Historical Southern Baptist Soteriology, pt. 1/3

April 21, 2014

What Were the Early SBC Leaders’ View of Salvation?
by Emir Caner, Ph.D.
President, Truett-McConnell College
Cleveland, Ga.

(Download this essay and all the other theological presentations presented at the 2013 John 3.16 Conference, HERE.)

Revival Fires

Unforgettable. Such is the description of the first time I walked into a Southern Baptist church. On a cool fall evening in the early 1980s, I was invited to the Stelzer Road Baptist Church in Columbus, Ohio, for their biannual revival. The evangelist for the protracted, week-long meeting was a country preacher from the mountains of Kentucky whose preaching and demeanor were typical of the time. A blend of thunderous passion with simple exposition, Brother Joe, as he was called, heralded an intensely personal message pointed directly at me. He seemed a bit eccentric to me at the time, especially by his attire. Driving an old green car that resembled a boat more than an automobile, Brother Joe filled the back seat of his vehicle with suits he would wear as the circuit-riding evangelist crisscrossed the country hundreds of days a year. But one thing remained the same – he always wore red socks representing the blood of Jesus.

The revival meetings were also characteristic of revival services which had taken place for more than two centuries in Baptist life. The congregation loved to sing and frequently spoke back to the preacher. Often, the preacher walked up and down the aisle during his sermon as he spoke to the flock. The climax of the service was the altar call, a time in which anyone inquiring about the Lord was welcome to do business with Him. God waited eagerly, the evangelist would say, to have a conversation with you regarding your everlasting soul. Quickly the steps to the pulpit turned into a place where sinners were introduced to Christ, and believers pleaded for the souls of men. It was there at that simple church through a simple country preacher where heaven met earth, and my soul was saved.

What I did not realize at the time was that I had walked into an era forgotten by most churches, which had institutionalized their meetings. For most Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians by the mid-twentieth century, revival meetings were eradicated and churches went back to normal. As I learned in seminary years later, church historians pointed to the Second Great Awakening, led by Charles Finney (AD 1792-1875), as the progenitor of such revivals. But the more I studied Baptist history, the more I recognized that what I had experienced that night some thirty years ago was not the invention of Finney but was part of the heritage of the Sandy Creek movement.

The Sandy Creek movement began nearly forty years before Finney’s birth. Its founder, Shubal Stearns, practiced innovative evangelism methods long before Finney.

One such revival meeting in 1760 demonstrates well how these Separatists used means to draw men and women to Christ: At the close of the sermon, the minister would come down from the pulpit and while singing a suitable hymn would go around among the brethren shaking hands. The hymn being sung, he would then extend an invitation to such persons as felt themselves poor guilty sinners, and were anxiously inquiring the way of salvation, to come forward and kneel near the stand, or if they preferred, they could kneel at their seats, proffering to unite with them in prayer for their conversion…After prayer, singing, and exhortation, prolonged according to circumstances, the congregation would be dismissed to meet again at night…for preaching or prayer meeting. They held afternoon or night meetings during the week. In these night meetings, there would occasionally be preaching, but generally they were only for prayer, praise, and exhortation, and direct personal conversation with those who might be concerned about their soul’s salvation.102

In some of those evening services, the preacher would not even preach. He would simply inquire regarding the state of the listeners’ souls. Can you imagine an entire service dedicated to people who are considering, like Cornelius, their own soul?

While preachers from the First Great Awakening such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield may not have given the equivalent of an altar call, Sandy Creek Baptists, to whom Southern Baptists owe much of their heritage, dedicated themselves to such personal invitations to Christ long before Finney’s revivals perfected such altar calls. These revival meetings and altar calls have been in our bloodstream for two hundred and fifty years. However, it seems we are undergoing a spiritual transfusion today, with new, more refined blood replacing the old stream. But it is revival fires that not only can see souls saved but unify a convention struggling with its theological moorings. Perhaps we should take heed of the words of the founder of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, B. H. Carroll (1843-1914), who pleaded that his students would preach Christ to all men, especially in a day of theological struggle:

It was a time of strong doctrine, and many Baptists were hyper-Calvinists in their views. But Leland himself tells us how one day, while preaching, ‘his soul got into the gospel trade winds,’ which so filled his spiritual sails that he forgot about election and reprobation, and so preached Christ to sinners that many accepted him as their Saviour and Lord. And, oh, I would to God that his people now, like old John Leland of long ago, would get into the gospel trade winds and bear away with flaming canvas the everlasting gospel to earth’s remotest bounds.103

When revival comes, we will not be caught in examining theological minutiae but busy seeing souls saved and baptized.

Two Baptists, Three Opinions:
A Chronology of Theological Struggle and Maturation (1740-1820)

Baptists in Colonial America were a small group, one that seemed to be insignificant compared to the size of other denominations like the Puritans/Congregationalists of New England or the Anglicans of the South.104 Most influential among Baptists in the North were those of the newly formed Philadelphia Baptist Association (PBA) in 1707. This association was well organized and well defined both in its theology and scope, adhering to the English Particular confession known as the Second London Confession (1689). With a strong Calvinistic confession of faith, the association set out to influence other Baptists, sending out missionaries like John Gano (1727-1804) to convince churches of the truths of Calvinism. Gano, who was raised Presbyterian and attended Princeton University, experienced a deeply personal conversion and eventually became the pastor of the First Baptist Church of the City of New York. An ardent supporter of the so-called “doctrines of grace,” Gano was famous for visiting General Baptist churches and using church polity to win the church over to Reformed doctrine. As historian W. Wiley Richards explains, “[He] would visit a General Baptist church, call it into business session, inquire about the conversion experience of the members, exclude the unregenerate, and reconstitute the purged membership into a Particular Baptist Church.”105

In time, Baptist associations were also convinced to affirm a Reformed theology. Entire associations of churches adopted the Philadelphia Confession of Faith include the following:

· Kentucky: Salem, Long Run, and Tates Creek
· North Carolina: Broad River and Big Ivy
· Tennessee: Holston
· Virginia: Ketocton106

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, it seemed clear that the theological flavor of the day was born out of Particular Baptists in England.

However, a closer examination of early Baptist life, before the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, is far more complex than such a conclusion. First, even associations that adopted that the Philadelphia Confession of Faith modified the document in its theological rigor. The Tates Creek Association, which adopted the Reformed confession in 1793, demanded such a document to be non-binding. They wrote:

We agree to receive the Regular Baptist Confession of Faith; but to prevent it usurping a tyrannical power over the conscience of any, we do not mean that every person is to be bound to the strict observance of everything therein contained; yet that it holds forth the essential truths of the gospel, and the doctrine of Salvation by Jesus Christ, and free, unmerited grace alone, ought to be believed by every Christian, and maintained by every minister of the gospel. And that we do believe in these doctrines relative to the Trinity; the divinity of Christ; the sacred authority of the Scriptures; the universal depravity of human nature’ the total inability of men to help themselves, without the aid of divine grace; the necessity of repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.107

This association, while generally affirming much of Reformed doctrine, also affirmed that diversity on some issues must be accepted and that the confession could not be used as a “tyrannical power.” Additionally, the statement above is a far simpler statement than the Philadelphia Confession of Faith. Finally, the statement completely avoids any discussion of election.

The Reformed definition of election was particularly troubling to those birthed out of a Sandy Creek (Separatist) heritage. Historian George Washington Paschal explained that another association that generally affirmed the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, the Broad River Association, demanded an acceptance of theological variety concerning election:

In the Broad River several of the leading Baptist ministers were ardent Calvinists and champions of the Doctrine of Election, and in general were Regular Baptists, accepting in full the Philadelphia Confession and Articles of Faith based upon it; on the other hand, the three churches that came to the French Broad from the Holston Association and their ministers had a Separate Baptist heritage, and like Shubal Stearns thought the New Testament a sufficient confession of faith, and like him, refused to accept Higher Calvinism and the Doctrine of Election, and were classed as Arminians and Free Willers. Probably, it was among the ministers and leaders rather than among the members generally that this difference was most pronounced, and it was less marked in some churches than in others…All of the leading spirits were Calvinistic, but there were many minds that revolted at the sterner aspects of Calvinism. Men generally held to the idea of moral free agency.108

Like Broad River, the Yadkin Baptist Association, a Separate Baptist group in North Carolina, affirmed a confession after the explicit denial of particular election. The scope of the atonement was originally stated, “We believe in the doctrine of particular election by grace.” The minutes, preserved by the American Baptist Historical Society, plainly illustrate that the word “particular” was erased after discussion.109 The Big Ivy Association, too, was greatly troubled by the Particular view of election and would only affirm the Philadelphia Confession of Faith after the doctrine of election was removed. The acceptance of the Philadelphia Confession of Faith in 1829 came with this caveat:

“16. None of the above-named articles shall be so construed as to hold with Particular and Eternal Election and Reprobation, or so as to make God partial, either directly or indirectly, so as to injure any of the children of men.”110

Of course, the discussion above has not even taken into consideration those associations that affirmed confessions of faith other than the Calvinistic Philadelphia Confession of Faith. In 1785, the Elkhorn Association in Kentucky affirmed the First London Confession, a more moderately Calvinistic document, believing it contained “a system of the evangelical doctrines agreeable to the gospel of Christ, which we do heartily believe in and receive.”111 In 1801, the Green River Association of Kentucky, which was accused by Regular Baptists of being Arminian, put together their own simple confession of faith. It states:

3. We believe in the fall of Adam, and the imputation of his sin to his posterity, the corruption of human nature, and the impotency of man to recover himself by his own free will ability. 4. We believe that sinners are justified in the sight of God only by the righteousness of Christ imputed to them.112

In 1809, Jesse Mercer (1769-1841), the famed Calvinist of Georgia that founded the college that holds his name, presented the Second London/Charleston Confession, but the Hephzibah Baptist Association in Georgia rejected it, instead choosing not to adopt a confession.113

No wonder, then, why John Leland (1754-1841), the American Baptist minister who adamantly opposed slavery and stood for religious liberty, explained at the end of the eighteenth century:

I conclude that the eternal purposes of God and the freedom of the human will are both truths, and it is a matter of fact that the preaching that has been most blessed of God and most profitable to men is the doctrine of sovereign grace in the salvation of souls, mixed with a little of what is called Arminianism.114

Nearly twenty years later, Leland composed a hymn that seems to invite sinners to pray what is now called a Sinner’s Prayer: “Sinners, hear your God and Saviour, Hear his gracious voice to-day; Turn from all your vain behaviour, O repent, return, and pray; Open now your hearts before him, Bid the Saviour welcome in, O receive and glad adore him, Take a full discharge from sin.”115

Calvinism had risen to prominence through the Philadelphia Baptist Association and had gained an audience across much of the South. But by the end of the century, due to revivalistic beliefs, the confession was rejected at least in part. In its stead, Baptists in the nineteenth century embraced a simple Biblicism, one that was to be viewed through the lens of the Second Great Awakening and a new missionary movement in its infancy. And it would be that generation which would birth the people called Southern Baptists….(Part 2 tomorrow).

102William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Foundations in the South (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1961), 56.
103Jeremiah Jeter, Baptist Principles Reset. Edited by R. H. Pitt (Dallas: Standard Publishing, 1902), 314.
104Thomas L. Purvis, Colonial America to 1763 (New York: Facts on File, 1999), 180. Purvis’s statistical research is unmatched.
105W. Wiley Richards, Winds of Doctrines: The Origin and Development of Southern Baptist Theology (Lanham: University Press of America, 1991), 12.
106J. H. Spencer, A History of Kentucky Baptists from 1789 to 1885 (Cincinnati: n.p., 1886) in William Dudley Nowlin, Kentucky Baptist History 1770-1922 (Louisville, KY: Baptist Book Concern, 1992).
107Ibid., 2.89.
108George Washington Paschal, History of North Carolina Baptists (Raleigh: The General Board North Carolina Baptist State Convention, 1955), 2.426-427.
109John Sparks, The Roots of Appalachian Christianity: The Life and Legacy of Elder Shubal Stearns (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 242.
110Paschal, 2.432.
111Spencer, 2.9.
112C. P. Cawthorn & N. L. Warnell, Pioneer Baptist Church Records of South-Central Kentucky and the Upper Cumberland of Tennessee 1799-1899 (Gallatin: Church History Research & Archives, 1985), 13.
113Jesse Mercer, History of the Georgia Baptist Association (Washington: np, 1838), 48-49. Mercer put together his own confession in 1793 that was adopted in associations across the South.
114David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke, eds., Whosoever Will (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 46.
115John Leland, The Writings of John Leland, edited by L. F. Greene (New York: Arno Press, 1969), 323.

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Norm Miller

Two comments, among the many I find instructive and invaluable to the Traditionalists’ position are these:

1. The Sandy Creek movement began nearly forty years before Finney’s birth. Its founder, Shubal Stearns, practiced innovative evangelism methods long before Finney.
2. Calvinism had risen to prominence through the Philadelphia Baptist Association and had gained an audience across much of the South. But by the end of the century, due to revivalistic beliefs, the confession was rejected at least in part. In its stead, Baptists in the nineteenth century embraced a simple Biblicism, one that was to be viewed through the lens of the Second Great Awakening and a new missionary movement in its infancy. And it would be that generation which would birth the people called Southern Baptists.

Historical documentation and perspective guide us in learning our history, today.

David R. Brumbelow

Dr. Emir Caner,
Great article.
The more we delve into history and the Bible, the more New Calvinist claims seem to be challenged.
David R. Brumbelow

Tim Rogers

Dr. Caner,

Something else about the soteriology of the Sandy Creek tradition that you have shared in the past. Their soteriology led them to condemn slavery in the 1840’s (?). That seems to be a vast difference than those who are attributed with starting the SBC in 1845.


From another angle of history comes the problem of slavery and Calvinism. Finney boldly preached slavery as “moral sin” while many slave holders in the South were Calvinists. Even before then, Jonathon Edwards had slaves. . Calvinist ministers such as Boyce were claiming they were discipling the slaves which seemed to make it ok to own them. (The Sovereign God foreordained them as slaves?)

However, there were some like Theodore Weld influenced by Finney’s outright proclaiming slavery a moral sin and were some of the early leaders in the Abolitionists movement. Harriet Beecher Stowe, raised a Calvinist, questions Calvinism on in her novel, “The Minister’s Wooing’ most likely remembering the harrowing Calvinist ecclesiastical trial of her father at Lane Seminary.

There are many more examples of questioning the envogue determinism of Calvinism and perhaps explain historically the move away from Calvinism before, during and after the Civil War. And we must include the fact that many Northern Calvinists became Unitarians and a majority of Presbyterians went the social justice route playing down the determinism.

    Norm Miller

    First of all, Lydia, how good it is to hear from you again. We have missed you.

    Also, we may publish an article highlighting the slave holdings of the more Calvinistic founders of the SBC. We’ll see.

    Don’t stay gone so long, pal. — Norm



    Regarding 19th century Baptist Calvinists and their defense of slavery, Bruce Gourley nailed it on the head in his book “Diverging Loyalties: Baptists in Middle Georgia During the Civil War.” He noted that during the war, the Calvinism that caused many Baptists to view the war as God’s providential hand guiding the Southern cause waned as early victories turned to defeat. It seemed that sovereign God had another divine desire … that ALL men would be free and free in Christ as they exercised their free will to believe in Him.

Allen Rea

I think I will nail this to a few doors!


Dr. Caner – Thank you for reminding us that evangelistic fervor to see everyone come to Christ pushed “Old” Calvinism belief and practice from Baptist ranks in the past. May we see the current influence of “New” Calvinism in Southern Baptist life also wane.

God restore the office of evangelist and stir a revival spirit in the hearts of your people … help us redeem the time, for the days are short.


Hey Norm!

History always woos me near! You know, so much of what I have read that feeds into this issue was not church history but what was going on in the larger culture of that day where interesting tidbits are offered up.

The first abolitionist society (of sorts) was started by the Quakers.

Max, I am planning on reading Gourley’s book one of these days. I have a backlog on my kindle as it is.

A bigger question for us all is “why” Calvinism is making such a resurgence with it’s bloody history and state church authoritarian mentality. What is the draw?


    “A bigger question for us all is “why” Calvinism is making such a resurgence with it’s bloody history and state church authoritarian mentality. What is the draw?”

    Lydia, I’ve pondered that question often as I’ve observed New Calvinism sweep across the landscape in my area. Like a Pied Piper (pun intended), thousands are being led into the reformed movement. This “resurgence” (Driscoll calls it by that name) is definitely attracting 20s-40s by the gob. Some say it’s the intellectual challenge of theological debate … or a fascination to stand with old dead men and their version of the “truth”… others note that the young and restless aren’t too keen with the way their folks do church (the buck authority syndrome) … or the attraction to cool pastors who sit on stools on a stage backed up by loud musicians … and then there’s the hype that 21st century Christendom has lost the real gospel and it’s up to somebody to recover it! All of this spurred on, of course, when an SBC esteemed seminary president says things like “Where else are they going to go? If you’re a theological minded, deeply convictional young evangelical, if you’re committed to the gospel and want to see the nations rejoice in the name of Christ, if you want to see gospel built and structured committed churches, your theology is just going to end up basically being Reformed, basically something like this new Calvinism.” Why, Lord, why? When, Lord, when?


      Max, I have a view. I am watching as the broader American culture is steadily moving toward collectivism which necessitates authoritarianism or an oligarchy of sorts. More power is being handed over into institutions whether government or church— than ever before. We are watching it happen with our very eyes concerning health care tied to the IRS, bailing out failures but allowing the CEO’s to walk away rich from a failure.

      There is a march toward the micromanagement of the individual whether it is government or church and it is welcomed by many. I do believe the Calvinist resurgence fits right into that move with authoritarian leadership, membership covenants, church discipline, keys to the kingdom, etc.

      What happened to the independent thinking and responsible individual? What happened to the Priesthood of Believer? We now need a “Philosopher King” to tell us how to live and what to believe. In Christianity, this is feasting on milk for the rest of your days.

Marvin Reynolds

this is an interesting and encouraging article. Thanks

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