David Benedict was a Baptist minister and historian who lived in the 19th century. He was a keen observer of the life of the churches. Here is an excerpt from his book Fifty Years Among the Baptists. Looking back at developments among the Baptists as the 19th century turned into the 20th century, his words seem almost prophetic. The moral of the story?Beware of doctrinal laxity. Extremes must be avoided; but sadly, the pendulum swings fastest at the center point of its arc, so that people overreact to a mis-emphasis and produce their own contorted version. It is especially curious that the southern churches were noted for their Calvinistic doctrinal fidelity, and yet who would say this of the southern churches today? This is chapter 10 of the book:
FORTY YEARS AGO large bodies of our people were in a state of ferment and agitation, in consequence of some modifications of their old Calvinistic creed, as displayed in the writings of the late Andrew Fuller, of Kettering, England. This famous man maintained that the atonement of Christ was general in its nature, but particular in its application, in opposition to our old divines, who held that Christ died for the elect only. He also made a distinction between the natural and moral inability of men.
Dr. John Gill, of London, was, in his day, one of the most distinguished divines among the English Baptists, and as he was a noted advocate for the old system of a limited atonement, the terms “Gillites” and “Fullerites” were often applied to the parties in this discussion. Those who espoused the views of Mr. Fuller were denominated Arminians by the Gillite men, while they, in their turn, styled their opponents Hyper-Calvinists. Both parties claimed to be orthodox and evangelical, and differed but little on any other points except these which have been named. On Election, the Trinity, etc., they all agreed.
In the age when this discussion arose among the American Baptists, as none of the modern subjects of agitation had been introduced into their churches, the speculative opinions thus briefly described, for a number of years were the occasion of unhappy debates and contentions in many locations. Our old Baptist divines, especially those of British descent, were generally strong Calvinists as to their doctrinal creed, and but few of them felt at liberty to call upon sinners in plain terms to repent and believe – the gospel, on account of their inability to do so without divine assistance. They could preach the gospel before the unconverted, but rousing appeals to their consciences on the subject of their conversion did not constitute a part of their public addresses.
In expatiating on the strong points of their orthodox faith they sometimes ran Calvinism up to seed, and were accused by their opponents of Antinomian tendencies. In that age it was customary for many of our ministers to dwell much on the decrees and purposes of God, to dive deep, in their way, into the plans of Jehovah in eternity, and to bring to light, as they supposed, the hidden treasures of the gospel, which they, in an especial manner, were set to defend. In doing this they discoursed with as much confidence as if they were certain that they were not wise above what is written, but had given a true report of the secrets of the skies.
This extreme of orthodoxy has been followed by laxity and indifference.
The Philadelphia Confession of Faith, published in that city, in 1742, was the standard of most of the oldest Baptist churches in this country, especially in the middle and southern States. This Confession was copied mostly from one published by the Baptists in London, in 1689, and this again agreed in its doctrinal sentiments with the Westminster Confession.
The old Baptists in New England, although, for the most part, they held with their brethren elsewhere the doctrines of Depravity, Election, Divine Sovereignty, Final Perseverance, etc., yet they were not in the habit of enforcing them so strongly as were those in New York, Philadelphia, and further South.
That class of Baptists which arose out of the Newlight stir in New England, which, as I have before stated, sent colonies into all the southern States, and in the second generation, over the mountains into the West, were Calvinists of a still milder type. Indeed, their orthodoxy was often called in question by the old school party in Virginia, the Carolinas and Kentucky. These zealous reformers, in their public performances dwelt mostly on the subjects of Christian experience and practical religion, while the strait Calvinists labored much to explain and defend the strong points of their system.
The kind of preaching now much in vogue, at the period and among the people here had in view, would have been considered the quintessence of Arminianism, mere milk and water, instead of the strong meat of the gospel. Then, and with our orthodox Baptists, a sermon would have been accounted altogether defective which did not touch upon Election, Total Depravity, Final Perseverance, etc.
“Total depravity,” said a good sister to her minister, “must be as true as the Bible. So I read and so I feel. But your new-fangled way of preaching goes to undermine it, and to make people much better than they are, and also to make them think they can do something for themselves. I know that I am totally depraved. I tell you, Elder, this kind of preaching will never do. You take away my depravity and you take away my all.” “O, no, my good sister,” said the elder, “I hope not; I think better of you than that; I think there would be something left still.” With a hearty laugh on both sides the discussion closed.
In my early day the Associated Baptists were all professedly Calvinistic in their doctrinal sentiments. The term, however, was not agreeable to many, as they did not subscribe to all the sentiments of John Calvin, but they submitted to it for distinction sake, and in contradistinction from those whose views were less orthodox on Predestination, etc. Beside the people of our order in the associations, the Freewill and Seventh Day Baptists were then coming into notice, and they, with but few exceptions among the Sabbatarians, were decidedly opposed to some of the distinguishing doctrines of the Calvinistic creed. The Methodists, too, who often came in contact with the Baptists, and with whom I frequently associated in my early travels, were extremely severe in their feelings and comments on the orthodox faith, so far as Election, etc., were concerned. Some of their circuit riders of that age conducted as if they considered themselves predestinated to preach against Predestination. And some of our illiterate elders were about a match for them against the Wesleyan creed. And the cry of fatalism on the one hand, and of salvation by works on the other, was continually sounded by the parties.
I was often not a little surprised at the bitterness of feeling which, in many cases, was displayed by the anti-Calvinists against the doctrine of Election, and of their readiness, in season and out of season, to assail it by reason and ridicule. Many could hardly be civil towards their opponents, who were silent all the while.
I well remember, to me, at the time, a very striking instance of this kind. A minister of another class of Baptists, but who had rendered me essential service in my historical pursuits, amused a large company in a public house, in which we happened to be at the time, and which company, also, happened to be of his own way of thinking, by repeating, evidently for my special benefit, some doggerel verses, the chorus of which was,
“Then fill up the glass, and count him an ass
Who preaches up predestination.”
But for many years past the asperity of feeling above described has been a good deal mollified, so that the differing men can meet together without taunting each other with their offensive creeds. On this subject I lately remarked to a Freewill Baptist minister, “Your side has been coming up, and ours has been going down, till the chasm between the two parties is by no means so great as formerly.”
On the introduction of the Fuller system a very important change followed on the part of many of our ministers in their mode of addressing their unconverted hearers on the subjects of repentance and believing the gospel. Hitherto they would use circumlocution in their discourses on these matters, instead of direct appeals and exhortations to those whose conversion they desired. They would describe the lost condition of sinners and point out the duty of all men to repent and believe the gospel; but beyond this, their views of consistency with the doctrine which ascribes the whole work of salvation to God alone, would not permit them to go. As a general thing, the discourses of that age were very dull and monotonous, and were greatly deficient in the pathos and fervor of that class of evangelical preachers who were not trammeled by such rigid rules in their theological creed. Church members then received much more attention from our public speakers, than those who stood without its pale. At times men of more than ordinary zeal would overleap the bounds of their restricted rules, but with studied caution in their use of terms; and I well remember with what ingenuity and dexterity this class of preachers would so manage their addresses to their unconverted hearers, as to discourse to them much in the style of reputed Arminians, and yet retain the substance of the stereotyped phraseology of their orthodox creed.
The Fuller system, which makes it consistent for all the heralds of the gospel to call upon men everywhere to repent, was well received by one class of our ministers, but not by the staunch defenders of the old theory of a limited atonement. According to their views, all for whom Christ suffered and died would certainly be effectually called and saved. These conflicting opinions caused altercations of considerable severity for a time, among the Baptists, who had hitherto been all united on the orthodox side. The Gillites maintained that the expositions of Fuller were unsound, and would subvert the genuine gospel faith. If, said they, the atonement of Christ is general in its nature it must be so in its effects, as none of his sufferings will be in vain; and the doctrine of universal salvation will inevitably follow this dangerous creed. While the dispute went on, it was somewhat difficult for the Fullerites to pass muster, on the score of orthodoxy, with the old school party, or be on terms of entire cordiality with them. But so greatly has the standard of orthodoxy been lowered, even among those who are reputed orthodox, from former times, and so little attention do most of our church members of the present day pay to the doctrines which are advanced by their ministers, that this whole story will probably be new to most of them, except of the older class.
A few persons may now be found in most of our congregations, who are so well informed, and who pay so much attention to the preaching they hear, that they are able to detect any unsoundness in the doctrines advanced; but this is not so generally the case with the great mass of our members as it was in a former age. At present, the modes and manners, and the eloquence of their ministers, engage more of the attention of our people, than their doctrinal expositions; and most of all, they look for those attractions which are pleasing to young people, and which will collect large assemblies, and enable them to compete with their neighbors in numbers and style. With this end in view, nothing that will sound harsh or unpleasant to very sensitive ears must come from the preachers; the old-fashioned doctrines of Predestination, Total Depravity, Divine Sovereignty, etc., if referred to at all, must be by way of circumlocution and implication. “Ever since he was settled with us,” said one, “our minister has preached up election, and still never mentions it openly.”
As a general thing, now, our people hear so little, in common conversation, in their every-day intercourse with each other, on doctrinal subjects, before, at the time, and after they become church members, and are so much accustomed to vague and indefinite references to them, that, different from former years, they have but little desire to hear them discussed. Indeed, many of them would sit very uneasy under discourses in which the primordial principles of the orthdox Baptist faith should be presented in the style of our sound old preachers of bygone years. As for themselves, some of them might bear this tolerably well, but they would be thinking of others and of the adverse remarks of outside hearers, and weaker members.
In the business of ordinations, how little scrutiny is made of candidates as to their belief in the strong points of our system, compared with ages past.
While our creed, like the thirty-nine Articles, remains the same, this moderating still goes on, in theological training, in ministerial functions, and in public sentiment, and to what point of moderation we shall in time descend, it is difficult to foretell.
John Leland, although a Calvinist, was not one of the straitest class. Two grains of Arminianism, with three of Calvinism, he thought, would make a tolerably good compound.
An English statesman once said of his own church, “We have a Calvinistic creed, a Roman ritual, and an Arminian clergy.” This in time may apply to us, minus the ritual, in some cases.