The Elliott Controversy & the 1963 BF&M: A 50-Year Retrospective

In 1963, Southern Baptists convened in Kansas City, Mo., and adopted the first-ever revision of the Baptist Faith & Message. Like the first BF&M—whose committee was chaired by E. Y. Mullins and adopted in 1925; and the most recent iteration, whose committee was chaired by Adrian Rogers and approved in 2000—each issuance of the BF&M occurred against the backdrop of denominational controversy.

The various debates prompting revision of the BF&M have all been remarkably similar; each pertained to the truthfulness and trustworthiness of Scripture. In 1925, it was evolutionary theory; in 1963, it was Ralph Elliott’s The Message of Genesis; and in 2000, it was “mopping up” after the Conservative Resurgence. Now, since 50 years have passed—and especially since Midwestern Seminary was ground zero for the Elliott Controversy—it is fitting to revisit these events and draw contemporary lessons, as we will do in our chapel service at the seminary on Wednesday, Sept. 11.

Ralph Elliott & The Message of Genesis

The presenting issue that caused Southern Baptists to revisit the BF&M was Ralph Elliott’s The Message of Genesis and the ensuing controversy it fomented. Elliott was the first man elected to the newly formed Midwestern Seminary’s faculty, and the first signatory to the seminary’s Articles of Faith. Though Elliott’s commentary, and the higher-critical interpretive method it demonstrated, reflected positions commonly held by other Southern Baptist seminary professors at that time, it revealed beliefs out of sync with the vast majority of Southern Baptists.[1]

To be sure, Elliott’s book was simply the match that ignited the flame. The tinder had been piling for some time, as Hershael Hobbs observed, “The book was not so much the cause as it was the occasion of the situation which developed following its publication. The climate had been forming over a period of years. But the dual fact that the book was written by a Southern Baptist seminary professor and published by the Convention’s Broadman Press formed the catalyst which precipitated the storm of protest.”[2]

A young Paul Pressler admonished then-Midwestern Seminary President Millard Berquist to dismiss Elliott and reminded him the seminary was owned by the SBC and the convention had the authority to elect—and replace—trustees. However, it was K. Owen White’s widely distributed article, “Death in the Pot,” that landed like a bombshell in Kansas City and sent shockwaves throughout the entire convention. White argued Elliott’s book was “liberalism, pure and simple,” and, if left unchecked, would bring denominational ruin.[3]

1963 Baptist Faith & Message

Berquist, along with other denominational leaders, labored to tamp out the conflagration. Nevertheless, when the messengers arrived in San Francisco for the 1962 annual convention, respected denominational leaders like Porter Routh, Albert McClelland and Herschel Hobbs thought a convention split possible.[4] To prevent schism, Routh proposed a BF&M study committee both to gauge and to codify Southern Baptist beliefs.[5]

Chaired by Hobbs, the SBC president, the BF&M review committee was comprised of the elected presidents of the various state conventions. Routh suggested that construct, and his rationale was straightforward—the best way to gauge Southern Baptist beliefs was by tasking the elected leaders of each state convention. Additionally, the committee distributed drafts of their work to pastors, seminary professors, and denominational employees to garner input and gather support. By the time the messengers convened in Kansas City, the committee unanimously presented their work and the convention responded with near unanimity as well.[6] The end product was a mildly amended BF&M, with the meaning of several of the revisions debated for decades, until finally redrafted in the BF&M, 2000.

A 50-Year Retrospective

By the time the convention met in Kansas City and adopted the revised BF&M, Midwestern Seminary had dismissed Elliott—not for heresy, but for insubordination—and the storm had essentially subsided. Yet, the larger issue of the nature of Scripture remained just under the surface, periodically rearing its head, until the epochal convulsion that began with the election of Adrian Rogers as convention president in 1979 and the ensuing Conservative Resurgence. While much is to be learned of the Elliott Controversy, at least three lessons tower above the rest.

First, history’s lessons must be remembered or they will be repeated. As George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[7] Since the SBC’s founding in 1845, the denomination has known its share of controversy. Romanticizing past conflict comes with its own dangers, but forgetting history’s lessons comes with more.

The children of Israel, who often experienced national amnesia, can be our tutor. Their recurring pattern of blessing, then disobedience, and finally judgment, is a never-ending cycle in the Old Testament. Historical and theological amnesia, be it national or denominational, is a dangerous condition.

Second, Southern Baptists are a convictional people. If Southern Baptists were not convictional, we would not have spent so much time contesting doctrine and contending for Scripture since our founding in 1845. In the Elliott Controversy, Pressler, White, and other conservative protagonists argued in moral, convictional terms. To convictional Baptists, the Elliott Controversy was not religious sport. It was a casus belli, not only justifying confrontation—but necessitating it.

When Elliott published his The Message of Genesis, Southern Baptists might have been largely uninformed, but they were not naïve. And they certainly were not cowards. If Southern Baptists had a Just War Theory for denominational conflict, undermining Scripture would pass the test every time.

Third, it is still about the Bible. Whether it was the Toy Controversy of the 1880s, the Whitsitt Controversy of the 1890s, the Elliott Controversy of the 1960s, or the Conservative Resurgence of the 1980s, the common denominator in all of these has been, to a greater or lesser degree, the nature and authority of Scripture. This is a perennial challenge, beginning in the Garden of Eden with Satan’s question, “Hath God said?” and reappearing in every generation.

Since its earliest occurrences, liberal theology has attempted to accommodate ancient Scripture to modern man. Whether it was German theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher and Julius Wellhausen, or Southern Baptist ones like C. H. Toy and Ralph Elliott, the effort has been to make the Bible compatible with modern science and more palatable to secular man. In fact, Berquist defended Elliott to local pastors by using this same argument. As he said to Kansas City pastor, J. T. Elliff, “J. T., we can’t hope to reach the keen minded young scientist of our day with our old stereotyped, conservative approach to the Bible.”[8]

This is the age-old effort of theological liberalism—to accommodate an ancient text to a modern man. In so doing, not only is modern man not won, but the Bible is lost.


This Wednesday will be an historic occasion as Midwestern Seminary revisits the drama of the Elliott Controversy and the BF&M, 1963 some 50 years later. Our motive is to learn from our past, embolden theological faithfulness in our generation, and leave a legacy of biblical fidelity and Great Commission fervor to the next.

 [1] Ralph H. Elliott, The Message of Genesis (Nashville: Broadman, 1961) 11, 19.

[2] Herschel Hobbs, “Southern Baptists and Confessionalism: A Comparison of the Origins and Contents of the 1925 and 1963 Confessions,” Review & Expositor 76 (1979): 57–58.

[3] Elliott, The Message of Genesis, 67.

[4] L. Russ Bush and Tom Nettles, Baptists and the Bible (rev. and ex.; Nashville: B&H Academic, 1999), 352.

[5] Hobbs, “Southern Baptists and Confessionalism,” 58.

[6] Ibid.

[7] George Santayana, The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense (New York: Scribner’s, 1905), 284.

[8] J. T. Elliff, Unpublished Writings.

topicsEvangelicalismSouthern Baptist Convention

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