Three historic confessions of faith have shaped the theology of many Southern Baptists since 1845 — the inaugural year of our convention in Augusta, Georgia. The intent of this article is to demonstrate that many early Southern Baptists were not solely and singularly rooted in Reformed theology as some so solemnly swear today.
Unquestionably our first seminary, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) was uniquely shaped by Princetonian Calvinism. Most of the founders of SBTS came from wealthy plantation owning families in the Antebellum South and could afford to study in universities and seminaries in the Northeast. After attending Brown University in Rhode Island, James P. Boyce, the author of the Abstract of Principles was stanchly converted to Reformed theology as he studied under the legendary Presbyterian scholar, Dr. Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary.
Dr. David Dockery reminds us of the powerful sway Dr. Boyce had on unsuspecting SBTS students, “It was often said that the young men were generally Arminians when they came to the seminary, but few went through Boyce’s course in theology without being converted to his strong Calvinistic views.”[i]
However, most Baptist pastors (and laymen) in the South in the 1840’s were not among the educated elite and very few had college or seminary educations. Most of the Baptist pastors among the Sandy Creek Baptist Association were bi-vocational preacher-farmers. While wise in the Holy Scriptures and following the leadership of the Holy Spirit they were weak in formal academic training.
Therefore, at the dawn of our denomination and into the early decades of the 20th century, the masses of Southern Baptists were more appreciably influenced by the New Hampshire Baptist Confession of 1833[ii], the Sandy Creek Baptist Confession of 1845[iii], and later, the Baptist Faith and Message of 1925[iv].
Each of these Baptist confessions contain a section on the “freeness of salvation.” Beginning with the New Hampshire Confession (1833), we see an intentional move away from the strongly Calvinistic slant of the Philadelphia Baptist Confession of 1742.
The Philadelphia Baptist Confession (PBC) speaks of the effectual calling of God only for:
“Those whom God hath predestinated unto life[v],” and those not chosen before the foundation of the world, it says, “Others not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit; yet not being effectually drawn by the Father, they neither will nor can truly come to Christ; and therefore cannot be saved[vi].”(Emphasis mine).
And, the PBC speaks of only, “Elect infants dying in infancy” as being saved.[vii] The majority of Southern Baptists have always believed that “all” babies dying infancy are saved.
As you read these three confessions, it does not require a PhD in theology to notice the deliberate move away from strong Calvinism as they speak of the “freeness of salvation” and how the “greatest of sinners” can be saved through the work of the Holy Spirit and believing the Gospel—which is the power of God unto salvation!
The New Hampshire Baptist Confession of 1833
The Freeness of Salvation
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. ****
* Isa. 55:1; Rev. 22:7; Lk 14:16
** Rom 16:26; Mark 1:15; Rom 1:15-17
*** JN 5:40; Matt 23:37; Rom 9:32
****JN 3:19; Matt. 14:20; LK 19:27
The Sandy Creek Baptist Confession of 1845
The Freeness of Salvation
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 and obedient faith,** and that nothing prevents the salvation of the greatest sinner on earth, except his own voluntary refusal to submit to the Lord Jesus Christ;*** which refusal will subject him to an aggravated condemnation.****
* Rev. xxii. 17: Whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely. Isaiah lv. 1. Luke xiv. 17.
** Rom. xvi. 26: The gospel, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith. Mark i. 15. Rom. i. 15, 17.
*** John v. 40: Ye will not come unto me, that ye might have life. Matt, xxiii. 37. Rom. ix. 32. Prov. i. 24. Acts xiii. 46.
**** John iii. 19: And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. Mat. xi. 20. Luke xix. 27. 2 Thess. i. 8.
The Baptist Faith and Message 1925
The Freeness of Salvation
The blessings of salvation are made free to all by the gospel. It is the duty of all to accept them by penitent and obedient faith. Nothing prevents the salvation of the greatest sinner except his own voluntary refusal to accept Jesus Christ as teacher, Saviour, and Lord.
Eph. 1:5; 2:4-10; 1 Cor. 1:30-31; Rom. 5:1-9; Rev. 22:17; John 3:16; Mark 16:16.
Without a doubt these three great confessions of faith emphasize two overriding themes concerning the “freeness” of salvation:
1. Salvation is free to “all” by the Gospel–even the greatest of sinners. This language has replaced restrictive reformed terms.
2. People are lost and bound for a devil’s hell due to their own stubborn refusal of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Decretal theology[viii] is avoided.
Remember that the New Hampshire confession was adopted by many Baptists before the SBC was formed. And, the second edition of the Sandy Creek confession was adopted in 1845, the inaugural year of the SBC. Eighty years later, SBC leaders leaned heavily on these two documents in writing the first ever statement of faith representing the majoritarian view of Southern Baptists. Therefore, the Abstract of Principles remained the choice of Baptists among the Charleston Tradition[ix].
These changes didn’t happen in a vacuum. The Second Great Awakening brought a holy harvest of souls from the early 1800’s to the birth the SBC. While Old School Calvinists shunned the new measures of revivalism, many new converts enthusiastically felt the call to preach and to plant vibrant new congregations. As the American frontier pushed ever westward God raised up a rugged breed of Baptist farmer-pastors and Methodist circuit riders to passionately preach the Gospel to every person and start new congregations. As they traveled the trails from Appalachia to Alabama and on to Austin—an ever expanding Bible-belt replaced the cummerbund of Calvinism.
The syncretism of Calvinism, Arminianism, revivalist fervor, and a simple Biblicism gave birth to a down-home SBC theology that didn’t necessarily need to be reflected in a fancy creed or confession. But when it was drafted (decades later in 1925) it avoided the philosophical speculation (secret decrees, extra-biblical covenants, reprobation, etc.) that only a select and specific group of individuals were chosen to be saved in eternity past.
Addendum: After writing and re-writing this piece over a period of weeks, I read the latest edition (Fall 2014, Vol. II, Number 2) of the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry (New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary), and read a wonderful article by Dr. Emir Caner. His scholarly work goes deeper into the history and theology of the early days of the SBC. I commend it to you: http://www.baptistcenter.net/journals/JBTM_11-2_Fall_2014.pdf
[i] David S. Dockery, Southern Baptists and Calvinism: A Historical Look, in, Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue, eds. E. Ray Clendenen and Brad J. Waggoner (Nashville, B & H Academic, 2008), 36.
[v] Philadelphia Baptist Confession of Faith (Tri-Centennial Edition), A Baptist History Classic Reprint, (Asheville: Revival Literature, 2007), 35.
[vi] Ibid, 36.
[vii] Ibid, 36.
[viii] Dr. Kenneth Keathley in his book Salvation and Sovereignty says, “Decretal theology denies that texts such as I Tim 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 teach that God loves all humanity and desires the salvation of all.”,49.
[ix] The Charleston Baptist Association was more formal and reformed when compared to the Sandy Creek Baptist Association. The Charleston tradition followed in the theological footsteps of the Philadelphia Baptist Association—in its confessions and formalities.