Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts

First Advisor

Dean-Otting, Miriam M.

Second Advisor

Rhodes, Royal W.

Third Advisor

Edmonds, Ennis Barrington


In 1979, the Southern Baptist Convention experienced a revolution. Conservatives---who had been the silent majority in the SBC---turned out in force at the June convention meeting to elect a conservative president. This event began a decade-long process known as "the controversy" that would wrest control of the denomination from the previously-dominant faction (called "moderates"). While conservatives cite the doctrine of inerrancy (the belief that the Bible is free from errors) as their key motivator, many other factors also came into play. The most salient of these was the freedom of thought inherent in Baptist polity, which allows for extended periods of what Victor Turner deems "breach." Baptists are no strangers to breach; controversy has plagued their denomination since its inception. In particular, the SBC has experienced internal debates over the Book of Genesis since the 1870s. These debates indicate the development of a breach in the SBC for over a century before the controversy occurred. In addition to this breach over the Bible, members of the two factions expressed different views on gay marriage, abortion, the Religious Right, and the ordination of female pastors. Both sides attempted to justify their views with scripture, so the key issue was still the breach over the Bible. At what point did the moderates' advocacy of "soul competency" (the belief that every person can stand before God and interpret scripture independently) contradict the conservatives' belief in biblical inerrancy? Moderates and conservatives both violated other aspects of traditional Baptist polity in the latter half of the 20th century, but the limit of soul competency remains the most contentious issue of the controversy. Because Baptists have traditionally supported biblical authority on spiritual issues while also advocating the ability of every person to interpret the Bible for him or herself, conflicts like the moderate-conservative controversy are inevitable in Baptist organizations. Baptist polity inherently lends itself to extended periods of unresolved breach, meaning that the key player in the Southern Baptist controversy was the SBC itself.


Includes bibliographical references: pages 99-104

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