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M.O. Owens started ‘conservative resurgence’
Norman Jameson, _ÑŒBR Editor
October 01, 2010
9 MIN READ TIME

M.O. Owens started ‘conservative resurgence’

M.O. Owens started ‘conservative resurgence’
Norman Jameson, _ÑŒBR Editor
October 01, 2010

Any discussion of Baptists’

“Great Commission Resurgence” is a nod to the “conservative resurgence” that

swept the Southern Baptist Convention a generation ago.

And any such nod must be in

the direction of M.O. Owens Jr., a Gastonia pastor whose dissatisfaction with

Wake Forest University prompted him to initiate a challenge later picked up and

carried nationally by Texans Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler.

“The ball was well down the

field when Patterson and Pressler picked it up,” said Owens, the man who kicked

it.

Owens, founding pastor of

Parkwood Baptist Church in Gastonia, and Home Mission Board employee Bill

Powell first started rattling Convention cages about 1964 when they formed the

Baptist Faith and Message Fellowship and later, the Baptist Literature Board

that offered Bible study materials as an alternative to those sold by the

Convention’s own publishing house.

Today the contributions of

Milum Oswell Owens Jr. are barely remembered, a fate M.O. suffers by his own

admission. Yet Owens, 97, is in touch with current Baptist events, preaches

twice every Sunday, drives his own car and celebrates life daily with his third

wife, Margaret, to whom he’s been married six years. He was widowed in 1979 and

2003.

Owens preaches a traditional

model service at Parkwood, founded as a mission of East Baptist Church, where

Owens was pastor at the time. As Parkwood embraced a contemporary style

service, pastor Jeff Long recognized older members were dropping away, and he

asked Owens to start the traditional service. He also leads weekly vespers at

the retirement home where he and Margaret live.

Owens preaches strongly,

standing behind the pulpit without using it for support. He climbs the steps

without a hitch and shakes hands and shares hugs with parishioners after the

service, which runs concurrently with the service in the main sanctuary.

Early days

Born in Aiken County, S.C.,

in 1913, Owens is a 1933 graduate of Furman University. There was no money for

law school, but his neighbor put him to work at the textile mill, where he

lifted 400-lb. bales of cloth to a pattern imprint press.

After a year and a half, his

father said he didn’t go to college to lift cotton bales for 40 cents an hour,

although any dollar was a treasure then.

“It was hard work but one of

the best things that ever happened to me because I developed strength in my

arms and legs that has stood me in good stead all these years,” said Owens,

bright, lively and engaged over lunch after church Sept. 19.

M.O.’s father was a pastor

and his mother encouraged him toward ministry. She taught him to read by age

four. When he first entered school at age eight, it was as a fourth grader.

BR photo by Norman Jameson

At age 97 M.O. Owens Jr. still preaches every week for a traditional service at Parkwood Baptist Church in Gastonia, where he was the founding pastor in 1964.

Although law was his dream,

he responded to a call to preach that is “as plain today as it was then.”

“I’ve never regretted it a

day of my life,” he said. “Not a day.”

He served six churches as

pastor, and about 15 as interim pastor after retiring in 1981. Churches stopped

calling when he reached 90. “I guess they thought I was too old,” he said with

a slight smile.

He became pastor of First

Baptist Church, Marion, in 1944 and went to First Baptist Church, Lenoir, six

years later. He stayed in Lenoir almost 10 years before going to East Baptist

in Gastonia in 1960.

When the church learned

their frontage road was going to be lowered to accommodate the railroad track

they bought land a couple miles southeast, started a mission church and

intended to move.

When the new road plan was

dropped, most members wanted East to stay put, but some said they should keep

the new mission going, which they did.

In the meantime, Owens

resigned East to go to a Miami, Fla., church but when he visited Miami, he

realized that he would be totally out of his element.

The Parkwood mission asked

him to become their first pastor and he did, constituting in March 1964 with

180 members. East had about 1,000 members. He retired from Parkwood in 1981.

Owens “hesitated to retire,”

but he was recently widowed, his father in a retirement home was his

responsibility and he had no other staff at a church with 900 members.

“I just felt like there was

more on me than I could really look after,” he said.

Owens attributes his

longevity to good genes, decent eating and exercise, although, “the main thing

is staying busy.”

He nearly died from colon

cancer in 1965 but his health today is good. He said he once ran a 4:05 mile

about 20 years before the 4-minute barrier was broken by Roger Bannister in

1954.

Owens has three daughters

and a foster daughter, who live in Suffolk, Va., Greenville, S.C., Vass, N.C.,

and in Ohio.

Early movement

Owens initiated the

“conservative resurgence” almost unintentionally.

“We didn’t start out to do

anything about the seminaries,” he said. “We were just trying to encourage the

average pastor out there to stay close to the Bible and the orthodox concept

that Baptists had.”

Others encouraged them to

take their campaign nationwide. He and Powell formed the Baptist Faith and

Message Fellowship. After they got the ball rolling, Paul Pressler and Paige

Patterson “took over from there.”

BR photo by Norman Jameson

M.O. Owens Jr. and Margaret have been married for six years.

Patterson, now president of

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which was an early target of

“conservative resurgence” leaders, affirmed Owens’ perspective.

“M.O. Owens, Bob Tenery and

others in North Carolina preceded by several years the beginnings of what has

become known as the ‘conservative resurgence,’” Patterson said.

“These men have been nothing

less than determined and faithful in the consistency of their lives and

witnesses. Like all humans I’m sure they must have made mistakes but the

consistent holiness of life and strength of conviction that was necessary to

find credibility in the eyes of the masses was decidedly present in these men.”

Owens’ group challenged what

was then the Baptist Sunday School Board, which was providing the vast majority

of teaching materials used in SBC churches, by creating the Baptist Literature

Board. They adopted Scripture Press materials and eventually served 1,000

churches.

Their effort “served its

purpose,” he said, because the Sunday School Board eventually “went back to the

more solid conservative viewpoint, and we were no longer needed.”

Prompts

In “what today sounds

stupid” but was a real issue in 1958-59 Owens said lines started to be drawn

when he led the Baptist State Convention (BSC) to deny a request from Wake

Forest University, which was then a BSC school, that dancing be allowed on

campus. For him, the issue wasn’t so much dancing on campus, he said, but that

Wake Forest asked North Carolina Baptists to approve dancing.

The resulting furor maligned

the state convention and those involved were “immediately designated as the

worst possible villains,” he said.

Owens’ confidence took

another blow when a promising Parkwood student went to Wake Forest “and the

next thing I knew he had been moved over in his theology to be as liberal as

the rest of them.”

When he protested to a

faculty member, the teacher wrote back and said, according to Owens, “one of

the best pieces of work I’ve ever done was to change the attitude of this

student from conservative to liberal.”

Owens said when he realized

“the same thing was happening to some extent in all the other colleges”

something had to be done to keep Southern Baptists from “going the way” of

other denominations that were losing thousands of members every year.

“Anybody with any sense

could see if we kept going along the same line we’d be in the same boat,” he

said. “Fortunately we were able to sort of turn things around.”

Owens is generally pleased

with the current direction of the Southern Baptist Convention and feels “once

we settle down” from “Great Commission resurgence” adjustments, “we’ll begin to

see the result and we’ll begin to move on.”

It is hard to make progress

as a group in an “I, me, my society,” in which individual actions declare “If I

don’t get anything out of it, I don’t care whether anyone else gets anything

out of it,” he said.

Owens grew animated when

discussion ranged to theology and the rising Calvinist influence in Southern Baptist

seminaries, particularly Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville,

Ky.

“There is no question that

God is in charge of things,” Owens said, leaning forward.

“He holds the final hand.

But we are made in the image of God and if that doesn’t mean we have minds of

our own, then it doesn’t mean anything. And if we have minds of our own then

that means we have some responsibility.”

Owens was in his prime when

he fired the shot that shook Southern Baptists for a generation, a time when

those in his circle of influence saw Baptist schools and seminaries drifting

from orthodoxy.

Asked if he were in his

prime again, would he challenge Calvinist theology in Baptist seminaries today,

Owens said, “Yes I would.”