For Southern Baptists, adopting a revised and expanded version of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith was not an act of division but a means of ensuring unity. As Mullins explained, he believed it would “clarify the atmosphere and remove the causes of misunderstanding, friction, and apprehension.” The differences between Northern and Southern Baptist Conventions over the past 100 years can be explained many ways—but they cannot be explained apart from the question of confessionalism and the need for doctrinal fidelity.
One hundred years ago, the nation was gripped by an antagonizing struggle over whether or not a Baptist convention had the authority to disfellowship a church for doctrinal drift. The church in question was the most famous in America—home to the Rockefeller family—and pastored by one of America’s most influential pastors: the brilliant and eloquent Harry Emerson Fosdick. How the Northern and Southern Baptist Conventions responded differently to questions of confessionalism and dissent determined their trajectory for the next century.
The question is, have we learned from their mistakes, or are we doomed to repeat them?
In 1925, the famous Park Avenue Baptist Church of New York City called Harry Emerson Fosdick to succeed the liberal Cornelius Woelfkin as pastor. Though ordained a Baptist, Fosdick had previously been preaching minister at New York’s First Presbyterian Church, until coming under investigation by the local presbytery for his liberal doctrinal views. Fosdick hoped that the autonomous nature of Baptist churches would provide greater freedom for advocating modernist positions.