committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

THE DOWN GRADE CONTROVERSY

In 1887 Spurgeon printed a series of articles denouncing liberal theology in The Sword and the Trowel.  The articles declared that the "new theology" had put the Church on the "Down Grade."  They became the spark that ignited the fire storm that swept through the Baptist Church.  But the roots of the down Grade Controversy go back some years before its actual ignition in 1887.  Actually, several cultural, philosophical, and scientific events that took place in Victorian Britain played a preliminary role.  They created a general ehtos that proved conducive to the reception of the "new theology."

[At the end of the Puritan age] by some means or other, first the ministers, then the Churches, got on "the down grade," and in some cases, the descent was rapid, and in all, very disastrous. In proportion as the ministers seceded from the old Puritan godliness of life, and the old Calvinistic form of doctrine, they commonly became less earnest and less simple in their preaching, more speculative and less spiritual in the matter of their discourses, and dwelt more on the moral teachings of the New Testament, than on the great central truths of revelation. Natural theology frequently took the place which the great truths of the gospel ought to have held, and the sermons became more and more Christless. Corresponding results in the character and life, first of the preachers and then of the people, were only too plainly apparent.

The Sword and the Trowel


SPURGEON AND THE DOWN GRADE CONTROVERSY

From John MacArthur's book 
"Ashamed of the Gospel"

 

Primary Documents

Facsimile copies of the following documents were compiled by Bob Ross and published by Pilgrim Publications, Pasadena, TX, in a volume titled The "Down Grade" Controversy. That volme is the source of this material.

 

THE SWORD AND THE TROWEL

(DECEMBER, 1889)

 

This Must Be A Soldier's Battle

ONE who is very valiant for the truth said to us, "This must be a soldiers’battle." In that utterance we heartily concur. The gospel of the Lord Jesus is now assailed all along the line. Scarcely a denomination is free from the enemies of the truth: they are within our ranks. In the Church of England the superstitious errorists are more to the front than the skeptical; and it is not an easy warfare which falls to the lot of Evangelicals within the Establishment. How is it they are there? Those who are seeking a decision upon the matters raised by the action of the Bishop of Lincoln, are going straight to the point, and raising the question of Mass or no Mass in the most plain and practical manner. But if the result of the episcopal trial should be unfavorable, every Protestant man and woman should look upon the case as one for the personal conscience, and should, by individual action, drive the Evangelicals to a plain and unmistakable course of action. Among Baptists, the great need is the personal investigation of the matters in debate by the members of our churches. It is clear that the members of the Council have nothing to say except by way of rebuke of any who protest against the growing error. The ministers also cry, "Peace, peace, where there is no peace." If sturdy individuality took up the matter, and godly men were determined not to remain in league with those who depart from the truth, the issues would be speedy.

A Congregational minister asks for an opportunity for the rank and file of the ministry to speak; and his impression is, that ninety-five percent. Would be found to be on the old lines. We sincerely wish that we could believe it; but we think he puts his percentage far too high. Still, if in our free churches there were fair opportunities for utterance, either by the voice or through the press, we feel confident that the Broad School gentlemen would find themselves very much in the minority. But the hour of free speech will not come till the old Nonconforming spirit asserts itself in the pastors, deacons, and church-members, and the gag is taken off from the religions press. We are glad to hope that by other organs the truth will yet gain liberty to speak through the press. It is possible that a clique is now predominant, and that the mass of the people are misrepresented by them: if it be so, let them declare themselves. The Free Church of Scotland must, unhappily, be for the moment regarded as rushing to the front with its new theology, which is no theology, but an opposition to the Word of the Lord. That church in which we all gloried, as sound in the faith, and full of the martyrs’ spirit, has entrusted the training of its future ministers to two professors who hold other doctrines than those of its Confession. This is the most suicidal act that a church can commit. It is strange that two gentlemen, who are seeking for something newer and better than the old faith, should condescend to accept a position which implies their agreement, with the ancient doctrines of the church; but delicacy of feeling is not a common article nowadays, and the action of creeds is not automatic, as it would be if consciences were tender. In the Free Church there is a Confession, and there are means for carrying out discipline; but these will be worth nothing without the personal action of all the faithful in that community. Every man who keeps aloof from the struggle for the sake of peace, will have the blood of souls upon his head. The question in debate at the Disruption was secondary compared with that which is now at issue. It is Bible or no Bible, Atonement or no Atonement,which we have now to settle. Stripped of beclouding terms and phrases, this lies at the bottom of the discussion; and every lover of the Lord Jesus should feel himself called upon to take his part in an earnest contention for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. From the exceeding boldness of Messrs. Bruce and Dods, we gather that they feel perfectly safe in ventilating their opinions. They evidently reckon upon a majority which will secure them immunity; and our fear is that they will actually gain that which they expect. We are not sanguine enough to believe that they are mistaken. Unless the whole church shall awake to its duty, the Evangelicals in the Free Church are doomed to see another reign of Moderatism. Have they suffered so many things in vain? Will they not now make a stand?

Finding ourselves in a community which had no articles of faith, and seeing deadly error rising up, we had no course but to withdraw. Whether others think fit to do so or not is no part of our responsibility; but nothing can free any true believer from the duty of maintaining pure and undefiled religion in its doctrine, as well as in its practice, by every means in his power. The most quiet country minister, the most retiring deacon or elder, the most obscure Christian man or woman—each one must come up to the help of the Lord against the mighty. The crisis becomes every day more acute: delays are dangerous; hesitation is ruinous. Whosoever is on the Lord’s side must show it at once, and without fail. Let those who so sadly pine for "another reformation," and a remodeled creed, stand out and say so, and no longer conceal their sentiments, or eat the bread of men at whose most cherished convictions they are stabbing with might and main. Let these be honest, and let the Evangelicals be true. The church expects every man to do his duty. NOTES (FEB. 1890)

A certain newspaper paragraph very kindly attempts to comfort "Mr. Spurgeon at his worst stage of depression concerning the doubts of the day," by the assurance that religion can never pass away. We can assure our friend that we never thought it could. No fear as to the ultimate victory of the truth of God ever disturbs our mind. We are sure that the doctrines of the gospel will outlive all the dotings of "modern thought." The trouble is that, for the moment, error is having its own way in certain parts of the visible church, where better things once ruled; and, worse still, that good men will not see the evil, or, seeing it, wink at it, and imagine that it will do no very great deal of harm. It is ours to give warning of a danger which to us is manifest and alarming; and if the warning makes us the butt of ridicule, we must bear it. Our protest is, no doubt, regarded by some as a piece of bigotry, and by others, as the dream of a nervous mind. Neither conjecture is correct; but we speak the words of love and soberness. An American, who enquired of certain leaders in the "Down-Grade" what they thought of Spurgeon’s conduct, was informed that sickness and age had weakened his intellect. This has been their contemptuous method all along; but facts are not to be set aside by such remarks. Be the protester what he  may, he declares his protest to be solemnly needful, and he begs for attention to it. It may be the old truth is in the minority, and that those who uphold it are thought to be troublers in Israel, and causers of false alarm: but we are none the less confident that, when good men return to their better selves, they will see differently. Bitterly will some regret that they allowed matters to drift, and drift, till they had wrought incalculable mischief. We have spoken in saddest earnest. It is no pleasure to us to stand apart, and refuse complicity with what we judge to be a great crime.  Our witness is on high. The Lord will judge between us and the enemies of the faith in his own good time !

From a Congregational Church a brother writes :—" I have heard several friends say that your pictures of the ‘ Down-Grade ‘ are overdrawn; but in our church they have been photographs. Commencing with denial of eternal punishment, our minister has gone on to talk of ‘Mark’s garbled statements,’ ‘the legend of the Angel’s song,’ and ‘The myth of the Resurrection.’ He says, ‘Christ is the natural son of Joseph and Mary,’ and that ‘the  Bible is but one of the Scriptures of the human race.’ .... May the churches heed your warning, and so be saved from our fate !" In this instance, old members are driven out, and all protesters are held up to ridicule in the public prints as bigots wanting in common sense. The churches are, some of them, courting the fate of this church by seeking out clever men for preachers, irrespective of their doctrinal beliefs. But, on the other hand, many are growing cautious, and, having been once bitten, are shy of the new school. The evangelicals in the churches are beginning to be divided from the Broad School; and when the opportunity has occurred, they have been, in some cases, strong enough and bold enough to claim their rights. We wish it were so more generally; but we know several notable instances which put us in good hope that the present tyranny of falsehood will not last for ever. Still, these brighter signs are but gleams in a darkening sky. The men who take the lead are, in many cases, halfhearted as to truth, and they yield themselves up to the dogmatic assertions of the non-evangelical intruders. Tender as mothers to every new heresy-vendor, the men in office in the denominations have a hard, ungenerous side for the faithful adherents of the old gospel. We may go where we will—we are not worth a thought; but the most flippant blasphemer shall have honor for his courage and independence! Happily, this is a small matter to some of us now, for our ecclesiastical relationships are for ever severed; but there is none the less of gross injustice in such conduct towards those who cannot turn their coats, or profess to love what they inwardly abhor.

NOTES (MAY 1891)

NUMBERS of friends now write to say how true our words upon the "Down-grade" were years ago. It is our deep regret that it should be so. We spoke not without knowing what we were about. It was not possible for us to give up all our authorities, nor would it have served any useful purpose to have published names; but we spoke truth which we could not help believing, and spoke it without exaggerating. Matters were even worse than we knew of. We have not only to do with the lion of open unbelief, but with the foxes of craft, who profess to love the gospel which they labor hard to undermine. If we had to bear our witness over again, we should not soften a syllable, but add emphasis to it. Indignant correspondents continually send us notices of amusements held by various churches; certainly, they can hardly become more childish and inane. But we cannot be perpetually recording and talking about these absurdities. Cannot Christian people make their own protests more emphatic in their several districts? It is all very well to send this wretched rubbish to us; but why not sweep it away yourselves? If we had a gracious revival, good people would find better things to do than to get up nigger entertainments, and theatricals.

Our old-fashioned Wesleyan friends must be greatly surprised by the utterances of certain of their leading men; they have great need to look after the professors who train their rising ministry; for if they cannot give a better account of Holy Writ than the divine from Richmond, tutorship is in a poor way. The record given of the meeting, in the newspapers, was more alarming than the actual facts; for the seamy side of the talk was made more prominent than it really was; but the very best we can make of Professor Davison’s paper, and the comments upon it, causes us great apprehension. With the delicate tread which reminds us of Agag, error enters as though it were a well-known and familiar friend. Certain books of the Bible are dealt with in reference to modern criticism with the air of one who has settled the business, an placed the matter beyond dispute. Very modestly as to language, but very dogmatically as to statement, the Professor lay down the law. We do not accept a syllable of that unquestionable result of scholarship which he so coolly propounds. Although upon the doctrines of grace our views differ from those avowed by Arminian Methodists, we have usually found that on the great evangelical truths we are in full agreement, and we have been comforted by the belief that Wesleyans were solid upon the central doctrines. We are truly sorry that we are now placed in doubt. Surely there are voices which will yet be heard. We know that there are hearts that are aching because of this last movement of leading religionists in the downward way but will anyone be bold enough to speak out? Ostracism seems to be dreaded so much, that good men and true hold their tongues. Nevertheless, we know the Holy Spirit did not use words at random, and we shall never consent to that liberalism which, in destroying the shell of the language, really kills the life-germ of the meaning.

 "MR. SPURGEON’S CONFESSION OF FAITH." (AUGUST 1891)

 QUITE a stir has been caused lately by the publication of the following document, which has been erroneously called "Mr. Spurgeon’s Confession of Faith," or "Manifesto":—

We, the undersigned, banded together in Fraternal Union, observing with growing pain and sorrow the loosening hold of many upon the Truths of Revelation, are constrained to avow our firmest belief in the Verbal Inspiration of all Holy Scripture as originally given. To us, the Bible does not merely contain the Word of God, but is the Word of God. From

beginning to end, we accept it, believe it, and continue to preach it. To us, the Old Testament is no less inspired than the New. The Book is an organic whole. Reverence for the NEW Testament accompanied by skepticism as to the OLD appears to us absurd. The two must stand or fall together. We accept Christ’s own verdict concerning "Moses and all the prophets" in preference to any of the supposed discoveries of so-called higher criticism.

We hold and maintain the truths generally known as "the doctrines of grace." The Electing Love of God the Father, the Propitiatory and Substitutionary Sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ, Regeneration by the Holy Ghost, the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness, the Justification of the sinner (once for all) by faith, his walk in newness of life and growth in grace by the active indwelling of the Holy Ghost, and the Priestly Intercession of our Lord Jesus, as also the hopeless perdition of all who reject the Savior, according to the words of the Lord in Matthew 25:46, "These shall go away into eternal punishment,"—are, in our judgment, revealed and fundamental truths. Our hope is the Personal Pre-millennial Return of the Lord Jesus in glory.

C. H. SPURGEON., J.A. BROWN, M.D. F.B. MONTI, A. G. BROWN., J.G. COX., J.S. MORRIS., J. DOUGLAS, M.A. E.J. FARLEY., H. SINCLAIR PATERSON, M.D., W. FULLER GOOCH. ,A. FERGUSSON., FRANK M. SMITH., G. D. HOOTER., FINLAY GIBSON., CHARLES SPURGEON., J. STEPHENS, M.A., CHARLES GRAHAM., J.L. STANLEY., FRANK H. WHITE., J.W. HARRALD., H. E. STONE., J. H. BARNARD. ,W. JACKSON., W. THOMAS. ,J. WESLEY BOUD. ,W. R. LANE. ,GEORGE TURNER., W. H. BROAD., H.O. MACKEY. ,W. WILLIAMS.

Because Mr. Spurgeon’s name was appended to this avowal of belief, it was supposed that he wrote it, and issued it to the world. Some, very wise people even discovered that this was the creed that Mr. Spurgeon wanted to force down the unwilling throat of the Baptist Union! Poor souls, it is really a pity to be obliged to dispel such blissful ignorance! Yet dispelled it will be, as soon as the simple but true story of the manifesto is told.

About eighteen months ago, the seven brethren, whose names appear at the head of the above list, banded themselves together as a "Fraternal"; and from time to time they have invited other like-minded brethren to join them. Membership is not confined to Baptists. Dr. Sinclair Paterson belongs to the brotherhood, as did the late Dr. Adolph Saphir, until he was called to the presence of the Lord he had so long and faithfully served. Several public meetings have been held, at which clear testimony upon the fundamental doctrines of the gospel has been given by various members. In addition, many private gatherings for prayer and consultation upon the Word and work of the Lord have taken place. At one of these, it was suggested (not, however, by Mr. Spurgeon) that the time had arrived when attention should be called, through the religious and secular press of the country, to certain truths which, in many quarters, are either ignored or rejected. The suggestion met with general approval, a committee was appointed to prepare the document; in due time it was submitted to the whole company, and when the exact wording had been settled, each member signed it in the form in which it has been published to the church and the world. It might just as well be called "Mr. Archibald Brown’s Confession of Faith," or Mr. White’s, or Mr. Hooper’s, or Dr. Paterson’s. It is as much theirs as it is Mr. Spurgeon’s, and as much his as theirs; but no more appertaining to any one of the thirty than to all the rest.

It is certainly a "confession of faith" in this sense, that the brethren whose names are appended to it do believe what they there state, and they are not ashamed to confess their faith before any number of witnesses; but no one of them would think of regarding this short statement as a full declaration of all that he believes about the great verities of God. As for "Mr. Spurgeon’s Confession of Faith," any one who wants to read that will find it "writ large" in the thirty-six volumes of The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit. If the reading of two thousand two hundred sermons is too great a task for the searcher after "Mr. Spurgeon’s Confession of Faith," he will be able to get a condensation of it in the President’s Address delivered at the last College Conference We venture to repeat here almost the last words written by Mr. Spurgeon before his illness :—

"The Greatest Fight in the World is our testimony for the present moment. It is to be had in a neat form, and at a very small price—namely, sixpence. Nothing would please us more than to see it scattered by scores of thousands, and rousing a controversy on essential truths .... Those of our readers who abhor modern heresies, will be our true allies if they will help us in scattering this bombshell where it may do execution. In this address we speak without bitterness, but also without reserve. The present policy of the Down-grade men is to be quiet and cautious; but we shall no more copy their method than their doctrine. Our speech is outspoken. Friends will be pleased to know that the demand for the first edition far exceeds our expectations. Why not go in for fifty thousand?" A translation of "Mr. Spurgeon’s Confession of Faith," that even men of the world can understand, will be found at the Stockwell Orphanage, where living faith shows itself in works of mercy for the widow and the fatherless (James 2:14-18).       

The manifesto has not met with universal approval. The Christian World ridiculed "The ‘Faithful’ Few," by the quotation marks in the heading of a short article, in which it said :—" It is a document which few will read without a feeling of perplexity and sadness. These thirty gentlemen appear to regard themselves as a little band of faithful adherents to the truth amidst a faithless church. The profoundest thought, the highest learning, the devoutest inquiry, are by implication branded as treason to the truth, if they have reached conclusions different from those propounded in this manifesto. Infallibility would seem to be the reward of the resolute refusal to allow the light of science and scholarship to fall upon the divine Word.

All must be wrong except the few who can pronounce this Shibboleth" Thank you, dear Christian World; but your censure is a choice compliment and commendation to every member of the Fraternal! The Echo called the manifesto "A Voice from Dark Ages." A northern newspaper wrote as follows:— "No one who does not possess the power to an alarming extent of persuading himself anything, can possibly, if he have any real acquaintance with the controversy, hold the views as to the sense in which the Bible is divine revelation which prevailed ,in almost all the churches fifty years ago, It is not that theories have been formed; but facts have been brought to light which must modify old-fashioned opinions, and have already modified them to a considerable extent. It did not, however, require any new discoveries of criticism to disprove the dogma of verbal inspiration upon which Mr. Spurgeon and his friends insist as one of the prime essentials of Christianity. If it be an essential, then Christianity is no better than a myth. And these men, with all their boasted loyalty to religion, ought surely to see that in associating the Christian belief with unnecessary, unprovable, and directly disprovable dogma, they are doing the work of the atheist and unbeliever, who stand by smiling to see the process of destruction going on from within. If religion and verbal inspiration must stand or fall together, then it is the latter alternative which will happen—assuredly they will fall." The italics are ours.

The Baptist, in publishing the manifesto, said :—"It is perhaps remarkable, not so much for the signatories, as for the names which are conspicuous by their absence." Similar remarks have been made by other papers; but the writers of them appear not to have noticed the first words of the document :—" We, the undersigned, banded together in Fraternal Union." It is just what it professes to be, an avowal of belief made by the members of a Fraternal. If it is asked, "Why is Mr. So-and-so’s name not there?" the answer is," He is not a member of the Fraternal, and therefore his name has no right to be there." Many clergymen and ministers have written, expressing their willingness to sign the manifesto; and various signs indicate that there is a very widespread desire for some kind of union in which lovers of the old faith might join with brethren like-minded, without being compromised by association with those who are not one with them in the faith. That, however, was not the object of those who signed this paper. Fraternals have been used often enough for the spread of Down-grade error; it therefore seemed right to make use of a Fraternal for the declaration of belief in Up-grade truth. If any Down-graders are not satisfied with what has been done, let them accept the challenge of the editor of Word and Work, himself one of the signatories of the document :—"

Such a manifesto as this is at least timely, and the men who sign it make no secret of their creed. Is it too much to expect that those who have changed their beliefs will be honest enough to express in language similarly plain the extent of the change, that all the world may see clearly where they stand? It is a fair challenge; will it elicit a fair response?"

 

ARTICLES FROM THE SWORD AND TROWEL CONCERNING THE DOWN GRADE CONTROVERSY


1887 Sword and Trowel Preface

The Down Grade
(March 1887)

The Down Grade
(April, 1887)

Sword and Trowel NOTES 
(april, 1887)

Another Word Concerning the Down-Grade
(August, 1887)

Our Reply to Sundry Critics and Enquirers
(September, 1887)

The Case Proved
(October, 1887)

A Fragment Upon the Down-Grade Controversy
(November, 1887)

Restoration of Truth and Revival
(December, 1887)

Sword and Trowel NOTES
(december, 1887)

1888 Sword and Trowel Preface

The Baptist Union Censure
(February, 1888)

Sword and Trowel NOTES
(march, 1888)

Progressive Theology
(April, 1888)

Sword and Trowel NOTES
(APRIL, 1888)

Sword and Trowel NOTES
(MAY, 1888)

Sword and Trowel NOTES
(JUNE, 1888)

Sword and Trowel NOTES
(JULY, 1888)

Sword and Trowel NOTES
(AUGUST, 1888)

Current Religious Perils
(September, 1888)

Sword and Trowel NOTES
(SEPTEMBER, 1888)

Sword and Trowel NOTES
(OCTOBER, 1888)

Sword and Trowel NOTES
(NOVEMBER, 1888)

Attempts at the Impossible
(December, 1888)

Sword and Trowel NOTES
(JANUARY, 1889)

Questions for
"Down-grade" Doubters
(March, 1889)

Sword and Trowel NOTES
(MAY, 1889)

Sword and Trowel NOTES
(JUNE, 1889)

This Must Be a Soldiers' Battle
(December, 1889)

Sword and Trowel NOTES
(FEBRUARY, 1890)

Sword and Trowel NOTES
(MAY, 1891)

"Mr. Spurgeon's Confession of Faith"
(August, 1891 )

A Sermon for the Time Present
 (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, No. 1990, October 30, 1887)

The "Down Grade" Controversy from Mr. Spurgeon's Standpoint
 (From The Autobiography, Vol. IV)

 
 
The Reformed Reader Home Page 


Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved