Fundamentalist-led Southern Baptists convening

Southern Baptists will go back to the future when they begin their national convention in Houston tomorrow.

Fourteen years ago in Houston, the Baptists began a "holy war" that divided the nation's largest Protestant group into fundamentalist and moderate camps.


The fundamentalists stunned moderates at the 1979 gathering when the Rev. Adrian Rogers of Memphis, Tenn., won the presidency from moderate candidates, who had had a hammerlock on leadership for more than a decade.

It was the beginning of a series of fundamentalist victories that have left that faction in sole control of the 15.5 million-member national convention.


Fundamentalists control all six Southern Baptist seminaries, foreign and domestic missionary organizations and the Sunday School Board, one of the nation's largest religious publishing houses.

In effect, two national conventions are now held.

Moderates, who still control many independent state conventions, including the Baptist General Convention of Texas, gave up the fight for the national convention three years ago.

Many won't even attend the Houston gathering. Moderates have formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which met earlier this year in Birmingham, Ala. Although moderates remain in the denomination, many people believe that they will eventually split from the fundamentalist leadership.

During the Houston convention, some 20,000 voting representatives are expected to debate a report on Freemasonry that calls some traditions of the fraternal order incompatible with Baptist teachings. But the report leaves the decision on membership up to individual Baptists.

Beaumont physician Larry Holly is leading the opposition to Masonry, which he has called "evil."

But some 1.3 million Southern Baptists are Masons. Among conservatives calling for a rejection of any criticism of Freemasonry is U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, D-N.C., a Mason.

Baptists may take time to criticize President Clinton's policies, even though he is a Southern Baptist. A Christian Life Commission statement recently issued by the commission's president, Richard Land, denounces Mr. Clinton's plan to allow gays in the military.


One of the most controversial actions may come up this afternoon before the convention starts.

The Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board trustees will meet to decide whether to approve the Rev. Jerry Rankin as board president.

Seventy-five percent of the trustees must approve Mr. Rankin, former associate pastor of Sagamore Hill Baptist Church in Fort Worth. He is a controversial choice to some because he supports contemporary "gifts of the Spirit," such as speaking in unknown tongues and faith healing.

Most Baptists say that emphasis on such charismatic practices is divisive and argue that such gifts of the Holy Spirit, mentioned in the New Testament, were operative only during the time of the Apostles.

Mr. Rankin's election could stir controversy during the meeting, which will continue through Thursday at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

But the election of a convention president, which in the days of the moderate-fundamentalist battles was the central event of any national convention, won't cause a ripple this year.


The Rev. Edwin Young, the current president and pastor of Second Baptist Church of Houston, will be approved by acclamation unless he decides not to serve another year. Several weeks ago, published reports said he was considering stepping down from the post.