committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

CHAPTER XXI

THE DAYS OF CONTROVERSY

PAUL the apostle enumerates “perils among false brethren” as not the least of the trials that befell him in preaching the gospel. So Baptists found it in the first half of the nineteenth century. One controversy fraught with peril to their churches began in New England before the century opened. It was, indeed, the natural, almost the necessary, result of the Great Awakening. Just as the Reformation of Luther produced the counter-reformation of Loyola, so the Edwards-Whitefield revival produced the Unitarian reaction—produced in the sense of precipitating, not in that of original causation. Unitarianism had, for some time, been in solution in New England, and the revival caused it to crystallize into visible form. What had been a tendency became a movement; a mode of thinking became a propaganda; the esoteric doctrines of a few became the openly avowed basis of a sect. We can only glance at this interesting topic as we pass by, its place in this survey of Baptist history being justified merely by the fact that the New England Baptists stood as a chief bulwark against the heresy. In 1800 two of the six orthodox churches left in Boston were Baptist, while eight Congregational churches and one Episcopal church had gone over bodily to Unitarianism. Samuel Stillman and Thomas Baldwin were the pastors of these two churches during these troublous times, and no two men did more than they to resist false doctrines by preaching the truth. Indeed, throughout New England it is said that not one Baptist church forsook the faith, and not one Baptist minister of note became a Unitarian. This stanch orthodoxy of the Baptists had a profound effect on the history of American Christianity, as will be pointed out in another connection.

A controversy more serious in its results upon the denomination was that which grew out of the question of the circulation of the Scriptures. In the year 1816, the American Bible Society was formed by delegates representing seven denominations of Christians. There had been local Bible Societies previous to this time. This organization was intended to be a national society, in which all American Christians might co-operate. Its formation was due to the success of the British and Foreign Bible Society, the organization of which in 1804 was directly owing to the agency of Rev. Joseph Hughes, an English Baptist. The Baptists of America were active in the work of the Society from the first, and contributed generously to its treasury. The object of the Society was avowed, at the time of its organization, to be “the dissemination of the Scriptures in the received versions where they exist, and in the most faithful where they are required.” In accordance with this principle, for the first eighteen years of its existence the Society appropriated money from its funds for the printing and circulation of versions of the Scriptures in many languages, made by missionaries of various denominations.

Perhaps Doctor Judson’s greatest service in the cause of missions was the translation of the entire Bible into the Burmese language. It was his life-work, and remains to this day the only version of the Scriptures in that tongue.1  All competent witnesses have borne testimony from the first to the faithfulness and elegance of his translation. The New Testament was printed at Moulmein in 1832, and the Old Testament two years later. Appropriations for this purpose were made by the American Bible Society. It was well understood on all hands, through official communications and otherwise, that the missionaries sent out by the American Baptists, in all their versions of the Scriptures endeavored to ascertain the precise meaning of the original text and to express that meaning as exactly as possible, transferring no words into the vernacular for which a proper equivalent could be found. In accordance with this principle, Doctor Judson’s version rendered baptizo and its cognates by a Burman word meaning to immerse, or dip. During this same period appropriations were voted for the circulation of other missionary versions, made by other than Baptist missionaries, yet made on the same principle of translation, though they did not agree with Judson as to the meaning of baptizo. In 1835 the propriety of this course was for the first time questioned. In that year application was made to the Society for an appropriation to aid in printing and circulating a version of the Scriptures in Bengali, made on the principle of Doctor Judson.

This application was discussed in committee and in the full Board for many months. The Baptist members of the Board vainly urged that the Society had already appropriated eighteen thousand dollars for the circulation of Doctor Judson’s version, with full knowledge of its nature; that this was the only version in Burmese in existence, and that the alternative was either to circulate this or deprive the Burmese of the gospel; and that the adoption of another rule introduced a new and necessarily divisive principle into the Society’s policy. At length, by a vote of twenty to fourteen, the managers rejected the application and formulated for the guidance of the Society a new rule regarding versions—that they would “encourage only such versions as conformed in the principle of their translation to the common English version, at least, so far that all the religious denominations represented in this Society can consistently use and circulate said versions in their several schools and communities.” At its next annual meeting in May, 1836, the Society approved the action of the managers.

Of course this decision made it impossible for Baptists to co-operate with the Society except at the sacrifice of their self-respect. In April, 1837, a convention was held in Philadelphia, composed of three hundred and ninety delegates from twenty-three States, and the American and Foreign Bible Society was organized, Doctor Cone being elected president. Dr. Charles G. Sommers, of New York, was the first corresponding secretary, and William Colgate the first treasurer. From the first there was difference of opinion among the supporters of this Society on one question, namely, the making of a new version of the Scriptures in English. Baptists were practically a unit in maintaining that all new versions into foreign languages should faithfully render every word of the original by the corresponding word of the vernacular. But many Baptists doubted the expediency, and still more questioned the necessity, of making a new version in our own tongue. The discussion of this question went on until May, 1850, when, after long and warm debate, the Society voted to circulate only received versions in English, without note or comment.

In the following Jttne the American Bible Union was organized. Its object was declared to be “to procure and circulate the most faithful versions of the Scriptures in all languages throughout the world.” The principle of translation adopted by the Union was to render every word of the original Scriptures into the vernacular word which would most nearly represent its meaning as determined by the best modern scholarship. This work was prosecuted with much energy, and revised versions of the Scriptures were printed and circulated in Spanish and Italian, Chinese, Siamese, and Karen. The Union also issued a version of the New Testament in English, in i865, which has since passed through several careful revisions and is a most faithful, accurate, and idiomatic translation. It may still be had of the American Baptist Publication Society, and every Baptist should possess a copy; for, however much the King James’ version may commend itself for use in public and private devotions, this more literal rendering is of the greatest service to one who would understand exactly what the New Testament teaches. From time to time parts of the Old Testament also have been published, and eminent scholars are now completing a translation, with notes, of the remaining books, under the ausgces of the American Baptist Publication Society.2

Fierce denominational conflicts resulted from this division of effort among Baptists regarding the Bible work. Many continued from the first to co-operate with the American Bible Society, especially in the circulation of the received English versions. The remainder who took any interest in Bible work were divided in their affections between two organizations, and the participants of each waged a hot warfare against the others. At every denominational gathering the strife broke out. The newspapers of the denomination were full of it, and in time the churches became heartily tired and showed that sentiments by discontinuing their contributions. As the receipts dwindled and the work contracted, efforts were made from time to time toward a reunion of the American and Foreign Bible Society and the American Bible Union, and one or both Societies tried to effect a union with the American Baptist Publication Society. These efforts, which continued from 1869 to 1880, and even afterward, proved complete failures.

Finally, the whole question of Bible work, as done by the Baptists, was referred to a Bible convention, in which the denomination at large should be represented; and such a convention was held at Saratoga in May, 1883. It was unanimously decided to recommend both the existing Bible Societies practically to disband, and to commit the Bible work on the home field to the American Baptist Publication Society, while that on the foreign field should he done by the American Baptist Missionary Union. This was felt on all hands to he a happy decision of the vexed question, and since that time the denomination has enjoyed a season of peace, at least as regards the question of its Bible work.

To one reviewing the controversy after this interval of time it seems tolerably plain that while the course taken in 1836 was the only one that could have been expected under all the circumstances, it would have been better for the peace of the denomination and the effectiveness of its Bible work in the long run if a separate denominational Bible society had never been undertaken. There is not sufficient interest among Baptists in the translation and circulation of the Scriptures—probably there is not in any single denomination—to sustain a society that exists for that sole purpose. The project of circulating a denominational version of the Scriptures in English has been tested once for all and proved to be a disastrous failure. The version was successfully made and possesses many merits, but it could not be circulated; Baptists could neither be forced nor coaxed to use it. They were greatly the losers and are still by reason of this apathy, but we must take the facts of human nature as we find them; and one fact now unquestioned is that the attachment of English-speaking Christians to the version of the Scriptures endeared to them by long use and tender association has proved to be too strong for the successful substitution of any other.

No controversy was more disastrous to the Baptist churches of the Middle States than the anti-Masonic struggle between the years 1826 and 1840. One William Morgan, a Mason, who had published a book purporting to expose the secrets of the order, suddenly disappeared in 1826, and was believed to have been foully dealt with. A body was discovered and identified as his, though the identification has always been regarded as doubtful. Excitement against the Masons, and secret fraternities generally, rose high, until the dispute became a political issue in State and even national elections, and the churches took the matter up. In a large number of Baptist churches the majority opposed secret fraternities, declaring them to be unscriptural and dangerous to the peace and liberties of the Commonwealth. In many cases the minority were disfellowshiped, and not a few flourishing churches were crippled, or even extinguished, while the growth of all was much retarded. The lessons of that period have taught American Baptists to be chary of  interfering through church discipline with questions not strictly religious, and to beware of attempting to settle by an authoritative rule questions of conduct which it is the right and duty of each Christian man to decide for himself. Thus, while at the present time, the majority of Baptists strongly favor total abstinence as a rule of personal conduct, and prohibition as a practical policy, in very few churches is either made a test of fellowship.

The Baptist churches of the South and West were much disturbed during the second quarter of this century by the agitation that culminated in the establishment of the Disciples as a separate body. Up to that time the churches of these regions, to a considerable extent, held a hyper-Calvinistic, almost antinomian, theology. The preaching was largely doctrinal, and was not edifying to the majority of the hearers, however much it might be enjoyed by a few. Since the revival of 1800, religious experiences in this region had been attended with much emotional disturbance. Christians professed to see visions, to hear heavenly voices, and to experience great extremes of grief and joy. Undue importance came to be attached to experiences of this type, and the relation of a series of vivid and emotional phenomena approaching the miraculous was considered an almost indispensable requisite before the acceptance of a candidate for baptism.

About the year 1815 certain preachers in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky began to preach what they called a reformation. The professed object was to return to the simplicity of the New Testament faith and practice. The Scriptures alone were to be the authority in this reformation, whose motto was, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where they are silent, we are silent.” All human creeds were rejected, candidates for baptism were not required to relate any experience, but merely to profess faith in Christ, a faith that was little, if anything, more than a mere assent of the intellect to the facts narrated in the Scriptures concerning the historic Christ. On such profession the candidate was baptized “ for remission of sins,” the teaching being that only in such baptism could he receive the assurance that his sins had been pardoned.

The foremost leader in promoting this reformation was Alexander Campbell, of Scotch ancestry and training, at first a Presbyterian of the Seceder sect, who had been baptized on profession of faith by a Baptist minister in 1812, and from that time onward maintained for some years a nominal connection with the Baptist denomination. Very early, however, he manifested marked differences of opinion from the views then and since held by the majority of Baptists; and it soon became evident either that the faith and practice of the denomination must undergo a remarkable change, or Mr. Campbell and those who agreed with him must withdraw.

When in 1827, through the influence of Rev. Walter Scott, the practice of baptism “unto remission of sins became a recognized feature in the reformation, Baptists who saw in this nothing but the old heresy of baptismal regeneration, promptly bore testimony against it. The Mahoning Association, of Ohio, was so deeply pernleated by the new teaching that it disbanded, and the churches followed Messrs. Campbell and Scott almost in a body. The Redstone Association, of Western Pennsylvania, withdrew fellowship from Mr. Campbell and his followers in 1827. Two years later the Beaver Association, of the same region, issued a warning to all Baptist churches against the errors taught under the guise of a reformation, and in 1832 the Dover Association, of Virginia, advised Baptist churches to separate from their communion “all such persons as are promoting controversy and discord under the specious name of reformers.” This advice was given on the ground that the doctrines taught were “not according to godliness, but subversive of the true spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ, disorganizing and demoralizing in their tendency, and therefore ought to be disavowed and resisted by all the lovers of sound truth and piety.” Twenty years after, Rev. Jeremiah B. Jeter, one of the ablest Baptist opponents of the Disciple movement, and one of the authors of this resolution, published it as his belief that the report adopted by the Dover Association contained “ some unguarded, unnecessarily harsh expressions,” and particularly acknowledged that this characterization of the doctrines of Campbell as “demoralizing in their tendency” was unjust. After the action of the Dover Association those who sympathized with Mr. Campbell either voluntarily withdrew from the Baptists or were disfellowshiped by them, and in a decade the separation was complete.

The effect of this separation was very great. The new reformation had been started, ostensibly at least, with the desire of uniting all Christian denominations. Its practical result was the addition of another to the already long list of sects. The Baptist churches in the West and Southwest were rent in twain by the schism. Large numbers of Baptist churches went over to the reformation in a body. Many others were divided. A period of heated and bitter controversy followed, the results of which have not yet passed away. The Baptist churches succeeded in separating themselves from what they rgarded as dangerous heresy, but at a tremendous cost; and in our own day the Baptists and the Disciples (as the followers of Mr. Campbell prefer to be called) have so nearly approached agreement that the sons of the men who fought hardest on either side are already discussing the question whether terms of reunion are not possible, without either party sacrificing any real principle.3

But perhaps the most bitter controversy of all, certainly that which left behind it the deepest scars and most permanent alienations, was that which arose over the question of slavery. This was not an experience peculiar to Baptists; nearly every religious body in America was rent by the same contentions, and in most cases permanent schisms were the result. When the General Convention was organized, this was by no means a burning question. Slavery had been originally common to all the colonies, and the people of New England had done their full share toward introducing and perpetuating the system. Perhaps the eyes of Northern people were more readily opened to the iniquities of slavery because the system never proved profitable in the North. Whether owing to this or other causes, an antislavery sentiment spread through the Northern States to an extent sufficient to induce them to emancipate their slaves early in the nineteenth century. About the year 1825 the new anti-slavery sentiment in the North, demanding immediate emancipation, tkcame prominent, and from January 1, 1831, when William Lloyd Garrison issued his first number of the “Liberator,” this sentiment rapidly spread. It met with much opposition, and soon the Garrisonian anti-slavery agitation placed itself in direct antagonism to the Christian churches of the North. Nevertheless, there was a growing sentiment among the churches, and especially among the Baptist churches, that a Christian man ought not to be a holder of slaves. This agitation became the cause of division even among the Baptist churches of the Northern States, and naturally threatened the peace and unity of the denomination as a whole.

Differences of opinion regarding the slavery question appear in the minutes of the General Convention for several years before the final break. These appeared to reach the culminating point in the year 1844. The question of the relation to slavery of Baptist churches represented in the Convention came up during the meeting of that year for thorough discussion, and after careful consideration the Convention almost unanimously adopted the following:

Resolved, That in co-operating together as members in this Convention in the work of foreign missions, we disclaim all sanctions either expressed or implied, whether of slavery or anti-slavery; but as individuals we are free to express and to promote elsewhere our views on these subjects in a Christian manner and spirit.

This certainly was the only possible method of treating the question if denominational unity was to be preserved. Had the terms of that resolution been fairly adhered to, it is possible that the peace and unity of the Baptist churches might have been preserved, at least until the outbreak of the Civil War. But its terms were not respected. Up to this time the rule for the appointment of missionaries by the Board of the Convention was to approve “such persons only as are in full communion with some church in our denomination, and who furnish satisfactory evidence of genuine piety, good talents, and fervent zeal for the Redeemer’s cause. This was certainly the only proper rule to be adopted by an institution representing all the Baptist churches of the United States—the only rule tinder which all those churches could unite in its support. The Executive Board had received a mandate from the Convention in 1844 to preserve this attitude of neutrality. Nevertheless, in the following December, in response to a question addressed to it by a Southern body, the Executive Board made the following reply, which was, in fact, the adoption of a new rule: “If any one who should offer himself for a missionary, having slaves, should insist on retaining them as his property, we could not appoint him. One thing is certain, we can never be a party to an arrangement which would imply approbation of slavery."

No doubt the Board was actuated by conscientious motives in making such a reply, but it is easy now to see that they misjudged their duties as Christian men. They were the agents of the body that appointed them, and were under moral obligation to obey its commands. In making this rule they flagrantly disobeyed. If they felt as Christian men that obedience to the higher law of God forbade them to carry out their instructions, their honorable course was to resign. There is no adequate defense of their conduct in thus disobeying the plain mandate they had received from the Convention only a few months before. At its meeting in April, 1845, the American Baptist Home Mission Society, moved by a similar conflict of sentiment and the majority of its attendants being Northern men, adopted esolutions declaring it to be “expedient that the members now forming the Society should hereafter act in separate organizations at the South and at the North in promoting the objects which were originally contemplated by the Society.” These two acts on the part of Northern Baptists rendered the maintenance of denominational unity impossible.

In May, 1845, in response to the call issued by the Virginia Foreign Mission Society, three hundred and ten delegates from the Southern churches met at Augusta, Ga., and organized the Southern Baptist Convention. Its constitution was precisely that of the original General Baptist Convention: “For eliciting, combining, and directing the energies of the whole denomination in one sacred effort for the propagation of the gospel.” It established two Boards, one for foreign missions, located in Richmond, and one for domestic missions, at Marion, Ala. Since that time the Southern Baptist churches have done their missionary work through this organization. During the Civil War the need was greatly felt of some means of effectually prosecuting Sunday-school work and a Sunday-school Board was established at Greenville, S. C. In 1872 this was consolidated with the Home Mission Board.

The division thus caused has remained until the present time. There have been occasional propositions for a reunion between Northern and Southern Baptists, but they have met with little favor either North or South. The opinion has been general that more and better work is accomplished between the two organizations than could be accomplished by a single Baptist Convention for the whole United States. But Northern and Southern Baptists are not, as some apparently delight to say, two separate denominations. The churches, both North and South, hold substantially one system of doctrine, agree in all important points of practice, receive and dismiss members from each other without question, and are in full, unrestricted, uninterrupted intercommunion. The old cause of bitterness and disunion, the question of property in slaves, has disappeared. The generation that caused the breach of denominational unity has nearly disappeared.  Those who are now the leaders of the Baptist hosts, both North and South, are largely men who have been born since the Civil War or were too young to have a vivid recollection of it, and they have little part in or sympathy with the ante-bellum controversies, misunderstandings, and bitterness. Such causes of estrangement as still remain are diminishing with every year, and if separate organizations are maintained or shall hereafter be formed for any kind of denominational work, it will be not becatise of mutual hostility and narrow sectional feeling, but because, in the judgment of cool-headed and judicious men, the work of our Lord may be more advantageously and efficiently accomplished by such division of labor.

After the Southern Baptists withdrew from the General Convention, acts of legislature were obtained in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, authorizing the changing of its name to the American Baptist Missionary Union, and fixing its headquarters at Boston. The Union is now composed of delegates appointed by the churches on a fixed basis. The most important business is transacted by a Board of Managers (of whom one-third are elected at each annual meeting), and an Executive Committee chosen by this Board.

 

1 It is true that in recent yeats copies of the Scriptures have been put in circulation in Burma in which baptiro and itS cognates are transliterated or mistranslatcd; but these are not independent versions, only Pedobaptist revisions of the Judson Bible.

2 The work at this time (1906) is being pushed forward, and it is hoped that another year will witness its completion.

3 It must he said, however, that thus far the discussion of this question has thrown no great light upon the possibility of a reunion, and that the immediate occurrence of such an event cannot be predicted with hopefulness.

 
 
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