The Baptist Church of Montgomery County1 began June 20, 1719 and became a member of the Philadelphia Baptist Association. Its organizing Pastor was Abel Morgan who not only preached the inaugurating sermon, but remained a guiding light for the new congregation. Other pastors who served the Montgomery church included John James, David Evans, and Benjamin Griffith. In 1727, the church called Joseph Eaton as pastor who continued his service until his death in 1749.
During Eaton's tenure, a doctrinal dispute arose which threatened the Montgomery church's membership in the Philadelphia Association. The issue was the eternal generation of the Son. While the specific dispute is not mentioned by name, the doctrinal discord over the eternal generation of the Son may have surfaced in the association as early as 1736:2
In the year 1736, no queries appeared, nor any request made to this Association; nevertheless, the Association being informed of a discord and contention in the church at Montgomery, did nominate and appoint Mr. Jenkin Jones, and Mr. Owen Thomas, ministers, with any two other brethren that they might judge serviceable, to visit, and to endeavour to conciliate matters between them. And it was accordingly effected.
Though it's surprising that a doctrinal dispute over what early American Baptists viewed as a "fundamental" article of belief took several years to settle, we do know that the Philadelphia Association appears to have openly dealt with the issue in 1743. In conference, debate ensued over the question of the eternal generation of the Son resulting in Montgomery's pastor, Joseph Eaton, and another Montgomery elder, Simon Butler, recanting their statements that apparently skewed and/or denied what Philadelphia Baptists believed to be historic Christian orthodoxy on the Son of God's supposed eternal begottenness. Of Joseph Eaton, the minutes record:
After some time spent in debate thereon, brother Joseph Eaton stood up, and freely, to our apprehension, recanted, renounced, and condemned all expressions, which he heretofore had used, whereby his brethren at Montgomery, or any persons elsewhere, were made to believe that he departed from the literal sense and meaning of that fundamental article in our Confession of faith, concerning the eternal generation and Sonship of Jesus Christ our Lord; he acknowledged with grief his misconduct therein, whether by word or deed.
Similarly, the minutes record a written recantation from Simon Butler:
I freely confess that I have given too much cause for others to judge that I contradicted our Confession of faith, concerning the eternal generation of the Son of God, in some expressions contained in my paper, which I now with freedom condemn, and am sorry for my so doing, and for every other misconduct that I have been guilty of, from first to last, touching the said article, or any other matter.
It remains unclear, at least as far as the minutes are concerned, what either Eaton or Butler had specifically taught about the eternal generation of the Son they later recanted. Whatever they taught on the still controversial subject, it apparently stuck with the congregation despite their recantations and public repentance. A year later in 1744, Simon Butler requested a group from the association visit the Montgomery church to try and settle the doctrinal dispute among the people:
Upon a request made to the Association by Simon Butler, it was, agreed and appointed that our brethren, Nathaniel Jenkins, Owen: Thomas, Benjamin Stelle, and Thomas Jones, visit the church of Montgomery on Wednesday after the first Sunday in November next, in order to try to accommodate the difference amongst them.
According to the 1745 minutes, the committee reported to the association about its findings in the Montgomery church, findings approved as read but not inserted into the minutes because Butler disputed its claims:
The procedure of four messengers, sent by the Association the year before, was brought to the house by a report in writing, and read; and the question was put to the house, whether it was approved as reported. Resolved in the affirmative. The report itself is not inserted, because Simon Butler and his party did not acquiesce with the determination.
Butler's dissent apparently spawned a motion not to seat messengers from the Montgomery congregation, a motion that failed resulting in Montgomery's messengers being seated even though their seating was publicly disputed.
Nor did the controversy over the eternal generation of the Son quietly fade into the night; rather it apparently plagued the association for several years.
It wasn't until 1774 that what seems to be a definitive statement on the issue was recorded in a circular letter penned by Samuel Jones. In it he wrote,
4. It remains, then, that he was the only begotten Son of God by eternal generation, inconceivable and mysterious. He was his Son, John 5:18; 1 John 5:5; his own Son, Romans 8:3, 32; his only begotten Son, John 1:14, 18; 3:16; 1 John 4:9; was with him in the beginning, John 1:1; before his works of old, even from everlasting, Micah 5:2; Proverbs 8:22, 23. …
When we conceive of the Father and the Son, there is a priority in the order of nature, but not in the order of time. As God's eternal decrees, the mind and thought, the sun and light; though these be prior and successive among themselves in the order of nature, yet not in point of time. The instant the sun existed, light did exist also, proceeding, from it, or, as it were, generated by it. So the instant there is a Father, there must be a Son; and as the Father exists a Father from eternity, so does the Son a Son.
Clearly Philadelphia Baptists in the late 18th century thoroughly debated the issue ultimately framing the doctrine in terms accepting the eternal generation of the Son as historic Christian doctrine.
What seems just as clear, however, is no rationale for believing eternal generation--at least within the confines of the Philadelphia Association--seems to have included implications modern complementarian theologians infer pertaining to either gender roles, human authority and relationships, or husband/wife submission.
Indeed it seems to me analogous arguments of behavior and role between the Relations of the Persons within the Divine Trinity and human relations between husband and wife remain unwise, unnecessary, and even theologically dangerous for any number of reasons. No sound biblical hermeneutical principle seems to warrant such an interpretative exercise.
How exactly do Trinitarian relations between Three eternal Persons within One uncreated Being analogously apply to two separate persons who are two separate created beings? For me, it seems prima facie absurd to begin travelling down such an avenue since we know in advance it's a dead end street. After all, is not our Almighty, in the end, incomprehensible to us?
It seems much better to conclude with Philadelphia Baptists,
But let no one presume to think that he can, by searching, find out the Almighty to perfection, nor vainly inquire where the Lord has not revealed.
In conclusion, Philadelphia Baptists' concerns appear strictly focused upon defending the Persons of the Trinity and the Deity and Humanity of Jesus absent any speculation upon how the eternal relations within our Triune God analogously reflect temporal relations between men and women.
1Prior to September 1784, Montgomery County was a part of Philadelphia County.
2Minutes of the Philadelphia Association. A.D. Gillette, 1851.