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Baptist identity in the twentieth century.

How will we know who we are, if we do not understand where we have been? Especially for a people searching for a clear identity in the midst of turmoil, it is crucial to provide a chronicle of cherished traditions. In an effort to illuminate the heritage of a people called Baptists, particularly Southern Baptists, I will attempt to comment on the public perception of Baptists during this last century by noting some fascinating transitions apparent in our denominational life. I also want to focus on one key issue that has been largely neglected in the midst of our current denominational confusion.

Demographic Changes

In viewing the public perception of Baptists in the twentieth century, perhaps the place to start our study is not with issues of doctrine or denominational polity, but rather a consideration of the dramatic demographic changes affecting the South in the last 100 years. The South at one time was viewed as the cultural backwater of the nation, both as an economic liability and a social embarrassment. In a letter dated July 5, 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the Conference on Economic Conditions in the South by stating, "It is my conviction that the South presents right now the nation's no. 1 economic problem--the nation's problem not merely the South's." (1) At that time, the people of the South were the poorest in the country. With a population in excess of 36,000,000, the South accounted for one-half of the nation's farmers, yet had only one-fifth of the nation's farm machinery. This vast region, stretching from Virginia to Oklahoma, accounted for only 16 percent of the nation's factories and mechanized work force. The richest southern state ranked lower in per capita income than the poorest state outside the South. The average income in the south in 1937 was barely more than one-half the national average. Over 50 percent of the South's farmers did not own their own land and the average income of a tenant farmer in the South in 1938 was $73 per year. Sharecroppers earned on the average less than 38 cents for a day's labor. In 1938, southern banks held less than 11 percent of the nation's bank deposits and less than 6 percent of the nation's savings deposits. Absentee owners far from the American South largely controlled the southern centers of economic activity such as textiles, mining, and railroads. Even its few examples of economic success were largely stories of the South exporting its wealth to northern cities. By almost every common sociological yardstick--per capita income, level of education, degree of urbanization, infant mortality rate--the South lagged far behind other regions of the nation. (2)

The poverty of the South in the first half of the twentieth century had a profound impact on the perception of Southern Baptists. The South was viewed as an underclass and Southern Baptists were seen as the underclass of the South at prayer. Cecil Sherman tells of being a student at Princeton Seminary in 1954 when the eminent church historian, Lefferts Loetscher, referred in class one day to Southern Baptists describing them as "a sect primarily led by uneducated clergy, working with middle to lower class people, largely impoverished." (3) Already by the 1950s, that perception was becoming outmoded, but it was a true perception of Baptists for much of the twentieth century.

Now, the economic prospects for the new South have completely reversed its former status. It is no longer the bedraggled stepchild of the nation. The Sunbelt is the leading economic powerhouse of the world's most vibrant economy. The states of the old South consistently rank as the most desirable business environment in the nation. The nation now banks with Charlotte, turns to Atlanta for its news, relies on Austin and Raleigh-Durham for technological leadership, looks to Houston to meet its energy needs, and vacations in Orlando. The former impoverished backwater of the nation is on the leading edge of a burgeoning economy that is the envy of the nation and the world. The economic transformation of the region has changed southern culture from a lower-class American anomaly to one of wealth and sophistication.

This dramatic economic transformation with its urbanization, affluence, and mobility has brought an end to the parochial South once comfortably insulated from the effects of social progress. Samuel Hill noted that the important effect of these changes was that it transformed the agents of change from forces exterior to the culture to pressures within the culture itself. Hill wrote, "In history's long view, the most important development of the 1950s and 1960s may be that they relocated the sources fomenting change from outside the region to its own people." (4) The South has undergone a thorough economic transformation. Baptists in the South have been undeniably affected as the denomination moved from being an impoverished underclass to being more affluent than our forebears could ever have dreamed.

Alongside this growing affluence of the South is the concomitant move of Southern Baptists from being mere spectators of power to being the key power brokers at the very center of the nation. One might track this phenomenon by looking at the transition of persons wielding corporate power or by picturing the immense social influence now held by leaders of Southern Baptist life. The point is seen most graphically, however, by focusing on the White House. Except for Warren G. Harding, Baptists were not so visible among nationally elected leaders in this century until the presidency of Harry Truman. Then, with the election of Jimmy Carter, Baptists of the Southland moved into the mainstream of American life and occupied the central position of political power. Now with President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and much of the congressional leadership as well, Baptists are no longer on the outside looking in. Spectators no more, Baptists sit at the head of the table of power in this nation.

The economic resurgence of the South with its accompanying political strength lent itself to a triumphalism that was only exaggerated by the astounding growth in the actual membership of Southern Baptist churches. This growth in numbers is another demographic feature that should be mentioned. By 1907, Southern Baptists reported a membership of over 2 million. In twenty-five years, by 1932, that number had doubled to 4 million. By 1955, before another twenty-five years had elapsed, the number of Southern Baptists had doubled again to well over 8 million. In the postwar decade of 1945-55, Southern Baptist church membership grew phenomenally by over 40 percent. Southern Baptists interpreted this growth as a clear sign of God's favor. Bill Leonard refers to this as "The Great Southern Baptist Myth," meaning that numerical and financial growth were interpreted as clear signs of God's blessing and evidence that with their evangelical zeal Baptists were "God's Last and Only Hope" for a lost world.

The process of interpreting secular success as a sign of God's favor has obvious theological problems. Moreover, this wedding of favorable statistics to divine blessing means that a downturn in the fortunes of Southern Baptists carries with it a dire divine message. That downturn was exactly what happened as the century drew to a close. Membership in Southern Baptist churches peaked in 1997 at 15,892,000. There has been a failure to reach that number in the years that followed. Compounding the decline in church membership is the stagnant nature of the statistics that track the actual church involvement of Southern Baptists as seen in Sunday School participation. Sunday School enrollment for Southern Baptists languished over a much longer period of time than the decrease in church membership. Following 1964, when Sunday School enrollment was 7,668,000, participation declined for most of the next decade reaching a low of just over 7,000,000. In 1975, those numbers began to rebound reaching their high mark six years ago in 1994 at 8,258,000. The numbers have not increased since. In fact, Sunday School enrollment now is only 6 percent higher than it was in 1964. (5) Southern Baptists are not an exception to the general decline of church activity in our nation. Baptists in the South ended the century on a downward note.

From Disestablishment to Culture Religion

A look at these indicators of economic, political, and numerical status give us a glimpse of Baptists in the twentieth century that provides a helpful external perception of denominational life. A much more thorough analysis is needed to achieve an understanding of the internal issues that coursed through the life of these peculiar people called Baptists. It is to this task that we now turn as we consider those key theological characteristics that can describe Baptists in the past century. There has been a series of three transitions that can describe the changing perception of Southern Baptists in the last 100 years: (1) from disestablishment to culture religion; (2) from soul competency to authoritarian pastoral leadership; and (3) from anticreedalism to an acceptance of creedalism.

Baptists first came to the notice of others with Thomas, Helwys's proclamation, "The king is not the Lord of the conscience." That Baptist insistence on the disestablishment of religion is voiced in our own day by James Dunn who spoke in typical style, "Freedom is the fire that burns in the innards of every true Baptist." (6) From the very beginning of Baptist life there has been an undeniable focus on religious and political freedom for all. Clearly one of the primary perceptions of Baptists in the twentieth century is of a denomination that stood as a stalwart defender of religious liberty.

One should understand the social conditions in the nation that colored this crucial issue for twentieth-century Baptists. At the turn of the century, it appeared to many as if the growing numbers of Roman Catholics were supplanting Protestant America. By 1900, Roman Catholics were the largest denomination in the United States with a membership of 12 million. At the same time Methodists numbered 6 million, Baptists both North and South numbered 4.5 million, with other Protestant groups no larger than 2.5 million each. The result for Baptists was that a defense of religious liberty was usually stated in the context of the threat of Catholicism, an approach that remained through much of the century. Gaustad remembered the religious pressures stemming from waves of immigration when he wrote, "... religious liberty was defined not simply in biblical or humanistic terms, but over against Roman Catholicism." (7) The bias of anti-Romanism is evident in most of the Baptist defenses of religious liberty of the time whether it be Mullins, Rauschenbush, or Truett. Regardless of its social background, the call for religious liberty was a key to the public perception of Baptists.

The call for religious liberty was brought into the center of Baptist theology when E. Y. Mullins published Axioms of Religion in 1908. Among his six axioms, was the "religio-civic axiom" that called for a "free church in a free state." Mullins seemed to believe that this doctrine was so widely accepted and understood in Baptist life that he treated it as if it were self-evident. Ina haunting line Mullins commented on the widespread support of this idea among Baptists by writing that there never has been a time when Baptists "wavered in their doctrine of a free church in a free state? On specific issues Mullins was very straightforward. He regarded gifts of public money to religious schools to be a "flagrant violation of the principle." He also condemned the reading of the Bible in schools when he declared, "Baptists very generally and consistently oppose the public reading of the Bible in schools, because they respect the consciences of all others.""

Another well-respected voice that established the public perception of Baptists on this issue was George W. Truett. In his noted address, delivered on the steps of the United States Capitol in 1920, Truett spoke on the subject of "Baptists and Religious Liberty." He rightly boasted of the role of Baptists in promoting religious liberty in the nation by stating that Baptists have "forever been the unwavering champions of liberty, both religious and civil." (10) In one of the strongest and most eloquent statements on the issue that has ever been made, Truett preached, "The right to private judgment is the crown jewel of humanity, and for any person or institution to dare to come between the soul and God is a blasphemous impertinence and a defamation of the crown rights of the Son of God." (11)

Through the years, the voice of Baptists on the issue of religious liberty was clear, providing an unwavering perception of Baptists. The continued visibility of Baptists on this issue was due in no small part to the work and publicity generated by the Baptist Joint Committee. Under the leadership of J. M. Dawson and James Dunn, Baptists were given a prominent image as vigilant defenders of religious liberty. The solidarity of Baptists on the issue is further demonstrated by the inclusion of a clear statement on religious liberty in the Baptist Faith and Message statement. "Church and State should be separate," the document declares (Article XVII). Repeating the oft-used formula, it calls for a "free church in a free state."

Given this history of support for religious liberty, one is dismayed to read of modern-day Baptists who deride the notion of separation of church and state. How is it possible for W. A. Criswell to claim as he did to the national media, "Separation of church and state is a figment of the imagination of infidels"? (12) The perception of Baptists has been dramatically altered on this issue. William Estep provided a historical survey of Baptists on the issues of religious liberty and non-conformity and concluded recently, "In the light of this heritage, it is strange, indeed, to witness Baptists attempting to use secular methods to achieve religious goals or aligning themselves with a particular political party in the hopes of using the political process to achieve religious ends." (13) Today there is evident among Baptists a concerted effort to have state mandated religious practices in our public schools, to provide for state support for private religious schools, and to encroach on other First Amendment practices that would have been abhorrent to leaders in Baptist life just a few short years ago. The transformation of Baptists on this topic has been rapid and thorough. In the last few years Baptists have changed from being the leading advocates of the disestablishment of religion to being the foremost exponents of culture religion.

From Priesthood of the Believer to Authoritarian Leadership

A second issue that demonstrates a radical transformation in the perception of twentieth-century Baptists is the doctrine of priesthood of the believer or soul competency. This doctrine teaches that individuals have been empowered by God to decide freely on the issues of faith. Not only do persons have the competency to make these decisions of faith, they are responsible for doing just that. That is, Christian freedom is not so much a right as it is a duty.

Church historian Leon McBeth sees this particular doctrine as foundational to all that it means to be a Baptist. He wrote, "The concept of the soul's competency is more than a single doctrine; actually, it undergirds all the other doctrines of the faith. Without this concept, there could be no justification by faith, no call for individual repentance, and no basis for evangelism." (14)

The doctrine of priesthood or soul competency teaches that faith is an intensely personal matter in which each individual is assured of direct and equal access to God. This means that no religious officer dictates matters of faith for other believers. Lest this be interpreted only in the context of American individualism, one should quickly point out that the issue of priesthood is by definition a communitarian principle. Every believer is called, not to an isolated faith alone before God, but to an expressive faith of serving as a priest for the benefit of others.

The priesthood of the believer is central to the historic Baptist practice of the ministry of the laity. In saying there is no hierarchy governing our access to God, the principle of priesthood of the believer insists on equality of clergy and laity. Stated simply, the doctrine teaches that at the foot of the cross the ground is wondrously level.

An emphasis on priesthood of the believer means that all Christians are called to a life of ministry. As Findley Edge was fond of saying, "Baptism is as much an ordination as any believer ever needs."

It is true of the New Testament that the terms cleros (clergy) and laos (laity) were used interchangeably. That was also true of the spreading Baptist faith in this nation. One could argue that it was precisely the diminishing of barriers between clergy and laity that permitted the Baptists to flourish in America. Various Protestant groups confronted the American frontier in a variety of ways. Most relied on trained clergy, but the sparse population and conditions of rural poverty were not conducive to the success of that approach.

The Methodists flourished through their system of circuit riders in which one trained clergy person supervised the work of numerous congregations. Baptists for their part relied on the non-professional farmer-preacher to proclaim the word boldly without the benefit of formal education or ministerial ordination. This approach allowed for the rapid expansion of Baptists throughout the region. The use of willing laity who accepted God's call to preach is a key reason that Baptists grew into the largest of America's Protestant denominations. Practically, the doctrine of priesthood of the believer was at the heart of what it meant to be a Baptist in America. Baptist ministry was borne on the shoulders of dedicated laity, and to this day a significant percentage of Baptist pastors lack the formal training of a seminary education. In Virginia, 20 percent of Baptist ministers lack seminary training. In Alabama that number rises to 50 percent. (15)

For Baptists, the practical importance of the doctrine of priesthood of the believer is inescapable. Twentieth-century Baptist theologians insisted, however, that the doctrine was more than a practical matter. E. Y. Mullins identified soul competency as the most characteristic aspect of Baptist thought. In Axioms of Religion, Mullins argued that soul competency was "the distinctive historical significance of Baptists." (16) Four of Mullins's six axioms are related to this doctrine of priesthood of the believer. Particularly, the third or the "ecclesiological axiom" is focused on the application of this doctrine to church life. Mullins taught, "All believers have a right to equal privileges in the church." In his survey of Mullins's teaching on this doctrine, Walter Shurden noted, "So intent on establishing the equality of all believers, Mullins failed completely, in his chapter on Baptist ecclesiology, to even discuss the role of the pastor." (17)

Mullins's pupil and longtime professor of theology at Southwestern Seminary, W. T. Conner, discussed the issue of priesthood of the believer in terms of church governance. Conner cast aside any hierarchical system and insisted that the church should be organized on a democratic pattern for several reasons.

First, church democracy was in accord with the New Testament. Conner could find no evidence of a hierarchical system of clergy anywhere in the New Testament. It simply lacked biblical warrant.

Second, the fundamental principal of the Christian faith is the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. Conner then proceeded to argue, "To recognize his lordship in the spiritual realm is inconsistent with recognizing the authority of priest or bishop or pope in the realm of religion." (18)

Third, in like manner the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith implies the democratic organization of the church. When all believers see themselves as sinners saved by grace, the artificial distinctions of status will quickly disappear.

Finally, Conner pointed to the presence of the Holy Spirit that is available to all believers. The democracy of the spirit puts a lie to those who insist that God's spirit resides in a special way in the clergy. Whether from a practical stance, from the vantage of Mullins's Axioms, or from the view of Conner's church democracy, the doctrine of priesthood of the believer was central to the identity of Baptists.

Now, there has been such a dramatic disruption of this tradition that we have seen the Southern Baptist Convention openly repudiate the doctrine of priesthood of the believer. The heritage of soul competency, which had been seen as central to all of Baptist thought, was intentionally discarded by convention vote in 1988. Just as on the issue of separation of church and state, W. A. Criswell lambasted this hallmark of Baptist life when he preached that the pastor is to be seen as the ruler of the church. Paige Patterson affirmed this same authoritarian view when he insisted that the role of the congregation is to "mimic, obey, and submit" to the pastor. (19) Meeting in San Antonio in 1988, the convention passed a resolution entitled "On the Priesthood of the Believer." The resolution stated:
 None of the five major writing systematic theologians in Southern
 Baptist history have [sic] given more than passing reference to the
 doctrine of the priesthood of the believer in their systematic theologies;

 The high profile emphasis on the doctrine of the priesthood of the
 believer in Southern Baptist life is a recent historical development;

 The doctrine of the priesthood of the believer can be used to justify
 the undermining of pastoral authority in the local church.

 The doctrine of priesthood of the believer in no way contradicts the
 biblical understanding of the role, responsibility, and authority of the
 pastor which is seen in the command of the local church in Hebrews 13:17,
 "Obey your leaders, submit to them." (20)

After extensive debate the resolution passed, and Baptists repudiated their heritage of soul competency and adopted a stance of authoritarian pastoral leadership. What had been a central perception of Baptists in the twentieth century was wiped out by convention ballot. In effect, Baptists voted to stop being Baptists.

From Anticreedalism to Creedalism

A third major change in the perception of Baptists in the last century concerned the movement toward creedalism. William Lumpkin, the historian of Baptist confessions of faith, wrote beautifully about Baptists when he said, "Few Christian groups have confessed their faith so freely as the Baptists, but no group has been more reluctant than they to elevate these confessions into authoritative symbols or creeds." (21) Historically, Baptists have been anticreedal people, shunning restrictive creeds in favor of confessions of faith that state the particular views of a specific group of believers in a precise point of time. For example, in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, those present refused to produce a formal statement of faith. In his address announcing the new convention, William B. Johnson declared, "We have constructed for our basis no new creed; acting in this matter upon a Baptist aversion for all creeds but the Bible." (22) Baptists were perceived correctly as persons of conservative belief who were nonetheless hesitant to state those orthodox beliefs in creedal terms.

There were clear pressures for Baptists to move toward a creedal stance throughout the twentieth century. Baptists of the North refused to provide a creedal formulation of faith, even when repeatedly pressed to do so during the Fundamentalist controversies in the early decades of the twentieth century. The issue was not that Baptists repudiated an orthodox theology. Rather, the issue was a refusal to put any doctrinal statement, however orthodox, into a creedal form. Robert Torbet evaluated those early twentieth-century battles among Northern Baptists and concluded, "Although most Baptists accepted the theological views set forth by the Fundamentalists, they did not agree with the Fundamentalists' insistence that the orthodox doctrinal position should be safeguarded by uniform conformity to a creedal statement." (23) In 1922, this issue surfaced for Northern Baptists with the call of the Fundamentalists to adopt the New Hampshire Confession of Faith as a public statement of faith that could be used to assure doctrinal uniformity. In opposition, a substitute motion was adopted that stated, "The Northern Baptist Convention affirms that the New Testament is the all-sufficient ground of our faith and practice and we need no other statement." (24) In rejecting creedalism, the issue was not so much what was believed, as it was how those beliefs were to be held.

Baptists in the South did not face as deep a theological division as that plaguing Northern Baptists in the early days of the century. There were strains, however, particularly concerning the issue of evolution. In 1925, the Southern Baptist Convention authorized the publication of the Baptist Faith and Message an enlarged version of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith with revisions and additions prepared by a committee chaired by E. Y. Mullins. The convention refused to enforce doctrinal uniformity by issuing an authoritative creed binding on all Southern Baptists, but they did go beyond the actions of Northern Baptists in publishing "an expression of faith generally held by Southern Baptists."

The influence of Mullins is obviously present in the 1925 statement with its clear safeguards protecting the individual conscience. That influence remained in the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message document with its statement in the Preamble: "The sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Confessions are only guides ill interpretation, having no authority over the conscience." That statement served as a doctrinal guideline for Baptists in the South for much of the century.

In 1961, Ralph Elliott's The Message of Genesis precipitated another controversy. Following the rancor of the Elliott controversy, a decision was made by the Executive Committee to appoint a group to study the Baptist Faith and Message statement and to report its findings to the convention. The committee was chaired by Herschel Hobbs and composed of each of the presidents of the various state conventions. Their work, a slight revision of the 1925 statement, was adopted in its entirety. The result, Hobbs claimed was to "put to rest the current controversy." It is instructive to note the careful fashion in which Hobbs continued to defend this work. With his support, the convention voted in 1969 and again in 1970 not to make the statement binding on convention agencies or any of its employees. "No," wrote Hobbs, "the Baptist Faith and Message is not a creedal statement." In introducing the document Hobbs insisted, "Baptists have no creed but the Bible.... Baptists have always shied away from anything that resembled a creed or a statement of beliefs to which their people were forced to comply." In one of the most ominous warnings spoken to Southern Baptists, Hobbs wrote in 1971, "In all likelihood the only thing that would divide Southern Baptists with regard to their faith would be for one group ... to attempt to force upon others a creedal faith." (25) Hobbs was correct.

Shurden rightly identified the creedal/confessional issue as one of the major differences in the current battles of Southern Baptist life. Regarding the Baptist Faith and Message, Shurden wrote, "Fundamentalists want to impose their interpretation of the document on all denominational employees, seminary professors, and others who work for the denomination." (26)

In 1985, a "Peace Committee" was formed in the same spirit as the 1962 committee as an effort to put the denominational controversy to rest. Unlike the earlier committee, however, the peace committee ignored Baptist heritage and moved to impose a creed. In its 1987 report, the committee affirmed the Baptist Faith and Message and specifically commended its section on the Scripture, which affirms that the Bible has "truth without any mixture of error for its matter." Then, the committee went further than other Baptist groups had ever dared by providing their interpretation of the meaning of "truth without any mixture of error." The committee listed four examples of biblical truth: (1) Adam and Eve were real persons directly created by God; (2) the named authors wrote the books attributed to them in Scripture; (3) the miracles of Scripture occurred as described in the Bible; and (4) the historical narratives provided in the Bible are accurate. Having provided their interpretation of the Baptist Faith and Message, the peace committee then concluded:
 We call upon Southern Baptist institutions to recognize the great number of
 Southern Baptists who believe this interpretation of our confessional
 statement and, in the future, to build their professional staffs and
 faculties from those who clearly reflect such dominant convictions and
 beliefs as held by Southern Baptists at large. (27)

A statement of faith was given a specific interpretation and then an assent to that interpretation was made a prerequisite for denominational employment. With the adoption of the peace committee report, Southern Baptists fully embraced creedalism.

In these three moves the perception of Baptists in the twentieth century was dramatically altered: Baptists moved from disestablishment to culture religion, from soul competency to authoritarian pastoral leadership, and from a biblical base of authority to an imposed creedalism.

The Centrality of Religious Experience

The foregoing discussion of how Baptists were perceived in the twentieth century may sound familiar to modern ears, but there is one characteristic, which would have been central to earlier discussions, that has been surprisingly peripheral in the present context. That key issue concerns the role of religious experience. Consideration of the personal, subjective, and spiritual encounter of the believer with the presence of the Holy Spirit has been lost in the midst of the current furor. With so much else of the Baptist heritage that was jettisoned in the midst of our denominational battles, perhaps this key Baptist doctrine of spiritual experience has been the biggest loser. It is interesting that as we fight over the correct Baptist doctrines, we have all lost a hold on what it most means to be a Baptist.

A historic review of Baptists in America would conclude that personal religious experience is a clear mark of Baptist identity. Walter Rauschenbusch identified spiritual experience as the distinctive mark of Baptist life. In a series of essays entitled, "What it Means to be a Baptist" Rauschenbusch wrote,
 The Christian faith as Baptists hold it sets spiritual experience boldly to
 the front as the one great thing in religion. It aims at experiential
 religion.... If anyone desires to enter our churches we ask for evidence of
 such experience and we ask for nothing else. We do not ask him to recite a
 creed or catechism. The more simple and heartfelt the testimony is, the
 better we like it. Experience is our sole requisite for receiving baptism;
 it is fundamental to our church life. (28)

This insistence on conscious personal experience is the mark of being a true Baptist according to Rauschenbusch. He argued that nothing could take the place of personal religious experience. Ridiculing a second-hand religion based on creed, rites, or doctrines, Rauschenbusch wrote that such religion is "no more religion than moonlight is sunlight."

In like manner, E. Y. Mullins extolled the centrality of spiritual experience as being the only source of first-hand religious knowledge. In establishing his fourfold method for the proper study of religion, Mullins taught: (1) we must recognize Jesus Christ as God's historical revelation; (2) we must regard scripture as the indispensable source of our knowledge of Jesus and salvation; (3) we must recognize the place and work of the holy spirit who leads us to Christ, who continues the work of Christ and through whom the meaning of Christ is made known; and (4) we must seek to understand the spiritual experience of Christians through a direct study of the operation of God's spirit. (29) An experience of the spirit is foundational to any proper understanding of faith.

W. T. Conner dedicated an entire book to an explication of the work of the Holy Spirit stating, "Without question, the biblical doctrine of the Spirit of God stands for an indispensable element in our religion." (30) Conner contended that, following the lead of Greek speculative philosophy, early Christian thought developed with a concern for doctrinal precision rather than the vitality of spiritual experience. This was an unfortunate and tragic loss, Conner claimed, from which the church never recovered. It is simply not possible to develop correct doctrines of faith without centering on the personal encounter of the believer with the spirit of Christ, and it is not possible to develop a proper understanding of Baptists without a consideration of experiential religion.

In our current climate, both sides provide a list of doctrines that define the meaning of being a Baptist, and both lists have largely ignored subjective spiritual encounter. On the one hand is the list of doctrines focusing on freedom, priesthood, or disestablishment. On the other hand is the list of doctrines pertaining to issues such as inerrancy, the virgin birth, or substitutionary atonement. Yet no one is extolling the bedrock of our Baptist practice, which is the role of personal religious experience. This is problematic for two reasons. First, the centrality of subjective spiritual encounter is indisputable in Baptist life. It cannot be dismissed in any accurate attempt to focus on the meaning of being a Baptist. Second, modern culture has shown a growing appreciation for spirituality and the subjective nature of religious experience. By focusing on rational discussions of doctrinal differences rather than spiritual encounter, Baptists are refusing to recognize one of the major cultural shifts of our day.

A recent Gallup research shows an American public that is eager for spiritual growth but is very critical of organized religion for being overly engaged in organizational issues. (31) Americans will not so much side with one group or the other in a doctrinal debate as they will ignore the rational argumentation all together.

The initial draft of this presentation stated that most Baptists engaged in the current denominational struggle simply neglect the issue of spiritual encounter. There is a strange silence on this topic from every quarter of Baptist life. Yet recently one of the central figures in Baptist affairs, Al Mohler, dealt with the issue by attacking the importance of spiritual experience for Baptists. He addressed this issue by claiming E. Y. Mullins, with his emphasis on personal religious experience, "steered Southern Seminary and the SBC off the course chartered by their founders." Mohler went on to assert that "human experience is no solid ground for establishing truth." (32) Mohler's criticism of the value of spiritual experience shows his reliance, not on Baptist tradition and clearly not on Calvin as he claims, but on Princeton Fundamentalism. The influence of Princeton Fundamentalism on the development of Baptist life and Southern Seminary in particular cannot be denied. It would be a great mistake, however, to confuse the Princeton theologians with an honest presentation of the thought of John Calvin. (33) In adopting their own form of doctrinal rationalism, the Princeton theologians consciously discarded Calvin's high regard for the role of the Holy Spirit. The truth of Scripture for Calvin was not based on rational or objective proof but on the "inner testimony of the spirit." That is why the Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of the truth of Scripture as grounded in "the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts."

Mohler's criticism of the value of spiritual experience shows clearly his reliance on Princeton Fundamentalism. Moving from subjective to objective definitions of faith, the Princeton teachers of James P. Boyce abandoned Calvin and the Westminster Confession in order to embrace a more rationalistic understanding of faith. Sandeen concluded, "The witness of the Spirit, though not overlooked, cannot be said to play an important role in Princeton thought. It is with the external and not the internal, the objective and not the subjective, that they deal." (34)

Mohler's position was shown in its true colors when Southern Seminary's archivist, Sean Lucas, defended Mohler's analysis by stating that it is now time to return to the emphases of the founders of Southern Seminary who were "trained in the hardy doctrinal tradition of Princeton theology." (35) Mohler may well provide us with an accurate interpretation of James P. Boyce and the founders of Southern Seminary. It is, however, a serious misreading of John Calvin and is surely a corruption of the heritage of Baptists. On the issue of personal religious experience, Mohler does not understand Baptists, and he does not understand Calvin. He is left clinging to the rigid rationalism of Princeton Fundamentalism.


There has been a clear transformation in the public perception of Baptists on three key doctrinal issues: (1) disestablishment or culture religion; (2) soul competency or authoritative pastoral leadership; and (3) anti-creedalism or creedalism. The most important issue, however, at the very heart of what it means to be a Baptist, has been neglected and even worse maligned. The importance of subjective spiritual encounter rightly belongs in the forefront of any discussion of Baptist life. One hopes that future doctrinal debates among Baptists would not neglect, and surely not degrade, the centrality of spiritual experience.


Thomas H. Graves is president, Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Virginia.

(1.) Quoted in John Samuel Ezell, The South Since 1865 (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 434.

(2.) Ibid., 434-36.

(3.) Statement by Cecil Sherman, personal interview, April 18, 2000.

(4.) Samuel S. Hill Jr., Southern Churches in Crisis (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), 4.

(5.) Membership and enrollment statistics are drawn from Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, Eileen W. Linder, ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press).

(6.) James M. Dunn, "Religious Liberty and Church/State Separation Go Hand in Hand," Defining Baptist Convictions, ed. Charles W. Deweese (Franklin, Tenn.: Providence House, 1996), 71.

(7.) Edwin Scott Gaustad, The Baptist Tradition of Religious Liberty in America (Waco, Tex: J. M. Dawson Institute for Church-State Studies, no date), 20.

(8.) Quoted in Gaustad, 21.

(9.) Ibid.

(10.) George W. Truett, "Baptists and Religious Liberty," A Baptist Treasury, ed. Sydnor L. Staley (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1958), 263.

(11.) Ibid., 267.

(12.) Religious Herald 156 (Sept. 13, 1984), 15.

(13.) William R. Estep Jr., "Respect for Nonconformity Permeates the Baptist Conscience," Defining Baptist Convictions, ed. Deweese, 85,

(14.) H. Leon McBeth, "God Gives Soul Competency and Priesthood to All Believers," Defining Baptist Convictions, ed. Deweese, 63-64.

(15.) Statement by Robert Dale, personal interview, May 4, 2000.

(16.) E. Y. Mullins, Axioms of Religion (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1908), 57.

(17.) Walter B. Shurden, The Priesthood of All Believers (Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys, 1993), 147.

(18.) W. T. Conner, Christian Doctrine (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1937), 267.

(19.) Quoted in Bill J. Leonard, God's Last and Only Hope (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1990), 155.

(20.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1988, 68-69.

(21.) William L. Lumpkin, "Confessions of Faith, Baptist," Encyclopedia of Southern Baptist, 1, 305-306.

(22.) Quoted in James L. Sullivan, Baptist Polity: As I See It (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1983), 237.

(23.) Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1963), 427.

(24.) Ibid., 430.

(25.) Herschel Hobbs, The Baptist Faith and Message (Nashville: Convention Press, 1971) 11-16.

(26.) Walter B. Shurden, "Major Issues in the SBC Controversy," Amidst Babel, Speak the Truth, ed. Robert U. Ferguson Jr. (Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys, 1993), 8.

(27.) Walter B. Shurden, The Struggle for the Soul of the S BC (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1993), 300.

(28.) Walter Rauschenbusch, "Why I Am A Baptist," The Baptist Leader, 60, no. 10 (January 1958), 8.

(29.) E. Y. Mullins, The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression (Philadelphia: Judson Press), 4.

(30.) W. T. Conner, The Work of the Holy Spirit (Nashville: Broadman, 1949), 2.

(31.) George Gallup Jr. and D. Michael Lindsay, Surveying the Religious Landscape (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse Publishing, 1999), 88.

(32.) Quoted in Mark Wingfield, Associated Baptist Press, faxed press release 00-32 (April 17, 2000), 3

(33.) For a fuller discussion of both the role of subjective spiritual experience in Calvin's understanding of Scripture and the rationalistic approach of the Princeton Fundamentalists see Thomas H. Graves, "Biblical Authority and the Forgotten Spirit," Review and Expositor 95, no. 4 (Fall 1998): 533-44.

(34.) Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), 118.

(35.) Wingfield, 4.
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Author:Graves, Thomas H.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1U600
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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