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
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
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.
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.
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
Owens has three daughters
and a foster daughter, who live in Suffolk, Va., Greenville, S.C., Vass, N.C.,
and in Ohio.
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.”
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
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.”
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,
“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
Asked if he were in his
prime again, would he challenge Calvinist theology in Baptist seminaries today,
Owens said, “Yes I would.”