Southern Baptist Ghosts
This is an interesting article concerning Southern Baptist History
During the past twenty years America's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, has undergone a major upheaval and reorientation, a time of turmoil and schism known to many of its participants simply as The Controversy. At the national denominational level, The Controversy is over for all practical purposes. The conservatives have won and the moderates have largely accepted that fact, most with resignation, some with resistance. The resisters have formed in protest new infra–denominational networks, the success of which has been relatively modest thus far. But the roots of The Controversy, how it came about, what was at stake, and how this relates to the theological heritage both sides still claim--all this remains up for grabs.
The partisans on both sides, of course, have simple answers to these questions. The moderates, called "liberals" by their opponents, see the conservative resurgence as an ecclesiastical coup d'état, a great power grab engineered by ruthless church politicians who neither understood nor cared about the great watchword of the Baptist tradition: freedom. For their part, the conservatives, called "fundamentalists" by their opponents, claim that The Controversy was, to quote the title of a best–selling book of the 1970s, "The Battle for the Bible." The watchword for such conservatives was biblical inerrancy, and this became the dominant theme in their successful effort to transform the theological seminaries and mission agencies of the denomination. What to the moderates seemed an obvious take over, the conservatives saw as a much–needed turnaround.
Both of these popular explanations are too simple. Some historians have traced the roots of The Controversy to the early 1960s, when conflict over historical-critical study of the Bible produced a major crisis in the SBC leading to the dismissal of Ralph Elliott, a professor of Old Testament at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. Others have looked back to the Fundamentalist-Modernist debates of the 1920s and 1930s, which resulted in debilitating splits among Baptists and Presbyterians in the North. Still others have blamed the persistent racism of Southern religion, the cultural captivity of Southern regionalism, the eschatological pessimism of premillennialist ideology, right-wing conspiracy theories, and so forth: There is no shortage of explanations.
The Controversy should be seen, though, in the context of even more remote Baptist battles. We are still feeling the effects of three great populist movements that ripped through Southern Baptist life in the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century: Campbellism, Landmarkism, and hyper-Calvinism. For more than a century, the forces released by these schisms have simmered beneath the surface of Southern Baptist consciousness, and they continue to frame current debates within the denomination dubbed by one historian as "God's last and only hope."
Those who lived through these theological firestorms did not underestimate their destructive effect. R. B. C. Howell (1801–1868) was one of the founders of the SBC in 1845. He served four terms as president of the Convention and was also pastor of the First Baptist Church of Nashville. Near the end of his ministry, he reviewed the history of Baptists in Tennessee and described the devastation wrought by these three movements:
Now for the third time within forty years, the desolation of Baptist churches in Tennessee was complete. They were first rent, overthrown, and destroyed by the violence of the controversy on the doctrine of predestination; they were secondly crushed and scattered by the "Reformation" of Mr. Campbell; they were thirdly severed and prostrated by the Landmark controversy. Scarcely had they begun to recover from one calamitous division when they fell into another. Will the Baptists of Tennessee ever be united, and labor together continuously in the cause of Christ?
The movements Howell mentioned were all led by powerful personalities, but they also dealt with basic issues of Baptist identity and Christian faith: namely, the balance of Scripture and tradition as norms of belief and practice (Campbellism); the nature of the true church and its identity markers (Landmarkism); and the reality of divine grace in the plan of salvation (hyper–Calvinism). The putative resolution of these issues in the nineteenth century has not prevented their resurfacing at the end of the twentieth.
Alexander Campbell was born in Ireland, educated in Scotland, and emigrated to Pennsylvania with his father, Thomas Campbell, where both were immersed as believers and affiliated with the Baptist denomination in 1812. The Campbells were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians by background, but after Alexander's wife, Dorothy, gave birth to their first child, they rejected infant baptism. Campbell was a popular speaker at Baptist gatherings and disseminated his ideas through a widely circulated paper he edited called the Christian Baptist.
The Campbell movement (the word "Campbellite" was a nickname coined in 1832) began as an effort to counteract the disunity of Christendom. Campbell's reforming movement was part of the larger restorationist impulse in American Protestantism. Campbell wanted to bring visible unity among all Christians and hence "restore" the true church by returning to the New Testament, which, he believed, contained a precise blueprint for church order and belief. Building on the earlier restorationist call of Barton W. Stone, Campbell led many erstwhile Baptists to leave their congregations and affiliate with his newly formed Churches of Christ.
The results of this schism are with us still; it is not uncommon to find Baptist and "Christian" churches still facing one another across town squares and village lanes throughout Tennessee and Kentucky, just as New England Congregationalists divided into Old Lights and New Lights in the eighteenth century. Why did Campbell leave the Baptists after seventeen years of ministry among them? For one thing, Campbell's stark biblical literalism led to disagreements over many aspects of church life and ministerial order. Campbell opposed, for instance, the use of instrumental music in worship and refused to call ministers by officious-sounding titles such as "Reverend" or "Doctor."
Campbell also had serious soteriological differences with the Baptists. He taught a doctrine that sounded very much like baptismal regeneration, denying the direct agency of the Holy Spirit in conversion. Indeed, Campbell would often poke fun at Baptists who talked about "getting religion" or being convicted of sin and drawn to Christ by the work of the Spirit. For Baptist awakeners in the tradition of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the Wesleys, this smacked of heresy or even blasphemy, ruling out what the Baptists called "an immediate work of God's grace in the heart."
Timothy George is Dean of Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, and Senior Editor at Christianity Today. This essay is adapted from a lecture presented to the St. George Tucker Society at Emory University.