How Harry Emerson Fosdick’s 'Open Membership' Overtook the Northern Baptist Convention


Summary: In 1926, William Buell Riley and the Baptist Bible Union led the charge in opposing Harry Emerson Fosdick’s spread of “open membership” in the Northern Baptist Convention. Their failure resulted in the departure of many conservative churches from the Convention and cemented the Convention’s trajectory toward theological liberalism. 

In the 1920s, conservative evangelicals were desperate to curb the spread of liberalism within their denominations. Baptist churches were no exception.

In the Northern Baptist Convention, battlelines were drawn and fought over three issues: the spread of higher criticism in seminaries, the growing hierarchy and bureaucracy of the Convention, and the relaxing of Baptist polity—particularly through the growing practice of “open membership.” Open membership means that churches do not require (believer’s) baptism as a prerequisite for membership and the Lord’s Supper.

This last issue of open membership became a lightning rod in 1925 when Harry Emerson Fosdick assumed the pastorate of Park Avenue Church in New York City. Though ordained as a Baptist, Fosdick had demonstrated his disdain for ecclesiastical exclusivism by taking the pastorate of a Presbyterian church. As a pastor, he openly advocated and practiced open membership, even saying, 

If I had my way baptism would be altogether an individual affair. Anyone who wanted to be immersed, I would gladly immerse. Anyone who wanted to be sprinkled, I would glad [sic] sprinkle. If anyone was a Quaker and had conscientious scruples against any ritual, I would gladly without baptism welcome him on confession of faith. Why not?

In other words, Fosdick shifted baptism from an objective reality to a subjective decision. As historian Stewart Cole summarized the liberal position in 1931, “Liberals believed their allegiance to Christ was not measured by conformity to a physical act, but by adhering to an inner and spiritual ideal.” Or as one might hear today, the timing of baptism should not matter for membership as long as there is a “credible profession of faith.”

Park Avenue’s decision, however, to call Harry Emerson Fosdick and begin practicing “open membership” set it on a collision course with the Northern Baptist Convention. They might not practice infant baptism, but they would happily accept any professing Christian into membership, regardless of whether or not they had been baptized as a believer.

This raised two questions. In what sense could Park Avenue be considered a Baptist church if they no longer required baptism for membership? And second, could Park Avenue remain a cooperating church with the Northern Baptist Convention if they no longer constituted a Baptist church?

These were the very points raised by conservatives at the Convention in Seattle in 1925. When Park Avenue’s delegates were seated, conservatives protested to the credentials committee that they were in violation of the Convention’s bylaws for cooperation. Only by a masterful feat of chairmanship did Park Avenue avoid being dis-fellowshipped right then and there. But to the dismay of conservatives, the chair’s ruling that since Fosdick had not yet technically begun his duties at Park Avenue, the delegates should be permitted to remain, was ratified by the Convention at a vote of 912 to 364.

While the issue remained unresolved, everyone knew that it was a powder keg waiting to blow. Recognizing the need to clarify the terms for cooperation, the conservative Baptist Bible Union planned to introduce the following clarification to the bylaws at the following year’s convention in Washington, DC:

A Baptist church, as defined for the purposes of these by-laws, is one accepting the New Testament as its guide and composed only of baptized believers, baptism being by immersion.

For conservatives, baptism was not a subjective reality to be left to the conscience of every church and every individual, but an actual command of Christ that they had no liberty to disobey. If Jesus commanded his disciples to baptize only believers by immersion, what authority did they have to edit Jesus? 

To preempt such a resolution from passing, sixty-eight Baptist leaders met in Chicago on March 13, 1926 to draft a compromise resolution on the Fosdick situation. Their resolution, which they planned to introduce at the Washington Convention in June 1926, stated that, 

The Northern Baptist Convention recognizes its constituency as consisting solely of those Baptist churches in which immersion of believers is recognized as the only Scriptural baptism; and The Convention hereby declares that only immersed members will be recognized as delegates to the Convention.

When the language of the so-called “compromise” was made public, the conservatives were livid. Far from excluding Fosdick, the resolution functionally opened the Northern Baptist Convention up to churches that practiced “open membership,” as long as they did not practice the sprinkling of infants or send un-immersed delegates to the convention. 

Recognizing the “Chicago Compromise” as a tacit acceptance of “open membership,” the conservatives were united in agreement to oppose it. As the Watchman-Examiner explained, “Under such a rule people can be received into full membership in a Baptist church, who have been sprinkled in other churches, or they can make their first profession of faith and be received without being baptized at all, as the Park avenue church proposes.” “If the Chicago Compromise succeeds,” Frank M. Goodchild wrote in the Watchman-Examiner, “denominationally we proclaim that our Lord’s command for the believer to be baptized is no longer in force.” “Before long,” Goodchild lamented, “you will not be able to recognize a Baptist church.”

When conservatives gathered for the pre-convention conference of the Baptist Bible Union at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., the issue of “open membership” was front and center in their discussions. Rev. W.A. Matthews of Los Angeles, CA opened proceedings by alleging that modernists were seeking to create a ‘religion of ease,’ by abandoning “the historic Baptist practice of ‘baptism by immersion as a requisite for membership.’”

If the Convention accepted the “Chicago Compromise” opening up Northern Baptists to “open membership,” the members of the Baptist Bible Union agreed they would leave the denomination. As The Washington Post reported, “The fight looms over this issue.” 

When the Northern Baptist Convention opened on Tuesday, May 25, 1926, over 3,000 delegates from Baptist churches filled the Washington auditorium. At the appointed time, on Wednesday, May 26, W.B. Riley, pastor of First Baptist Church of Minneapolis, MN, brought Baptist Bible Union’s motion to require, “The Northern Baptist Convention recognizes its constituency as consisting solely of those Baptist churches in which the immersion of believers is recognized and practiced as a pre-requisite to membership.” 

What followed as a long and protracted debate, marked by jeers and cheers. As the Watchman-Examiner later recounted, “Never before in the annals of the Convention has there been debate quite like this one.” “[F]requent and loud applause” occasionally interrupted a general “tense feeling.”

Conservatives tried to clarify that the question was not about what authority the Convention had to dictate the faith and practice of a local church, but whether the Convention could define its terms for cooperation in any other way than the Bible commanded. “Though we have fellowship with our pedobaptist friends,” Riley explained, “we do not express [this] in our approval of any form of baptism other than which is already stated in the Word of God.” Dr. Earl V. Pierce of Minnesota argued similarly that, “The great fundamental of a Baptist church is not freedom but obedience. Our freedom is to believe as God pleases, and that alone.” Dr. John Roach Straton of New York summed up the crux of the matter as, “Shall we stand for the original commission of Christ and obey his, ‘Whatsoever I have commanded you?’”

When the time for debate ended and the time to vote finally came, Riley’s motion lost by a vote of 2,020 to 1,084.

For conservatives, this failure marked the beginning of the end. After failing to get their resolutions passed in Washington, many conservatives began to organize independent structures or leave the Northern Baptist Convention altogether. 

But 1926 was also the beginning of the end for the Northern Baptist Convention. It was the first serious compromise in a series of compromises that has led it to where it is today. 

For conservatives, “open membership” was not simply a matter of arcane polity. They understood that in a Convention, as in a local church, opening membership to unbaptized persons was a step toward handing control over to those who may very well not be Christians, effectively mingling the church with the world.  

Ultimately, however, it was not just a question of prudence but of the authority of Scripture. Conservatives understood that they did not have permission to edit Jesus: that we cannot understand what Jesus teaches about baptism and fail to enforce it in the church without being guilty of disobedience. If Jesus said to baptize, who are we to do otherwise?

The question is, do we as conservative evangelicals still understand this today?

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Caleb Morell

A graduate of Georgetown University and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Caleb Morell is a pastoral assistant at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. You can follow him on Twitter at @calebmorell.

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