What Were the Early SBC Leaders’ View of Salvation?
by Emir Caner, Ph.D.
President, Truett-McConnell College
A closer look into Baptist history demonstrates that Baptists perpetually struggled with theological complexities, especially that of Calvinism. But by the beginning of the Southern Baptist Convention, the stage was set for diversity among the people who would be called Southern Baptists. In terms of Reformed doctrine of salvation, it was acceptable to question all of the classical points of Calvinism with one exception – eternal security. And while Baptists agreed with our Reformed brethren on the basic definition, the intricacies of even this doctrine were debated. Thus, Southern Baptists did not move away from Calvinism due to the experiential viewpoint of Southern Seminary president E. Y. Mullins at the beginning of the twentieth century. As Baptists matured in their faith, they had questioned, rejected, or redefined much of Calvinistic doctrine since the pinnacle of Calvinism in the mid-eighteenth century. They sought and demanded a simple faith, one based in their hope for revival.
A simple survey of the early Southern Baptist landscape will evidence its divergence away from Reformed doctrines either in part or substantively. First, there were obviously those who held to a classical Calvinism. James P. Boyce (1827-1888), one of the founders of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1859, was a strict Calvinist. Boyce believed wholeheartedly in his theological system and wanted to convert others towards his theology, believing it would benefit the churches and even bring about revival. His good friend and co-founder of the Seminary, John Broadus, recollected about students entering the new seminary: “Though the young men were generally rank Arminians when they came to the Seminary, few went through [Boyce’s] course without being converted to his strong Calvinistic views.”140
The new seminary, located in Greenville, South Carolina, was ground zero for Reformed theology. Basil Manly Sr., one of its professors and a leader within the Charleston/Particular tradition, explained, “The number of the elect is, to the mind of God, necessarily definite and certain.”141 Other examples of strict Calvinism include J. L. Dagg, Southern Baptists’ first writing theologian, and Jesse Mercer, president of the Georgia Baptist Convention for its first nineteen years (1822-1841). It is clear that Calvinists found positions of prominence early and often organized Baptists into associations and state conventions.
Andrew Broaddus (1770-1848) was representative of a milder breed of Calvinists considered a Fullerite by his contemporaries. A contemporary biographer, Jeremiah Jeter, categorized as “moderately Calvinistic, agreeing, in the main, with those of Andrew Fuller.”142 While affirming faith is a gift from God and that election is not based on foreknowledge, Broaddus did advocate an unlimited atonement. He explained:
These remarks on the nature of the atonement, lead to the question as to its extent. And here I take occasion to say, that a consistent and scriptural view of this subject appears to lead to the conclusion, that the atonement is general in its nature and extent. As opening a way for the salvation of sinners, considered as sinners, it is general in its nature; and as being of sufficient value for the salvation of the world, it is general in its extent. At the same time, it may be proper to remark, that redemption considered as the result and application of the atonement, is limited, of course, to those who actually become the subjects of grace; in other words, to those who become believers in Jesus.143
Broaddus, like most other Baptists of his day, offered open invitations for sinners to lay hold of eternal life. His view of the atonement was most easily seen in these invitations where he would lead in a closing hymn, saying, “Come, my guilty brethren, come, groaning beneath your load of sin. His wounded hands shall make you room, His bleeding heart shall take you in. He calls you all, invites you home – Come, O my guilty brethren, come.”144
Still others recognized that while a mystery, free will, not coercion, is the reason for the conversion of the soul. J. L. Burrows (1814-1893), who attended the first Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 and succeeded Basil Manly Jr. as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia,145 stated:
“Now, there is no coercion in conversion…A man is converted because he wishes to be. How the wish is created within his soul by the Holy Spirit and the truth we may not clearly comprehend. But all agree, Calvinist and Arminian alike, that every regenerated soul has desired and sought forgiveness.”146
B.H. Carroll stated likewise about free will, using the Sinner’s Prayer:
Absolutely without partiality, I say to one and all, whoever you are, sinful as you may be, in whatsoever social or financial grade you stand, man or woman, boy or girl, rich or poor, great or small, whoever will this day in your heart seek God and look to one who can save from sin, God will comfort you, your soul will be saved. It is not an idle request. I mean that you thereby admit that you are a sinner. You admit that you need a Saviour. You intend by it that in your heart, not out loud with your mouth but that in your heart to-day you will simply think this prayer, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”147
Other influential leaders who moved away from Calvinism include those of the Landmark movement, which emphasized the local church and Baptist distinctives and opposed any mixed communion with other paedobaptist denominations. J.M. Pendleton (1811-1891), arguably the most influential theologian of the nineteenth century whose Church Manual (1867) reproduced the New Hampshire Confession thus giving it prominence, denounced both Calvinism and Arminianism, explaining, “Presbyterians and Methodists will commune together and denounce each other’s Calvinism and Arminianism the next day, if not the next hour.”148 J. R. Graves (1820-1893), the most controversial figure of Landmarkism who served as editor of the Tennessee Baptist for 40 years, denounced eternal decrees, instead arguing, “God knew from the beginning who would believe. He determined to save those in all ages who would believe, and Christ died for these.”149
Still others attacked the Reformed doctrine of total depravity. Edwin C. Dargan (1852-1930), a renowned professor of homiletics and ecclesiological history at Southern Seminary beginning in 1892, defined total depravity, according to Richards, as “meaning that all of one’s faculties are more or less twisted out of shape by sin, affecting the whole of one’s nature.”150
Ultimately, it is revivalism that halted discussion over doctrinal differences. For example, in a revival at the First Baptist Church of Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1883, Thomas Skinner (1825-1905) preached a simple sermon on the love of God. He proclaimed to the congregation:
Oh what a gospel it is, then, to be able to tell every man and woman, and every boy and girl, salvation may be yours, you may be saved, and this I will prove by four good reasons:
1. Because you are the work of God.
2. Because Jesus Christ died for you.
3. Because so many have been saved.
4. Because the Bible teaches us so.
If you were to make Christ’s forgiving love your own, there must be personal contact of soul with the loving heart of Christ. There must be the individual act of my own coming to Him, and as the old Puritans used to say, ‘my transacting’ with Him. . . . I can shut it out, sealing my heart love tight against it. I do shut it out unless, by my own conscious, personal act of trust I come to Him.151
Such simple biblicism was seen throughout the South as revivals burst forth in the countryside. One contemporary account described a revival that occurred in Kentucky that stopped the theological infighting. It exclaimed: The effect of the revival , on Christians, was permanently good. It imbued them more deeply with the spirit of the Master, and gave them clearer views of the spirituality of religion. It turned their minds away from metaphysical abstractions about dogmas, and inspired a greater earnestness for spreading the gospel of salvation. They became more interested in sinners’ being ‘born again,’ than in determining the comparative orthodoxy of Calvin and Arminius; and were more desirous to promote love and harmony among brethren, than to discover indistinguishable shades of heterodoxy in each other’s creeds. The mere forms, of religious morals, ceremonies, and learning catechisms, gave way to a firm belief in the necessity of experimental religion.152
As this chapter draws to a close, there are at least five lessons we must learn from our past:
1. Revival may be our only hope for the Southern Baptist Convention and its future.
2. While Baptists debated many doctrines, eternal security is not negotiable.
3. Baptists historically moved away from Calvinism if we believed such doctrines could hurt evangelism and revival.
4. We cannot sacrifice the unity of a local church for the unity of a denomination.
5. We cannot abandon our heritage of evangelistic methods, including altar calls.
A Final Example through Melody: Sometimes a Song Better Expresses the Soul than a Sermon
William Walker (1809-1875) – also known as “Singing Billy” – was an American Baptist made famous for his shape-note hymnal sung in three part harmony. “Amazing Grace,” America’s most well known song written by John Newton, owes its modern-day tune and popularity to William Walker. His songbook, The Southern Harmony, which eventually sold more than 600,000 copies, was a folk collection, known as the “people’s music,” that became so prominent in religious circles that its 1854 edition is still in use today.153
In “The Southern Harmony,” we find lyrics like these:
Come, ye sinners, poor and wretched,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore,
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love, and pow’r.
He is able, He is willing, Doubt no more.
Today, if you will hear his voice,
Now is the time to make your choice;
Say, will you to Mount Zion go?
Say, will you have this Christ or no?
Come, humble sinner, in whose breast
A thousand thoughts revolve,
Come, with your guilt and fear opprest,
And make this last resolve:
I’ll go to Jesus, though my sin Hath like a mountain rose;
I know his courts, I’ll enter in Whatever may oppose.
Thus, perhaps the most accurate picture of who we are as Southern Baptists may not be found solely in the sermons preached, but in the songs sung. Let us cast our eyes on the altar. Let us make open invitations. May the Lord help us so we don’t become so intellectual–preaching thunderously without giving sinners the chance to respond.
If our altars be filled, then we may see a coming awakening. However, if our altars remain empty, so, too, does our hope for another Great Awakening. Will the altars in Southern Baptist churches be empty this week? Or will they be filled with two types of people: the lost being saved and the saved as they plead for the souls of men? That is the history of Southern Baptist life. Truth is Immortal.
140John A. Broadus, Memoirs of James Petigru Boyce (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1893), 54. The admission implies that pastors were not consistently teaching the “doctrines of grace.”
141Thomas J. Nettles, “Southern Baptist Identity: Influenced by Calvinism,” Baptist History and Heritage (October 1996): 22.
142Andrew Broaddus, The Sermons and Other Writings of the Rev. Andrew Broaddus, edited by Andrew Broaddus, Jr. (New York: Lewis Colby, 1852), 49.
143J. B. Jeter, Sermons and Other Writings of the Rev. Andrew Broaddus with A Memoir of His Life (1852), 45.
145Caner and Caner, 44.
146J. L. Burrows, What Baptists Believe (Baltimore: H. M. Wharton and Company, 1887), 1.20.
147B. H. Carroll, Evangelistic Sermons, ed. J. B. Cranfill (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1913), 28, 42.
148J. M. Pendleton, Three Reasons Why I Am a Baptist (Nashville: Graves, Marks & Co., 1857), 203. He also advocates unlimited atonement.
149Timothy George and David Dockery, Baptist Theologians (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2000), 238.
150Richards, “Moving Away from Calvinism,” 31.
151Thomas E. Skinner, Sermons, Addresses and Reminiscences (Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton, 1894), 14-16, 58.
153http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y19i50sZ3Ao (accessed May 27, 2013). This video documentary explains the importance of this little-known figure. Walker was a member of the Lower Fair Forest Baptist Church (SBC) in Union County, South Carolina. become so intellectual–preaching thunderously without giving sinners the chance to respond.