Baptists were not silent in the pews when landmark 1973 ruling issued
Kentucky Baptists are well known for their fight against abortion. There have been multiple resolutions passed by Baptist associations, as well as the Kentucky Baptist Convention at annual meetings, affirming the biblical position that abortion is the taking of innocent life and no abortion should be performed in the commonwealth or the country.
That strong stance on the sanctity of human life did not appear immediately after the Jan. 22, 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion in the U.S.
In fact, it took almost three weeks after that decision was rendered before the Western Recorder contained any mention of the abortion case. On Feb. 10, 1973, the Western Recorder published two pages of Baptist Press (BP) stories regarding Roe v. Wade. Sadly, the headline on one of those stories said, “Abortion decision hailed as religious liberty.”
Barry Garrett, Washington bureau chief for BP, said the 7-2 Supreme Court decision overturned a Texas law which denied a woman the right of abortion except to save her life. In his news analysis, he said that decision “advanced the cause of religious liberty, human equality and justice.”
Garrett wrote that the high court “outlined an abortion formula for future laws that recognize a woman’s right to an abortion and at the same time provide for the state’s interest in the health of the mother and the potential human life in an unborn fetus.”
Another BP story said a Southern Baptist attorney from Texas activated the legal machinery resulting in the Supreme Court decision overturning abortion statutes in some 30 states. In both BP stories, statements were made that the fetus was not viable until the third trimester — a position that Kentucky Baptists have repeatedly refuted, arguing that the Bible says in no uncertain terms that life begins at conception.
While Western Recorder editorials were silent on the issue, it didn’t take long for Kentucky Baptists in the pews to voice strong opposition to the Baptist Press perspective. They wrote letters to the editor that appeared in subsequent issues of the Western Recorder.
The Feb. 24 issue contained the first letter stating opposition to legalized abortion. Mrs. Harold Feltner of London, Ky., recalled a speaker’s comments at an annual WMU regional meeting.
“From her compassionate heart, she told us about the people of Japan. With much concern she told us that abortion was legalized in Japan. I could hardly believe that could be true in any nation. I remember bowing my head and praying, ‘Oh, Lord, may the gospel be taken to those people to enlighten them.’
“Was I wrong? Will not the Lord say, ‘The voice of thy children’s blood crieth unto me?’ Should not women control their own bodies before abortion becomes necessary?
“I still believe we in America need the gospel to enlighten us as do the people of other nations. Christ is the answer.”
The next issue included two letters speaking against abortion.
William R. Hagan of Taylorsville, citing Ex. 20:13, said the Supreme Court “tried to rationalize away their immoral and abominable decision with the statement, ‘We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins.’ But the question has already been resolved by God. Life begins with creation at conception. The fetus is alive, and the fetus is human because its parents are human.
“We cannot and must not accept the decision of the Supreme Court as final. To do so would be to accept murder as being legal and valid, because abortion is definitely murder.”
He went on to ask Christians to write President Richard Nixon as well as their congressmen, demanding a new constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion. Also, he asked churches to adopt resolutions to send to the president and Congress. He asked churches to observe days of prayer and mourning “because of this abomination in our land.” He then suggested cooperating and actively supporting groups working to outlaw abortion, and suggested organizing a “march in the streets, if necessary, to protest this most awful wickedness in American history.”
In that same issue, Virginia Wilson of Leitchfield, wrote, “When Baptist people, ‘leaders,’ say that if your conscience or your religion doesn’t bother you, just go ahead and do it; this is far from what our country was founded on.
“We could be one step away from abandonment of all restraint. Abortion has no real significance concerning religious freedom. When your 11- and 12-year-old daughters start having these abortions, and they will, it will be a different picture. Let’s get back to full allegiance to God, who is the giver of life.”
The following week, Ann Dyer of Louisville, voiced her disappointment of what appeared in the Feb. 10 issue. “I am extremely disappointed in the tone of the articles, the editors who must surely review such articles and my fellow Baptists if they do not rise in support of their conscience and condemn such publication in a church paper. To consider abortion a religious liberty is ludicrous. Embarrassing enough to our faith would it be to admit in a small paragraph that the woman lawyer is a Baptist without elaborating in a fashion befitting only a grocery store newsstand scandal sheet.
“In my opinion, if this lawyer was interested in helping rather than making a name for herself, she could have helped the woman secure employment since this was her voiced complaint that ‘no one wanted to hire a pregnant woman.’ There are homes and agencies to which she could have directed her.”
She succinctly summed up the situation when she wrote, “How do you think our teenagers could understand the incongruity of a religious group which won’t permit dancing of any kind in the church building but considers abortion a religious liberty as heralded in (the BP) article? I hid this issue of Western Recorder because I can’t explain it to my 14-year-old.”
Months later, at the KBC Annual Meeting in November, a resolution on abortion was adopted. That resolution noted that “abortion on demand is not consistent with traditionally held Christian morality.” The resolution supported a Kentucky statute which would “prohibit the wanton waste of human life in the practice of abortion; and protect the right of expectant mothers to the full range of health care for the preservation of their life and health.” The resolution called for the convention to “instruct its Christian Life Committee to keep abreast of this important issue” and advise the convention, its executive board, the Western Recorder and members of churches of developments on the issue.
That time period was one marked by the Southern Baptist Convention adopting resolutions on abortion that are diametrically opposed to those of recent decades. At the 1971 SBC convention, a resolution was passed that called upon Southern Baptists “to work for 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.”
A year after the Roe v. Wade decision, the SBC convention reaffirmed the 1971 resolution, saying it “reflected a middle ground between the extreme of abortion on demand and the opposite extreme of all abortion as murder.”
Hershael York, dean of theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the denomination’s stance on abortion changed as a result of the conservative resurgence. That began in 1979 with the election of Adrian Rogers as SBC president. In the convention that Rogers presided over in 1980, messengers adopted a resolution that reaffirmed “the view of the scriptures of the sacredness and dignity of all human life, born and unborn,” and expressed opposition “toward all policies that allow abortion on demand.” That resolution favored legislation and/or a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion, except to save the life of the mother. It also said Southern Baptists “abhor the use of tax money or public, tax-supported medical facilities for selfish, non-therapeutic abortion.”
“The position previously held (on abortion) is another reason showing why the conservative resurgence desperately needed to happen,” York said. “This (abortion stance) showed that grassroots Southern Baptists cared more about the issue than their leaders did prior to the conservative resurgence. There was no true pro-life resolution by Southern Baptists until 1980 at the convention where Adrian Rogers presided.”
Jim Ewing, vice chairman of the KBC Public Affairs Committee and chairman of the “Friends of Life KY” subcommittee, said his prayer is that the Friends of Life initiative will “help Kentucky Baptists understand the issue from not only a biblical perspective, but also from a scientific and logical perspective.” He said the time period where abortion was not staunchly opposed is a reflection of the way people understood conception, development and birth of a child.
“The issue is: what are we aborting?” He noted that Darwinian teachings in the early 1970s colored the thinking on the issue of life. Rather than understanding that life begins at conception, there was a prevalent view that life wasn’t viable until the third trimester. “Biology books falsely pictured the development of all living creatures. People were relying on the supposed learned voices of the world. But as we learned more about genetics and chromosomes, we understood more. As people learned more, they realized that ‘abortion is really not right at all.'”
Ewing said the realization that people are made in the image of God is critical to taking a strong pro-life position. “We are made in the image of God — it’s God’s design.” He said Gen. 9 has helped people understand the clear biblical teaching against abortion.
Ewing added that Kentucky is “very fortunate to have pro-life legislators. I think they grasp the significance from a biblical perspective, and they understand other issues that are involved, such as the stability of families.”
While noting that he can “see a day when we will run into conflict” with the Biden administration’s stance on abortion, Ewing opined, “My hope and prayer is that we can make a difference in Kentucky, and as a result, impact the country. We want to equip Kentucky Baptists to rationally approach the pro-life discussion and understand how to engage those who are pro-choice.”