The first edition of the Baptist Bulletin was pulled off the presses in January 1933, just eight months after the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches was organized.
No one was surprised when this upstart group of twenty-two churches grew quickly. Most of the GARBC constituents had been active in the Bible Baptist Union, a significant movement that opposed theological liberalism in the Northern Baptist Convention. Starting a magazine seemed to be a natural extension of the growing association. Many church members already subscribed to Curtis Lee Laws’ Watchman-Examiner, the conservative Baptist newspaper that popularized the term “fundamentalist” in 1920.
This conservative influence was a matter of some concern. Worried that the Watchman-Examiner was becoming the unofficial voice of Northern Baptists, convention leaders established a competing newspaper in 1920, The Baptist, to voice their liberal agenda. In fact, one could argue that the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s was a war fought on two fronts: the pulpit and the printing press.
“While major newspapers and magazines looked on, reporting sometimes in amusement, more often in condescension, and sometimes with partisan horror, most of the rhetoric of battle appeared in sectarian and small-circulation organs like the official The Baptist and the independent Watchman-Examiner,” wrote historian Martin E. Marty about the disputes. “These journals would be utterly unremembered, did not historians have to consult them in archives where they preserve recall of the sounds of battle.”
On the surface, Marty’s assessment of “utterly unremembered” publications seems correct. I doubt many of our readers still have copies of The Bible Baptist Union Herald lying around the house. And the same is true for the newspapers churned out by pastors of the era. W. B. Riley had The Baptist Beacon; T. T. Shields published The Gospel Witness; J. Frank Norris ran The Searchlight. Though such magazines may seem obscure today, these “sectarian and small-circulation organs” were important voices in the response to theological liberals. They published important sermons, Biblical exegesis, and historical analysis of the contemporary issues.
And when that wore off, these pastor/editors sometimes attacked each other! In other words, it was quite a bit like the Christian blogosphere today. Religious groups and religious leaders continue to search for the right balance between healthy criticism and bitter invective.
But this is where historian Martin E. Marty got it wrong. When historians quote these obscure Baptist publications, they aren’t just preserving the sounds of battle. The discussion continues because the ideas are still important. This is why we believe there is still a place for publications such as ours.
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