Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Harold Mixon


From Michael Thompson, Richard Ellis, and Aaron Wildavsky's cultural theory perspective, the authoritarian and the individualistic ways of life have coexisted in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) for more than a century. In 1979, Southern Baptist fundamentalists began a concerted movement to reform the SBC according to authoritarian beliefs and social practices. From Victor Turner's dramaturgical perspective, the 1979-1990 Southern Baptist controversy was a social drama that transferred power and reshaped Southern Baptists' perception of the past, present, and future. Rhetorical strategies facilitated each stage of the fundamentalists' reformation movement and the moderate counter movement. The present study symbolically explicates the rhetoric expressed in two rival events that preceded the yearly SBC meetings, the Pastors' Conferences (1979-1990) and the SBC Forums (1984-1990). The study focuses on the different meanings that participants constructed as speakers enacted conflicting definitions of the SBC. The study analyzes the polarized perceptions of the social drama and interprets the colliding epistemologies. The study offers a rhetorical and dramaturgical explanation of how the SBC Social Drama drove an ideological wedge between authoritarian and individualistic ways of life. A prominent conclusion is that the rhetoric in the Pastors' Conferences and the SBC Forums displayed particular forms consisting of a breach (1979), a crisis (1980-1985), a redress (1986-1987), a recycled crisis (1988), and a mixed-result ending(1989-1990). The mixed-result ending suggests that the social drama resolved for some Baptists (i.e., as fundamentalists consolidated control of the SBC, and as some moderates formed schismatic organizations), but failed to resolve for other Southern Baptists. The failed social drama contributed to a growing social rift between some Baptists. Another conclusion is that speakers portrayed evolving roles as their constituents gained and lost status in the SBC. The role of fundamentalist rhetors moved from crusading reformers to management as their ideology gained ascendency, and the role of moderate rhetors moved from management to outsiders as their ideology lost support in the SBC.