What Were the Early SBC Leaders’ View of Salvation?
by Emir Caner, Ph.D.
President, Truett-McConnell College
(Read part 1, HERE.)
(Download this essay and all the other theological presentations presented at the 2013 John 3.16 Conference, HERE.)
Transition and Tumult (1820-1845): A Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation
At the turn of the century, two movements arose that both tempered Calvinism as well as flamed the fires of evangelism: the rise of the modern missionary movement and the unification of the Regular and Separate Baptists. First, the modern missionary movement was born out of the hearts of Particular Baptists William Carey and Andrew Fuller. The later published his work, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, in 1786, transitioning English Calvinism into a more missiological model. That was especially the case in 1801 when Fuller, after debating with a General Baptist, revised his book, proclaiming a general atonement and indefinite invitations. He writes:
If the atonement of Christ were considered as the literal payment of a debt – if the measure of his sufferings were according to the number of those for whom he died, and to the degree of their guilt…it might be inconsistent with the indefinite invitations…But it would be equally inconsistent with the free forgiveness of sin, and with sinners being directed to apply for mercy as supplicants, rather than as claimants….If the atonement of Christ excludes a part of mankind in the same sense as it excludes fallen angels, why is the gospel addressed to the one any more than the other? The message of wisdom is addressed to men, and not to devils. The former are invited to the gospel supper, but the latter are not. These facts afford proof that Christ, by his death, opened a door of hope to sinners of the human race as sinners; affording a ground for their being invited, without distinction, to believe and be saved.116
Additionally, Fuller articulated that faith is not a gift from God, but the responsibility of man. He writes in Gospel Worthy, “If faith in Christ be the duty of the ungodly, it must of course follow that every sinner, whatever be his character, is completely warranted to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of his soul.”117 Finally, Fuller rejects Total Depravity as articulated by some of his contemporary High Calvinists. He states, “If by total Mr. B. means unable in every respect, I grant I do not think man is, in that sense, totally unable to believe in Christ.”118 Fuller broadened the atonement and demanded the response of sinners.
Regardless of how to categorize Fuller, there is no question that he wore his theological struggles openly and his theological views developed. Baptists in America, themselves struggling with theological definition on predestination and election at the beginning of the nineteenth century, appreciated his transparency. Fuller’s debate with Arminian Daniel Taylor, the General Baptist who saw revival ensue in his New Connexion group, was published for all to see. Fuller readily admitted that as a Particular Baptist, he could not answer the arguments of Taylor. Fuller states, “I tried to answer my opponent…but I could not. I found not merely his reasonings, but the Scriptures themselves, standing in my way.”119
Thus, Fuller modified his view from particular atonement to general atonement, as Peter Morden demonstrates in his dissertation, Offering Christ to the World:
Fuller both clarified and modified his theology of salvation between the years 1785 and 1801, years in which this theology was a crucial motor for change in the life of the Particular Baptist denomination. The most important change was his shift from a limited to a general view of the atonement during his dispute with the Evangelical Arminian Dan Taylor.120
The maturation of Fuller’s faith would be borne out on Baptists in America as well.
During the same time as Fuller’s theological struggle, Baptists in America, attempting to unite into one movement, were working out their own theological maturation. Regular Baptists (Calvinists) argued, as one chronicler recollects, “Separates were not sufficiently explicit in their principle, having never published or sanctioned any confession faith; and that they kept within their communion many who were professed Arminians.”121
Separatists responded, “[It is] better to bear with some diversity of opinion in doctrines, than to break with men.”122 In 1801, Regular and Separate Baptists in two associations in Kentucky joined together for the sake of the Gospel. Their terms of union demanded fidelity to “the infallible Word of God” and simple Biblicism. The plan of the newly formed United Baptists included eleven principles “that by nature we are fallen and depraved creatures” and “that the preaching (that) Christ tasted death for every man, shall be no bar to communion.”123 As Dr. W. Wiley Richards concluded: “In the Terms of Union adopted in 1801, the doctrines of election and extent of the atonement were omitted from the eleven brief articles.
Concerning depravity, it makes the simple assertion that humans are fallen and depraved creatures.”124 Irresistible grace is nowhere to be found; only eternal security is stipulated clearly. Article five states, “That the saints will finally persevere through grace to glory.”125
While unity among many Baptists occurred, there were still deep divisions between Separate Baptists, who mocked tenets of Calvinism such as unconditional election, and Regular Baptists, who excluded general atonement ministers from associations.126 Ironically, the one common denominator for missionary Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike was the protracted revival meetings, the means of converting the sinner. One historian writes:
This most important type of revival service for Baptists was the protracted meeting. This was a revival in which generally several ministers preached for an extended period. With preaching only once a month, church began to depend on the annual protracted meeting for revival, usually in August and September when the farmers had the most leisure, for spiritual rejuvenation and the gathering of converts. The annual revival became so important that many churches and pastors expected no conversions except in that period. S. E. Jones, pastor at Murfreesboro, claimed that some preachers ‘think that the gospel is a sort of a dead thing, and that the Holy Ghost is incapable of operating except once a year.’127
Neither Calvinist nor Arminian but Baptist:
The New Hampshire Confession and the Rise of the Southern Baptist Zion.128
About a decade before the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention, Baptists in New Hampshire were about to write what would become the most disseminated confession in the history of Baptist life in America.129 This document would serve as the predecessor of the Baptist Faith and Message. The doctrine was so unique that longtime Southwestern Seminary theologian James Leo Garrett explains, “One can conclude that the label ‘moderately Arminian’ would be as accurate as the term ‘moderately Calvinistic.’”130 Another writer asserts, “Calvinism and Arminianism are almost ignored.”131
According to Dr. Richard Land, the New Hampshire Confession (1833) solidified the fact that the Sandy Creek soteriology, with its skepticism towards Calvinistic interpretations of particular redemption, unconditional election, and irresistible grace, was now the majoritarian view of early Southern Baptists.132 While there were and are classical Calvinists in Southern Baptist life – men like P. H. Mell (1814-1888) who served as president of the SBC for a record seventeen years133 – they were not and are not the “melody” but the “harmony.”134
The New Hampshire Confession can be best described as a simple biblicism that unites doctrines of Scripture without philosophical speculation. While some may find it ambiguous in its rendering, many Baptists found it refreshing in its uncomplicated articles. For example, compare Article III, “Of the Fall of Man,” with the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, “On the Fall of Man”:
Philadelphia Confession of Faith (1742)
They being the root, and by God’s appointment, standing in the room and stead of all mankind, the guilt of the sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation, being now conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, the servants of sin, the subjects of death, and all other miseries, spiritual, temporal, and eternal, unless the Lord Jesus set them free… From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.135
New Hampshire Confession (1833)
We believe that man was created in holiness, under the law of his Maker, but by voluntary transgression fell from that holy and happy state; in consequence of which all mankind are now sinners, not by constraint but choice;…positively inclined to evil.136
The difference is not merely in the articles themselves, but in distinct articles omitted from the New Hampshire Confession, including the following soteriological articles:
1. Of God’s Decree
2. Of Divine Providence
3. Of God’s Covenant
4. Of Effectual Calling
5. Of Adoption
6. Of the Gospel, and of the Extent of the Grace Thereof
In its place, the New Hampshire Confession places heavy emphasis on a new article: “Of the Freeness of Salvation.” The statement sets the 1833 confession apart for its importance to Baptists who at the very least believed in human responsibility if not libertarian will. Article VI states:
We believe that the blessings of salvation are made free to all by the gospel; that it is the immediate duty of all to accept them by a cordial penitent, and obedient faith; and that nothing prevents the salvation of the greatest sinner on earth, but his own inherent depravity and voluntary rejection of the gospel; which rejection involves him in an aggravated condemnation.137
The confession, quoting different Scriptures, references Matthew 23:37 as a defense of the article, the passage where Jesus cries out to Jerusalem and His desire for her, yet she was not willing.
With the confession gaining prominence across the South, many churches and associations began adopting the statement. In 1843, three associations in Tennessee affirmed the new confession’s article on the freeness of salvation and then articulated that none of the articles adopted were to be “construed in their meaning as to hold with the doctrine of particular, eternal and unconditional election and reprobation.”138 Two years later, the Sandy Creek movement adopted a new confession of faith at the same time as the Southern Baptist Convention was formed. The confession was a near replica of the New Hampshire Confession, with the exception of excluding two articles (“Of Repentance and Faith” and “Of Sanctification”). The new Declaration of Faith (1845) was different than the 1816 confession that spoke of effectual calling and election from eternity. Like the New Hampshire Confession, the new Sandy Creek confession affirmed in full the “freeness of salvation.” The discussion of election, under the article “Of God’s Purpose of Grace,” is now “consistent with the free agency of man.”139….(Part 3 tomorrow).
116Andrew Fuller, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, in The Complete works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, n.d.), 21-22.
119David Allen, “Preaching for a Great Commission Resurgence” in The Great Commission Resurgence: Fulfilling God’s Mandate in our Time, Chuck Lawless and Adam Greenway, eds. (Nashville: B&H, 2010); http://peterlumpkins.typepad.com/peter_lumpkins/2011/04/in-a-section-entitled-hindrances-to-preaching-and-the-greatcommission-dr-allen-addresses-the-shift-in-andrew-fullers-theolo.html.
121David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America (Boston: Manning & Loring, 1813), 60-62.
124W. Wiley Richards, “Southern Baptist Identity: Moving Away from Calvinism,” in Baptist History and Heritage (October 1996), 28.
126See Wardin, 112-114. The case of exclusion was as follows: “When Elijah Hanks (1793-1871), pastor of the Knob Creek and Friendship churches, which were members of the Cumberland Association, began preaching that Christ tasted death for every man instead of dying only for the elect, three leading pastors of the association, including Garner McConnico and Peter S. Gayle, visited him around 1829. His refusal to change his views resulted in his churches being excluded from the association.”
128I am indebted for this title of this section to the paper written by Allen, Keathley, Land, Lemke, Patterson, Vines, and Yarnell, “Neither Calvinists nor Arminians but Baptists” at http://www.baptisttheology.org/documents/neithercalvinistsnorarminiansbutbaptists.pdf (accessed May 27, 2013).
129The New Hampshire Confession was printed in Brown’s Baptist Church Manual, Hiscox’s Baptist Church Manual, Pendleton’s Baptist Church Manual, Baptist Why and Why Not (1900), Mullin’s Baptist Beliefs, 1925 BFM, Carroll’s Articles of Faith, and Haynes’s The Baptist Denomination (1856).
130James Leo Garrett, Baptist Theology: A Four Century Study (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2009), 132.
131James Edward Carter, The Southern Baptist Convention and Confessions of Faith, 1845-1945 (Th.D. Dissertation, SWBTS, 1964).
132Richard Land, “Congruent Election,” in Whosoever Will, 50.
133For a biography on P. H. Mell, see Emir and Ergun Caner, The Sacred Trust (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2003).
135www.spurgeon.org/~phil/creeds/phila.htm#6 (accessed May 27, 2013).
136http://baptiststudiesonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/02/the-newhampshire-confession-of-faith.pdf (accessed May 27, 2013).
139Purefoy, 199-214, 205. No explanation is given as to why the two articles are omitted.