The ultra-conservative wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, which two weeks ago appeared to be in the driver's seat of the nation's largest Protestant body, has just suffered two body blows.
On May 7, Memphis pastor Adrian Rogers, who was catapulted into the convention's presidency by the conservative coalition last year, announced he would not run for the traditional second term when the convention meets in St. Louis next month. Rogers, who had been considered a shoo-in for a second term, said he wanted to spend more time with his family and congregation.
Three days later in Dallas, one of the most powerful figures in the conservative coalition, the Rev. W. A. Criswell, put the brake on his associate, Paige Patterson.
In a newspaper interview, Criswell said that Patterson, in trying to keep "all Southern Baptist institutions true to the word of God in its credibility, infallibility and inerrancy," had indulged in tactics that offended too many Baptists.
Patterson, who is both an associate minister of Criswell's First Baptist Church and president of the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies, has been one of the leaders of the movement to purge the convention of what they have termed "creeping liberalism."
A year ago, at the denomination's Houston convention, Patterson and Houston Appeals Court Judge Paul Pressler spearheaded the campaign that elected Rogers on the first ballot. The open flexing of political muscle in the church was widely criticized as contrary to Baptist tradition.
The Rogers election also drew charges of registration and election fraud. A special investigation found a number of irregularities but ruled that they would not have influenced the outcome of the election.
Only a month ago, Patterson, in a private meeting in Dallas, detailed the conservative coalition's plans to try to control the election of convention presidents for the next decade.
The control of the presidency is crucial in Southern Baptist affairs since the president appoints members of convention committees that, in turn control the nominations of trustees of Southern Baptist agencies and institutions.
The convention's major seminaries have been among the prime targets of the conservatives, who say that the schools do not teach that every word in the Bible is literally true.
Some Southern Baptists were upset earlier this month when Patterson sent denominational papers a list of seven seminary professors he accused of liberal teachings. The list included some of the most prominent names in the denomination, some of whom said they had been quoted out of context by Patterson.
But Patterson's zeal apparently created a backlash. On May 6, a highlevel meeting was convened at his First Baptist Church in Dallas, the largest congregation in the denomination.
Present were the current president of the board of deacons and six former presidents -- all of them movers and shakers in that city, as well as in church affairs.
No formal account of the meeting is available, but sources say that the sentiments was 4 to 3 for Patterson's withdrawal from his denominational politicking.
Three days later, Criswell acknowledged that Patterson was pulling out of the coalition. The 70-year-old patriarch praise Patterson but suggested that "his [political] methods and tactics are those of a different world."
Rogers withdrawal from the presidency and the reining in of Patterson may have a marked effect on the direction of Southern Baptist affairs in the next few years.
Rogers' announcement has caught all side with candidates. "Discussions are going on and Ma Bell is making a mint," said one local Baptist leader of the frantic cross-country telephoning in the attempt to turn up viable candidates on short notice.
The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, a Fort Worth pastor, reflected widespread Baptist sentiment when he said that Rogers' withdrawal "creates a very healthy situation" for the St. Louis convention.
"It will be an opportunity for the convention to assess how it is going to deal with groups interested in an independent tradition rather than a Southern Baptist tradition," he said, referring to the conservative coalition.
The Southern Baptist system of permitting multiple "messengers," as delegates are called, from each congregation means that the annual conventions tend to be dominated by congregations living close to the convention site.
St. Louis is a relatively liberal Southern Baptist territory. But Baptists themselves are quick to point out that terms such as "liberal" and "conservative" are merely relative when applied to the Southern Baptist Convention.
"There is nobody in the Southern Baptist Convention that is not a conservative, in terms of the whole ecumenical gamut," observed Dr. William J. Cumbie, head of the Mt. Vernon Baptist Association in Northern Virginia. "If they are anything else [than conservative], they don't stay a Southern Baptist very long."