Seven questions with Paul Pressler about the Conservative Resurgence
*This article originally appeared in the June / July 2014 issue of Towers. You can read the full issue here.
Thirty-five years ago this June, Tennessee pastor Adrian Rogers became the first theologically conservative president of the Southern Baptist Convention as part of the effort now called the Conservative Resurgence. Here, Towers editor Aaron Cline Hanbury asks Judge Paul Pressler, who is one of a small group of men who planned, organized and helped carry out the Conservative Resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention, about the election of Rogers as president of the convention, and about the conservative movement in general. Edited for clarity.
1. When did you begin thinking about the need for reform in the SBC?
I went to Philip Andover, a boy’s prep school when I was 16. And the Baptist pastor there was very liberal, and his wife was from North Carolina — she came from a liberal group in North Carolina of Southern Baptists. And that’s when I first realized there were problems. And I picked up little pieces like that, and then Ralph Elliot’s book [The Message of Genesis] was a real eye-opener shocker to me.
2. What needed to happen in the convention from a process perspective in order to succeed?
I learned from Bill Powell, who was the editor of Southern Baptist Journal, of the way the convention works, with the president appointing the committee on committees, and the committee appoints the committee on nomination that nominates all the trustees. And, the way my mind works, I don’t care how many resolutions you pass, if you don’t have the power to carry out those resolutions, you don’t accomplish anything. So my influence was to direct us not to pass resolutions, necessarily — that’s fine and good, if you want to, but, instead, to elect officers who could get the right people in the right places to do things.
3. In 1979 in Houston, messengers at the convention elected Adrian Rogers as the first conservative in a series of conservatives. Why did the organizers of the movement choose Rogers to nominate?
We were ideologically bent, not candidate-bent. And so we went around and told people we could change by electing the right president. Then the night before the [1979 annual meeting in Houston] … we talked, we prayed, we fellowshipped and then we discussed for an hour or so who the best candidate would be. And three names came to the surface: Adrian Rogers, Bailey Smith and Jerry Vines. … Adrian was the overwhelming choice. When I told him, he said, “That’s good, but I’m not going to be nominated.” … So I went to bed Monday night thinking we didn’t have a candidate. What happened after that is that Adrian Rogers ran into Mrs. Bertha Smith. … She said, “Adrian, God’s changing my mind: he’s telling me you’re to be elected as president of the convention tomorrow.” Then Adrian went up to his hotel room and [his wife] Joyce was up there — and Joyce had been very opposed to his running. And she said, “Adrian, God’s changing my mind. I think you’re supposed to be nominated tomorrow.” Well, that really shook him, because the two women he was closest to in the world — and the two who had been telling him not to run — had changed their minds. So he took the elevator down to walk around, and when he got to the first floor, coming from one direction was Paige Patterson coming from the other direction was Jerry Vines. And he said, “Men, we gotta talk.” So they got back on the elevator and went in with Joyce. They prayed the matter through, and Adrian decided to run. So I found out who I was voting for when I came down the morning of the election.
4. Can you describe the 1979 election of Adrian Rogers?
My son, when he was 10 years old, developed a seizure condition. And he was having a particularly hard time [the morning of the election]. … So I was completely preoccupied during the vote.
I need to tell you another story: about four times before the convention, I had this dream of God’s people marching along Main St. in Houston with that white line in the center. We were marching to the convention hall, and we’re singing “We’re Marching to Zion.” I told my wife Nancy about it; I had it at least four times. We had no idea it would have any significance. Then the day of the election, I heard the nominations. … And there was confusion on the stage [because the registration secretary could not be found]. And then [presiding president Jimmy Allen] said, “Well, we have to do something until we find [the recorder]. Song leader, come lead us in a song.” The song leader came and said, “Let’s all stand and sing, ‘We’re Marching to Zion.’” And I burst out crying and dropped into my seat. I told Paige Patterson, who was next to me, “Adrian’s won without a run-off. I’ve had a sign.” And in five minutes, Adrian had won without a run-off.
It is unbelievable. … But, I think sometimes when you’re in a great deal of conflict, God gives you a sign that this is his and not yours.
5. Why was the conservative movement worth the fight?
If we have no standard by which we judge things, then there’s no solid basis of belief. And if I didn’t believe the Bible was true, why should I believe Jesus was virgin born? Why should I believe he died a penal substitutionary death on the cross to pay for my sins? Why should I believe he’s coming again? Why should I believe there’s victory in Jesus if it’s just somebody else’s idea? The Bible is the basis of what I believe. And, therefore, if people come out of our schools and go into our churches teaching doubt, then we are not going to have conviction preached from the pulpit. The Episcopalians are dying, the Methodists are in bad shape and the Presbyterians are dissolving, and we’d be in the same place. But you preach the Word and God blesses. So that’s why I wrote my book entitled A Hill on Which to Die, because I’m not going to die over women’s ordination. … It’s not a primary issue; it’s a secondary issue. But there are two primary issues as far as I’m concerned: one is the inerrancy of Scripture, and two is the blood atonement. And if you’re right on those two issues, you’re not going to be wrong on much else.
6. What were the respective roles of you and Paige Patterson in the Conservative Resurgence?
We just were friends. We didn’t sit down and say, “You do this and I’ll do that.” The one time he told me what to do was when I went up to Waco, Texas, and had dinner with some students who had been saved from our youth group. … Here were some young people I’d seen saved and their faith was being attacked at a school I was giving money to support. And so I called Paige and said, “We’ve got to do something.” He said, “Well, let me pray about it.” He called me back in a couple of days and said, “Alright, I’ll join you and we’ll do it together. But you have to go see eight or 10 people before to explain what’s going on.” And he gave me the names like Jerry Vines, Homer Lindsay Jr., Adrian Rogers, Jimmy Draper, Richard Jackson, Bailey Smith. So I took a trip around the country and I called these people and I said, “This is Paul Pressler from Houston, Texas. I’m worried about the convention. I think I know a way to solve it, if you’ll give me one hour of your time.” And everybody agreed.
7. What responsibility did the conservative movement leave the current generation of Southern Baptists?
Understand what the problem was and make sure that it is not repeated.
I am somewhat concerned about a lot of our fabulous young preachers who want to be so independent, but they don’t understand or recognize the need to work together. … Some of these wonderful young preachers who do their own thing and don’t support the convention, don’t like bureaucracy. Well, I don’t like bureaucracy, either. But you’ve got to work together to do things a local church can’t do. And so the other recommendation: I’d say don’t be so conceited that you think can do it all yourself, and recognize that we must cooperate. And give up a little of your independence to be able to accomplish things together that are essential for the kingdom.