In writing this blog, I enjoy sharing my thoughts and reasoning on many subjects. And this post is just one of those subjects.
In this post, I share an essay that I wrote several years ago for a class on American religious history. In the essay I looked at the debate over the issue of slavery and how two Baptists–one a scholar opposed to slavery and the other a slave-owning pastor in the trenches debated the subject in the 1840s–demonstrating the divide between Northern and Southern Baptists.
The title of the essay is: “The Theological Divide of Baptists in the Antebellum Period” I hope that you find it interesting and come back for the conclusion in a future post.
Prelude to War
If war is hell, as goes the proverb, then the theological wars that often proceed them are the gate keepers. This would seem to lend a measure of credence to the charge of secularists that religion is the cause of most wars; however the facts are that the causes of conflicts are multi- variate. However one cannot help but dare make such a connection in the cause of the most re- markable war to have occurred in the history of man. A war not intent on the addition of territory, or the throwing off of tyrannical power. The Civil War that wracked the United States from 1861 to 1865, or “The War of Northern Aggression” as some are fond of calling it, was definitely one that displays multivariate causation. But this examination looks at an earlier civil war, one that did not send armies to distant fields, an intellectual war whose chosen weapons were the Word of God and reason.(1) Here we will look at the split of one of America’s premier evangelical denomi- nations in the decade leading up to the Civil War, the split between Northern and Southern Baptists.
Baptists are anecdotally known as a fractious group that seems to divide over things as petty as the choice of carpet color or as grave as high theological doctrines. Baptists seem to have a deep independence streak so that while they will organize themselves denominationally, with associations and conventions, they see these events as merely relational and not controlling, and this is evident in general statements of faith, such as the present Faith and Message that was adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention, which says,
“Christ’s people should, as occasion requires, organize such associations and conventions as may best secure cooperation for the great objects of the Kingdom of God. Such organizations have no authority over one another or over the churches. They are voluntary and advisory bodies designed to elicit, combine, and direct the energies of our people in the most effective manner.”(2)
This streak of independence continues well back into the last century, with theologians like J.G. Bow, writing in his brief treatise on Baptist belief that,
“Baptists, following the New Testament pattern, have no aggregate known as ‘The Baptist Church’. Like the apostles and early Christians we have churches.”(3)
In fact, the earliest published confession of faith by American Baptists, dated 1833, in what is known as The New Hampshire Confession in section XIII merely states that,
“[Baptists] believe that a visible church of Christ is a congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the ordinances of Christ; governed by his laws; and exercis- ing the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by his word; that its only scriptural officers are bishops or pastors and deacons whose qualifications, claims and duties are defined in the Epistles to Timothy and Titus.”(4)
So, what was the cause of division between those churches in the north and those in the south, since there was no concept of a larger body that governed these individual churches? In general, they divided over missions, more specifically they divided over the qualifications of those to send on missions.(5)
Historically the debate between the antebellum Baptists on this matter is preserved for us in the public correspondence of two men: Francis Weyland, a scholar, theologian, and abolitionist from New York; and Richard Fuller, a minister and a future president of the Southern Baptist Convention. This correspondence was gathered into a single volume and published under the title Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution.
There is something that needs to be stated before going any farther and that is about time, a word of precaution, more specifically about the difference. It is very easy for someone in this present age to judge past arguments on current understanding or even to apply current definitions to past categories. This is an both an unjust and unfair position to take. It must always be kept in mind that they, like us, were people of their own time with their own understanding. We should always be as generous to the past as we hope the future will be to us. With that out of the way, exactly what were the arguments of these men and how did they employ them?
1. Sebest, Edward H. and Hague, Euan. “The US Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South”. Canadian Review of American Studies 32 no. 3 (2002). p.25
2. Baptist Faith and Message 2000 http://www.baptistcenter.net/confessions/Baptist_Faith_and_Mes- sage_2000.pdf.
3. Bow, J.G. What Baptists Believe and Why They Believe It. The Sunday School Board of the Baptist Convention. Nashville, TN. 1895. p.21-22
4. The New Hampshire Confession. http://baptiststudiesonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/02/the-new- hampshire-confession-of-faith.pdf.
5. Johnson, William B. “ William B. Johnson’s Address on the Origin of the Southern Baptist Convention (1845).” http://baptiststudiesonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/02/johnsons-address.pdf.