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A confession rejected and a denomination undone

Have we learned anything from the Northern Baptist debacle 100 years ago?


Harry Emerson Fosdick Wikimedia Commons

A confession rejected and a denomination undone

One hundred years ago, the nation was gripped by an antagonizing struggle over whether or not a Baptist convention had the authority to disfellowship a church for doctrinal drift. The church in question was the most famous in America—home to the Rockefeller family—and pastored by one of America’s most influential pastors: the brilliant and eloquent Harry Emerson Fosdick. How the Northern and Southern Baptist Conventions responded differently to questions of confessionalism and dissent determined their trajectory for the next century.

The question is, have we learned from their mistakes, or are we doomed to repeat them?

In 1925, the famous Park Avenue Baptist Church of New York City called Harry Emerson Fosdick to succeed the liberal Cornelius Woelfkin as pastor. Though ordained a Baptist, Fosdick had previously been preaching minister at New York’s First Presbyterian Church, until coming under investigation by the local presbytery for his liberal doctrinal views. Fosdick hoped that the autonomous nature of Baptist churches would provide greater freedom for advocating modernist positions.

Fosdick differed most fundamentally with Baptist principles not over female pastors but over “open membership”—whether a professing believer can be admitted to membership in a Baptist church apart from being baptized as a believer. As a pastor, Fosdick had openly expressed his disdain for Baptist confessionalism, insisting that baptism was “altogether an individual affair.” And he could not have cared less whether baptism was by immersion or sprinkling.

Park Avenue’s decision to call Fosdick set the church on a collision course with conservatives in the Northern Baptist Convention, who argued that Fosdick’s practice of “open communion” put the church outside of doctrinal alignment with the convention. They were clearly correct.

Since 1922, conservatives in the Northern Baptist Convention had been urging the adoption of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith—the most widely used Baptist confession in the world. A shared statement of belief would have given the convention a set of shared standards for assessing whether a church held the denomination’s common doctrinal commitments. Those in Fosdick’s camp, however, rejected the notion of confessionalism, insisting that the principle of local church autonomy prevented the convention from insisting on doctrinal standards for cooperation.

For Southern Baptists, adopting a revised and expanded version of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith was not an act of division but a means of ensuring unity.

To oppose the adoption of the New Hampshire Confession at the Northern Baptist Convention in 1922, the ever-shrewd Cornelius Woelfkin succeeded in passing a substitute motion: “The Northern Baptist Convention affirms that the New Testament is the all-sufficient ground of our faith and practice, and we need no other statement.” Thrown by Woelfkin’s sleight-of-hand, the convention accepted Woelfkin’ substitute motion 1,264 to 634.

Still insistent on fighting for doctrinal standards, the conservatives rallied in 1925, making the case that the enrollment committee ought not admit the delegates of Fosdick’s church since, through the practice of “open communion,” the church was effectively no longer Baptist. In a remarkable statement the chair responded that the convention did not possess any definition of what constituted a Baptist church. Conservatives lost by a vote of 912 to 364.

The third and final straw for confessionalism took place at the convention in 1926. Minnesota pastor W. B. Riley brought a motion to require that churches practice immersion as a requirement for membership in the convention. But after protracted debate, Riley’s motion lost. For the Northern Baptist Convention, this was the beginning of the end.

The Northern Baptist Convention’s failure to agree on doctrinal standards for cooperation is contrasted with the Southern Baptist Convention’s adoption of the Baptist Faith and Message in 1925. While presenting the report of the Committee, E. Y. Mullins explicitly affirmed the confessional nature of the Southern Baptist Convention. “We recommend the adoption by the Convention of the following statement of the historic Baptist conception of the nature and function of confessions of faith in our religious and denominational life.”

For Southern Baptists, adopting a revised and expanded version of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith was not an act of division but a means of ensuring unity. As Mullins explained, he believed it would “clarify the atmosphere and remove the causes of misunderstanding, friction, and apprehension.”

The differences between Northern and Southern Baptist Conventions over the past 100 years can be explained many ways—but they cannot be explained apart from the question of confessionalism and the need for doctrinal fidelity. The one rejected confessionalism while the other embraced it. One hundred years later, have we learned anything?


Caleb Morell

Caleb Morell (M.Div., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a senior pastoral assistant at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. He lives with his wife and two children in Washington, D.C.


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