‘Unapologetically pro-life’: Southern Baptists’ rocky road to Roe’s reversal

This article was written by Baptist Press Senior Writer Diana Chandler and was originally published by Baptist Press.

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (BP) – Michael Hamlet’s first sermon as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of North Spartanburg 38 years ago was on the sanctity of human life.

“I told my church then that we were going to be unapologetically pro-life and that abortion was going to be a major issue,” he told Baptist Press days before the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic June 24th reversal of Roe v. Wade. “This is something we thought, prayed about and I along with millions of others have thought and prayed, so it’s a very, very exciting possibility.”

Hamlet chaired the Resolutions Committee at the 2003 SBC Annual Meeting, the first time messengers approved a resolution calling for Roe’s reversal.

An earlier 1982 resolution On Abortion and Infanticide called for legislation and constitutional amendments outlawing abortion except to save the life of the mother, but never before 2003 had messengers called for a reversal of the 1973 Supreme Court decision.

While Southern Baptists expressed as early as the 1971 Resolution on Abortion “a responsibility to affirm through the laws of the state a high view of the sanctity of human life, including fetal life;” the same resolution encouraged legislation “that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

In 1974, in the year immediately after Roe v. Wade, Southern Baptists affirmed their 1971 stance with the resolution on Abortion and Sanctity of Human Life, vowing to continue to seek “God’s guidance through prayer and study in order to bring about solutions to continuing abortion problems in our society.”

Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) from 1988-2013, calls the earliest resolutions pro-choice. They came under the leadership of the Christian Life Commission, the precursor to the ERLC.

“At the time, the Christian Life Commission (CLC) staff, including President Foy Valentine, was all pro-choice, as was James Wood and James Dunn at the Baptist Joint Committee. Paul D. Simmons, who was radically pro-choice, was teaching ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. That’s when we got the 1971 pro-choice SBC resolution,” Land said in a February interview with ERLC Content Editor Jill Waggoner.

“It came about in 1971 because some states were making their abortion laws more liberal, as part of the feminist movement,” Land told Waggoner. “Southern Baptists were beginning to think about the issue, and the pro-life movement was beginning to make headway into SBC life.

“The CLC wanted to head it off at the pass. They used that resolution to support the Roe. v. Wade decision. They were anticipating the liberalization of abortion laws. They would file amicus briefs with this resolution as an attachment.”

In 2003, Southern Baptists apologized for and repented of earlier resolutions that affirmed abortion.

Hamlet recalls the changing climate of the SBC that allowed the turnabout to take place through the submission and approval of the 2003 resolution On Thirty Years of Roe v. Wade.

“You saw a greater commitment to the Bible and the conservative resurgence that happened there in the ‘80s and ‘90s, because we couldn’t have gotten that passed in the ‘70s, probably,” Hamlet told Baptist Press, adding, “I don’t know that.”

In the early years after the passage of Roe v. Wade, Hamlet believes, Southern Baptists did not have a good grasp of what would occur under the ruling, nor a concept of its being overturned. But as time passed, and especially by 2003, the issue became clearer.

“There had to be a lot that happened in the Supreme Court, there had to be the right cases, etc., and now we see it. And I think we started to see it then,” Hamlet said. “We had seen the election of presidents and senators and congressmen that were saying, willing to take the stand that they were pro-life.

“The more we learned, the more we see that Roe v. Wade was a wrong decision.”

And then in 2003, Southern Baptists said unequivocally that Roe v. Wade was wrong.

“We reaffirm our belief that the Roe v. Wade decision was an act of injustice against innocent unborn children as well as against vulnerable women in crisis pregnancy situations, both of which have been victimized by a ‘sexual revolution’ that empowers predatory and irresponsible men and by a lucrative abortion industry that has fought against even the most minimal restrictions on abortion,” the resolution reads in part.

“We humbly confess that the initial blindness of many in our Convention to the enormity of Roe v. Wade should serve as a warning to contemporary Southern Baptists of the subtlety of the spirit of the age in obscuring a biblical worldview,” 2003 messengers affirmed. “We pray and work for the repeal of the Roe v. Wade decision and for the day when the act of abortion will be not only illegal, but also unthinkable.”

Hamlet doesn’t recall who submitted the 2003 resolution to the committee, but is confident it was a submitted resolution that did not originate in the committee.

“The way the system works, the resolutions committee sometimes receives a lot of resolutions,” he said. “And then some we will choose to address and then some we will choose not to, and it’s really up to the resolutions committee that year. And that is only the expression of that convention at that moment.”

The preceding conservative resurgence and the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message helped set the climate for the 2003 resolution.

“When we passed that resolution in 2003, I think there were several factors. One, the Conservative Resurgence had caused a stronger commitment not just to life, but to the Word of God and conservative issues, and making an impact on our culture,” Hamlet said. “Secondly, we had unapologetically made a stronger commitment in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 and thirdly, I think that … as a Convention, we began to see much more how life was becoming, and abortion was becoming, a major issue in our country and that in order for us to address that, it was going to take a long time to do it, it was going to take some major changes, and that it was the view of the Convention in adopting that resolution, that we wanted to take a strong stand and we did not mean to be uncertain in any shape, form or fashion.”

The 2003 resolution expressed repentance for earlier Southern Baptist resolutions on abortion.

“We had had some times that were a little confusing, some things that we regretted, so we wanted to be clear about where the Convention stood,” Hamlet said, “and that’s why that resolution had some of the stuff in it that it had about the historical perspective and really repenting of some decisions that we’d taken before.

“The 30th anniversary gave us an opportunity to go back and reexamine what we’d done before and on the basis of that, chart a new path, a much stronger path which I think, since that time, we have never done anything but to be strongly pro-life in anything that we did as a Convention.”

Hamlet said the committee deserves no praise for the work.

“We were privileged to be part of the process of Southern Baptists in taking a stand for the Word of God in trying to be salt and light in our culture,” he said. “I believe that in those years we were strengthening, because we knew it was going to take a while to overcome Roe v. Wade, because it was now obvious, even at that time, what was going to happen and what had to happen at the Supreme Court in order for that to take place, which is what we’re seeing now.”

Hamlet said he has long had hope of Roe’s reversal, but “just didn’t think we’d see it in our lifetime.”

Southern Baptist advocacy for life doesn’t end with the Supreme Court’s latest ruling on abortion, Hamlet said.

“We will begin to contend for life in the states. What it says to me is that this is a way that Christians and that Southern Baptists as a denomination can seek to be salt and light in our culture.”

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