Apostasy in Baptist Churches in the Early 20th Century
November 1, 2023 (first published August 4, 2020)
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061
The following is excerpted from The Discipling Church: The Church That Will Stand until Jesus Comes, www.wayoflife.org.

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By the end of the 19th century, the Baptist churches in America were very weak and had stopped practicing strict discipline. Writing in 1907, Henry Vedder observed,

There has been a decline in the discipline maintained among Baptist churches, as serious as it is great. In the majority of churches in the cities, exclusions are practically unknown except for some notorious wickedness. Even in cases of notorious wickedness, there is often complete immunity for the offender. Little serious attempt is made to exercise oversight of the lives of members, and to hold them to accountability for departures from even a moderate standard of Christian ethics. The place of exclusion has been taken by a new practice, called ‘dropping,’ by which is meant the simple erasure of a name from the roll of membership, no stigma of any kind attaching to the person so dropped, with no inquiry, no charges, and of course no examination or trial. This growing practice threatens to become universal in much less than another half-century, with results on the spiritual efficiency of the churches and the personal piety of their members that cannot fail to be most disastrous. Nothing can explain such disuse of discipline but a general weakening of moral fiber. This is an alarming phenomenon, and goes far to offset all that has been recorded of material and spiritual progress” (A Short History of the Baptists).

Vedder also remarks that the number of adult baptisms had dropped remarkably.

“Owing to the increasing infrequency of revivals, and the decline of the older evangelism, the majority of the converts are now received into the churches through the Sunday-school and the young people’s society; the conversion of adults becomes with every decade increasingly rare” (A Short History).

Between the 1920s and 1940s, prior to World War II, there was a revival of salvations. Preachers such as J. Frank Norris, Mordecai Ham, Bud Robinson, John. R. Rice, J. Wilbur Chapman, R.A. Torrey, Sam Jones, Hyman Appelman, and Oliver B. Greene had large numbers of converts. But we can find no evidence that there was an accompanying revival in church discipline. Church membership exploded in many congregations, such as the two pastored by Norris in Fort Worth, Texas, and Detroit, Michigan, but they were more like preaching stations and evangelistic centers than Ephesians 4:11-16 type churches. There was some discipline, but not thorough-going. The standards for membership were not very high, and a large number of the members were not committed or faithful. This remained the pattern for the rest of the century.

At the turn of the 20th century, confidence in the Bible was weakened by theological liberalism and Darwinian evolution.

The Northern Baptists became liberal in theology by the beginning of the 20th century. (They were known as the Northern Baptists until 1950, when the name was changed to American Baptist Convention.) For example, in 1918, Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of the influential Riverside Church in New York City, published
The Manhood of the Master, denying that Jesus Christ is God. In 1926, the Northern Baptist Convention voted by a margin of three to one not to evict Riverside Church from the convention.

Liberalism also entered the Southern Baptist Convention in the first half of the 20th century.

By 1902, J.W. Bailey of North Carolina wrote in the
Biblical Recorder that there were a multitude of “theologies” in the Southern Baptist Convention. He said, “Theologies change every day. ... [Baptists do not stand for] formulated dogmas.”

For theological and cultural reasons, the churches became increasingly weak and rejected New Testament discipline.

Even as early as 1874, William Whitsitt, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said, “[I]t is now very difficult to exclude a person for drunkenness or any other ordinary crime” (
Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, Kindle loc. 2138).

In 1878, J.C. Hiden, pastor of First Baptist Church, Greenville, South Carolina, wrote a series of articles in the
Baptist Courier “lamenting the recent trend of lax discipline.”

By 1921, Z.T. Cody, editor of South Carolina’s
Baptist Courier, wrote,

“Our churches have practically no discipline. As to worldliness and minor offences, many of our churches do nothing. But what is far worse, our churches often allow the most serious moral transgressions to go unnoticed. Even at times, to save a disturbance in the church, they will grant a minister a letter who, as they know, has grossly violated, not only the proprieties of life, but the moral law of God. ... What we dread today more than aught else is a disturbance in the ‘peace’ of a church. ... We do not know what is the remedy for this lapsed condition.”

A pastorate that was probably largely unregenerate turned from the Bible as sole authority (in practice if not profession) and looked to “science” for help. The churches stopped depending on spiritual weapons and turned to carnal weapons such as programs and an efficient organization. For example, instead of depending on prayer to prepare for special meetings, they depended on advertising.

There was an emphasis on “efficiency” and “pragmatism” (using whatever works to produce a desired goal).

“Efficiency consisted not in purity or obedience, but in system, organization, and rationality in all areas of church activity. ... progressive church leaders held that the church in the modern age needed a polity based not on ancient authority but on science, rationality, and system. They looked to social scientists and efficiency experts such as Frederick Winslow Taylor, who in this era developed management into a science for producing efficient organizations” (Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, Kindle loc. 2167-2174).

In the 1920s, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary appointed Gaines Dobbins as a “professor of church efficiency.” His 1923 book
The Efficient Church had a wide influence. He claimed that Christ’s ministry in the Gospels was “the perfection of efficiency” and Paul was the “world’s greatest efficiency expert in religion.”

The churches began leaning to the spirit and wisdom of the times instead of God’s Spirit and God’s Word. Instead of separating from the world and its fallen thinking, they learned from the world.

They bowed to the American spirit of individualism and consumerism. They stopped requiring evidence of salvation and practicing discipline so as not to offend potential members. The churches appeased the people’s idolatrous, me-centered desire to shop for a church that met their felt needs. They lowered the spiritual standards, became entertainment-oriented, borrowed from the world to make Christian music more appealing to the unsaved and carnal, softened the preaching, created “youth ministries” that encouraged the generation gap and were merely Christianized versions of the world’s pop culture.

By the last half of the 20th century, this spiritual appeasement produced the seeker-sensitive movement. A regenerate church membership and discipline only gets in the way of the seeker-sensitive philosophy and will never produce a megachurch today.

They bowed to the philosophy of non-judgmentalism and relativism that permeated society.

The concept of the church as pilgrims and strangers in a foreign country was replaced by Americanism and flag waving.

The social gospel produced an emphasis away from evangelism and church planting. Building God’s kingdom on earth through social-justice projects, honest business practices, and maintaining good social order began to replace “saving brands from the burning.”

In 1910, William Poteat, president of Wake Forest College, told the annual Southern Baptist Convention that Baptists were in the best position to save civilization.

In 1920, Richard Edmonds wrote, “Upon the Baptists of the South may rest the salvation of America and of the world from chaos and from sinking back into the darkness of the middle ages” (
The South, America and the World).

The churches bowed to the influence of the “new morality” and allowed church members to live worldly lives. Such things as dating, pre-marital sex, drinking, jazz, rock, divorce, unisex fashions flooded the weak churches.

When fundamentalist leader J. Edwin Orr toured the South in 1935, he was dismayed to find that “quite a majority of believers go to the movies once a week, as well as other questionable amusements, and the unpainted face is more an exception than the rule. The converted Christians behave almost exactly the same as the non-Christians do--there is no separation” (Joel Carpenter,
Revive Us Again, p. 59).

Churches stopped striving for a regenerate church membership.

“Even among the Methodists and Baptists church membership became a graduation exercise from the Sunday school or Young People’s group. Neither the ministers nor church members thought a crisis conversion experience, even of the shake-my-hand variety, was necessary” (William McLoughlin, Jr., Modern Revivalism, p. 454).

This fairly well describes the condition of the church I grew up in (born 1949). I remember one of my non-church friends saying to me, “Why should I come to your church? You folk are no different than we are.”

There was no looking for evidence of salvation. Any profession of faith was accepted and the individual’s salvation was never doubted thereafter, no matter how he lived or what he believed. Most professions were made by children. All of the kids went through the routine of “believing on Christ” and getting baptized at some point in their childhood, but for the most part there was no change of thinking and lifestyle. It wasn’t expected and wasn’t required. Life-changing adult conversions such as we read of in the New Testament were
very rare. Verses such as 2 Corinthians 5:17; Titus 1:16; and 1 John 2:4 were as foreign to our experience and understanding as the Chinese language.

There was no caution about receiving members. Any flimsy testimony was sufficient. Faithfulness was not required. If you attended one service a week or no services you could be a member in good standing.

As a result, each generation brought a larger percentage of unregenerate people into the membership.

The old church covenant from the 1800s hung on the wall, but it was a historic relic, a museum piece. Its principles were not taught or enforced.

There were no serious biblical standards for workers.

There was no serious discipleship, separation, or discipline. I heard the Bible preached and taught, but I was not given a biblical worldview and there was no emphasis on true discipleship.

The churches adapted to the pop culture. They entertained pagan fables such as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Like the proverbial frog in the pot, they followed Hollywood’s descent into ever-deeper moral filth. They didn’t have a testing mindset. They weren’t thorough-going Bible people. They weren’t true disciples of Jesus Christ. They weren’t pilgrims and strangers in a foreign world. Almost no one in the SBC in those days saw Walt Disney or Ed Sullivan as enemies of the truth. The fact that Disneyland had no church on Main Street didn’t register as a warning that Disney was promoting an atheistic worldview and was drawing the hearts and minds of youngsters away from the God of the Bible like a charming Pied Piper. The fact that
The Disney Hour and The Ed Sullivan Show were weakening Sunday evening church attendance with their enticing wares was not a matter of deep concern by the preachers.

The vast majority of Southern Baptist preachers were as soft as their hero Billy Graham. The preaching lost its rebuking, convicting, discipling power.

This is the type of Baptist church that was on nearly “every street corner” in the American South, which was why it was called “the Bible Belt.” Southern Baptist churches were one of the most prominent influences in southern society, but because of their spiritual weakness, church was a thing of little significance and social impact. At some point in childhood, most people went through the motion of “receiving Christ” and then continued to live their lives as they pleased with little to no serious reference to Scripture.

The rock & roll pop culture conquered these churches quickly in the 1950s. At first there were a few voices lifted against rock music and its “live as you please” philosophy, but the resistance faded quickly. By the 1960s, Southern Baptist church kids partied as much as non-church kids. Church kids loved the same music and held the same philosophy of life.

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