmes, one of the world’s leading authorities on the New Testament and the Early Church and the new executive director of the Green Scholars Initiative at the Museum of the Bible.
Then there’s C. Emmanuel Carlson, the Bethel professor and dean who guided the school’s evolution into a four-year college before becoming executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee in 1954. About fifty years ago, Carlson played a crucial role in a national debate that exemplifies one of Hankins and Kidd’s chief interpretive goals:
…to illuminate the tug of war between America’s intense religiosity and its pioneering secularism. Baptists have been major players in both these trends, fighting to bring the gospel of salvation through Christ to all Americans, while also insisting, especially in the Founding era, that America should have no tax-supported, established church. They, perhaps more than most, embody this central tension of American religion. (Baptists in America, p. x)
Baptists, they observe, have always divided on how to interpret the First Amendment’s clauses protecting “free exercise” and banning “establishment of religion.” The clearest example of the debate was provoked by the early 1960s legal and political fight over prayer and Bible study in public schools. While many Southern Baptist members of Congress joined Billy Graham in opposing the Supreme Court’s decisions in Engel v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp, C.E. Carlson professed himself (in Kidd and Hankins’ words) “not disturbed by the elimination of required prayer in schools because he had never believed such rote recitals of prayer had any religious value” (p. 206).
That’s about all that Kidd and Hankins tell us about Emmanuel Carlson, so I’d encourage you to read more about him in the July 2005 issue of The Baptist Pietist Clarion, especially G.W. Carlson’s essay on the earlier Carlson’s commitment to religious liberty. GW quotes from CE’s 1958 address to the American Baptist Convention:
In recent months I have had a growing feeling that if we ever clearly identify the Baptist genius we will find it very closely related to religious liberty. We will find it related to an understanding of the gospel which sees the person as called of God in Christ to a life of responsiveness and obedience to the mind of God, which in turn sends him into service as a free man. Our emphasis has been on responsiveness to God, a responsiveness which springs normally out of full faith and confidence in His word, in His redemption, in His power, in His love.
Our message has been a declaration that God enters personally and directly into the experiences of men in response to our faith. That man must come alive to God and he will find God fully alive toward him, and that in this experience man finds freedom, and the basis for free institutions both ecclesiastical and political.
Inheriting a deep suspicion of established religion, Emmanuel Carlson understood the Baptist congregation to constitute a “prophetic and dissenting community of believers,” a group of “nonconformists” who set themselves “off from society so they find a state of tensions between themselves and much of the prevailing way of life.”
So when he was called before a congressional committee in 1964 to testify on Rep. Frank Becker’s proposed constitutional amendment permitting free religious exercise in public schools, it soon became clear that Carlson was little bothered by the Supreme Court’s recent decisions:
To those who fear that God is somehow being pushed around, locked out, and robbed of his power, our people will reply that God does not need our defense, but that we need the humility to serve him…. The politician who says he believes in reducing the scope of Government and then asks for a Government role in nurturing and guiding the inner man can expect scrutinizing conversations as these issues are pursued by our people in future debate.
Carlson’s testimony is quoted by Kevin Kruse in One Nation under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. Ultimately, the Becker Amendment died in committee, and Kruse concludes that only Dean Kelley, the Methodist pastor who represented the National Council of Churches, was “more important in opposing Becker” than C.E. Carlson.
Carlson’s suspicion of close ties between church and state wasn’t out of step with the BGC mainstream. In its 1951 affirmation of faith (still in effect), the 10th of twelve points affirmed
that every human being has direct relations with God, and is responsible to God alone in all matters of faith; that each church is independent and must be free from interference by any ecclesiastical or political authority; that the Church and State must be kept separate as having differing functions, each fulfilling its duties free from dictation or patronage of the other.
But in 1964 Carlson represented more than the BGC’s 86,793 members. While Kidd and Hankins insist that “Carlson and his successors understood that they spoke for the BJC, not all Baptists” (Baptists in America, p. 206), Kruse writes that “At the House hearings [Carlson] had presented himself as the spokesmen [sic] for twenty million Baptists, ‘insofar as anyone can speak for them.'” Carlson’s rhetoric provoked K. Owen White, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, to write privately to the BJC director, expressing his support for prayer in the public schools, and then to write “an article for the Baptist press that distanced Carlson from the convention”(One Nation under God, p. 226).
When the battle moved to the Senate in late 1964 and early 1965, Carlson “again presented himself as the spokesman for roughly twenty-two million Baptists.” And the new SBC president, H. Franklin Paschall, again distanced his group from the BJC: “Dr. Carlson certainly was not speaking for all Southern Baptists any more than I can speak for all Southern Baptists.” He then proceeded to state his certainty “that Southern Baptists in general favor voluntary prayer and Bible reading in the public schools” (One Nation under God, p. 234).