Thursday, July 19, 2018

Abortion and Baptist History

The Supreme Court issued its infamous decision on abortion, Roe v. Wade, on January 22, 1973. The majority vote was 7-to-2 in favor of Roe/abortion. Justices Byron White and William Rehnquist dissented. Richard Nixon, the President of the U.S. at the time, did not publicly comment about the decision. Strangely, from our current vista, but perhaps not for the times, representatives in the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Press welcomed the decision. W. Barry Garrett wrote, “Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.”[i]

In January of 1973, I was a freshman in High School. Such religious, moral, and legal decisions were not in the forefront of my interests, and my memory has no recollection of how our local Baptist received the news.[ii] Recently I have read some articles that incline one to think the Baptists generally were not opposed to abortion until much later.[iii] Certain accurate historical facts may be pushed forward to support this scenario.

One of the leaders for abortion reform (aka legalization of abortion in cases of rape, incest, or danger to a woman’s health) in the late 1960’s was Howard Moody, who was the pastor of Judson Memorial Church in New York, an American Baptist congregation.[iv] Marie Griffith, in “Southern Baptists, Gender Hierarchy, and the Road to Trump,” says that Baptists in the late 1960’s and early 70’s “certainly appeared to see abortion as a women’s issue. When the Supreme Court decriminalized abortion in 1973’s Roe v Wade decision, Southern Baptist leaders appeared to support access to abortion, at least under circumstances with which they could sympathize.”[v] In 1968, “the American Baptist Convention advocated the removal of all restrictions on abortion during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.”[vi] Billy Graham stated his view on abortion in a 1969 episode of The Firing Line. He was willing to permit it in cases of rape and incest, as well as when the mother’s life was in danger.[vii]

At their meeting in St. Louis, Missouri in 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed their first resolution the subject of abortion. The resolution included calling “upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”[viii]

In what appears to be an older but officially current statement, American Baptists opposed abortion “as a means of avoiding responsibility for conception” and “as a primary means of birth control,” but stopped far short of a blanket condemnation of abortion.[ix]

Several articles – unsourced – reference a Jerry Falwell lament in 1979, “The Roman Catholic Church for many years has stood virtually alone against abortion. I think it’s an indictment against the rest of us that we’ve allowed them to stand alone.” Sans context, this certainly seems to imply that Baptists had not previously opposed abortion, or at least not to the extent that he was proposing – as well as being slow to take up the issue (his statement 6 years after Roe v. Wade).[x]

Is this representation purposefully skewed? Possibly so. My sense is that Baptists as a whole were divided on the issue – and perhaps some had not given it much thought. Another factor is that many Baptists did not believe in engaging in the political arena. In those cases, they would not have been outspoken about abortion in any discussions that smacked of politics. In contrast to the pro-abortion emphasis, I found that some Baptists opposed abortion both before and immediately after Roe.

“The fundamental Baptist evangelist John R. Rice declared in 1945 that abortion, which he considered ‘the murder of the little one where conception has already taken place,’ was ‘a crime prohibited by law and condemned by all decent people’.”[xi]

In 1970 ‘Christians for Life’ – a non-denominational pro-life organization that would have included Baptists – picketed a Billy Graham crusade because “Graham, although opposed to abortion in most cases, was willing to permit it in cases of rape and incest, as well as when the mother’s life was in danger.”[xii]

Carl F. H. Henry, a Baptist whose roots were in the Northern Baptist Convention, in Eternity magazine in 1971 called abortion “murder.”[xiii] One opponent of the Roe decision whose opposition began almost immediately was Jesse Helms, a Southern Baptist who was a freshman senator from North Carolina.[xiv]

Here are my initial ideas – beyond the fact that Baptists were divided on the issue of abortion (which is always true of Baptists on any issue!). First, it is obvious that certain moderate and progressive Baptists were advocating loosening the laws against abortion. The reasons that other Baptists may not have appeared in the forefront of opposition to abortion may have been: (1) Since this was viewed primarily a legal matter, their opposition to political involvement stymied their engagement of the issue. (2) Since abortion was already illegal, it did not appear to be pressing to speak out against it. (3) A general lethargy of the more conservative Baptists, from years of their thinking on the matter having been the generally accepted one.

[i] “High Court Holds Abortion To Be ‘A Right of Privacy’,” January 31, 1973, as cited in Baptist Press Initial Reporting on Roe v. Wade, by Trevin Wax. Wax explains, “I recently came across the initial reporting from Baptist Press on the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Reading these documents made me so grateful for the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC.” Wilkins Barry Garrett Jr. (1915-2001) served as the first Washington bureau chief of Baptist Press.
[ii] Any of the local Baptists, Southern Baptist or otherwise. Our family church was Missionary Baptist – not affiliated with the Southern Baptists – and I was not a member of any church at the time.
[iii]When Southern Baptists Were Pro-Choice” by Joshua Holland and “My Take: When evangelicals were pro-choice” by Jonathan Dudley are two that seems to make that point pejoratively.
[iv] Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-life Movement Before Roe v. Wade, Daniel K. Williams, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 65-66
[v] Griffith also writes, “Ninety percent of Texas Baptists surveyed in 1969 had affirmed that their state’s abortion laws should be loosened. A 1970 poll by the Baptist Sunday School Board suggested that 70 percent of SBC pastors upheld a right to abortion to safeguard the mother’s health, 64 percent in situations of fetal deformity, and 71 percent for pregnancies occurring from rape.”
[vii] Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr., excerpt from Episode 153, Recorded on June 12, 1969
[viii] Resolution On Abortion, St. Louis, Missouri, 1971. Wm. Robert Johnston archives all the Southern Baptist Convention resolutions on abortion through 2009 HERE. These and more recent resolutions can be located on the SBC website by entering “abortion” in the Resolutions Search.
[x] I do not know what context in which Falwell made this statement. My guess is that he may have been talking about opposing it legally and politically, rather than biblically and morally.
[xi] Williams adds, “But most Protestant ministers who were not fundamentalists said nothing.” Defenders of the Unborn, p. 28
[xii] Ibid., p. 145
[xiii] Ibid., p. 145
[xiv] Ibid., p. 213

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