I was a doctoral student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary when the Conservative Resurgence was launched at the 1979 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Houston, TX. I was hired as an evangelism professor at my seminary in 1983 when the battle was raging, a fire growing hotter every year as more and more Southern Baptists became involved in the controversy. I was in the room the night before the 1990 SBC meeting when Daniel Vestal, the moderate nominee for the SBC presidency, called Paige Patterson to express his supreme confidence in his coming victory over conservative candidate Morris Chapman. To his great surprise, Vestal lost that election, and lost it by the largest margin of any moderate candidate in all the preceding conventions. At that point, the moderates realized they could not win and abandoned the fight. The Conservative Resurgence began as an uprising, but along the way it became a revolution that had a transforming effect on the Southern Baptist Convention that to some extent continues to this day.
The homegoing of Dr. Charles Stanley on April 18, 2023 rekindled memories of those days, especially my memories of the three great titans all involved with the Conservative Resurgence would acknowledge as crucial to its impact. Dr. Adrian Rogers was known among many pastors and Baptist leaders as the “Big Dog.” He was a tremendous expositor, terrific pastor, and deeply evangelistic. His willingness to take the point and be the first Resurgence nominee for the presidency gave it instant credibility and immediate support, even from those who were not yet sure about what became known as the Conservative Resurgence. Others could have made a splash, but Dr. Rogers had the standing to launch a tsunami, and he did.
As the pastor of the flagship church of the SBC, First Baptist Dallas, W. A. Criswell was widely known across the world for his expository preaching. One New Year’s Eve, he brought in the new year by preaching through the entire Bible in one sermon in a service that lasted for hours: “The Scarlet Thread Through the Bible.” Combined with his insistence upon evangelism, First Dallas became the largest Baptist church in the world. Opposition to the Conservative Resurgence reached a crescendo in 1985 and 1986. Many wondered if the early success of the Resurgence could be sustained. At the Pastor’s Conference on the eve of the 1985 SBC meeting in Dallas, Dr. Criswell preached what became a legendary message incorporating Bible teaching, church history, and the Southern Baptist story in an address entitled “Whether We Live or Die.” It brought down the house and energized Conservatives for their most intensive and significant Convention battle. It is worth listening to the whole message just to hear the heart-stirring conclusion. Those who were there point to it as a major factor in the success of Conservatives in the critical Convention that followed.
And then there was Dr. Charles Stanley. The scale of his ministry of expounding the Word of God is difficult to comprehend, using both the local church pulpit of First Baptist Atlanta and every form of electronic and social media to preach to millions all over the world day by day and week by week for years. With an enormous emphasis on prayer and a laser focus on explaining God’s Word and applying it to life while urging people to trust in Lord, Stanley’s role in the Conservative Resurgence was huge. He was elected SBC President and presided over the largest, rowdiest, and most tumultuous SBC meetings in the history of the Convention. In the midst of chaos that could have undone much of the progress of the Resurgence, Dr. Stanley maintained both a calm, irenic spirit and a firm control of Convention sessions. After disruptive efforts by some messengers in 1985, Stanley introduced the services of an outside professional parliamentarian and used formal parliamentary procedure to control the rancor some tried to introduce, a standard procedure to this day. Conservative messengers dominated the votes and Convention business. The Conservative Resurgence turned a corner in spite of the deep antagonism and sustained opposition of moderates. Charles Stanley proved to be the hinge upon which the uprising of Conservatives became a revolution. For the first time in American church history, a family of churches that had moved to the theological left came back to its historic theological center.
For this writer, Dr. Stanley had a very personal significance. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and devastated the Seminary campus. Atlanta was the site of our largest extension center and the natural place to set up our administrative center while the campus was being rebuilt. The problem was that using the space as our administrative hub meant we had no room for classes. First Baptist Atlanta was in the midst of a large renovation project of their own and did not have their normal space available. Nevertheless, when Dr. Stanley heard of our dilemma, he insisted we use his campus for our extension classes as long we needed it. He made lunch available for students, and also contributed to our recovery fund. You understand why I was in that number to pay my respects at his memorial service.
The great scientist Sir Isaac Newton gave one of my favorite quotations from history: “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The passing of Dr. Charles Stanley, who completed his ministry and stepped into glory, is an occasion for us to remember the Titans, those who gave titanic service to God’s Kingdom. Remember those who fought impossible battles to insist that Southern Baptists affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, winning victories that we enjoy today. Remember that nothing of value comes without risk, sacrifice, and courage. When the need for change arises again, do more than remember these and other great men. Join them. Take a stand where God wants you to stand. Risk the cost and join the Titans by becoming one yourself through your own obedient Kingdom service.