Recently, I contested Dr. Al Mohler's confidence that it was well into the twentieth century before any knowledgable person could dispute the theo-historical assertion that Baptists were anything but Calvinists. To be precise, Mohler is claimed to have said >>>
Even the opponents of Calvinism must admit, if historically informed, that Calvinism is the theological tradition into which the Baptist movement was born. The same is true of the Southern Baptist Convention. The most influential churches, leaders, confessions of faith and theologians of the founding era were Calvinists—it was not until well into the twentieth century that any knowledgeable person could claim that Southern Baptists were anything but Calvinists (//link)
Contrary to Dr. Mohler's firm but false depiction of both Baptists generally and Southern Baptists particularly being solely Calvinistic, I offered two embarrassing examples Mohler and Founders-type Calvinists ignore: on the one hand, Baptists who definitively leaned toward an Arminian understanding of election showed up on the historical timetable two and a half decades before Baptists who took a Calvinistic understanding of predestination, and on the other, Dr. Mohler ignores eminent historians like Professor Wayne Flynt who suggests not only that no Biblical dispute shaped early Alabama Baptists so profoundly as Calvinism, but also that Baptists intentionally modified Calvinism, merging it with theological strains of Arminianism. In short, if Baptists were Calvinists, they could only be identified with diluted, modified Calvinism.
In fact, it seems what Flynt describes as a theological "merger" was so potent that, by century's end, Southern Baptist statesman, state paper editor, and theologian Z.T. Cody (1858-1935) could conclude it "very certain that Baptists are not Calvinists." Of the notorious "L" (Limited Atonement) in the well-worn T.U.L.I.P., Cody provocatively concluded: "Some of the doctrines are repugnant to our people. Could there be found a minister in our communion who believes in the theory of a limited atonement?" (//link)
Below is yet another historical jewel that Dr. Mohler and Founders-type Calvinists ignore. In the entry article entitled "Tennessee Baptists," William Cathcart writes an enlightening description of Tennessee Baptists in the early nineteenth century. Says Cathcart:
About the year 1824 the denomination, which had been harmonious and prosperous, began to meet with reverses from internal discord. The doctrine of election and the extent of the atonement became topics of bitter discussion, and resulted in a division of churches and Associations, and two non-affiliating bodies of Baptists; the seceding party were called Separate Baptists, who built up several flourishing Associations (embolden added)1
Now, if, as Dr. Mohler asserts, it was not until well into the twentieth century that any knowledgeable person could claim that Baptists were anything but Calvinists, what do we make of Cathcart's description of Tennessee Baptists who, in 1824, were in "bitter discussion" which led to "internal discord" and "division" of churches and associations, a division of which was specifically related to the twin doctrines of election and limited atonement?
And, Cathcart's description fits precisely the description Francis Wayland (1796-1865) gave when he lamented division among Baptists over Limited Atonement as far back as 1825. He wrote:
The extent of the atonement has been and still is a matter of honest but not unkind difference. Within the last fifty years a change has gradually taken place in the views of a large portion of our brethren...I have known men believing the atonement to be limited, preach with great acceptance in New England where the contrary belief prevails almost universally and the contrary has been even more frequently the case...2
Cathcart's description also fairly well fits the Coosa Baptist Association's position taken in the mid-nineteenth century, the Coosa association being the oldest association in northwest Georgia (//link). It seems in 1852 a query was submitted from the Lookout Baptist Church to the Coosa Baptist Association. It read:
Doth the 4th and 6th Articles of the Coosa Baptist Association hold forth Limited Atonement, so that a part of the human family is, and forever has been, excluded from grace and glory, according to the covenant agreement, and that the Spirit doth not strive with them to bring them to repentance so that a part of the human family is entirely left out of the covenant? (p. 10, embolden added)3
After considering their question, the Coosa Baptist Association unanimously replied:
Neither the Bible nor the 4th and 6th Articles refer to, or hold forth Limited Atonement, so that a part of the human family is, and forever has been excluded from grace and glory according to the covenant agreement, so that they cannot be saved, if they would: but all who will, may participate in the benefits of the atonement according to the gospel (p. 43, embolden added)4
Again, if, as Dr. Mohler asserts, it was not until well into the twentieth century that any knowledgeable person could claim that Baptists were anything but Calvinists, what do we make of Cathcart's description of Tennessee Baptists disputing Calvinism, Flynt's description of Alabama Baptists disputing Calvinism, Wayland's description of Northern Baptists disputing Calvinism, and Coosa Association's description of Baptists in northwest Georgia disputing Calvinism, a dispute going on for perhaps a century or more among Baptists which Dr. Mohler claims no knowledgeable person could deny were definitively Calvinists?
I can tell you what I make of it.
Our theological DNA as a cooperating group of free church congregations possessing varying degrees of Calvinism and non-Calvinism historically and undeniably is being systematically decoded as a "Reformed" denomination which is and always has exclusively and strongly embraced high Calvinism (i.e. "Reformed" theology). Al Mohler and Founders Ministries--now happily joined by the Young, Restless, and Reformed--are feeding Southern Baptists regular diets of truncated history which ignores our historical richness as Baptists and brands us as quasi-evangelicals who are held together by the single thread of our commitment to Reformed theology.
With that, I am...
1William Cathcart, The Baptist Encyclopedia, Vol 3, 1881, p. 355
2Francis Wayland, Notes on the Principles and Practices of Baptist Churches, "Baptist Views of the Trinity, The Law, Human Depravity, The Atonement, Particular and General" (1856-57)
3The History of the Coosa Baptist Association as Prepared by J. A. Sartain, 1936