Theological Tributaries of Tennessee Baptists

October 23, 2013

by Ron Hale

Ron Hale has served as pastor, church planter, strategist (NAMB), director of missions, and associate executive director of evangelism and church planting for a state convention, and now in the fourth quarter of ministry as minister of missions.

At the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers near Knoxville, in East Tennessee, the Tennessee River begins its serpentine course of 652 miles. Its tributaries are too numerous to mention in this short article. In similar fashion, the beginnings of Baptists in Tennessee sprang forth in East Tennessee and flowed westward as two major theological streams mixed, mingled, and merged as the mainstream of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

Southern Baptists have inherited two theological tributaries from European Baptists as they came to America. The Arminian-leaning General Baptists and the Calvinist-leaning Particular Baptists have feuded and found ways to move forward by adapting to each other and adopting from each other.[1] Baptist history in Tennessee reveals the ups and downs and the ins and outs as both streams created whirlpools of controversy and smooth times of cooperation.

In the early 1800s, Baptist work in Tennessee was sharply divided into two major camps. The “Missionary” or “New School Baptists,” as they were called, supported the formation of home and foreign missionary societies, tract societies, Bible societies, Sunday schools, theological seminaries, colleges, and temperance societies. The “Old School” or “Regular Predestinarian Baptists” both rejected these organizations and engaged in a counteroffensive against them.[2] The “Old School Baptists” would later be known as “Primitive Baptists” and at times called “Hard Shell” or “Anti-Missionary” by their opponents.

On the more Arminian side of Baptist ranks, Tennessee Baptists experienced two great divisions in the 1820s by the Stone-Campbell movement and a division by those who became Separate Baptists. On the more Calvinistic side, Tennessee Baptists experienced even greater division in 1830s. The first division was over theology and the latter division was focused on “methods” with theological implications.[3] In essence, the “Old School” Baptists were distressed by what they saw as non-biblical innovations, human devices, and felt that new organizations and methods struck a blow against their basic theology of God’s sovereignty and free grace and propelled believers toward Arminianism and human effort.[4]

Dr. John M. Watson (1798–1866) became the leading spokesman of the Old Baptists in Tennessee. In his work, The Old Baptist Test, he defended Old Baptists from charges and sought to give a Scriptural foundation to their work. Watson could challenge the intellectual ability of anyone in the state for he was a graduate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York and taught medicine in the Medical Department of the University of Nashville . He, also, wrote for the Nashville Journal of Medicine and Surgery and served as president of the Medical Society of the State of Tennessee. He was a good preacher and precise writer. [5]

Amid much suspicion and controversy, the Tennessee Baptist Convention launched in 1834, but only lasted until 1841.[6] But sides maligned the other and severe language ruled the day in meetings and the printed page. Before the final break in the late 1830s, R.B.C. Howell wrote in 1835, “But the perpetual agitation of all these subjects in Associations, Churches and private circles, keeps up a constant irritation of mind …Hard thoughts find expression in hard language. Cordial fellowship, by degrees is lost.” He noted that associations were “assuming legislative control, and extending their authority as ecclesiastical courts.”[7] Howell was called a wolf in sheep’s clothing and many other descriptive biblical terms taken out of context. Although a scholar and statesman in his own right, Howell once charged John M. Watson with fastening himself on the church in Murfreesboro as an “incubus.”[8] The kindest meaning of that word is “demon.”

During the next 25 years, the Two-Seed Predestinarian doctrine by Daniel Parker and his itinerant work in Tennessee greatly divided and weakened the role of the Primitive Baptists (Old School) in Tennessee. By the 1850s the Primitives were showing serious decline. Dr. John M. Watson listed the “improprieties” of his group in the Old Baptist Test, and in 1869, the Tennessee Baptist shared his disclosure to the demise of the Old Baptists in the state:

After the division, the anti-mission party limited their ministry almost entirely to the proclamation and defense of election and other profound doctrinal subjects, and the denunciation of Bible and missionary and such like societies. The doctrine of election, and kindred subjects have their place in the Christian system but is not to be supposed that sinners will be converted or believers greatly edified by a perpetual harping on them. Salt is good as a condiment; but if a man attempt to live on it, he must soon starve. [9]

By 1851, Baptists in Tennessee could be counted in the following categories:

Missionary Baptists        Members:     39,495                           Churches:    505

Primitive Baptists            Members:     10,701                           Churches:    278

Separate Baptists            Members:        3,002                          Churches:       70

Free Will Baptists             Members:            796                        Churches:       23

Missionary Baptists possessed about 73 percent of the membership and 57 percent of the churches; plus the strength of the Missionary Baptists was well distributed across the state.[10]

Baptist historian, Albert W. Warden, Jr., indicates that Missionary Baptists took a middle-road theological position by accepting new measures in evangelism and mission societies and in theology tended to tolerate a broader theological range. He indicates that many in this camp were inclined to combine Calvinism and Arminianism but with a Calvinistic orientation that continued to hold to total depravity and perseverance of the saints. And, a good number of them followed Andrew Fuller who believed in a general atonement and that the gospel should be offered to everyone.[11] This moderating approach to strict Calvinism seemed to connect with the vast majority of Missionary Baptists and Tennessee Baptists of future generations.

Today, many Baptists cannot trace their personal family heritage back to the Old World or their European family of origin. Likewise, many Baptists today do not trace their Biblical theology back to either John Calvin or Jacobus Arminius. They have never studied the original works of Arminius or Calvin, nor have they studied the controversy surrounding the Synod of Dort which developed the five points of Calvinism in response to the five points of the Remonstrants. Most Tennessee Baptists in the twentieth century were taught a Biblical faith that was hammered out by our pioneering forefathers as they traveled the River, her tributaries, and old Indian trails starting Baptist churches. Their theology included the Calvinistic points of total depravity and perseverance of the saints (in the TULIP), but down-played or deleted the “ULI” that the Primitive Baptists held high.[12]

As the 21st century continues to dawn, we need leaders like Dr. Robert B.C. Howell (1801–1868), the former pastor of the First Baptist Church of Nashville (1834–1850) and second president of the Southern Baptist Convention (1851–1859). God used him to skillfully guide Baptists of Tennessee and the Southern Baptists to fearfully hold a healthy and holy tension between the sovereignty of God and human free agency. Without the knowledge and understandings of previous doctrinal divisions, splits, compromises, and new alignments, we will be prone to peril and less to the promise of a cooperative future.

P.S. Many thanks to the work of Dr. Albert W. Wardin, Jr.,  professor emeritus of Belmont University (1967-1993) for his first-rate book, Tennessee Baptists: A comprehensive History; 1779-1999. He has served as President of the Tennessee Baptist Historical Society and president of the Southern Baptist Historical Society. He has published six books. He holds a Ph.D. at the University of Oregon.

© Ron F. Hale, October 18, 2013


[1] Steve W. Lemke, “Editorial Introduction: Calvinist, Arminian, and Baptist Perspectives on Soteriology,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, 8.1 (Spring, 11), 1. Dr. Lemke says, To oversimplify a bit, Southern Baptists have two theological tributaries flowing into our mainstream – the Arminian-leaning General Baptists and the Calvinist-leaning Particular Baptists. Unto themselves, these tributaries were essentially free-standing streams, independent of each other.

[2] Albert W. Wardin, Jr., Tennessee Baptists: A Comprehensive History, 1779–1999, (The Executive Board of the Tennessee Baptist Convention: Brentwood, 1999) 137.

[3] Ibid. 137

[4] Ibid. 137–138

[5] Ibid. 139–140

[6] Ibid.561

[7] Ibid.142-143

[8] Ibid.143

[9] Ibid. 147

[10] Ibid. 150–156

[11] Ibid. 148

[12] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody, 2008), 508. —

Unconditional Election – Because man is dead in sin, he is unable to initiate response to God; therefore, in eternity past, God elected certain people to salvation. Election and predestination are unconditional; they are not based on man’s response.

Limited Atonement – Because God determined that certain ones should be saved as a result of God’s unconditional election, He determined that Christ should die for the elect. All who God has elected and Christ died for will be saved.

Irresistible Grace – Those whom God elected and Christ died for, God draws to Himself through irresistible grace. God makes man willing to come to Him. When God calls, man responds.



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peter lumpkins


As always a fine jewel of historical work. Keep it up brother. If we older Southern Baptists do not share our rich history, I’m afraid much of it will be forgotten since in many circles today, the historically truncated obsession with the “reformed” influence on Southern Baptists will swallow up the powerful theological influences of non-Calvinistic tributaries.

With that, I am…

Robert Vaughn

Ron, kind of a sidelight to your post, but I want to make this comment. Of all the state “denominational” histories I seen and read, I believe that Albert Wardin’s history of Tennessee Baptists is one of the best and ought to be used to suggest to others how to write a history of Baptists in a particular state.

    Ron F. Hale

    I agree with your assessment of Dr. Wardin’s book. He did an outstanding job. I talked with a man this week that shared that Dr. Wardin had 500 plus pages of history that he did not get to include in his 700 page book. So there is a lot more out there that needs to be printed. Blessings!

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