Baptists and Calvinism: Lessons from Sprague’s Annals of the American Baptist Pulpit

Article
05.24.2021

A headline in The New York Times on January 4, 2014 suggested in no uncertain terms that “Evangelicals Find Themselves in the Midst of a Calvinist Revival.”[1] Revival is a good word, though when considering Baptists in particular, a better word might be “recovery” or “resurgence.” The fact is that most of the early American Baptists were Calvinists.That’s the second lesson we can learn from William Buell Sprague’s Annals of the American Baptist Pulpit, a follow-up piece to my earlier article on Baptists and Preaching.[2]

A historian and Congregationalist minister, Sprague is best known for compiling the biographies contained in Annals of the American Pulpit. He dedicated one volume to every leading Protestant denomination. In compiling these volumes, he solicited responses from denominational leaders in every denomination and commissioned them to write biographies. For instance, the volume on the Baptists contains contributions from hundreds of different authors: J. Newton Brown, Alvah Hovey, J.L. Dagg, Richard Fuller, and many others. As such, Sprague’s Annals serves as a kind of “time capsule” into Baptist thinking in the 1850s.

One of the benefits of examining a book like Sprague’s Annals is to glean “indirect lessons.” I would be far more suspicious of a contemporary account of “The History of Baptists and Calvinism in America.” Why? Well, first of all, the author is likely to have an agenda and could readily, especially on an explosive topic such as Calvinism, cherry-pick sources and quotes to suit their purpose. On the other hand, ransacking Sprague’s 850-page volume is more likely to provide a more balanced view.

Still, some might protest that these biographies aren’t representative of American Baptists as a whole but focus more on Calvinist Baptists. Here are a few reasons such cynicism is unwarranted.

First, Sprague is himself not a Baptist. In other words, he has no “dog in the fight.” Second, Sprague explicitly disavows any favoritism in the selection of biographies: “From the commencement of this work, I have been quite aware that nothing pertaining to it involves more delicacy than the selection of its subjects, and that no degree of care and impartiality can be a full security against mistakes” (Preface, v).

As a result, while nominally responsible for selecting subjects, the decisions of who to include or exclude were made by “the combined judgment of distinguished living Baptist ministers in almost every part of the country” (Preface, v). Third, the volumes show no sign of “tampering.” In other words, there’s no minister one would expect to find who isn’t there. Fourth, contemporary evidence affirms the accuracy of Sprague’s selections. As The Princeton Review notes in its glowing review of his volumes, Sprague included not only the “most brilliant lights” but also those who “lived and died unknown to the Church at large,” embracing “all who have been in any considerable degree distinguished, from the earliest settlement of the country to the present time.”[3] We should be confident that Sprague provides a view into Baptist history that’s both accurate and representative.

One of the surprises (to me at least) in reading this volume was to discover that while pervasive, Calvinism was far from uniform. On the contrary, the 1800s was a time when the limits of Calvinist orthodoxy were being tested. Through the writings of Andrew Fuller, the traditional way Baptists had understood the doctrine of particular redemption, as articulated by John Gill and others, was being challenged and criticized for hindering evangelism. While the implications of these theological developments go beyond the scope of Sprague’s Annals, the biographies it contains highlight these emerging fractures while illustrating that the strongly held Calvinistic views of American Baptists strengthened rather than weakened their zeal in evangelism.

THE CALVINIST ROOTS OF AMERICAN BAPTIST CHURCHES

In the first centuries of American Baptist life, phrases like “Reformed Baptist” or “Calvinistic Baptist” would have been redundant and unnecessary. To be Baptist was to be a Calvinist. Of the hundreds of biographies of Baptists in Sprague’s Annals, only one is described as Arminian, and this is explicitly described as an aberration.[4] On the other hand, the identifications with Calvinism are legion.

Writing in 1859, Sprague could state unambiguously in his introduction that “the prevailing Theology of the Baptists is Calvinism” (xvi). This was true of Baptists in South Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, Connecticut, Vermont, Maryland, Maine, New York, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Virtually anywhere you find Baptists in Sprague’s volume, you find Calvinists.

This should hardly be surprising considering the earliest Baptist influences in the New World were led by no-lesser “Calvinist giants” than Hansard Knollys (1598–1691) and Elias Keach (1655–1699). Knollys, who “was probably the first Baptist preacher who came to America” (xiii), arrived in Boston early in 1638 and returned to London at the end of 1641, but not before he had established a church in Dover, New Hampshire. Likewise, Elias Keach, the son of the famous Benjamin Keach of London, came to America in 1686. He preached and established churches in Pennsylvania and New Jersey before returning to London in 1692 (xii).

A typical description of the Calvinist orthodoxy in Sprague’s Annals is that of Oliver Hart (1723–1795) of Charleston, South Carolina. He was remembered in a funeral sermon by Dr. Furman as “a fixed Calvinist” in his religious principles. These “doctrines of free efficacious grace” (49) informed his preaching. Similarly, John Gano (1727–1804) who pastored in New York and Kentucky, was remembered by the Hon. Charles S. Todd—the U.S. Ambassador from the United States to Russia—as holding the views “which are contained in the Baptist Confession of Faith, and are commonly styled Calvinistic” (66). The association of the “Baptist Confession” with Calvinism is just one indicator of how pervasive the views were.

WHERE WERE THE ARMINIAN BAPTISTS?

The ascendancy of Calvinism among American Baptists isn’t simply demonstrated by “cherry-picking” a few examples from Sprague but also by the way Arminian theology is described. For instance, Lathrop recalls that the orthodoxy of Edward Upham (1709–1797), who for a time served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Newport, RI, was “not of the straitest sect” insofar as his views “probably did not rise above Arminianism” (44).

Another way Arminian theology is portrayed as an aberration from Baptist orthodoxy is evident in the life of John Waller (1741–1802), a well-respected Baptist minister in Virginia. According to his biography, Waller “continued in great favour with his denomination, everywhere attracting much attention as a preacher, until 1775 or 1776, when he formed an intimate acquaintance with a Methodist preacher of some repute” (115). Through this Methodist’s influence, Waller “became a convert to the Arminian system of doctrine” (115).

As his biographer continues, Waller knew that “his brethren strongly dissented from these views” and so he challenged them to a debate at the next association meeting. Waller took as his text 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Reasoning along the lines of this verse, Waller explained that “when young and inexperienced in religion, he had fallen in with the Calvinistic plan, but that, becoming more expert in doctrine, or, in the language of his text, when he became a man, he put away these childish notions.”

Judging by facial expressions, Waller realized that his argument was producing little effect on his hearers and so he changed tact, “proclaiming himself an Independent Baptist” and no longer under the authority of the Association. As a result, he split with the surrounding Baptist churches, and “kept aloof from his brethren” until 1787 when he returned to the association “with suitable concessions” (116). What these “concessions” were cannot be stated definitively, but William Cathcart’s biography seems to suggest that Waller’s return in 1787 was marked by a re-adoption of Calvinist beliefs.[5] Both Cathcart and Benedict observe that it was at this point, upon his “formal reinstatement” with the Association, that his labors were blessed by God with “a great revival” that lasted for several years (116).

The threat Arminianism posed to Baptist unity can be further illustrated by an instance from the life of John Taylor (1752–1833). Taylor was born in Virginia but spent most of his life ministering in Kentucky. While ministering at the Big Spring Church in Woodford County, Kentucky, a member of his church who just so happened to also be a prominent member of society, referred to only as “Judge D—,” published a pamphlet containing a “vigorous defence of Arminianism.” While possessing no ill will toward the individual who was an “influential member of this church,” Taylor nonetheless felt that it was his duty as pastor to obtain a “public expression of disapprobation in respect to it.” His efforts, however, were “to a great extent resisted, in the church,” despite the fact that no less than three local Baptist Associations passed judgment against it (157). At length, Taylor was pressured into parting ways with his congregation due to the “want of sympathy with him.” Once he obtained a letter of dismissal from his congregation in January 1816, he left to pastor a church in Frankfort.

FRACTURES WITHIN CALVINISM?

An uncareful observer might assume from this evidence that the dominance of Calvinism implied uniformity. However, a closer look indicates this period of time featured many tests to the limits of Calvinist orthodoxy. This is especially evident in the adjectives used to describe the kind of Calvinism held by Baptists. Oliver Hart (1723–1795) of Charleston, South Carolina is described as “a fixed Calvinist” (49). Ambrose Dudley (d. 1823), a leader of the Elkhorn Association in Kentucky, as a “thorough Calvinist” (204). The views of John Hastings (1743–1811) of Suffield, Connecticut were “pretty high Calvinism” (173). Caleb Blood (1754–1814) of Vermont was “decidedly and strongly Calvinistic” (195). Likewise, Lewis Richards (1752–1832), pastor of First Baptist Church of Baltimore, was “decidedly Calvinistic” (202). Elisha Snow, pastor of the church at Thomaston, Maine from 1794–1821, had the reputation of being “a very strong Calvinist” (206 n.). Also, John Stanford’s theology (1786–1834) was described as “thoroughly Calvinistic” (250). Nathaniel Kendrick (1777–1848) of New Hampshire was likewise remembered as “thoroughly Calvinistic” (486), as was Isaac McCoy (1784–1846) of Kentucky (545). The views of Fulton Ellis (1809–1854), pastor of Second Baptist Church in Springfield, Massachusetts, were likewise “decidedly of the Calvinistic school” (830). Perhaps taking the cake in this war of adjectives, Asahel Morse (1726–1838) of Rhode Island was described as being “somewhat ultra, Calvinist” (390).

The significance of these adjectives is further demonstrated by a single fact: these biographies were each written by a different author. In other words, it seemed to have been a uniform practice to accentuate or emphasize the noun “Calvinist” with an adjective in order to make a point or clarify a distinction. Another observation on the use of adjectives is that nowhere in Sprague is a Baptist simply referred to as “a Calvinist.”  Biographers felt the need to specify what kind of a Calvinist the person in question was, or at least to highlight how Calvinistic they were. Clearly, there were perceived degrees of Calvinism in the 1850s that were readily signaled by special words like “thoroughly” or “decidedly.”

This apparent division within Calvinism is further demonstrated by an entirely different range of adjectives used to describe a minority of figures. Whereas at least sixteen figures are described as “strong” or “thoroughly” or decidedly” Calvinist, at least a few figures are described with “weak” adjectives.

John Williams (1747–1795) of Virginia is described by James B. Taylor as a “moderate Calvinist” (132). What exactly this refers to is unclear. Accordingly to Taylor, it was “intimated by some who knew him that he was favourable to Open Communion,” something that he never advocated even if he was favorably disposed toward it (132).[6] Likewise, the doctrines of Jeremiah Vardeman (1775–1842) of Kentucky are described as “moderately Calvinistic” (182). In his case, the meaning of his “moderation” is explicitly connected to the fact that “his views of the doctrine of atonement corresponded with those of Andrew Fuller in his ‘Gospel worthy of all acceptation’” (427).[7] This provides an important clue into an apparent growing divide between the “thorough” Calvinists and the “moderate” Calvinists.

But what exactly were these innovative views introduced by Andrew Fuller and growing in popularity among some American Baptists?

THE GILLITES & THE FULLERITES: TESTING THE LIMITS OF BAPTIST ORTHODOXY

In his classic work Fifty Years Among the Baptists, David Benedict (1779–1874) provides a contemporary window to understanding the tensions between followers of John Gill (1697–1771) and followers of Andrew Fuller (1754–1797).[8] Writing in 1859, the same year that Sprague published Annals of the American Baptist Pulpit, Benedict recalls,

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. (135)

In other words, Fuller made two modifications within the traditional Calvinistic view as expounded by John Gill and others: First, that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was sufficient for all men while only effectual toward the elect.[9] Second, following Jonathan Edwards’ distinction between natural and moral ability, Fuller argued that while sinners possess the natural ability to believe the gospel, they simply lack the moral ability to do so.[10] Thus, it wasn’t inconsistent to call people to repent and believe the gospel even while affirming the necessity for the prior supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.

For John Gill, who lived and ministered a generation before Fuller, to affirm that Christ’s death secured a general redemption would be to deny the efficacy of Christ’s work and threaten the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. If Christ by his death “has made satisfaction for every man,” Gill reasons, then “they ought to be set free, and fully discharged, and not punishment inflicted on them.” If not, then Christ’s work is made to be seen as “of no use, and ineffectual,” since it is powerless to secure the salvation and reconciliation of those for whom he died.[11]

However, to Fuller and his growing number of followers, this interpretation of the doctrine of Particular Redemption restricted the possibility of preaching the free offer of salvation through Christ to the lost. As Benedict writes,

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. (136)

Understandably, these theological differences and their practical implications led to a sharp divide among Baptists, resulting in what Benedict terms “a state of ferment and agitation” (135). The followers of Fuller were referred to as “Fullerites” by the followers of Gill; they were accused of Arminianism. In turn, in the Fullterites referred to the followers of Gill as “Gillites”; they were accused of Hyper-Calvinism (135).

By 1859, the tensions had lessened and Fuller’s system seemed to have gained ascendency among American Baptists. Benedict laments this fact, attributing it to a lowering of the “standard of orthodoxy” and the general inability of members to tolerate sound doctrine. According to Benedict, churches now “look for those attractions which are pleasing to young people” rather than preaching the historic doctrines of the Christian faith (143). He further laments that little scrutiny is made of pastoral candidates’ system of doctrine (144). Finally, he laments that most members of Baptist churches in his own day would not understand the intricacies of the differences between Fuller and Gill even if they were explained.[12]

CALVINISM & EVANGELISM

Whether or not Benedict’s perception of the apparent downgrade of Calvinist orthodoxy is accurate or not goes beyond the scope of this article; Sprague’s Annals only includes accounts of Baptists who died before the year 1855. However, the biographies it does contain suggest that the binary distinction that he and countless historians have drawn between the Gillites and the Fullerites, while useful, is probably simplistic. A striking feature of the biographies, especially in light of the tensions over particular redemption and the right manner of preaching the gospel, is that so many figures combine both. For instance, Nathaniel Kendrick (1777–1848) of New Hampshire was remembered as a “thoroughly Calvinistic” theologian and preacher but also as a powerful preacher and evangelist. A lover of Jonathan Edwards, Kendrick preached “unconditional election, limited atonement, absolute moral depravity and inability, the sovereign and exclusive agency of the Spirit in regeneration” not as dry doctrines but as “living truths” that first animated his own heart and then pressed lovingly into the hearts of others (486).

Likewise, there was Isaac McCoy (1784–1846), a minister in Kentucky whose “doctrinal views were thoroughly Calvinistic”; “their practical influence was abundantly manifest in his life.” His preaching wasn’t as dry and lifeless as the Fullerites may have feared. It was “sensible, earnest, and convincing” (545). McCoy’s Calvinism did not lead him to assume that “when God pleases to convert the heathen,” he would do it apart from human agency. Rather, he demonstrated an unparalleled zeal for missions and evangelism, as evidenced by his unyielding passion to reach Native Americans with the gospel (545). As his friend Joseph Chambers recounts,

Well do I remember going, by request, to his house, to join with him in prayer just before his removal into the Indian country. A few years before, we had both been defending ourselves and our families, with our rifles, against the invasion of the Indians, and now he was going to plant himself down among them, with his wife and seven small children, in the hope of becoming the instrument of their salvation (545).

Such zeal in evangelism and missions was common among the strongest defenders of Calvinistic orthodoxy among the early American Baptists. As Alvah Woods reflects on the life of Stephen Chapin (1778–1845) who ministered in New Hampshire, his “theological views, while Calvinistic, were entirely practical. His belief in the Divine Sovereignty never interfered with his faithful efforts for the conversion of men” (677).

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, the dominant doctrinal system of early American Baptist life was unquestionably Calvinism. With that said, tensions in the 1800s over the manner of gospel preaching and the doctrine of Particular Redemption show important theological distinctions even within the umbrella rightly considered “Calvinism.” These differences notwithstanding, there’s no evidence in Sprague that those who followed Gill and those who followed Fuller called for denominational disunity or breaking fellowship.

Just like today, Baptists in the nineteenth century were a “big tent” denomination. Differences persisted, but they were handled with charity. Whether a pastor tended more toward Fuller or more Gill, all Baptists showed unparalleled zeal in evangelism and preaching. Thankfully, this zeal still marks Baptists today.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For similar reflections on Baptists and preaching, check out this article.

* * * * *

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Mark Oppenheimer, “Evangelicals Find Themselves in the Midst of a Calvinist Revival” (NYT, Jan. 3, 2014) https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/04/us/a-calvinist-revival-for-evangelicals.html. Accessed on April 2, 2020.

[2] “Annals of the American Baptist Pulpit” is Volume 6 in a series of nine volumes edited by William Buell Sprague (1795–1876) and published between 1858 and 1869. They contain “commemorative notices of distinguished American clergymen of various denominations from the early settlement of the country to the close of the year eighteen hundred and fifty-five, with historical introductions.” As such, it is considered one of the great classics of biographical church history. Log College Press has graciously made the entire series available online at https://www.logcollegepress.com/william-buell-sprague/?rq=sprague.

[3] The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, Volume 29, ed. Charles Hodge (Philadelphia, PA: Peter Walker, 1857), 135-136.

[4] See the account of Edward Upham (1709-1797) below or in Sprague, 44.

[5] “In 1775 or 1776 he adopted the Arminian doctrine, declared himself an independent Baptist, and withdrew from his brethren. But in 1787 he returned to his first love” (William Cathcart, Baptist Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 1205-1206).

[6] Something of John Williams’ “moderate spirit” might be indicated by his reply to a Presbyterian tract defending infant baptism. In the preface to the tract that was never published, Williams writes, “I hope I have sufficiently demonstrated to my countrymen, for a series of years, that I am not overbearing on others, or bigoted to those of my principles which are not essential to salvation. I have universally endeavoured to promote a catholic spirit, with peace and concord, in the Israel of God. But, nevertheless, I am set for the defence of the Gospel; and, as such, circumstances often occur, that require me to contend for the faith and order of Christ’s church” (Sprague, 132).

[7] Similarly, Lucius Bolles (1779-1844) of New England is remembered as having been “inclined to the higher doctrinal sentiments of Dr. Gill,” yet, as Rufus Babcock recounts, he “ultimately acquiesced in the views of Fuller and Magee on the atonement and other kindred doctrines” (Sprague, 182).

[8] David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; reprint, 1977.

[9] James E. Tull, Shapers of Baptist Thought, 97. As Fuller writes, “It is admitted, as was before observed, that there is in the death of Christ a sufficient ground for indefinite calls, and universal invitations–that God does invite mankind without distinction to return to him through the mediation of his Son, and promises pardon and acceptance to whomsoever shall so return. There have been, and now are many considerable writers, who are far from disowning the doctrine of particular redemption, or that the salvation of those who are saved is owing to an absolute and consequently limited design in the death of Christ; who yet apprehend that a way is opened for sinners without distinction being invited to return to God, with the promise of free pardon on their return. And they suppose the above general expressions are intended to convey to us this idea. For my part, though I think with them in respect to the thing itself; yet I question if these general expressions are so to be understood. The terms ransom, propitiation, &c. appear to me to express more than this, and what is true only of those who are finally saved. To die for us appears to me to express the design or intention of the Redeemer. Christ’s death effected a real redemption, through which we are justified. He redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; and thereby secured the blessing to come upon us in due time” (Andrew Fuller, A Defence of a Treatise, Entitled the Gospel of Christ Worthy of All Acceptation (1810), 209).

[10] According to Jonathan Edwards’ treatise On the Freedom of the Will that Andrew Fuller read at age 23 in 1777, just four years before writing the first draft of The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, natural inability occurs where there is some “impeding defect or obstacle that is extrinsic to the Will; either in the faculty of understanding, constitution of body, or external objects.” Moral inability, in contrast, consists in “the want of inclination; or the strength of a contrary inclination; or the want of sufficient motives in view, to induce and excite the act of the Will” (Vol. 1, Part 1, Sect. IV, p. 11). Edwards point is that whereas sinners possess the natural ability to repent and believe they lack the moral ability to do so because of their spiritual bondage.

[11] “Now, either he has made satisfaction for every man, or he has not: if he has, then they ought to be set free, and fully discharged, and not punishment inflicted on them, or their debts exacted of them: if he has not made satisfaction by redeeming them, this lessens the value of Christ’s work, and makes it of no use, and ineffectual; and indeed, generally, if not always, the advocates for general redemption deny the proper satisfaction, and real atonement by Christ; plainly discerning, that if he has made full satisfaction for the sins of all men, they must all be saved; and so the work of reconciliation, which is closely connected with, and involved in satisfaction, is not perfect according to the scriptures” (John Gill, A Body of Doctrinal Divinity, Book 6, Chapter 1, “Of Redemption by Christ,” 7a2b).

[12] “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. (Benedict, 142).

By:
Caleb Morell

A graduate of Georgetown University and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Caleb Morell is a pastoral assistant at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. You can follow him on Twitter at @calebmorell.

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