The 16-year-old youth's first Sunday in Exeter, N.H., was a memorable one. Son of a prominent Texas family rooted in law, politics, and oil, he had come to Exeter to attend prep school. After breakfast that Sunday, he went to First Baptist Church, burst into the pastor's study, and announced: "I am Paul Pressler. I am from Houston, Texas. I was saved when I was 10. I am going to be here for two years, and I will want to be part of this church."
The seminary-trained pastor studied him, then said, "I don't know what you people from the South mean when you say somebody has been saved."
Puzzled by the response, the youth explained what he believed the Bible taught about salvation. The pastor listened graciously but remained unmoved theologically.
It was Paul Pressler's first one-on-one encounter with liberalism in the church.
Fifty-three years and many not-so-gracious encounters with liberals later, Paul Pressler was in Atlanta for last month's annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. The event in the Georgia Dome marked the 20th anniversary of the conservative resurgence in the 15-million-member denomination. Its most significant accomplishment has been the turnaround of the six SBC seminaries, with an enrollment of about 10,000, from a drift into theological liberalism.
More than any other single individual, Mr. Pressler gets the credit for being the one who got things started. Now, in a new book, A Hill on Which to Die (Broadman & Holman), Mr. Pressler tells the story as he and his family lived it.
His background is important to understanding his role as SBC reformer. As a teenager at Exeter, collegian at Princeton, Navy ROTC officer in Pennsylvania, law student at the University of Texas, and as a young lawyer in both Houston and Chicago, he had a passion for Bible teaching and evangelism. In Chicago, he met and married Nancy Avery, a conservative Presbyterian and Smith College graduate who shared his zeal and love of the Scriptures.
Along the way, Mr. Pressler was exposed to neo-orthodoxy and liberalism in classes at Princeton and in special lectures by Union Seminary faculty. He defended biblical teaching and authority in discussions with professors. But the devastating effects of liberalism he was seeing in ministers and churches disturbed him.
After his return to Houston in 1960, where he later became a state judge and legislator, he saw troubling signs of liberal inroads in the SBC and began to document them. Few seemed concerned.
In 1967, Mr. Pressler met a brainy seminarian at New Orleans Baptist Seminary who did share his concerns: Paige Patterson. The two became close friends and colleagues in the coming struggle. Mr. Patterson became a pastor in Arkansas, then head of a Bible college in Dallas. Presently president of Southeastern Baptist Seminary, Mr. Patterson last month was voted by acclamation to serve a second one-year term as SBC president.
In 1975, Bill Powell, a former SBC home missions executive and head of a small conservative group, explained to Mr. Pressler how the SBC "system" worked, and how it could be used to stop creeping liberalism. The presidency of the SBC is an honorary position with no power except one: appointment of the Committee on Committees. This committee in turn nominates members of the Committee on Nominations (formerly Boards). And this committee nominates members of the governing boards of all SBC agencies and institutions.
Mr. Pressler immediately saw the possibilities. With committed conservative presidents and committee members and an informed voting constituency, it could take only five years or so for the boards to have conservative majorities and about 10 years to have complete control. With guidance from Mr. Patterson, he spent the next few years explaining the system to others and recruiting like-minded leaders to help.
In his book, he takes readers behind the scenes to show how Memphis pastor Adrian Rogers agreed to be nominated president in 1979 and to appoint the "right" people to the Committee on Committees. (To help sort priorities in the beginning, Pastor Rogers would ask, "Is this a hill on which to die?" Hence the book's title.) Mr. Pressler shows how year by year the strategy continued to work, and how divisions came about in Texas, Virginia, and elsewhere. He describes the opposition of those in power as well as nasty showdowns at SBC headquarters. He directs his harshest criticism at the media, especially Baptist Press, the SBC's own news service, and many of the SBC state newspapers that opposed what he and the other conservative leaders were doing.
Today, the fighting is mostly over. There was virtually no controversy in Atlanta last month. Many who were seminary faculty members in 1979 have been replaced, and the schools are thriving, Mr. Pressler says. He adds that he is easing off the scene to enjoy retirement.
He warns the Texas convention may yet bolt and draw away hundreds of churches-and a lot of mission money-with it, perhaps creating a new denomination. But he also warns against internal dangers: complacency, unspiritual attitudes, and abuse of power. He urges his fellow members to pursue spiritual transformation. He hopes people in Exeter and elsewhere will know what folks "from the South" really mean when they say they are saved.