A Hill on Which to Die: One Southern Baptist’s Journey. By Judge Paul Pressler. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999. xi + 362 pages. Softcover, $24.99.
Whether it is Teddy Roosevelt’s famous assault on San Juan Hill or the infinitely more costly battle of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, the picture of a battle staged on a prominent outcropping for a compelling cause is inevitably a memorable event. Paul Pressler’s memoirs of his own experiences of the last twenty years is thus entitled A Hill on Which to Die. There are at least four applications of the title that arise naturally out of the reading of the book.
First, the title suggests a certain importance void of triviality. The issues over which the Southern Baptist Convention struggled for the past twenty years were, in fact, the very issues about which other denominations had struggled much earlier. The health of those denominations was inevitably determined by the outcome of those crucial conflicts. In the earliest centuries of Christian history, the struggle was primarily Christological—the question of defining who Jesus Christ of Nazareth is. The conflict of the Reformation was essentially a question of salvation—How exactly do we come to know Christ? The question of the period beginning with the Enlightenment has been the epistemological question—How do we know that what we say in Theology is true? And this question of how to know the truth is the question that defined the hill on which Judge Pressler staked his life and reputation.
A second intention of the title is that it suggests and uncertainty of outcome. If an assault is to be made on a hill, it will, like Iwo Jima, almost always be costly to all participants. At the beginning of the ascent there is no way for the army on the offensive to know whether it can or will win. One may very well “die” on the mountain to be climbed. At the outset of the struggle for the return of the Southern Baptist Convention to the faith of its fathers, the outcome was anything but certain, and the possibility of paying a very high personal price loomed large.
A third meaning of the title highlights the fact that even in victory an enormous cost will almost inevitably be paid in such an effort. This subtitle of the book is “One Southern Baptist’s Journey.” That subtitle introduces the reader to the cost and the sorrows of heart involved in one man’s experience on the slopes of the “Southern Baptist mountain.”
Finally, the title A Hill on Which to Die suggests specific focus in a conflict. Every knowledgeable participant in the Southern Baptist conflict, on whatever side he found himself, knew that the conflict involved a great many issues—some theological, some moral and some political. However, for the conservative movement to be successful in climbing a mountain, while the odds were all arrayed uniformly against it, there was a recognition that the focus needed to be kept on just one mountain—namely, the inerrancy of Holy Scripture.
The title of the book itself was suggested to Judge Pressler as he, like many of us, heard Dr. Adrian Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee, often saying of other excursions to hills that someone felt important at the time, “Now, brothers, are we sure that is a hill on which we are prepared to die?” This poignant reminder in turn helped to keep the movement and its participants focused and also to keep one issue before the people. Whatever the Press or any opponent might say, the issue was truth, the question of God’s inerrant Word.
The early part of the book includes information that is important to understanding the credentials and the training of a freedom fighter. Judge Pressler is able to trace his family tree all the way back to the city of Breslau in Germany, the home of his ancestors. One by the name of Christopher even moved to Wittenberg to become a professor of law at Luther’s University of Wittenberg. Pressler further chronicles wide ranging connections that he has sustained across the years with the general evangelical world, and then especially focuses on Southern Baptist Convention and Baptist General Convention of Texas connections. This is a particularly interesting portion of this book, since in the early days of the conservative reformation among Southern Baptists Pressler’s Baptist background and heritage were almost continually misrepresented and fiercely assaulted.
Next, Judge Pressler sets the stage with those events that transpired to make him a freedom fighter for belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. His experiences as a student at Exeter Preparatory School in New Hampshire, as well as at Princeton University, underscore and begin to develop an awakening in a young man who had, until that time, been reared to believe that to be a Baptist was to affirm that everything God said was true. Events that transpired both at Exeter and at Princeton taught him that there were many Baptists who did not see the Bible as a document of unquestioned authority. These chapters also reveal the influence of programs like “The Old Fashioned Revival Hour” with Charles E. Fuller and other strong evangelical influences, which gave Pressler further confidence that the Bible was reliable.
The book then moves naturally into his adult years and explains further the relationships that developed and the influences that impacted his life. This portion of the book demonstrates the multidimensional, wide-ranging character of Judge Pressler’s life engagement. Although he could certainly focus on the one hill of the inerrancy of Scripture, few people have actually been as consistently effective in personal evangelism as Judge Pressler. It is not uncommon to encounter people who inquire about Judge Pressler and upon further conversation learn that they themselves were led to Christ by him. In addition, Pressler’s wide ranging mission endeavors have taken him all over Europe and Russia. Because Pressler assiduously avoids anything that sounds boastful, one has to look carefully to note these events, but they are nonetheless there in the book. Furthermore, Judge Pressler’s continuing interest in young people can be observed like shadows throughout the book. Hundreds of people in some way received either financial or mentoring assistance from Judge Pressler. The vast majority of those have remained faithful to him and view him with awe as though he were their father. Their stories are not prominent in the volume, but if one watches carefully he will see them appearing in the natural flow.
Of course, the more familiar episodes of the developing conflict in Southern Baptist life are there also. For example, deacon Bill Price of Second Baptist Church in Houston ends up playing an interesting role. While Judge Pressler and others were attempting to assist students in Southern Baptist seminaries who were committed to the inerrancy of the Bible, Bill Price mentioned that Pressler, when he was in New Orleans, should become acquainted with Paige Patterson. This suggestion brought the now well known meeting at the Café du Monde in which Pressler and Patterson become acquainted and found common ground almost instantly.
The battle for the hill now in full progress, Pressler’s chapter on “How the Liberal Fought the Battle” is one of the most interesting and perceptive chapters in the book. Naturally, there may be moderates who would take issue with some of it, but, in fact, its careful documentation makes it difficult to debunk the presentation. The revealing information concerning layman Johnny Baugh and his long term embrace of liberalism and intense disdain for Pressler will help readers understand the careless vituperation which comes from Baugh, as well as his willingness to underwrite much of the liberal effort monetarily.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book concerns a dream that the Judge repeatedly experienced in 1978 and early 1979. As mentioned above, the very title A Hill on Which to Die suggests uncertainty as to outcome. But as a result of Pressler’s recurring dream, he always had a great deal more confidence in the outcome of the situation than most of the rest of those associated with him. The author of this review confesses that he was often pessimistic about the outcome. Knowing the Southern Baptist hierarchy as I did and realizing that there were few weapons in the conservative arsenal by comparison to those of the moderates, who had every state Baptist paper but one in full tow, I really never believed that conservatives would prevail. I suspect that most of the leaders felt the same way. But Pressler’s vision of a long line of people marching through the streets of Houston singing, “We’re Marching to Zion” gave him a quiet confident faith in the Lord that the truth, in fact, would prevail among Baptists. That story also is chronicled in the book.
Judge Pressler also addresses the matter of the media. Going into the conflict, Pressler probably knew better than most of his compatriots something of what they were facing with the secular media. His experience in the political arena had taught him well, but even he was in some ways not fully prepared for the treatment that he received at the hands of many. As just one example of that, the incredible television misrepresentation of the movement and of Paul Pressler personally presented by former Baptist Bill Moyers marked one of the really low points of the confrontation. On the other hand, the now famous appearance of Judge Pressler on “The Phil Donahue Show,” together with Ken Chafin, has to be considered one of the turning points of the entire convention struggle. This event occurred in 1985 and featured Dr. Chafin, who had more of a knack for the media spotlight and making the most of it for his cause than just about any of the moderates. Dr. Chafin, it seemed to many of us, was ubiquitous on radio and television and was certainly formidable. But Pressler chronicles the way in which, on this unforgettable night, Chafin, faced with the necessity of drawing a conclusion about his Jewish rabbi friend if the latter refused to trust Christ, replied that he was confident that the rabbi would be in heaven regardless of his acceptance of Christ in his life. While Donahue and most of his audience applauded the statement, Southern Baptists watching their televisions gasped; and many for the first time understood the issues. It was the de facto end of Dr. Chafin’s influence in Southern Baptist life since not even the moderates themselves could afford to identify with those sentiments publicly, whatever they may have believed in their hearts.
Of course, the sorrows arising out of the conflict were conflict were many. Those are openly and honestly admitted by Pressler, although the depths of some of those sorrows could scarcely be plumbed in any written form. Early in the controversy the striking down of Pressler’s son Paul with a disease, though still not fully diagnosed, from which he suffers until this very day, unleashed the greatest agony on Judge and Mrs. Pressler. There were times, especially during the Kansas City convention when little Paul was in the hospital at death’s door. All of these agonies of spirit constituted enormous tests for Judge Pressler, raising repeatedly the question in his own heart as to whether he absolutely could trust the providence of God. More hurt was on its way when the Committee on Nominations wished to nominate Judge Pressler for service on the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. Many of those who had been a part of the conservative movement opposed such a move, apparently feeling convinced that to elect a leader in the conservative movement who had been so pilloried and calumniated to such an important position was too inflammatory. Some failed to support the effort; others openly opposed it. Pressler’s ultimate election to the Executive Committee and his subsequent extensive influence during that tenure of service was a wonderful reward to be sure but never could take away the hurt of being, to some degree, abandoned by fellow warriors in the midst of a battle for one segment of the hill.
So, how would I evaluate one Southern Baptist’s journey as rehearsed in A Hill on Which to Die? Well, first, I should confess that the present evaluator has both an asset and a liability in the assignment given me. The liability is that for me to have worked so closely with Judge Pressler across the twenty years traversed by this monograph could raise some question about my objectivity. On the other hand, certainly it could be argued that probably no one, other than Nancy Pressler and her children, has been any closer to the Judge and to the events that transpired than I. Therefore, it is by that perspective that I give my evaluation.
First, the book is a great read! The last few chapters of the book are probably a little less scintillating because Judge Pressler of necessity had to deal with technical matters and detailed situations, particularly in his evaluation of the Executive Committee. For the historian, however, those insights will be interesting and necessary, and for any reader the rest of the book is nothing short of riveting.
Second, even though the book is testimonial in nature, it is nevertheless highly accurate. There are some circumstances that I remember a little differently from the way they are portrayed in the book. In those few instances one of us is not right, but the truth is that I tend to trust the Judge’s near photographic memory and his extensive and consistent notes more than I trust my own fluctuating memory. Therefore, I can say without hesitancy that the book is highly accurate. The limitations on the accuracy arise only at a few points where the Judge may have had no opportunity actually to know what was happening or else in some cases is perhaps influenced as one would expect in a testimony from his own perspective.
The book has another tremendous asset. The monograph tells the story of a spiritual and theological conflict that, unfortunately, will almost certainly not be the last one if its kind in history. Consequently, the book is a veritable instruction manual for all future conflicts.
Finally, A Hill on Which to Die is also a fabulous testimony of a godly layman who was willing to suffer endless calumny in order to stand for the truth. There are times in the book when the tone sounds a bit defensive, when as a clear victor one should probably avoid dwelling much on injustices suffered, but these intrude into the text rarely and always understandably. Certainly they do not mar the overwhelming accuracy of the presentation or dim in any way the critical importance of the story that is told here.
As I read the book, I could not help but be impressed with a new vision of the weapons employed in the taking of this hill. The two sides battled—conservatives making use primarily of spiritual tear gas, the liberals making primary use of smoke bombs. Conservatives lobbed in canister after canister of tear gas in an attempt to smoke out in the open the liberals in the denominational structure, particularly in the seminaries and colleges. The liberals, on the other hand, tirelessly hurled smoke bombs in the direction of the conservatives in order to attempt to obscure what the conservatives’ concerns were. They would make all sorts of allegations against the conservatives in order to confuse the general public, and especially Southern Baptists, so that they could not see clearly what the conservative leaders were saying and doing. Whatever the case, one thing remains absolutely certain. One should never begin the reading of Judge Paul Pressler’s book A Hill on Which to Die unless he has time to finish it. Once you begin, you will discover that its pages are compelling, and you will relieve one of the great theological engagements of all of history as though you were there for every moment of the conflict. As I came to the end of the book, I read his last paragraph,
The citadel of liberalism was charged and the hill on which to die was captured, but not without great cost. God has given the victory in an amazing way. I praise Him for it. I pray that His people will preserve this victory to His glory until He comes again.
I bowed my head and uttered this simple prayer to God, “God grant me to do my part to guarantee that Judge Pressler’s efforts and the sacrifices of so many ‘unknown’ soldiers will not have been in vain.”
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Originally published in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 4:4 (Winter 2000), 92-96.