The McPherson-Bogard Debate

One feature of Christian life that has either disappeared or morphed (depending upon how you look at it) is the debate.  It wasn’t that long ago (50-100 years) that debates were fairly common between proponents of different types of Christianity (and sometimes they’d get someone from the outside to really make things interesting.)  From an historical standpoint, one of the most interesting of these is the McPherson-Bogard debate “On Miraculous Divine Healing,” which took place seventy-seven years ago today (22 May 1934) at the McPherson Tabernacle in North Little Rock, Arkansas.  It is, AFAIK, the first debate of its kind between a proponent of modern Pentecost and an opponent of same.  (It’s interesting to note that the debate took place the Tuesday after Pentecost Sunday, something that never gets noted in the debate itself, but doubtless Bogard would have proclaimed the liturgical year of the devil, so it’s probably for the best.)

Aimée Semple McPherson was the well-known pastor of the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, CA, and the founder of the Foursquare Gospel Church.  She was and is one of the most controversial figures in the early history of modern Pentecost.  Ben M. Bogard was a well known Landmark Baptist church leader and preacher; more on him below.  I’m going to break down the analysis of this from two standpoints: the theological/doctrinal and personal/institutional.

Theology and Doctrine

The McPherson-Bogard debate is one of the least orderly debates in every sense of the word.  McPherson had a crowd of partisans on her side and, in good Pentecostal style, they weren’t shy about showing it either, even though McPherson was further away from her base of operations than Bogard from his.  McPherson was bold in taking on Bogard, a formidable debater who generally saved his skills for Church of Christ opponents.

Both the strength and weakness of McPherson’s case are the same: they rely more heavily on the experience of people touched by the move of God in modern Pentecost than in really trying to figure out how that move worked and precisely related to the original as described in the Book of Acts and Paul’s letters.   That’s significant because many of the woes experienced in the wave of Azusa Street and the other early moves of the Spirit (and again with the Charismatic Renewal in the 1960’s and 1970’s) could have been avoided if that had been understood well.  She allowed Bogard to tie the performance of miracles to the baptism in the Holy Spirit when in fact the former is not dependent upon the latter (as the existence of Old Testament miracles demonstrates.)  She could have put Bogard on the defensive by explaining the baptism in the Holy Spirit in terms of Acts 1:8, but she did not.

With Bogard, it’s a matter of a case that looks seamless enough but is not.  His interpretation of Micah re when miracles ceased is a masterpiece of sensus plenior from someone who championed the literal interpretation of the Scriptures.  And his insistence that 1 Corinthians 3:10 cannot be Jesus Christ himself because of the neuter “it” not only flies in the face of 1 John 1:1, it also represents a break in tying together the written Word and the living One.

But that leads me to a more personal view of Ben Bogard.

Personal and Institutional View

On 15 April 1943 my uncle, Don Gaston Shofner, was killed when his fighter plane blew up over Long Island Sound while he was training to fly for the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.  A few days later my grandparents received the following letter:

April 17, 1943.

Dear Brother and Sister Shofner:

No doubt Wendell has explained why I did not write to you immediately.  But I attempted to do so and did not have your initials nor your local address.

I announced the death of your son in our revival services and we had special prayer for all of you.  Our hearts went out in deepest sympathy, yet I doubt if the sympathy is real because no one can sympathize with another unless he has had a like sorrow, and none of us have had such a terrible experience but so far as we can we sympathize with you.  And we have and will pray for you.

Uncle Mac announced the death over the radio and said some very appropriate words concerning it and said he would be at the funeral.  Rest assured that all of us stand ready to do any thing in our power to help you.  But there is one ONE who can really help and I believe that all of you are looking to HIM.

May God’s richest blessing rest upon you and remember that Rom. 8 28 is in the Bible and I believe it fully.  Can you under this strain?  I pray God that you may.

Mrs. Bogard joins me in this letter.

Sincerely,

Ben M. Bogard

For me, Ben Bogard is more than a historical figure most people have forgotten.  He was a family friend.  But some background is necessary.

Bogard was a leader in what we broadly refer to as the “Landmark Baptist” movement, which was initiated by J.R. Graves in the previous century.  The idea was that Baptist churches had strayed and needed to return to their original “landmarks.”  For Bogard the most important of these was the supremacy of the autonomous local church, and the concomitant lack of an overseeing bureaucracy.  In the nineteenth century the most important “overseeing bureaucracies” in the Baptist world were the conventions (state and national) and the Mission Board.  Bogard and others, under the influence of Graves, came to the conclusion that such organisations were unBiblical.  When he got nowhere with the Convention, he organised the largest split to date in Southern Baptist history, and on 22 March 1905 the General Landmark Baptist Association was organised, which in 1924 became the American Baptist Association. (The idea that local churches only should send missionaries, as opposed to denominational mission boards and departments, is one that is gaining currency even in centralised denominations today.)

Churches in the ABA generally refer to themselves as “Missionary Baptist” churches.  My grandparents became a part of this movement and helped to organise the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Morrilton, AR not so far from where the debate took place.   My mother ended up leaving the Baptist world for the Anglican one when she became an Episcopalian years later.

She entered the Anglican Communion at a time of turmoil, the 1960’s and the days of James Pike.  When it became evident that the Episcopal Church wasn’t going to present a viable life game plan, options presented themselves.  One of these was the Baptist way, Missionary and otherwise.  Although it has its strong points, ultimately I found it unsatisfactory.  The Baptist way was a way that combines two things that seem on the surface (especially to Catholics) to be contradictory: decentralisation of authority (the issue Bogard fought with the SBC over was one of degree, not principle) and absolute conformity to a way of life.  It also looks at life in a very closed, set-piece kind of way, which gives a strong sense of direction and structure to life but can be wildly ineffective in times of change and in situations where a more dynamic approach is called for.  For people who are looking for stability after the invasion of Yankees, the Great Depression and two world wars, it’s very appealing, but to move beyond that is a different business altogether.  It’s that closed, set-piece mentality that fuelled (and still fuels) Baptist opposition to any form of Pentecostal and Charismatic worship and theology.

That kind of mentality pervades Bogard’s whole presentation during the debate.  There is a great deal of “either/or” thinking here: either we have the Word or the miracles, but according to Bogard we can’t have both.  Why not?  This is the kind of question Bogard does not answer.  He wants to present a complete, seamless system of life and doctrine, but until the time when we are in communion with our God “beyond the river,” we live in an imperfect world subject to change that demands that we live and present a gospel that can stay ahead of it.

And he never explains one of the mysteries of Baptist life: why do we pray for the sick when we don’t believe in the healing power of God?  Bogard deflects the issue by insisting the McPherson taught we don’t need doctors any more (which she obviously didn’t), but that’s an issue within Pentecost itself.

The digitisation of the debate (which Bogard originally published) presented here is the original 1997 version by David Padfield.

4 thoughts on “The McPherson-Bogard Debate”

  1. ABA Baptists certainly DO believe in the healing power of God, but not the glorification of His servants. Also, we are taught in the Scriptures that God is eternal and unchanging. If that seems rigid and “set-piece”, so be it. That’s better than bending in every faddish breeze that comes along. Baptists have stood their ground through persecution by both Catholics and Protestants and have no logical reason to compromise with latter-day sensationalists who demand signs from God instead of standing on faith.

  2. 68 healings as the result of events at Lourdes France, as investigated by doctors of the Lourdes Medical Bureau, are “medically inexplicable.”

    Aimee Semple McPherson is also known for her extensive divine healing work. Biographer Daniel Mark Epstein writes: No one has ever been credited by secular witnesses with anywhere near the numbers of faith healings attributed to McPherson. “The healings present a monstrous obstacle to scientific historiography. If events transpired as newspapers, letters, and testimonials say they did, then Aimee Semple McPherson’s healing ministry was miraculous. …The documentation is overwhelming: very sick people came to Sister Aimee by the tens of thousands, blind, deaf, paralyzed. Many were healed some temporarily, some forever. She would point to heaven, to Christ the Great Healer and take no credit for the results.”
    (p111 ,185 Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson)

    Debate the issue all we want, its hard to argue with success.

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