I received (via email) much encouragement from a recent post I logged (//link) which partially demonstrates, at least to my satisfaction, that the historical theory constructed by Southern Baptist Calvinists concerning Baptist roots in the south, a theory promoted by Founders Ministries advocates, along with Dr. Tom Nettles (//link)....
... remains a truncated historiography, curiously ignoring the larger body of available historical material and
can be highly misleading in its portrayal of our rich Baptist heritage.
Furthermore, employing a possible eccentric interpretation of historical data as the Nettles' school does feeds an already unhealthy polemical discussion in Southern Baptist life, and consequently hinders hope among Baptists that Calvinists and non-Calvinists may humbly sit and wash one another's feet.
I happened to be rummaging for something else yesterday and
ran across the passage below by Jesse Mercer, not only a great 19th Baptist in
the south, but a formidable Baptist Calvinist (//link). He remains another witness that Calvinism did
not own the Baptist movement in the southern region of the United States in the
19th century as Founders advocates would have us believe.
In fact, as historical theologian W. Wiley Richards argues, strict Calvinism was on the wane in every region in America during the 19th century, constantly losing influence in Baptist life beginning in the very first quarter century. More importantly, Richards documents Mercer's own theological softening of rigid Calvinism in his later years, Mercer moving, according to Richards, to a position on the atonement "more aligned with that of [Andrew] Fuller"1(p.58).
This is not surprising given the apparent temperament Mercer possessed. In his memoirs, we find this enlightening statement from Mercer's hand as he wrote concerning the controversy over newly proposed methods and programs for evangelism and missions:
"It seems to be taken for granted that all those venerable fathers, who founded the Baptist denomination in this state, were as stern calvinistic preachers as are the opposers of the new plans [now]. But this is altogether a mistake. Some of them were so... . [Yet] Abraham Marshall was never considered a predestinarian preacher. To use his own figure; he used to say, 'he was short legged and could not wade in such deep water.' He, with several others, was considered sound in the faith, though low Calvinists... And here it may not be amiss to add, that the Baptists in the upper parts of South Carolina, in those days, comprehended mostly, it is believed, in the Bethel Association... preached what is now called General Atonement. But this was never thought of as a bar to correspondence, or even Christian communion"2 (emphasis original, pp.10-11)
Again we see that the record of history negates Nettles and company's reductionist theory that non-negotiable, strict Dortian Calvinism is the warp and woof of our Southern Baptist heritage, even being the exclusive heritage toward which the Southern Baptist Convention should appeal. Or, borrowing the words of Dr. Nettles' book, getting "ready for reformation" back to our only legitimate Southern Baptist heritage: strict, non-negotiable, five point Calvinism.
Nevertheless, according to Mercer above, the upper waters of South Carolina at mid-nineteenth century were well stocked with Baptists who swam in different ponds than Dort. They preached General Atonement. Hence, since according to Southern Baptist Calvinists, preaching general atonement hopelessly excludes one from being Calvinist, we have evidence from a strict Calvinist (Mercer)-- at least a strict Calvinist in his earlier years--that non-Calvinism was a well-known, popularly embraced and fully accepted soteriological view among Baptists of the south.
Nor did it seem to particularly concern Mercer. Unlike many Southern Baptist Calvinists like Dr. Nettles and Founders advocates today,
who insist on "reforming" Southern Baptist churches by
"recovering the lost gospel" (i.e., the gospel as specifically
interpreted through the "doctrines of grace"), Mercer confessed the
non-Calvinist brothers "sound in the faith"--including those labeled
Arminian--and consequently, "never thought of [them] as a bar to correspondence, or even
I personally have no qualms with Southern Baptist Calvinists. Believing in the free church tradition as I do, Baptist Calvinists have every right under God to assemble and plant churches, organize their fellowships, teach their peculiar doctrines, and perpetuate their peculiar faith (which, of course, they already do). They may freely sit on boards of agencies and entities at all levels of the SBC, remaining involved in convention affairs as far and as wide as both their giftedness will allow them and our vote will sanction them (which, of course, they already do). While I may have a complaint here or there, I nonetheless can fully and without reservation say, "So be it" (which I already have!). 4
What I will object to until my tired frail body ceases is, Baptist Calvinists imposing their Calvinism upon other Baptists. Indeed I think this is exactly the issue about which Dr. Chapman blew the cautionary trumpet in June, 2009. Call it "reform"; call it "recovering the gospel"; call it "resurgence"; call it implementing the "doctrines of grace"; call it "regaining our Baptist heritage"; call it "restoring our founders' faith"; call it getting "ready for reformation"; call it anything you like. It does not matter.
As long as Baptist Calvinists have it as their vision to transform the Southern Baptist Convention into a Calvinistic Baptist Convention, many like-minded Southern Baptists such as myself remain ready to stand ground, ready to keep ground.
1Winds of Doctrines: The Origin and Development of Southern Baptist Theology, W. Wiley Richards, 1991
2Memoirs, Elder Jesse Mercer, C.D. Mallary, 1844
3The one exception was Jeremiah Walker who apparently taught one could lose his or her salvation through final apostasy. According to Mercer, Walker stirred much division, threatening Baptist union. It soon died out, however, upon Walker's untimely death.