No man thinks more highly than I do of the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as the abilities of the very worthy men and women who compose our local Southern Baptist churches. Believers often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those Southern Baptists who view things differently if I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for pretense or ceremony. The question before our convention is one of serious consequences for our future. For my own part, I consider the issue as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the vigor of the debate. Forthright debate is the only way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and to fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, or worse, creating enemies of friends, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my God and of an act of disloyalty toward His kingdom, which I revere above all earthly honors or religious positions.
It is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this wise for pastors engaged in a great and arduous struggle for the liberty wherein Christ has set us free? Are we to be counted in the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which shall bring about our destruction? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it. We are in danger of exalting certain recent denominational traditions and Baptist shibboleths above the sacred Word of God.
I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of God’s word. I know of no way for judging any future course of action but by the sacred text. I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the leaders of our convention for the last ten years to justify the hopes of many that we are becoming a kinder, more focused convention with an aim toward the fulfillment of the Great Commission? Is it simply the proclamation that our convention is more missions oriented that convinces you? Words become simply a snare to your feet when you are led down paths that words have not constructed.
Ask yourselves how gracious proclamations of the desire to win the lost square with the repeated removal from ministry of those otherwise God-called and qualified Southern Baptist missionaries and leaders for tertiary issues which have nothing to do with the gospel. Are demands for conformity and separation for reasons of differences over tertiary issues necessary to a work of missions’ cooperation and world evangelism? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled followers of Jesus Christ and lovers of His Word that brute force must be called in to win back our alleged unity? Let us not deceive ourselves. Any attempt at bringing Baptists into subjugation over tertiary doctrinal matters is the last argument to which those who desire a creedal denomination resort. What does the effort to move our agencies beyond the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 mean, if its purpose be not to force us into spiritual submission and bondage? Can anyone rationally assign any other possible motive for it? Has the Southern Baptist Convention any enemy within her walls to call for all this accumulation of extra-biblical and extra-BFM 2000 demands for conformity? She has none. Any religious tradition or shibboleth that would bring Southern Baptists into a form of spiritual bondage is simply meant for those who live their lives free from the religious chains of man-made tradition.
Demands for tertiary doctrinal conformity are an effort to bind and rivet upon us those chains which Southern Baptist fundamentalism has taken so long forging. And what have we to oppose them? Shall we try argument? We have been trying that for the last two years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been rejected as troublemaking. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? Of course, and we shall never exhaust it, but I beseech you all that we not deceive ourselves. We have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have pleaded; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne of God, we have passed motions at the Southern Baptist Convention, and we have stood strong in the face of severe persecution at the hands of those who felt their positions threatened. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from many who see themselves as the doctrinal watchdogs and guardians of our convention. We must think carefully about indulging the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is but a little room for hope.
If we wish to be free-- if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending as Southern Baptists--if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged to exalt Christ, and evangelical cooperation around His Word, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious coming of our Lord Jesus Christ--we must redouble our efforts! I repeat it, to everyone, we must redouble our efforts! An appeal for participation at all levels of Southern Baptist life and an appeal to the God of hosts is all that is left us!
They tell us that we are weak, short in number, and unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we have totally lost our sense of mission, and when a denominational doctrinal watchdog shall be stationed in every church? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by looking solely at our individual churches and hugging the shadow of personal comforts, until our enemies shall have bound us into legalism and religious bondage hand and foot? We are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. The thousands upon thousands of Southern Baptist pastors and people, armed in the holy cause of gospel liberty, and in such a convention as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which can be sent against us. Besides, we are not alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations and religious conventions, and Who will raise providential circumstances to aid us in our goal. He is zealous for the honor of His Son and His Son’s Bride, and shall not allow religious entity to subvert either. The struggle for the soul of our convention is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, we have no choice. If we were foolish enough to desire leave of the struggle, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but into spiritual submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Fort Worth and Louisville! The day of decision is inevitable--and let it come! I repeat, let it come.
It is in vain to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace-- but there is no peace. The next gale that sweeps from the north in Indianapolis will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that we wish? Liberty! What would they have? Bondage! Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death! Victory in the struggle for the soul of our convention means that all Southern Baptists will be granted liberty in the non-essentials. Defeat means our certain death as a cooperating convention for the cause of Christ and the fulfillment of the Great Commission. In short, we shall grant liberty, or we shall be given death.
In His Grace,
Wording, style, and major theme from Patrick Henry's speech at St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia, on March 23, 1775.