Baptist History Out of Focus

Tom Ascol

The sesquicentennial anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1995 focuses attention on the history and heritage of our denomination. All across the denomination, in local associations of churches, state conventions and especially at the national convention in Atlanta, festivities are being planned to help Southern Baptists celebrate their 150 years of existence.

Never in our history have we stood in greater need of re-examining our roots. Many today have little interest in or knowledge of the spiritual and theological heritage from which we have come. This is a great tragedy because history is a helpful perspective-builder. It adds tremendous depth-perception to analyses of contemporary trends or movements. It also serves as a tracking chart to discover how closely we have stayed to our original course. To be deprived of these benefits which history can provide is to be disadvantaged in our efforts to move productively into the future.

More alarming than the widespread indifference to our denominational heritage is its mischaracterization by some who ought to know better. The chronic misreading of history seems to have spread among many who have been regarded as denominational leaders or spokesmen during this present generation. They exhibit an annoying and damaging tendency to misconstrue important issues when referring to our Baptist heritage.

Historical Myopia

Three different types of this blurry-eyed-view of Baptist history repeatedly manifest themselves among us. The first, which could be called "historical myopia," tends to regard our Baptist heritage-especially our Southern Baptist heritage-as stretching back only 50-60 years. Where this malady exists "traditional" means "the way we have done it (or understood it) the last few years."

A striking example of historical myopia was displayed last summer during the change of leadership at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Outgoing President Roy Honeycutt criticized the promises of his successor, Al Mohler, after the latter pledged to make the seminary responsible to the convention by returning it to its historic roots-that is, to an honest commitment to the Abstract of Principles. After claiming that he had kept the seminary true to its heritage during his 11 year tenure, Honeycutt sounded an alarm over the stated intentions of Mohler. Honeycutt warned, "We are moving in a new direction where we have never been; not to a renewal of our beginnings and the theology of (seminary founder) E. Y. Mullins."1

If E. Y. Mullins founded Southern Seminary he did it in utero because he was not born until 1860, the year after Southern was established in Greenville, South Carolina. Now, it must be granted that the parenthetical description of Mullins as "seminary founder" may have been an insertion by the writer who quoted Honeycutt (that would be bad enough!) and not the actual words of the former president. Nevertheless, Honeycutt did wed "the renewal of our beginnings" to "the theology of E. Y. Mullins" in his statement.

Mullins tremendously influenced the seminary in a variety of ways during his 29 year tenure as president. But that tenure did not begin until 1899 when the seminary was 40 years old. A genuine renewal of Southern Seminary's beginnings will look beyond the theology of Mullins to that of James P. Boyce, who in fact was the real founder and first president. It is Boyce's reformed understanding of the gospel (which was shared by his colleagues) which is outlined in the seminary's Abstract of Principles and, further, which is representative of the doctrinal consensus which characterized the first 50-75 years of the Southern Baptist Convention. To see the beginnings of Southern Seminary linked to the theology of E. Y. Mullins reveals a severe case of historical myopia.

Historical Tunnel Vision

Another way the Baptist heritage gets out of focus is through reading the record with "historical tunnel vision." This approach takes an isolated example from history and assumes that it is normative. Other evidence is ignored completely in order to draw conclusions from the one example. This is like the man who found a pear tree growing in pine forest and then went home thinking he had discovered a pear orchard.

An illustration of this was provided earlier this year when Cecil Sherman, Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), sought to justify why his organization does not and should not have a confession of faith. To make his case he invoked the memory of Pennsylvania Baptists from "two hundred and fifty years ago." Despite being falsely accused of being Anabaptists and "dogged with questions of what they believed," these early Pennsylvania Baptists, according to Sherman, "decided not to make a confession."2

Sherman cites a "Michael Welfare" as a spokesmen for Pennsylvania Baptists and quotes his rationale for eschewing confessions:

When we were first drawn together as a society . . . it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines which we once esteemed truths, were errors; and that others, which we had esteemed errors were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we are arrived at the end of this progression and at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should once print our confession of faith we should feel ourselves bound and confin'd by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive further improvement and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.3
Sherman commends this quote by saying, "These people had thought more clearly and written more carefully than we. And we need to go back and read them again."4 If by "these people" he means 18th century Baptists, then arguably, he is right. And if he were to follow his own advice to "go back and read them again" Sherman would find that Mr. Welfare's comments are not at all representative of the Pennsylvania Baptists of his day.

From the time of its formal organization in 1707 the Philadelphia Baptist Association exerted tremendous influence throughout Pennsylvania as well as the rest of the middle and southern colonies. This association was comprised of Baptists who consciously regarded the 1689 London Baptist Confession as their own.5 In 1742 the association formerly adopted this confession in the slightly modified form which Benjamin Keach recommended.

It is curious to note that the Philadelphia Confession, as it came to be called, was officially adopted two years prior to the above comments made by Michael Welfare. This confession, in the hands of the evangelistically aggressive Philadelphia Association "fixed for generations the doctrinal character of Baptists in this country as evangelical Calvinism."6

Welfare's comments do not fit with the overwhelming historical evidence that the Philadelphia Confession was widely known and accepted by his contemporaries. Perhaps he was simply mistaken or maybe he was on the periphery of Baptist life. Whatever the case may be, to take his words as indicative of Baptist sentiments in 18th century Pennsylvania is to read the historical record with tunnel vision.

If Cecil Sherman wants to eschew confessions because "God is trying to tell us more about himself all the time" and because "revelation has moved on," that is surely his prerogative.7 But for him to justify his anticonfessionalism by appealing to an isolated statement of an unknown Baptist as if it represented mainstream Baptist thought is historically unjustifiable.

Historical Astigmatism

History also gets misconstrued when it is read through a faulty lens, a malady which we might call "historical astigmatism." This approach does not actually overlook large segments of history, rather it is simply unable to bring the evidence into sharp focus. Blurred distortions of past events are assumed to be an accurate representation of what actually took place. The person who reads history in this way tends to make sweeping generalizations that contain just enough elements of truth to make them appear credible. Upon closer investigation, however, these generalizations are exposed as distortions of the evidence in question.

In an interview earlier this year James Dunn, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, was challenged to defend his assertion that President Bill Clinton "is in the mainstream of Baptist history." Dunn responded by explaining his astigmatic understanding of historic Baptist positions:

The mainstream of Baptist history is non-creedal. It affirms the right of private interpretation of Scripture. It magnifies the priesthood of the believer. It doesn't subscribe to either an ethical or theological guideline that everybody has to march with because-that's the essence of Baptists.8
As Tom Nettles has clearly demonstrated in Part One of the article that continues in this issue, Baptists have a rich heritage of the careful use of confessions and creeds (see FJ 17). Furthermore, it is only modern Baptists that have "magnified the priesthood of the believer" (singular). The doctrine which Baptists have historically articulated is the priesthood of all believers (plural). The difference is more than linguistic and, as Timothy George has convincingly argued previously in this journal, this biblical doctrine does not teach that a person can believe whatever he wants and still be considered a Christian (much less a Baptist Christian; see FJ 3).

Does the essence of the Baptist faith really consist of the absence of ethical or theological guidelines that are universally applicable? Absolutely not. Eighty years ago J. B. Gambrell, former Southern Baptist editor, seminary professor and convention president, prophetically rebuked the very attitude which Dunn advocates:

The cry against creeds is lacking in sound judgment. It comes mostly from those who wish to evaporate religious thoughts into theological mist that it may be crystalized into other forms. They wish all the fences pulled down and everything unsettled.9
I do not know to which stream Mr. Dunn was referring when he made his outlandish claims, but one thing is indisputably clear: it is nowhere near the "mainstream of Baptist history."

One of the great challenges of our day is the recovery of our Southern Baptist heritage. For too long the facts have been forgotten, ignored or distorted beyond recognition. Love for God and man ought to motivate us to be as honest and accurate as possible when examining the the rock from whence we are hewn. Because God rules the world by his providence, history really is His story. To misconstrue the historical record, therefore, is to falsify the works of God. Further, love for our fellow men, especially for our brothers and sisters in the faith, demands that we not bear false witness against them-regardless of when they lived. Consciously misrepresenting history is a violation of this law of love and should be regarded as a sin to be avoided.

Southern Baptists have a valuable spiritual and theological heritage which is unknown to the majority of our members. The recovery of it can help direct us back to the old paths of vibrant, doctrinal Christianity. This is the reason for the Founders Journal. It is the rationale behind Mission 150. May our Lord help us all to be honest and faithful in our efforts to rediscover our heritage. And may He use all of our labors to stoke the fires of renewal and reformation which we so desperately need.

1"Honeycutt Defends Stance on Abstract in Last Address," Baptist Standard (June 2, 1993), p. 8.

2"Should CBF Have a Confessional Statement?," Fellowship News (January/February 1994), p. 2.

3Ibid. Sherman takes this quote from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, (New York: Pocket Books, n.d.), p. 143.


5William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1969 revised edition), p. 349. See also H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman, 1987), pp. 211, 240-41.

6McBeth, p. 241. The whole scenario becomes even more curious when the fact that Benjamin Franklin, whose autobiography quotes Welfare, favorably commented on the confession when he printed it for them in 1743.

7Fellowship News, p. 2

8From an interview with James Dunn reported in The Lofton Letter (April 1994):1.

9"Concerning the Use of Creedal Statements," J. B. Gambrell, Baptist Standard (January 22, 1914), p. 1.