Among The Baptist
NEW PHASES IN THE DOCTRINAL CREED OF THE BAPTISTS, — THE
FULLER SYSTEM COMES INTO VOGUE. — ON THE CHANGES WHICH FOLLOWED.
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 those 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
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
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
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
New-light 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
"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, an 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 every where to repent, was well
received by one class of our ministers, but not by the staunch defenders of
the old theory of an 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 oil 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
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.