Saturday, December 23, 2006

Review: Baptist Roots in America

I recently read Samuel Waldron’s little booklet Baptist Roots in America: The Historical Background of Reformed Baptists in America (Simpson Publishing, 1991). Waldron wrote the book to provide a historical context for the rise of Reformed Baptist Churches in the last 30-40 years.

The booklet has three primary chapters and a conclusion:

I. The Rise of Particular Baptists in America.

His basic thesis is that the early Baptists (pre-1900) were Calvinistic (Reformed), coming out of the English Particular Baptists movement and the Great Awakening. Their guiding confession of faith was the Second London Baptist Confession (1689), a Baptistic revision of the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration. This Confession was adopted (along with two extra articles) by Baptists in America in the influential Philadelphia Baptist Confession of 1742.

II. The Decline of Particular Baptists in America.

Next, Waldron asks, "What happened?" (p. 9). How did early Calvinistic Baptist churches become so doctrinally shallow and Arminian? Waldron traces seven major factors:

1. The American, Democratic Ethos.

"There was something in the political philosophy associated with the American Revolution which was profoundly antithetical to Calvinism. There was something in the Baptist alliance with the likes of Thomas Jefferson which did not bode well for the future" (p. 10).

2. Revivalism.

3. Methodism.

4. Inclusivism.

By this Waldron means an effort to downplay the doctrinal divide between Arminian ("free will") and Reformed Baptists.

5. Hyper-Calvinism.

The "Hard-shell" views of men like Daniel Parker (1781-1844) led to "passivism in the Christian life and the rejection of evangelistic effort" (p. 22), placing the doctrines of grace in a distorted light.

6. Modernism.

Liberalism began to creep in after the Civil War, and by the 20th century "it was a flood of heresy among Baptists" (p. 25).

7. The Fundamentalist movement.

Waldron notes three harmful tendencies here: (1) dangerous reduction of focus to a few "fundamentals" that downplayed doctrines of grace; (2) domination of Dispensational Premillenialism; (3) Kewick focus on "higher life," a modification of Wesleyan perfectionism rooted in "a Pelagianizing view of sin."

Some of the ill byproducts here included "Easy-believism" and the teaching of "Carnal Christian Theory" (p. 28).

III. The Rise of Reformed Baptists in America.

Waldron cites the popularity of the writings of C. H. Spurgeon and A. W. Pink; the founding of Westminster Seminary; and the Banner of Truth’s reprinting of Puritan literature as influences that have led to the contemporary reclamation of the Particular Baptist tradition in America.

IV. Concluding Observations.

Waldron closes by describing "the counter-cultural character of the Reformed Baptist movement in America" (p. 41).

He urges Baptists to beware the dangers of "anti-creedalism" which "opened the door to Arminianism and made it impossible to shut the door against Modernism" (p. 43).

He also warns against falling into "hyper-Calvinism": "The cult of five-pointism must be avoided" (p. 45).

Closing Reflection:

Waldron has given us some keen insights on understanding not just the state of Baptists in America but of evangelicalism in general. Every Virginia Baptist, in particular, should read this booklet. True to Waldron’s thesis, Calvinistic Virginia Baptists (born of the merger of Regular and Separate Baptists in the early 19th century) loosened their doctrinal convictions in the post Civil War era. One can clearly trace this if he goes back and reads the articles in the Religious Herald, the newspaper of Virginia Baptists. J. B. Jeter was the last Calvinistic editor of the Religious Herald. With the transition to R. H. Pitt a period of doctrinal decline was hastened. Pitt used the pages of the Herald, for example, to speak out against the adoption of the Baptist Faith and Message in 1925 (the SBC answer to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy). "Freedom" became more important than "purity." "Anti-creedalism" has led to liberalism.

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