News and Updates

The Roger Williams Fellowship Our Beginnings, Our Purpose, Our People, Our Future

The Roger Williams Fellowship came into existence informally in 1925 at the Seattle Convention of the Northern Baptist Convention, and more formally at the 1935 Convention in Colorado Springs, as shared by D. R. Sharpe, considered the “Founding Father.” The 1920’s were a time of upheaval, fierce social ferment, people who opposed the Social Gospel and those who approved of it. A powerful group of Conservatives/Fundamentalists planned to write a Baptist Creed and have it adopted by the delegates at Seattle.

Cornelius Woelfkin and Harry Emerson Fosdick presented to Dr. Sharpe a Resolution making the New Testament our sole rule and guide. Some 35 men gathered in a hotel room and the RWF was born. The presence of these great men – Woelfkin and Fosdick—gave the younger men a sense of mission.

The substitute resolution read: “The Northern Baptist Convention affirms that the New Testament is the all-sufficient ground of our faith and practice, and we need no other statement.” It was adopted by the delegates by a vote of 1264 to 637. This might be called the Great Awakening of the Liberal Wing of the denomination.

We were never a single-issue group. We sought to bring the Christian faith to bear upon a wide range of justice concerns. In the 1930’s, the assault upon the Foreign Mission Society escalated and the appointment of Elmer Friddel as Foreign Secretary for the Orient in the mid 1940’s stirred up new opposition. GARB (the General Association of Regular Baptists) was formed about this time.

A major break in the denomination occurred in the mid 1940’s. The newly formed Conservative Fellowship of Northern Baptists and their Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society questioned the appointment of overseas missionaries by the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society. The issue had been brewing since 1924 and the break came at the 1946 Grand Rapids Convention.

We are a guardian of freedom. Over the years there were outstanding persons in the American Baptist denomination, persons holding key denominational staff positions, who helped make RWF what it was and is.

The first two women Presidents of the denomination, Helen Barrett Montgomery in 1922 and Anna Canada Swain in 1946, faced major divisions in the denomination. RWF played a principal role in maintaining denominational integrity through these years.

By 1935 the need was felt for more organization, so officers, a Board of Directors and a Manifesto came into being. The Manifesto said in part:

“...controversy is heady business but it often betrays itself, cooperation is less exciting but never fails in satisfaction. Let us accept our convictions with the strength of brotherhood...”  Forty-five men signed as Charter Members and several Vice Presidents from various parts of the country were elected. Charter Members included:
Earl Adams, Theodore Adams, Bradford Abernathy, Frederick Allen, Forest Ashbrook, Robert Ashworth, Ambrose Bailey, Raymond Bailey, David Barnwell, Lee Beynon, Hugh Burr, George Collins, Arthur Cowley, Edwin Dahlberg, William Davison, Julis Fishbach, Harry Freda, Elmer Fridell, Harold Gamble, Charles Gilkey, Charles Goodall, Elijah Hanley, Reuben Harkness, Orval Hendrickson, Charles Heimsath, Joseph Hazen, Harold Husted, Alvin Lee, Merrill Lenox, Hal Norton, Valentine Parker, Ivan Murray Rose, Wilbur Saunders, Charles Seasholes, D. R. Sharpe, Erdmann Smith, Otherman Smith, Currey Spidell, Francis Stifler, Martin Storegaard, P. L. Thompson, Ray Williamson, Thomas Wylie. W. S. K. Yeaple, Wayland Zwayer. (1935 Convention, Colorado Springs).

Our purpose statement as printed on current membership cards reads: “The Roger Williams Fellowship brings into informal organizational relationship a varied group of American Baptists who believe in the value of frank and free discussion of their several viewpoints. The Fellowship welcomes the membership and support of all who earnestly desire to preserve and promote the traditional Baptist spirit of free creative inquiry. The Fellowship includes members who hold widely divergent theological positions.” Another way of expressing it is:  “a force within the denomination, working constantly for depth and vitality in spiritual life...keeping alive the social conscience...preserving and nurturing basic freedoms in religion which we have associated with liberalism at its best.”

To join in the 1940’s, you had to have two people vouch for you and know the password to get into the RWF evening fellowship time (held after the formal Convention sessions). In more recent years the fellowship did not begin until George Hill came with his supply of stories. He was pastor at First Baptist Pasadena, long-time pastor of Lake Avenue Baptist in Rochester, later at Calvary Baptist Washington, D.C. and then interim at Riverside in NYC. He died in 2003.

In 1946 Mrs. Charles (Laurinda) Sanford applied for membership. Her husband, a pastor, was a member and she wished to join. Oops, wrong question! She was informed NO, but if she wished to start a woman’s auxiliary, she should feel free to do so. SHE DID NOT!! In 1989 Andy Davison told me her story and I wrote to her, and gave her an honorary life-time membership.

A partial list of presidents includes (not in chronological order): H. W. Smith (1937), Wilbur Saunders, Gordon Poteat, Gene Barlett, Morse Bettison, Fred Blue, Franklin Elmer, Jim Webb, Herb Murray, Bob Spencer, Gary Reif, Bob Withers, Tom Clifton, Andy Davison, Ken Williams, June Totten, Bob Mathis, Martha Barr, David Wheeler, Jerrod Hugenot and, for 2009-2010, Marcus McFaul.

Treasurers have included: A. Ray Petty (1947), l. Higginbotham, Ed Stevens, Bob Spencer, Gary Rief, Bob Withers, Betty Mae Shear (1982-2009), and, currently, David Wheeler.

Our publication, Baptist Freedom, was first produced in 1944. Its purpose was provocative and constructive articles, reports of meetings and conferences, a vehicle of expression to all sides--all in order to foster the objectives of RWF, which can be summed up in three words: Fellowship, Freedom, Faith. The lamp is our symbol.

Editors have included: Franklin Elmer (1951-1963), Ray Jennings, Bob Sanders, Jim Dick, Phil Shear, Don Lawrence, Jeff Kelly, Gary Reif, Kevin Butler, Dick Myers, and Hugh Tucker (Final issue 2007).

Conferences: At the convention in Chicago in 1951, D. R. Sharpe gathered some men around him to discuss an idea he had. He laid before them the idea of a conference. Some were enthusiastic, some lukewarm. He got Dean Bernie Loomer of the University of Chicago Divinity School to promise the school’s cooperation, and the group voted approval. For many years, there were annual conferences in connection with the D. R. Sharpe Lecture Series. The topics were many and varied. In those “golden days”, your registration and transportation were your only cost; the Divinity School picked up the tab for meals and lodging. These conferences were held in Chicago at least through 1982. When Larry Greenfield became president of Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, conferences moved to the CCRDS campus for several reasons. Much of our membership was in the East. In more recent years, we have combined with other groups to meet in Providence, R.I., Washington, DC, and Kansas City.

Banners: In the 1980’s, Shirley Pabo of Hilton, NY, made a large vertical blue banner, with the words Faith and Freedom, a lamp, and the words Roger Williams Fellowship. In 2001, a church in New Jersey (pastor Jerry Johnson) made a horizontal banner with the words Rogers Williams Fellowship, and in smaller letters, Knowledge – Freedom – Spirit and the lamp. (These are the words in the flames of the lamp.) These are displayed at RWF events, and David Wheeler now has both of them.

Exhibit Booths at Annual/Biennial Conventions:

These started in the 1960’s when Herb Murray was president. They continued through 1991 at Charleston, WV, when all groups who wished to have exhibit space were welcome. In 1993, (San Jose), American Baptists Concerned were denied space, so RWF displayed their literature. Starting in 1995, RWF provided alternate space for any of the ten or so groups denied space in the mail exhibit hall.

This came about with the passage in the General Board of ABCUSA of a resolution which stated “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” A letter from the Office of Special Services in 1994 stated: “as you know, the General Board must approve rental of space to Biennial exhibitors. During its recent meeting the General Board discussed fully the matter of Biennial exhibit space and noted with sadness that too frequently issues surrounding exhibitors resulted in the kind of controversy which did not contribute to the major objectives of the Biennial Convention. While the Board recognized that groups using exhibit space vary widely in their mission focus, it was their decision to approve exhibit space only to ‘groups officially related to ABCUSA or one of its convenanting bodies and ecumenical organizations with which ABCUSA has had long-standing association.’”

In 1997 we were all together at Indianapolis, only because there was sufficient space in the exhibit hall and RWF (and others) went through the Convention Center to reserve

space, not through Valley Forge. In 2001 in Providence we were in the main exhibit hall – in fact just inside the front door!! Perhaps because of our connection with Roger Williams and our emphasis on soul freedom, it seemed best to have us there BUT WE COULD DISPLAY ONLY OUR OWN LITERATURE. At some Biennials there is simply no place near enough the Convention Center to make a separate display space worthwhile.

Our Future:

Recently I received a letter from a member, asking these questions:

What’s up with RWF? I never hear anything about it except when it’s time to renew dues. If I don’t have opportunity to go to the Biennial, I hear nothing. Do they publish anything? Is there an email mail list? A Board of Directors? Now I don’t know who’s involved. How do I stay in touch and know what’s going on? I’d like to be more involved.

So I, Betty Mae, close with these questions. Does RWF have a future? Are we needed? Are we over-lapping with any other group(s)? Send your thoughts, questions and concerns to Dr. David Wheeler, Sec-Treas, First Baptist Church, 909 SW 11th Ave, Portland, OR 97205 (

At the recent Biennial in Pasadena, a TOTAL surprise for me was “The Phil and Betty Mae Shear Award, presented to David Hunt for his commitment to Baptist freedom – Roger Williams Fellowship, June 26, 2009.” David Hunt is Speaker of the House in Oregon, and due to very important pending legislation could not attend Biennial and be our evening speaker. This award will be presented to someone at each Biennial, and is in recognition of the long years of RWF service from Phil and myself.

I knew nothing about this (my son and daughter did know) and my daughter was able to come from NY to share in the evening.

Betty Mae Shear
August, 2009

Posted on Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 04:09PM by Registered CommenterRWF Web Editor | CommentsPost a Comment

A Reflection from RWF's Secretary-Treasurer

What Does it Mean to Be Baptist?: Choosing our Convictions, Forming Our Life Together

In 1996 I was a guest professor at the “Moscow Theological Seminary of the Evangelical Christians-Baptists”. I asked about the institution’s name. It seems that prior to the post-Soviet inundation of Russia by Mormons, Moonies, “independent” Christians and just about every other kind of American religious group that proselytizes, if you were Christian and you weren’t Orthodox and you weren’t Catholic, then you were “Baptist”, an elastic term including all sorts of charismatic and non-charismatic descendents of the Protestant Reformation, who had evolved in relative isolation from both the West and mainstream Russian culture for generations.

Here in the United States there are 43 different groups of “Baptists” identified in the online version of the “Association of Religious Data Archives”. They are Calvinist and Arminian, liberal, progressive, conservative and fundamentalist. They collectively are the greatest mission-sending people in the world and they eschew missions as sinful presumption, usurping God’s authority. They ordain women and welcome gays and lesbians into fellowship; they restrict ordained leadership to men and feel that the “homosexual agenda” is one of the greatest threats to the integrity and perseverance of American culture. They were founding pillars of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (originally “Protestants and Others United...”) and they have been among the leaders in the contemporary movement to “take back America for God” and to recognize and honor the Christian roots of this nation. They exercised prophetic leadership in the Civil Rights movement a generation ago and they are, in the persistence of “Northern” and Southern Baptists, the last major American denominational tradition to preserve the pre-Civil War divisions of the 1840’s and 50’s.

One of the universally-agreed upon “Baptist principles” is congregational autonomy, but the centrally-controlled agencies, and the six wholly-owned seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention belie this principle, and the Cooperative Program set up to fund them has historically been one of the most extensive and efficient religious bureaucracies in the world. (Ironically, the Cooperative Program has languished as Southern Baptist conservatives have consolidated their control over the Convention in the last twenty-five years.)

Another classic “Baptist principle” is biblical authority. I learned growing up in Kentucky that Baptists have taken with utter seriousness the Reformation motto “sola scriptura”. The Bible is our sole rule of faith and practice; we eschew manmade creeds and catechisms. Or do we? It wasn’t until I rolled out this truism before my colleague in the Church History chair at Central Seminary, Dr. Robert Fulop, that I learned about the venerable stream of New World Baptist “confessions” beginning with the Philadelphia Confession of 1707 and continuing through the three recensions of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Faith and Message in 1925, 1963 and 2000. This latter document was said to simply “express what is commonly held by Southern Baptists” as taught in scripture. But if such a document is used to define boundaries of fellowship and enforce doctrinal conformity among a defined group of believers, then it is, practically speaking, a creed, no matter what it is called. This fact, in and of itself, is not necessarily either good or bad; my point is simply – once again – the often unappreciated diversity of positions and characteristics among the “Baptists”.

Martin E. Marty, in a widely-cited 1983 article in Christianity Today, wrote of the “baptistification of America”. In our culture of rugged individuals, entrepreneurs and men and women of unique and personal guiding principles (at least in our own imagination), Methodists tell their bishop what he (or she) can do with the assigned pastor, and Episcopalians fire their bishops, go under the care of bishops from Uganda and sue the national church to retain control of their properties. That is to say, they act like Baptists. And in the exploding suburbs and exurbs that define late 20th and early 21st century America, the mega and not-so-megachurches sprouting in strip malls and meadows are pointedly nondenominational. They are “Community Churches” and “Family Life Centers” and offer “New Hope” or a “Word of Life”. But in my experience on both coasts and in the Midwest, they are almost universally “baptistic”, with their congregational autonomy, practice of believer’s baptism, emerging networks of “voluntary” association with like-minded believers, and their uncritical assumptions that the “What We Believe” statements on their websites are simple transcriptions of the plain teachings of scripture. And in this emerging Christian landscape, every pastor is a bishop and every local church with its daughters is a denomination unto itself, though the word is unvoiced.

In the fall of 2006, I was invited to teach a course on world religions as a guest professor at Whittier College. As a way of understanding the group of students I would guide through this process, I distributed an anonymous survey in which I asked the students to specify their religious identity, if any, and their knowledge of and level of commitment to it. Not surprisingly, surveying a group of students self-selected for interest in a religion course at this liberal arts college with Quaker roots, I found that 22 of the 25 students self-identified as some sort of Christian. Also, with a large number of Latino students, it was not surprising that 11 of those 22 self-identified as Catholic. But not a single one of the other eleven used any of the mainline labels such as Baptist, Methodist or Lutheran. Not a one! Three students did call themselves “Evangelical”, including one “Evangelical Catholic”!

Now admittedly this is anecdotal evidence based on an exceedingly small sample, but it is consistent with my experiences working with students over more than twenty years of teaching. Truly the days of denominational “brand loyalty” are over. And just maybe those loyalties were never as deep or extensive as we have imagined. But in addition to our fundamental loyalty to Christ and his Church, wherever it is alive and faithful, we have some history, some convictions and some relationships to honor. And together that history, those convictions and those relationships weave a precious pattern through the tapestry that is the Body of Christ.

As American Baptists, ours is the history of evangelists such as Jitsuo Morikawa, theorists of the social gospel such as Walter Rauschenbusch and prophetic practitioners such as Martin Luther King, Jr. (And invoking those very names reminds us that such emphases and practices are not mutually exclusive but intimately related.) Ours is the history of liberal/progressive pastors such as George Hill filling pulpits in great urban centers and conservative/progressive pastors (if I may coin a phrase) such as Bill Keucher leading great churches in the broad American heartland. Ours is the history of great women of faith such as Helen Barrett Montgomery and Ella Mitchell and Mary Armacost Hulst standing up and standing out for generations. Ours is the history of Adoniram and Ann Judson and John Mason Peck and Dr. Marian Boehr going to far places to make Jesus present and Lennie Ballesteros and James Chuck and Tom Gabio making Jesus present to the ones in our midst whom society might deem “other”.

Another writer would invoke other names, but for me, this litany of names generates a particular trajectory into the plethora of invocations of “Baptist Principles”, a particular prioritizing of convictions to honor. We will cherish soul competency; no cabal of pastors, no denominational bureaucrat, no theological special interest group will tell us what we may believe or whom we may include or with whom we may associate. But our understanding of soul competency will not be a religious analogue to an extreme individualism. My invocation of history – the unique strand of history that is American Baptist – reminds us that we formed ourselves through voluntary association for ministry and mission. Our identity as Baptist Christians has been forged through relationships and through shared practices. And the principle of soul competency, our history of association and the particular names I have invoked all combine to generate a big tent version of life together as Christian believers.

We may be no more or less “Baptist” than Southern Baptists, Cooperative Baptists, National Baptists or “independent and fundamental” Baptists, but our life together is life under the big tent where Jesus is Lord and we stay together in spite of our differences – indeed, sometimes because of our differences, for we learn through respectful interaction with the other who challenges our perceptions and customs. Living with difference is not a facile endorsement of post-modern skepticism. We acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the unique authority of Scripture. But like many Americans we also acknowledge a healthy distrust of authoritarian persons and structures – secular or religious – and the motivations that drive them. Something about “principalities and powers...”

Still, our society may become ever so secular, ever so distrustful of institutions, ever so immersed in self-realization, and we humans will never transcend certain needs and drives that are, I believe, at the core of the imago dei within us. We have a fundamental drive to identify with something or somebody larger than ourselves. Why not the living Christ, present and active in and through us who are privileged to be called his disciples and formed by him? We have a fundamental yearning for membership in the beloved community. Why not the Church of Jesus Christ, freely giving itself away in neighbor love?

If I dare say so, it is a propitious hour to be the sort of Baptist Christian I have tried to describe and to live the sort of life together I have tried to invoke. And it is a choice that we make so to define ourselves and so to live. Labels are not so important. After all, Roger Williams himself was a “Baptist” for only a few months. But these choices we make and the relationships we create and sustain and the holy vulnerability we exemplify in our fearful society are of inestimable value. We are “marching to Zion” together, and it is a holy pilgrimage.

Dr. David L. Wheeler
June, 2008

David L. Wheeler is Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Portland, Oregon and Secretary-Treasurer of the Roger Williams Fellowship.

Posted on Monday, March 23, 2009 at 06:00PM by Registered CommenterRWF Web Editor | CommentsPost a Comment

New address for the RWF Web Page!

Due to long term technical difficulties with our previous URL our new web address is

Please update your bookmarks!


Posted on Monday, May 12, 2008 at 03:38PM by Registered CommenterRWF Web Editor | CommentsPost a Comment

Biennial Issue of Baptist Freedom

This is the issue of Baptist Freedom published at the June 2007 Biennial.  Look for frequent updates to this site beginning shortly!

Baptist Freedom 2007 

Posted on Monday, April 14, 2008 at 02:10PM by Registered CommenterRWF Web Editor | CommentsPost a Comment

Responding to Recent Letters by the General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches

The board of directors of the Roger Williams Fellowship notes two recent pastoral letters written by the Rev. A. Roy Medley, General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches/USA. In these letters, Medley addresses two pressing issues on the front pages of newspapers: first, the ongoing discussion about homosexuality in the Church and second (and separately), Israeli military action against Hezbollah militants in the country of Lebanon.

Both letters are premised upon the call of the General Secretary to interpret and articulate responses to public issues, drawn from the policy base developed by the American Baptist Churches/USA and its General Board. Medley's addressing of these two issues undoubtedly has raised concerns for some American Baptists, as anytime there is an effort to speak on behalf of a free-church polity system, it is next to impossible to speak "ex cathedra." At best, Medley states policy base. At worst, people inside and outside of the denomination presume Rev. Medley speaks for each and every American Baptist, without right of dissent on the part of his constituents.

The Roger Williams Fellowship board is grateful that it is the polity of American Baptists that is our unifying force. It is not derived from an official policy base, an impervious hermeneutic, or partisan political machinations. American Baptists are a free church, Baptist freedom loving people. While the General Secretary's public comments may reflect perhaps majority opinion within denominational circles on some matters, these letters do not abridge the freedom of individual American Baptists, local congregations, or regional bodies to dissent and differ.

RWF Board of Directors

Posted on Saturday, August 12, 2006 at 09:48AM by Registered CommenterRWF Web Editor | CommentsPost a Comment
Page | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Next 5 Entries