What Were the Early SBC Leaders’ View of Salvation?: A View from the Mountains

*This a portion of an article taken from the Journal For Baptist Theology and Ministry and is used by permission.

by Emir Caner, Ph.D.

Emir Caner is President and Professor of History and Christian Studies at Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, Georgia.

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 (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. [1]

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! [2]

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

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[1] William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Foundations in the South (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1961), 56.
[2] Jeremiah Jeter, Baptist Principles Reset, ed. R. H. Pitt (Dallas: Standard Publishing, 1902), 314.