Save OBU: The SBC Bans Its First Book

In 1962, the Southern Baptist Convention banned a book written by a scholar at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary that it had published only a year before.  The first banned book and the surrounding controversy fundamentally altered Southern Baptist views on education and censorship. This is that story:

In 1961, controversy shook the Southern Baptist Convention again.  Ralph H. Elliott, head of the Old Testament department at the newly-formed Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, published The Message of Genesis, in which he took a symbolic rather than literal approach to Genesis stressing its “theological and religious purpose” [1].  He made a distinction between the literary style of Genesis 1-11 and 12-50, comparing the book’s opening chapters to the parables of Jesus in light of the cultural context of the Ancient Near East [2].  Broadman Press—then the official publishing house of SBC—printed the book [3].

One of the earliest fundamentalist critics of the book John Havlik, director of Evangelism for Kansas Baptists, castigated Elliott for assaulting the Lordship of Christ by affirming anything other than the literal truth of the Old Testament.  …Others accused Elliott of not affirming the foundational Christian doctrines such as the full divinity and full humanity of Christ, with some going so far as to question his salvation and call him an unbeliever [5].  Elliott was characterized as a “liberal” in the style of the 1920s controversy, insinuating a connection between his work and the modernism and Darwinism of the first fundamentalist controversy.  Such accusations divided conservatives and moderates in the SBC.  The fundamentalists controlled the terms of the debate, and if one affirmed the truth of the Bible (something all Southern Baptists did passionately), then that person must also deny the truth of The Message of Genesis.

Oklahoma Baptists were among the most critical of Elliott, and at a meeting of Elliott’s critics in Oklahoma City, a plan was devised to elect trustees to Midwestern Seminary who would support their opposition to Elliott [6].  Furthermore, the furious controversy soon raised the threat that Midwestern Seminary would lose Cooperative Program funding.  Initially an ardent supporter of both Elliott and his book, only then did seminary president Millard Berquist cave to fundamentalist pressure [7].  Finally, in October of 1962, Elliott was brought before the seminary trustees where they insisted that he withdraw the book from further publication.  Elliott refused and was dismissed from his position—notably not for his theological views but for his denial of the administrators’ request.  While SBC did not officially ban the book, Broadman Press ceased publication of The Message of Genesis, and Midwestern Seminary continued to be controlled by outside interest groups [8].

For the rest, visit Save OBU.  The story has vast implications, far beyond the intra-party fighting of the Southern Baptist Convention.  It goes to the heart of the conflict between religious institutions and open, critically honest education.

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