The Historic Roots of Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Movement

Tom_NettlesArticle entitled “Churches, even if it could not be at the Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. If no other means were available, he advised, “work at it yourself.” The fathers of the convention did this, Boyce claimed; “They familiarized themselves with the Bible, and Gill and Andrew Fuller, and they made good and effective preachers. God is able to raise up others like them.”1 The irony of Boyce’s appeal to the grassroots for support of theological education was this: the seminary would not interrupt, but would perpetuate, the work of pastoral ministry, preaching and theology consistent with the Gill/Fuller tradition.

But this is the very difficulty that we face at this moment in Southern Baptist history. God indeed is raising up others like them, that is, like the fathers. Whether self-educated or seminary-educated, Boyce and all his contemporaries viewed a Bible theology that reflected a blend of Gill and Fuller as normal and expected. Churches should have no other kind of pastor.

These are the ones that would maintain the spiritual and doctrinal health and fervor of the churches. Today, however, some Southern Baptists are warning the churches against them. This is a mammoth historical irony that many find difficult to appreciate.

The Charleston Association in its adoption of the 1689 Confession and in the preaching of such men as Oliver Hart, Richard Furman, Basil Manly, Sr., bequeathed the theology of the fathers to James P. Boyce. In his analysis of the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints, Boyce wrote, “This doctrine is inseparably associated with the other doctrines of grace which we have found taught in God’s word. So true is this, that they are universally accepted, or rejected together. The perseverance of the saints is a part of every Calvinistic confession. . . . All the evidence, therefore, of the truth of the doctrines already examined, may be presented in favour of this which is a necessary inference from them. In like manner, all the independent proof of this doctrine confirms the separate doctrines, and the system of doctrine, with which it is associated.”2 Boyce’s conviction at this point challenges the contemporary position of many Baptists who still maintain a doctrine of perseverance but separate it from the rest of the biblical pattern, the doctrinal system, of which it is intrinsically a part. Those that have departed from the historic view, and the theologically consistent view, now warn churches against those that that are true-blue, dyed in the wool, 100 proof Southern Baptist.

They are faulted when they contend that, though of Reformed viewpoint, they don’t want to wear that label. That is not because they are less than sincere in that conviction or because they don’t believe it to undergird healthy church life both in evangelism and the sanctifying influences of truth. It’s because of the caricatures presented in the instructive documents given to pulpit committees. Even the ridiculous charge of bringing in infant baptism to a Baptist church has been made. It’s also because a marvelous array of biblical truths, to which there should be no objection, is vitally connected to the distinctives of Calvinism. Their power, in fact, flourishes in that doctrinal context.

If pulpit committees and churches would look below the façade of scare-tactic accusations and warnings being rolled out like taffy at the Mississippi State Fair, they would discover something healthy and very desirable in the men and the message preached by those against whom they are warned. No one wants a nasty confrontation between church and pastor that leads to a confused and often divided congregation and a battered pastor and his family. These are charitable warnings. Some congregations, however, might desire to consider why Baptists for so long guarded their confessional Calvinism with great care and endured many storms undergirded by that foundation. They might consider that opening themselves to embrace that which is truly “traditional” could elevate the sense of the divine presence of grace in their lives.

The twentieth-century slide into liberalism rode on the back of a growing indifference to the doctrines of grace, because the doctrines of grace are tied vitally to more biblical doctrines than just perseverance of the saints. The recovery of a fully salubrious evangelical preaching ministry depends largely on the degree to which the doctrines of grace are recovered and become the consciously propagated foundation of all gospel truth.

If a church, therefore, gets a Calvinist preacher, she will get a good thing. Several issues will be securely settled and the church will not have to wonder about the soundness of her preacher on these items of biblical truth and their soul-nurturing power. Calvinists have stood for more than just their distinguishing doctrines; they have held steadfastly to other doctrines that are essential for the health of Baptist churches in our day. Let’s look at a few of these.

1. A Calvinist firmly believes in the divine inspiration of Scriptures. A large number of cogent defenses of the inerrancy of Scripture have been written by Calvinists. Some would say that these are among the most profound ever produced in Christian literature. Calvinism provides a more consistent rationale for inerrancy than other theological systems. One of the most often repeated objections to the divine inspiration of Scripture is that its assumption of perfect divine control of the process runs roughshod over human freedom and does not give sufficient room to human finiteness or human sin. These were objections, concurrent with the decline of commitment to Calvinism, that landed many leading voices of twentieth-century denominational life in a position opposed to inerrancy and verbal inspiration. Virtually every defender of inerrancy has to discuss the relation between inspiration and each of these supposed difficulties. The Calvinist system poses no contradiction between the freeness of human personality, the limitations of human finiteness, and the mental darkness of human sin in their relation to verbal inspiration. God’s particular providence over all events includes every choice of every moral creature without diminishing the free moral agency of the creature. God in his sovereignty can gives words to a donkey as well as an unwilling prophet (Numbers 22:28-30, 38). Through the use of a variety of means, God works all things, including inspiration, “according to the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11).In the same way that God’s sovereignty brings about the fulfillment of his prophecies according to his decree with no violation of human freedom, and no limitation from human weakness or badness (Acts 2:23), so he inspired Scripture without suspending the individual personality traits of every biblical writer. If a church gets a Calvinist pastor, she can be sure that her pastor never will deny the full truthfulness of the Bible but will be tethered to the text as the word of God. He will have this conviction, not as an act of will unrelated to his theological system but as an intrinsic and coherent outflow of his view of God and man. Continue reading

Calvinism Is Not New to Baptists

solas4Article: Calvinism Is Not New to Baptists – Grace Unleashed in the American Colonies

By Thomas S. Kidd, Professor of History, Baylor University; author, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America

Original source here.

Calvinists once dominated Baptist church life in America.

In a 1793 survey, early Baptist historian John Asplund estimated that there were 1,032 Baptist churches in America. Out of those, 956 were Calvinist congregations. These were “Particular Baptists,” for they believed in a definite atonement (or “particular redemption”), that Christ had died to save the elect decisively. “General Baptists,” who believed that Christ had died indefinitely for the sins of anyone who would choose him, accounted for a tiny fraction of the whole. Even some of those, Asplund noted, believed in certain Calvinist tenets such as “perseverance in grace.”

How did this preponderance of Baptist Calvinists come about? Both Calvinist and Arminian (General) Baptists had existed in the American colonies since the early 1600s. But the Great Awakening of the 1740s, the most profound religious and cultural upheaval in colonial America, wrecked the General Baptist movement, and birthed a whole new type of Calvinist Baptist — the “Separate Baptists.”

A New Kind of Calvinist

The Separate Baptists of New England were typically people who had been converted during the Great Awakening, often under the itinerant preaching of (Calvinist) George Whitefield or other zealous evangelicals. The Separate Baptists were almost uniformly Calvinist in their convictions, as were the pastors who led America’s Great Awakening (like Jonathan Edwards). The converts often discovered that their own churches and pastors were not supportive of the revivals, so they started meeting in “Separate” churches.

But doing so was illegal. New England’s colonial governments prohibited the creation of unauthorized congregations, and Separates fell under persecution. Some of the Separates — already among the most radical-minded evangelicals — also took a second look at the Congregationalists’ stance on infant baptism, and found it lacking biblical justification.

No Turning Backus

Isaac Backus, the most influential Baptist pastor in eighteenth-century America, perfectly illustrated the journey from Great-Awakening convert to Separate Baptist.

Backus experienced conversion in 1741, writing that “God who caused the light to shine out of darkness, shined into my heart with such a discovery of that glorious righteousness which fully satisfies the law that I had broken . . . . [N]ow my burden (that was so dreadful heavy before) was gone.” But Backus’s Norwich, Connecticut church would not permit evangelical itinerants to preach there, and the pastor refused to require a conversion testimony of prospective church members. So Backus and a dozen others started a Separate small group meeting, apart from the church. In spite of his lack of a college degree, Backus also began serving as a Separate pastor.

Backus also started to have doubts about the proper mode of baptism. He, like virtually all churched colonial Americans, had received baptism as an infant, but in 1751, after a season of prayer, fasting, and Bible study, Backus became convinced that baptism was for adult converts only. A visiting Baptist minister soon baptized Backus by immersion. Thousands of colonial Americans would go through a similar sequence of conversion and acceptance of Baptist principles.

Because the move to Baptist convictions happened under the canopy of the Calvinist-dominated Great Awakening, Backus and most of these new Baptists were Calvinists, too. Only some of the “Particular” or “Regular” Baptists associated with the Philadelphia Association of Baptists (formed decades before the Great Awakening) supported the revivals. The General Baptists of New England, wary of interdenominational cooperation, mostly opposed the new revivalism. Doing so nearly ended the Arminian (free will) Baptist influence in America for about three decades. Their numbers dwindled and some Arminians joined Separate or other Calvinist Baptist congregations.

Mission to the South

The Separate Baptists emerged in New England, but they immediately began sending missionaries to other parts of the colonies, most notably the South. Unlike today’s “Bible Belt,” the colonial South was the least churched part of America.

Connecticut evangelist Shubal Stearns experienced conversion, became involved in a Separate congregation, and received believer’s baptism at almost exactly the same time as Backus. In the mid-1750s, Stearns and his family moved to North Carolina, where they founded the Sandy Creek Baptist Church. It grew like wildfire, from a tiny membership comprised mostly of Stearns’s family, to more than six hundred baptized converts in its early years. It also relentlessly planted new congregations across the region. Both the Sandy Creek and the Philadelphia-affiliated Charleston (S.C.) Baptist associations of churches would affirm eternal election in their respective confessions of faith.

One of the Separate Baptists’ most intriguing converts was the South Carolina slave David George, who went on to pastor the Silver Bluff Church, the first enduring African-American church of any kind (founded around 1773). George evacuated South Carolina with the British army in the early 1780s. He helped to found new Baptist churches in Nova Scotia before ultimately going to Sierra Leone in 1792 and becoming a key defender of Calvinism there. John Asplund’s survey, reflecting racial conventions of the time, had listed the small numbers of Native-American- and African-American-majority Baptist churches under their own separate (and non-theological) category, but most of them were likely Calvinist.

Decline, Then Reinvigoration

How did Calvinism lose its dominant position among Baptists? The American Revolution, with its focus on liberty, gave new life to “free will” theology in traditionally Calvinist denominations. But Calvinism remained ascendant among Baptists well into the nineteenth century. As Baptist churches spread into America’s frontier, they took Calvinist commitments with them. The newly-formed Elkhorn Baptist Association of Kentucky, for example, decided in 1785 to require assent to the Philadelphia Baptist confession of faith, which closely followed the 1689 London Baptist confession.

Among other points, the Elkhorn Association affirmed that “by the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are pre-destinated, or fore-ordinated to eternal life, through Jesus Christ, to the praise of his glorious grace; others being left to act in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of his glorious justice.”

Beginning in the late 1700s, many Baptist churches adopted a tempered (more biblical) form of Calvinism, like that espoused by English Baptist Andrew Fuller. Fuller’s Calvinism affirmed election but steered clear of hyper-Calvinist sentiment that downplayed evangelism and missions. A new controversy over missionary agencies in the 1820s drove a wedge between missionary Baptists and anti-missionary, or “Primitive,” Baptists. Many of the latter were hyper-Calvinist, and attacked leaders of the new parachurch societies as unbiblical interlopers who harmed the interests of the church. An impression grew that the Primitive Baptists, always a smaller presence among Baptists in America, were the true defenders of Calvinism. Missionary Baptists generally adhered to the New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1833), which was less explicitly Calvinist than the Philadelphia confession had been.

By the 1830s, the stage was set for the slow weakening of Calvinism among mainstream Baptists. But Arminian theology would never become as dominant among Baptists as Calvinism once was. When groups such as Desiring God and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary began to reinvigorate Calvinist theology for Baptists and other evangelicals in the late twentieth century, some Arminian Baptists insisted that free will and general atonement were the “traditional” Baptist positions on those issues. A deeper historical look, however, reveals the overwhelmingly Calvinist convictions of early America’s Baptists.

Calvinism Among Early American Baptists


“The Baptists as a denomination have always regarded the Bible as being amply sufficient for the purposes of faith and practice. But knowing that many persons holding wild and visionary notions about religious subjects, our brethren have felt it important to get up certain briefs, or compendiums of their faith, so that their adoption of the Bible in general terms, might not seem to be a sort of shield for heterodox opinions, and that there might be a oneness of doctrine and practice amongst ourselves. These summaries of faith have generally been taken from the Old Confession, published in England, first in 1643, and subsequently in 1689; adopted in America by the Philadelphia Association of Baptists in 1742 and by the Charleston Association in 1767.

Now it has been a question in our mind why we regular Baptists, throughout this whole country, might not adopt this “Confession”, and by so doing, have the articles of faith in every association exactly alike? For certainly, this venerable little book does contain the doctrines, systematically arranged, which are held by the old-fashioned Calvinistic Baptists the world over. Why may we not, then, have a cheap edition of this most excellent compendium, numerous enough to furnish every family in America with a copy?

That our brethren and friends and the world (for we are not ashamed of our faith) may see that this good old “Confession” is, we propose to give, from time to time the successive chapters, together with such remarks as we may have time and ability to make. After this cause shall have been completed, we hope our brethren will express their views in relation to the above suggestion. We commence with Chapter One, “On the Holy Scriptures’.”

Washington, Georgia

[THE CHRISTIAN INDEX of Georgia was the first state newspaper among Baptists in the South. (It was not until 1845 that Baptists in the South united to become the “Southern Baptist Convention”.) The above article was the first in a series on the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. It ran for many months while Jesse Mercer was the Editor. The stated purpose in reprinting the “old Confession” in a handy newspaper format was to promote “oneness of doctrine and practice among ourselves”. Sadly, Baptists in the South and around the world have lost their doctrinal bearings inherited from their founding fathers in the faith. Those wishing to study the history and theology of Baptists should note: Thomas Nettles, BY HIS GRACE AND FOR HIS GLORY (Founders Press); Thomas Nettles, BAPTISTS & THE DOCTRINES OF GRACE (DVD from Founders Ministries); Thomas Nettles and Russ Bush, BAPTISTS AND THE BIBLE (Moody Press); Gregory Wills, DEMOCRATIC RELIGION: Freedom, Authority & Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900 (Oxford University Press); and Brandon F. Smith and Kurt M. Smith, THE GOSPEL HERITAGE OF GEORGIA BAPTISTS (1772-1830) (Solid Ground Christian Books).]