M.O. Owens started ‘conservative resurgence’
    October 1 2010 by Norman Jameson, 
BR Editor

    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.”  

    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.”
    10/1/2010 6:59:00 AM by Norman Jameson, 
BR Editor | with 4 comments

Norman Jameson
Thank you for mentioning this. I had meant to mention it in the story and forgot. Perhaps you can send me a note for a letter to the editor in the print edition about the effort.
10/3/2010 9:42:49 PM

Daniel Palmer
We are working toward funding an academic chair of New Testament Studies in honor of Dr. M.O. Owens Jr. at Southeastern Seminary where Dr. Owens is the oldest living and active member of our Board of Visitors. Dr. Owens will not be forgotten.

If you want information on the chair, just send me an email at dpalmer@sebts.edu

Norman, great work here.
10/3/2010 9:19:21 AM

Gene Scarborough
This is such a delightful interview, words can't say thanks enough!!!

I think you have characterized M.O. Owens about as accurately as one can. Old Marse Grant and he would have had a fist fight over having an interview because there was lots of water under the bridge between them. Too bad Marse has gone to higher ground and you can't interview him in the same fashion. Such an interview proves you to be a fair Editor, Norman!

It really interests me that M.O. would take exception to the Calvinist bent of these days. It proves he is his own man with his own agenda over just fitting in.

There are few things theological with which I would agree with brother M.O.--- BUT, he proves that, with autonomy, Baptists on different ends of the theological spectrum can move forward together!

I dare anyone to call him a "Fundy"--he's just not that Conservative. I also dare anyone to call me a "Liberal"--I'm just not that "open to anything."

My 2 Scarborough uncles (Lee & Coy)raised families in Gastonia. It is a pretty tough mill village town requiring a clear picture of who you are and what you are about to survive. All 3 of these men have done so. Both my Uncles have gone to their heavenly reward. I have no doubts M.O. will find his place above as well.

Even those of us who might not agree with him can't help but like him for his spunk!

Listen carefully, to his wisdom: "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.”

Herein speaks true "wisdom of the ages."
10/1/2010 3:26:55 PM

Brent Hobbs
I'm very thankful for the faithfulness of men like Owens in the past who paved the way for a movement that would return a whole denomination back to its trust in the Scriptures. The attitude of the professor quoted from Wake Forest is a perfect example of why we needed such a movement.
10/1/2010 1:46:33 PM

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