Tension had been building on the floor of the cavernous convention center since the opening gavel. More than ten thousand messengers now swarmed around the space, forming tight huddles that held momentarily, then dissolved as the participants scattered, looking hurriedly for other people and other groups. Some of the impromptu meetings lasted only moments; others developed into full-fledged strategy sessions.
There was important business ahead, and for most of the men and women gathered in Houston on that hot June day in 1979, the business boiled down to making sure a certain man was elected president, or making sure he wasn't.
Behind the scenes there were accusations of improper credentials, coercion, influence peddling, strong arming, and slander; charges and countercharges against small-minded special interests, inflexible legalism, and destructive juggernauts.
Yes, this year's annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention promised to be quite a show.
Summers were always hot in Houston, and one of the hottest places in town that week was surely the Summit, home of the Houston Rockets basketball team in season, a giant square, glass-walled arena looming over an isolated sea of concrete off the Southwest Freeway. True, the air inside was comfortably cool, but the political atmosphere was hotter than the Texas jalapeño peppers stacked on the snack vendors' pushcarts. Southern Baptists, polarized as they had seldom been in their 134-year history, had convened to elect a new president.
As far as Jimmy Draper was concerned, they could leave all the politics behind. He'd had enough of that in the last few years to last a lifetime. But behind the politics in this case lurked challenges to a bedrock belief of the Christian faith that Jimmy and his likeminded colleagues could not allow to go unanswered. It was something he could easily avoid if he wanted to. His own ministry at First Baptist Church, Euless, Texas, was all a pastor could hope for both personally and professionally. There he felt a spirit of concord and mutual respect that sometimes made the larger denominational crisis seem far away. Yet here he was, prepared to dive into the swirling sea of denominational factionalism on the convention floor because he was convinced that his lifelong beliefs as a Christian and a Southern Baptist were under attack, and that electing the right kind of leadership was the only effective way to defend them.
Where two or more are gathered together, politics is inevitable, and the 1979 Southern Baptist Convention promised some spectacular political fireworks. Like immense tectonic plates, two opposing schools of Southern Baptist thought had been pressing against each other for years, slowly grinding in different directions and determined to claim the same space. The pressure built as the two sides held firm, each waiting for the other to give way.
Though he had no official duties other than serving as a messenger (the Convention term for delegate) from his church, Brother Draper was well known and respected among the denominational leaders. He was a seasoned and experienced pastor known for his success in building strong congregations and his skill as a peacemaker. His was a voice all sides of a question listened to with respect and trust, and he was well versed in the history leading up to what promised to be a historic week in Southern Baptist life: one of the great theological tectonic plates was about to move.
There were a lot of elements and chapters to the story, but one of the earliest markers of division that most everybody seemed to agree on was the publication in 1961 of The Message of Genesis by Dr. Ralph Elliott, a professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. Despite being published by Broadman Press, a division of the Baptist Sunday School Board, the book took the position that stories in Genesis such as Noah and the Flood were not historical events. Elliott wrote that someone reading the Bible "must come to the place that he sees the parabolic and symbolic nature of much of the Old Testament Scriptures. Genesis is to be understood in this light. It is not science… it is impossible to deny the fact that sometimes the material may have been 'legendized' just a bit and perhaps heightened as a means of intensifying the dominant characteristics in [Noah's] life."
Elliott doubted the existence of Abraham, considered Melchizedek a priest of Baal, and summarized his approach by stating, "We must learn to think of the stories of Genesis, the creation, the fall, Noah's ark, the tower of Babel in the same way as we think of the parables of Jesus; they are profoundly symbolical (although not allegorical) stories, which aren't to be taken as literally true (like the words of a textbook of geology)."