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Rebirth pangs: conflicting conversion morphologies in Baptist believers' churches.

On the eve of the American Revolution, Anglican Parson Charles Woodmason described the carryings on among the people called Baptists in the "Carolina backcountry":
   They don't all agree in one Time. For one sings this Doctrine, and
   the next something different--So that people's brains are turn'd and
   bewildered. And then again to see them Divide and Sub divide, split
   into parties--Rail at and excommunicate one another--Turn (members)
   out of one meeting and receive (them back) into another. And a Gang
   of them getting together and gabbling one after the other (and
   sometimes disputing against each other) on abstruse Theological
   Questions.... such as the greatest Metaph[ys]icians and Learned
   Scholars never yet could define, or agree on--To hear Ignorant
   Wretches, who cannot write ... discussing such Knotty Points for
   the Edification of their Auditors ... must give High offence to all
   Intelligent and rational Minds. (1)

Baptist Unity and Diversity

Parson Woodmason was at once condescending and correct. Indeed, the 2014 Baptist History and Heritage conference called candid attention to the great diversity if not downright divisiveness of individuals and "sub-denominations" (to use Howard Dorgan's term) among individuals and communions that use the term "Baptist" to inform their Christianity. (2) On one hand, Baptists represent the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, a collection of voluntary associations comprised, in Sidney Mead's words, "of like-hearted and like-minded individuals, who are united on the basis of common beliefs for the purpose of accomplishing tangible and defined objectives." (3) Yet below the surface, with the numerical exception of the Southern and National Baptist Conventions, Baptists represent a loose coalition of what Elmer T. Clark labeled "small sects in America," one of the most insightful and provocative book titles in American religious history. (4) Baptist beliefs remain, at once uniting and dividing, still strikingly similar to those of the seventeenth-century founders. (5)

Most Baptists would agree with the Standard Confession of 1660, "that the holy Scriptures is the rule whereby Saints both in matters of Faith, and conversation, are to be regulated," making individuals "wise unto salvation, through Faith in Christ Jesus, profitable for Doctrine, for reproof, for instruction in righteousness...." (6) Yet they subdivide considerably, sometimes vehemently, on questions of biblical inspiration and hermeneutics, as well as the extent of individual conscience in interpreting Scripture.

Most Baptists would confirm the statement from the English Declaration from Amsterdam, 1611: "That though in respect of CHRIST, the Church be one, yet it consistent of divers particular congregations, even so many as there shall be in the World, every [one] of which congregation, though they be but two or three, have CHRIST given them, with all the means of their salvation." (7)

Baptists support the autonomy of congregations often in associational cooperation, but not without considerable schism over multiple social, political, and theological issues. Across their 400-year history, Baptist churches have often thrown individuals and churches out as readily as they took them in. Henry Cook's 1947 comment says it well: "Strictly speaking there is no such thing as 'Baptist church polity,' because Baptists by their own fundamental principal are committed to accepting the Church polity of the New Testament, and no-one can really say with positive certainty what that actually is." (8)

Organizationally, twenty-first-century Baptists would no doubt affirm

the 1611 confessional proposition, "that the Officers of every Church or congregation are either Elders, [pastors] who by their office do especially feed the flock concerning their souls.... or Deacons Men, and Women [some exception there, of course] who by their office relieve the necessities of the poor and impotent brethren concerning their bodies." (9) Pastors and deacons remain the two primary officers in Baptist churches. Today, however, certain congregations have appropriated such offices as pastor, teacher, deacon, and elder evident in various seventeenth-century Calvinistic Baptist confessions. (10) As always, Baptist communions continue to struggle, even split apart, over ministerial and lay authority in the congregation.

Few differences have been as pronounced and enduring in Baptist life as those involving baptism and the Lord's Supper, the most identifiable outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. If baptism by immersion became the normative mode by the 1640s, debates over open or closed baptism and communion continue to rage even yet. Some Baptist communions baptize early--preschoolers, for example--while others defer baptism until the teens and twenties. Dorgan writes that it is "not unusual" for Old Regular Baptists to defer until "their forties or fifties." (11) Some demand immersion of professing, pedo-baptized Christians who seek Baptist church membership; some "rebaptize" those whose immersion was outside the Baptist fold ("alien immersion"); and others recognize varying baptismal forms, receiving members based on their profession of faith. Certain congregations permit the rebaptism of previously immersed Baptist church members who question the validity of their earlier professions of faith.

In their theology of the Lord's Supper, Baptists generally cover a spectrum that includes Calvin's affirmation of Christ's spiritual presence, Zwingli's "memorial" approach, and a later revivalistic emphasis on the Supper as an "ordinance" that Christians are commanded to observe. (12) While open communion is increasingly common, many congregations continue to practice closed communion, admitting to the Table only those who have received the appropriate baptismal immersion, and are members of the specific congregation in which the Supper is celebrated.

Baptist Identity in the Believers' Church

So while Baptist groups affirm a common body of confessional and covenantal "marks of the church," they divide over the interpretation and application of those collective dogmas for individuals and congregations alike. This is particularly true in what seems to be the central tenet of Baptist historical and theological identity: the formation of a believers' church, in which members are required to affirm an experience of God's grace as revealed in Jesus Christ.

The significance of Baptist identity and the believers' church is not new to scholars of Baptist history. British Baptist H. Wheeler Robinson placed Baptists within the Free Church tradition, evident in three characteristics that included "the right of the soul to an immediate relation to God," the call of Christian believers to "moral holiness," and the concept that the church "must always be the community of the regenerate ... expressed by the faith and practice of believers' baptism." (13)

Robert Torbet echoed Robinson, writing that the early Baptists "insisted on a disciplined church; one disciplined from within, not by external coercion. They had a vision of the True Church as a gathered fellowship of believers, bound together in a covenantal relationship to God to witness fearlessly to their faith wherever they might be." (14)

Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes proposes his own list of what constitutes the "Baptist experience" in theology and history. Fiddes links faith and baptism, insisting that Baptist experience "arises from the practice of believers' baptism, in which the candidate is expected to be able to affirm 'Jesus Christ is Lord' for himself or herself." Of the inseparable nature of faith and baptism, Fiddes writes: "This is not to say that baptism is a witness to faith rather than a moment of objective encounter with the transforming grace of God, nor that it is an individual act rather than a corporate act of the church in its own faithfulness." An experience of regeneration means "being part of a community in which it is expected that any member will be able and willing--if asked--to witness to her or his own sense of being called by Christ into a life of discipleship...." (15) Fiddes' assertion that entrance into Christ's church involves "a moment of objective encounter with the transforming grace of God" means that for Baptists, faith itself is a converting ordinance that involves a conscious religious experience of God's grace.

Reassessing the implications of a believers' church seems increasingly important, particularly during a time of denominational disconnect and decline, when many congregations are exploring, debating, or ignoring Baptist identity altogether. The deterioration of denominations, the rise of the religiously disconnected "nones," the dissipation of traditional methods of evangelism, and the changing sociology of Sunday compel Baptists to revisit the meaning of a believers' church and the process or processes for experiencing the necessary regeneration. This is important for several reasons:

1. Baptists can no longer suppose that even their most active individuals have basic knowledge of what a profession of faith means.

2. Denominational disengagement suggests that previous methods for inculcating concepts of a believers' church are less viable or available to congregations than in earlier eras.

3. The decline of revivalism as a mechanism for bringing persons to a "decision for Christ" contributes to a growing uncertainty as to the means for communicating the meaning of the gospel.

4. A reassessment of the nature of the believers' church requires a renewed investigation of religious experience, "religious affections," mysticism, the ways in which persons experience regeneration.

5. The varying morphologies of conversion present among Baptists require serious reexamination not only by academics, but also in every existing Baptist congregation. Given the signs of the times, Baptists must rethink the meaning of personal and communal salvation--how you get it and how you keep it.

The Believers' Church Tradition: Anabaptists and Puritans

To begin at the beginning is to revisit the nature of a believers' church, the importance of religious experience, and the morphologies of conversion, past and present. As second-generation Protestants, early Baptists were impacted by earlier approaches to a believers' church reflected in Anabaptism and Puritanism. The Swiss Brethren constituted themselves in Zurich in 1525 around believer's baptism grounded in a confession of personal faith. William Estep cites that event as taken from The Large Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren:
   And it came to pass that they were together until anxiety came upon
   them, yes, they were so pressed within their hearts.... After the
   prayer, George of the House of Jacob stood and besought Conrad
   Grebel for God's sake to baptize him with the true Christian
   baptism upon his faith and knowledge. And when he knelt down with
   such a request and desire, Conrad baptized him, since at that time
   there was no ordained minister to perform such work. (16)

The baptism was administered on their "faith and knowledge," an act that would send most of the Zurich band to an early martyrdom for both heresy and treason. Some Anabaptist groups used affusion (pouring) as the primary mode, while others practiced total immersion. The concept of a believers' church was perhaps the strongest mark of "spiritual kinship" (to quote Robert Torbet) between Anabaptists and Baptists. (17)

Likewise, the concern of many seventeenth-century English and American Puritans for conversion as necessary for full church membership influenced the earliest Baptists, most of whom received baptism as infants in the state-privileged Anglican tradition. Many moved through Puritanism to Separatism on their way to a believers' church. Struggling to reconstitute a church composed only of the elect, Puritans turned to religious experience and conversion. Sydney Ahlstrom summarized that Puritan emphasis on conversion brilliantly when he wrote:
   A specific conversion experience was at first rarely regarded as
   normative or necessary, though for many it was by this means that
   assurance of election was received. Gradually, as Puritan pastors
   and theologians examined themselves and counseled their more
   earnest and troubled parishioners, a consensus as to the morphology
   of true Christian experience began to be formulated. In due
   course--and with important consequences for America--these [British]
   Nonconforming Puritans in the Church of England came increasingly
   to regard a specific experience of regeneration as an essential
   sign of election. In New England and elsewhere "conversion" would
   become a requirement for church membership. (18)

Why make conversion normative for all who would claim church membership? For early Baptists the reasons were both simple and complex.

First, as Biblicists they understood the order of salvation to involve an adult confession of faith followed by baptism, a first-century experience mirrored in multiple biblical texts, many as direct as Peter's post-Pentecost assertion: "Repent and be baptized for the remissions of sins" (Acts 2:37-38).

Second, they were opposed to a religious establishmentarian whereby the state and its official church (whatever form it took) required baptism of infants in a given municipality--for them an anti-biblical coercion of personal faith.

Third, conversion was the entry into the church, a communion in its very nature composed of those who had chosen or been chosen to believe for themselves. These ideas are evident in that most basic statement set forth by the newly baptized English Puritans exiled in Amsterdam in 1611: "That the church of CHRIST is a company of faithful people separated from the world by the word & Spirit of GOD, being knit unto the LORD, & one unto another, by Baptism Upon their own confession of the faith and sins." (19) That brief statement captures the essence of Baptist identity centered in a Christocentric community united to God and to one another by a confession and covenant of faith in Jesus Christ, sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism.

Finally, conversion as a norm for church membership was one way in which certain Protestants sought to make the objective idea of sola fide, faith alone, subjectively experiential after rejecting the sacramentally tangible concepts of Real Presence. In short, Baptist conversionism was an experiential alternative to transubstantiation (and other forms of Real Presence), offering sinful individuals an alternative certainty that Christ had, if not literally, at least spiritually, come into them.

Defining the Believers' Church: Multiple Options

Thus the concept of a believers' church based in personal faith experience, confirmed in communal covenant, and sealed by believers' baptism was and remains the identifying distinctive of all Baptist communions. However, from the beginning of the movement to the present day, Baptist subdenominations have divided significantly, often in direct contradiction, over the nature and process of conversion, with multiple morphologies for entering into and going on in faith. In America, from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century, many of those conversion processes were shaped by or over against revivalism. As revivalism has waned as a mechanism for securing conversion, and as various demographic realities have impacted Baptist constituencies inside and outside the church, many Baptist groups and individuals face a profound identity crisis as to the meaning of a believers' church and the process for experiencing the "confession of faith & sins."

The uncertainty was there from the beginning, at least American Baptist historian William McLoughlin seemed to think so. In his study of Soul Liberty: The Baptists' Struggle in New England, 1630-1833, McLoughlin wrote:
   When they first arose in the early part of the seventeenth century,
   those who eventually were to be known as Baptists did not know
   whether to advocate complete or partial separation from the
   churches they left, whether they wanted open or closed communion
   with other Reformed Protestants or among themselves, whether they
   believed in baptism by sprinkling or immersion, whether they should
   worship on the seventh or the first day of the week, whether there
   were five or six principles fundamental to their faith, whether
   they should stand for pacifism, communism, faith healing,
   anti-magistracy, the priesthood of all believers, or, after all,
   for only a slightly modified form of Puritanism. In England and in
   Rhode Island they did not even know whether they stood for
   Calvinism or Arminianism. (20)

McLoughlin's summary describes Baptists together and apart, then and now. Almost 400 years later, if commitment to a believers' church unites, it also divides, and conflicting conversion morphologies illustrate the divisions.

Conversion Morphologies: Early Arminians

Calvinist and Arminian conversion motifs differentiated Baptists from the start. The Arminian-leaning 1611 Amsterdam confession declared that all humanity was "fallen, and having all disposition unto evil, and no disposition or will unto any good," and thus salvation was possible "only by the righteousness of CHRIST, apprehended by faith." (21) The Calvinist London Confession of 1644 concurred, asserting that all humanity is "fallen, and become altogether dead in sins and trespasses," so that "Christ Jesus by his death did bring forth salvation and reconciliation." (22) Then, however, the dual (and dueling?) confessional morphologies went their separate ways.

The 1611 statement affirms: "for GOD would have all ... saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth," and "would have all ... come to repentance." (23) This is in direct contradiction to the London Confession that asserts, "Faith is the gift of God wrought in the hearts of the elect by the Spirit of God, whereby they come to see, know, and believe the truth of the Scriptures." (24) The Arminian Standard Confession of 1660 notes that sinners are "justified ... by faith" "when they "shall assent to the truth of the Gospel, believing with all their hearts, that there is remission of sins, and eternal life to be had in Christ." Believers "shall (with godly sorrow for the sins past) commit themselves to his grace, confidently depending upon him for that which they believe is to be had in him such so believing are justified from their sins, their faith shall be accounted unto them for righteousness." (25)

Thus the Somerset Confession sets forth one of the earliest Baptist morphologies of salvation: "assent" to Gospel truth, "godly sorrow" for sins, a conviction in the "heart" of Christ's sufficiency to save, and a confident commitment "to his grace." Essentially this confession sets forth both the theology of and means for securing salvation--a salvation available to all who choose to believe.

Like most of the Arminian-based confessions, the Standard Confession also warns that "such who are true Believers, even Branches in Christ the Vine ... of a pure, and of a good conscience, and of Faith unfeigned, may nevertheless for want of watchfulness, swerve and turn aside from the same and become as withered Branches, cast into the fire and burned." (26) The 1611 Amsterdam confession is equally explicit that since believers "may fall away from the grace of God and from the truth, which they have received & acknowledged," none should "presume to think" that although they "had once grace" that they should always have it. Only if believers "continue unto the end" will they be saved eternally. (27)

As General Baptists engaged in various internal theological disputes over the Trinity and other doctrines, the Arminian approach to salvation moved from confessions of faith to strangely warmed hearts due to the Wesleyan revivals of the eighteenth century, evidenced in Dan Taylor and the New Baptist Connection. In America, the so-called First Great Awakening divided Calvinistic Baptists between Regulars and Separates, less over the need for conversion of all church members than over the nature of that conversion and its related "religious affections."

The New Connection of General Baptists, formed with Taylor's leadership in 1770, delineated six Articles of Religion in an effort "to revive Experimental Religion or Primitive Christianity." (28) Christ's death and resurrection made "a full atonement for all the sins of all ... and that hereby he has wrought out for us a compleat [sic] salvation; which is received by, and as a free gift communicated to, all that believe in him...." (29) Salvation was available for every person, so "that when a person comes to believe in Jesus (and not before) he is regenerated or renewed in his soul, by the spirit of God, through the instrumentality of the word, now believed and embraced ...," (30)

In the United States, the Freewill Baptists continue to offer a full appropriation of the Arminian order of salvation as expressed in numerous statements of faith. A more formal confession of faith, approved in 1937, explains that "salvation is rendered equally possible to all; and if any fail of eternal life, the fault is wholly his own." (31) The confession sets forth a rather clear morphology of repentance that includes "a deep conviction, a penitential sorrow, an open confession, a decided hatred, and an entire forsaking of all sin." Thus "saving faith" involves "assent of the mind to the fundamental truths of revelation, an acceptance of the Gospel, through the influence of the Holy Spirit, and a firm confidence and trust in Christ." Arminianism blossoms in the confessional assertion that "the power to believe is the gift of God, but believing is an act of the creature." (32)

Like their Freewill colleagues, the General Association of General Baptists, founded in 1870 through the work of Benoni Stinson (1789-1869), has long found its theological identity in the assertion that "Christ tasted death" for everyone, "and in so doing he provided a general atonement and a universal salvation. For this atonement to be effective in our souls, repentance and faith must be practiced on our part." Their confession also declares that "a Christian can backslide" and those who die in such a "condition" will be lost. (33)

Today's General and Freewill Baptists insist that regeneration follows repentance and faith, and that prevenient or enabling grace in the individual cooperates with God's saving grace made known in Christ to bring salvation to individual sinners. All human beings are potentially elected to salvation, but election is actualized only in those who exercise repentance and faith in response to Christ's redeeming work. Those who exercise their free will to choose grace may also choose knowingly to reject that grace along the way and therefore lose the salvation they once knew.

Conversion Morphologies: The Calvinists

Reformed Baptists are equally explicit about the nature and process of salvation, although in direct contradiction to the Arminians. The London Confession of 1644 declares "that Faith is the gift of God wrought in the hearts of the elect by the Spirit of God." Since all persons are totally depraved, they are incapable of exercising free will until God's sovereign grace is infused into their hearts. The London Confession asserts that this "faith is ordinarily begot in the preaching of the Gospel, or word of Christ, without respect to any power or capacity in the creature, but it is wholly passive, being dead in sins and trespasses, doth believe and is converted by no less power, than that which raised Christ from the dead." (34) Since conversion is the act of God alone, whereby certain persons are unconditionally elected to salvation, then "those that have this precious faith wrought in them by the Spirit can never finally nor totally fall away ... but shall be kept by the power of God to salvation...." (35)

Particular Baptists sharpened their confessional and conversionist statement in the Second London Confession with editions in 1677 and 1688. William L. Lumpkin noted that "the Calvinism of this Confession at points is more pronounced than that of the London Confession of 1644," since the doctrines followed closely the thoroughly Reformed Westminster Confession of Faith of the 1640s. (36) In doing so, these seventeenth-century Baptists joined the Presbyterians and Congregationalists in affirming total depravity whereby humanity by its "fall into a state of sin hath wholly lost all ability of Will, to any spiritual good accompanying salvation." Salvation was a singular act of grace by which "God converts" sinners, and restores their lost free will. This regeneration by and through Christ enlightened the minds of the elect, enabling them "spiritually, and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh ...," (37)

For these Calvinistic Baptists, election was as certain as the atonement of Christ was limited. The Second London Confession declared that "God did from eternity decree to justify all the Elect," through Christ's death and resurrection "for their Justification." Yet they were "not justified personally, until the Holy Spirit, doth in due time actually apply [infuse] Christ unto them." (38)

From the beginning of the Baptist movement, two distinct morphologies of conversion took shape among varying groups, both of which affirmed the necessity of regeneration by faith of all who would qualify for believers' baptism and church membership. These divisions became more pronounced as Baptist subdenominations proliferated and as later Baptists pressed their specific theological perspectives to their logical conclusions. Some scholars have pointed to extremes of "hyper-Calvinism" that, as H. Leon McBeth observed, "severely limited human ability to respond to the gospel." Others have reflected on what might be a hyper-Arminianism, a conversionism in which primary initiative for conversion rested with the individual in a salvific transaction that settled eternity once and always. Perhaps all Baptists are a little hyper when it comes to issues of salvation, justification, and reconciliation with God.

Articulating Baptist Calvinism: John Brine and John Gill

Many eighteenth-century British and American Baptist pastor-theologians sought to elaborate on the implications of salvation and election described in the Reformed-oriented confessions of faith. Leon McBeth's Sourcebook for Baptist History includes segments of works by Particular pastors John Brine (1703-1765) and John Gill (1697-1771) that illustrate the specificity of their Particular Baptist doctrine. Brine's commitment to divine sovereignty and unconditional election led him to insist that "Justification from Eternity" was a clear "scriptural doctrine," thereby denying the belief in justification by faith as put forth by "the Arminians and Socinians." (39) For Brine, the source of justification--the entry point to a believers' church--was "Christ's righteousness alone" known to and willed by the Father and the Son from before the foundation of the world, and actualized in Christ's own death and resurrection. The elect were made right with God, not by their faith, but by the imputed righteousness of Christ, secured for the elect on the cross. Thus Brine concluded "that in some sense the elect are saved before they believe, and consequently without faith." (40) Regeneration preceded faith, making possible free will where it did not exist before, enabling the elect to choose what was impossible before the righteousness of Christ was infused into their hearts.

Like Brine, John Gill centered the concept of a believers' church in the doctrine of election, insisting that it was the eternal rationale for God's salvific action in Christ. In A Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity (1769), Gill wrote that sinners were elected to salvation "not because Christ has shed his blood, died for them, redeemed and saved them; but Christ has done all this for them because they are elect; ... now it is not Christ's laying down his life for them that makes them sheep, and elect; they are so previous to that; but because they are sheep, and chosen ones in Christ, and given him by his Father, therefore he laid down his life for them...." (41) His more succinct assertion concluded: "Election does not find men [sic] in Christ, but puts them there; it gives them a being in him, and union to him; which is the foundation of their open being in Christ at conversion ...," (42)

In a direct response to his General Baptist neighbors, Gill insisted that sinners were not elected "because they are called, converted, &c but because they are elected they become all this." If receiving election required them to wait "until they persevered to the end, I see no need of their being elected at all." (43) Election did not require repentance and faith; rather, repentance and faith were possible only to the elect. Gill was and remains a major theologian for what is today known as the Strict Baptist movement in Britain

Modifying Calvinism: Andrew Fuller

An attempted corrective to the strict Calvinism of Brine and Gill came from Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) and William Carey (1761-1834) as they articulated a rationale for, in Carey's words, the "obligation of Christians to take the gospel to the heathen," and the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society. Fuller critiqued what he called the "high Calvinistic, or rather hyper Calvinistic, strain admitting nothing spiritually good to be the duty of the unregenerate, and nothing to be addressed to them in a way of exhortation, excepting what related to external obedience." (44)

Fuller attempted to soften this high Calvinism, not by denying the doctrine of election, but by insisting that "the question is not whether unconverted sinners be the subjects of exhortation, but whether they ought to be exhorted to perform spiritual duties." (45) Greatly influenced by the works of Jonathan Edwards, Fuller declared that the church and its preachers were obligated to declare the gospel to all sinners, urging them "to read [the scriptures], to hear [the gospel], to repent, and to pray, that their sins may be forgiven them" and the hearts of the elect might be opened to grace. This "modified Calvinism" created a theological justification and imperative for Baptists' engagement in founding mission societies in Britain and the U.S.

Missionary and Anti-Missionary Baptists

"Modified Calvinism" and its resulting mission strategy split Calvinistic Baptists into what came to be known as mission or anti-mission churches. Indeed, Primitive Baptists declared that missionary societies were not only contrary to Scripture, but also undermined divine sovereignty as the sole agent of conversion. Mission endeavors were a form of works-righteousness that implied human participation in the salvific process. One Primitive Baptist statement of faith addresses this directly, asserting:
   Most churches, outside the Primitive Baptists, who claim to believe
   in Particular Redemption (such as Reformed Baptist churches and
   other Sovereign Grace churches), believe in Fullerism, which
   Primitive Baptists deny. Our understanding of Particular Redemption
   sets us apart more than any other doctrinal distinctive. We hold
   that the Bible teaches that Christ died to save his elect, a
   definite number of people who can never be lost, (Particular
   Redemption). Considering these are the sinners for whom Christ
   died, he is a completely successful savior. His atonement is not
   limited in its ability to save but is limited to saving the elect
   only. (46)

Apparently "Fullerism" remains enough of a danger for some Baptist groups to continue to warn of it in their statements of faith. If Fullerism and mission societies fractured Baptists over the nature and constituency for salvation, revivalism completed the schism and set the pattern for calling persons to salvation.

The Awakenings: Revivalism as a Vehicle for Conversion

Divisions began early, with the First Great Awakening and formation of the Regular and Separate Baptists, factions that did not disagree over the need for a regenerate church membership but divided over the means for securing regeneration. Regulars worried that the Separates were merely "meddlesome enthusiasts, infected with the 'New Light' mania ...," (47) Separates feared that the Regulars were soft on original sin, human depravity, and the "doctrine of regeneration"--among other theological compromises. (48) Separates, too, were highly conversionistic, challenging certain Baptist practices that put more emphasis on external morality than on dramatic conversion. David Benedict observed that many Baptists in the Carolina backcountry had little comprehension of the call to be "born again" that marked the preaching of Separates Shubal Stearns and Daniel Marshall who insisted that "it should be necessary to feel conviction and conversion; and to be able to ascertain the time and place of one's conversion." Benedict added that "their manner of preaching was, if possible, much more novel than their doctrines." (49) The Regulars were hot gospellers, to be sure.

By the Second Great Awakening, revivalism had become the vehicle for declaring the need for and possibility of conversion in camp meetings and other protracted gatherings. Benedict cites Robert Baylor Semple's description of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century revivals where "scenes were exhibited somewhat extraordinary." Semple wrote:
   It was not unusual to have a large proportion of the congregation
   prostrate on the floor, and in some instances they lost the use of
   their limbs. No distinct articulation could be heard, unless from
   those immediately by; screams, groans, shouts, and hosannas, notes
   of grief and joy, all at the same time, were not unfrequently heard
   throughout their vast assemblies.... At first, many of the
   preachers disapproved of these exercises, as being enthusiastic and
   extravagant; others fanned them as fire from heaven. (50)

Even then the veracity of conversions could be troublesome. Semple observed: "It must also be admitted, that in many of those congregations, no little confusion and disorder arose after the revival subsided.... But certain it is that many ministers, who labored earnestly to get Christians into their churches, were afterwards perplexed to get hypocrites out." (51)

Conversion and African-American Baptists

The Awakenings carried Baptists into interracial connections they had not known before with the decision to evangelize slaves, a decision that had salvific and ecclesiastical implications. So Mechal Sobel writes that "the presence of many Afro-Americans at these revivals was one of the most important happenings for the blacks in America." (52) These religious experiences had multiple implications.

First, it made conversion a normative religious experience for black and white alike.

Second, it marked the beginnings of what became the black Baptist church movement in America, shaping issues of ecclesiology, theology, abolitionism, liberationism, and civil rights. Sobel suggests that the Baptist invitations to conversion came at an important time when blacks were linguistically "comfortable" enough to "appreciate the Baptist message and uncomfortable enough in their bifurcated Sacred Cosmos [from Africa] to hunger for a renewed one." (53)

Third, in ways that the white evangelists could not have anticipated, the revivals provided blacks with their first encounter with what Sobel calls "an emotional dimension of white religiosity." Thus "revivals opened common ground on which whites and blacks could share religious experience." (54)

Fourth, as Sobel writes that from these experiences, "blacks actually created a new world view that, despite their status as slaves, established order, values, and the possibility of personal development, including effectiveness, potency, achievement, and even fulfillment." Sobel concluded that "the new Sacred Cosmos [of their African-oriented] was an Afro-Baptist one." (55) In his study of "the black Baptist quest for social power," James Melvin Washington expanded the cosmological motif, concluding that, "Out of a determination to overcome the legacy of social invisibility fostered by white racism, they [African Americans] used the liturgical power of baptism by immersion to transform a 'bastard people' into a new social creation with its own 'cosmology.'" (56)

Washington insisted that this element of black religious experience reflected an ability to utilize Christian (and Baptist) "liturgies to forge distinctive theologies and spiritual praxes as vehicles for psychic and material deliverance." (57)

A Middle Way? The New Hampshire Confession

Revivals, conversions, and shared religious experience united and divided black and white Baptists alike. When Regular and Separate Baptists in the Ketockton Association sought reunion in 1787, they united around the imperative for conversion even as they negotiated their irreconcilable doctrinal differences. "After considerable debate," the minutes note, they concluded the following:
   To prevent the Confession of Faith [Philadelphia Confession] from
   usurping a tyrannical power over the consciences of any, we do not
   mean that every person is bound to the strict observance of every
   thing therein contained; yet that it holds forth the essential
   truths of the gospel, and that the doctrine of salvation by Christ,
   and free and unmerited grace alone, ought to be believed by every
   Christian, and maintained by every minister of the gospel. (58)

Not all Baptist associations were so unified. The Kehukee Association [Virginia) split in 1830 over mission societies and theological seminaries, with the "missionary Baptists" departing and leaving what became the Kehukee Primitive Baptist Association, with its assertion "that in God's appointed time and way (by means which He has ordained) the elect shall be called, justified, pardoned and sanctified, and that it is impossible they can utterly refuse the call, but shall be made willing by divine grace to receive the offers of mercy." Thus the new birth came only as a result of the "imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ." (59)

For many (but certainly not all) Baptists, revivalism ultimately shortened the process of conversion considerably, making the will freer and extending individual participation in the salvific process. In short, various groups of Baptists learned to talk like Calvinists but act like Arminians, at least where conversion and the believers' church was concerned. The New Hampshire Confession of 1833 illustrates the transition in this affirmation:
   that the blessings of salvation are made free to all by the Gospel;
   that it is the immediate duty of all to accept them by a cordial,
   [penitent,] and obedient faith, and that nothing prevents the
   salvation of the greatest sinner on earth except his [own inherent
   depravity] and voluntary refusal to submit to the Lord Jesus
   Christ, which refusal will subject him to an aggravated
   condemnation. (60)

The document references the "inherent depravity" of human beings and their "voluntary refusal" to move toward grace in Jesus Christ. The atonement is potentially for all, and individuals bear the responsibility for their own salvation and damnation. The new birth (regeneration) involves the gift of "a holy disposition to the mind ... by the power of the Holy Spirit" that secures "our voluntary obedience to the Gospel...." (61) This statement reflects the interaction between enabling (prevenient) and saving (regenerative) grace in which free will cooperates with divine grace to effect conversion.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of a conversionist compromise is in the New Hampshire Confession's statement "Of God's Purpose of Grace," which reads: "That election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which he [graciously] regenerates, sanctifies, and saves sinners; that being perfectly consistent with the free agency of man ... a most glorious display of God's sovereign goodness ... that it encourages the use of means in the highest degree ..." (62)

Thus the New Hampshire Confession utilizes the language of Calvinism--election, divine sovereignty--while allowing readers to define it in terms of the "free agency" of the individual. The confession is less specific as to whether an individual's free agency is initiated before or after regeneration. Its Reformed terminology thus is open to Arminian interpretation. William L. Lumpkin pointed out that the confession became a guide for the Landmarkist American Baptist Association, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, the Southern Baptist Convention, and a variety of other groups. Its publication in numerous "church manuals" made the New Hampshire Confession "the most widely disseminated creedal declaration of American Baptists." (63)

The Way(s) of Salvation: Multiple Morphologies

These confessional and theological explanations for regeneration and church membership were implemented through varying morphologies for experiencing actual conversion. They represent specific methods for entering into grace, and include the following:

Plan Conversion: The emphasis is on a "plan of salvation" that outlines an individual's journey to faith, culminating in a "sinner's prayer" by which the individual "invites Jesus into the heart" and receives salvation. This plan reflects a more Arminian approach for encountering grace and reflects a specific salvific transaction.

Lordship Conversion: In contrast to the transactionalism of Plan Salvation, this more Reformed evangelical approach suggests that entry into grace is inseparable from perseverance (Christ's lordship), by which the elect give evidence of the abiding presence and authority of Christ in the life of the believer.

Positive-Thinking Conversion: Often identified with the work of Norman Vincent Peale or Robert Schuller, positive-thinking conversion re-orients sinners toward a new sense of self and away from old guilt fostered by external and internal inadequacies. Conversion brings a new self-confidence to conquer personal sin, insecurity, and weakness.

Marketing Conversion: Many "seeker-sensitive" churches attempt to get the attention of secularized non-believers by marketing the gospel as a product that changes lives and offers salvific assets. They insist that the story of Jesus' salvific work is the same, but the product is necessarily presented in ways that get the attention of a market-oriented constituency.

Propositional Conversion links salvation to specific doctrinal orthodoxy without which genuine conversion is theologically and personally impossible. Simply to "believe in Jesus" is not sufficient apart from affirmation of certain unchanging biblical doctrines--Virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection--that articulate who Jesus is and what he accomplished that makes salvation possible.

Nurturing Conversion: Many Baptists come to faith through the nurturing traditions of the church that begin with Christian families and extends through the life of the believing community from childhood to adulthood. Some persons testify to such nurture in ways so all pervasive that they "never knew a time when they did not believe in Jesus." Nurture often involves less dramatic conversion than continued confirmation of faith introduced at an early age. (64)

Truth is, grace may find persons through all of those morphologies. In fact, in the pluralistic Baptist world, some persons combine multiple elements from those paths for securing salvation. The continuing issue remains the same for contemporary Baptists as for their Puritan and revivalistic forebears: How does the objective grace of God's saving activity in Jesus Christ become the subjective salvific experience of an ordinary sinner? How do persons encounter such grace and retain it in this world, on the way to the next?

Although contemporary Baptists may continue to affirm an ecclesiology and soteriology grounded in the believers' church, they differ, often in theologically contradictory ways, over who can receive God's grace and how to secure it. The spectrum of historic Baptist conversionism runs from salvation by the "imputed righteousness of Christ" and the "passivity" of the convert, to the "cooperation" of sinner and Spirit in entering into grace, from a single prayer prayed at a revival service to the nurturing "confirmation" of the believing community. Some Baptists insist that certain human beings fail to embrace grace because they can never find it, born into total depravity and outside God's elect. Other Baptists assert that all persons are free to choose, reject, or ignore the salvation offered to all the children of Eve and Adam through God's "new Adam," Jesus. Whether it is because they can't or because they won't, some humans don't find their way to grace through Jesus Christ.

What might these age-old affirmations and differences mean for those Baptist communions that continue a commitment to a church of believers?

First, Baptist churches might re-examine the nature and meaning of believers' church concepts and decide if that is a viable approach to the gospel.

Second, if the believers' church remains a source of ecclesiastical identity for Baptists, then they had best learn to articulate its meaning with clarity in a post-modern, and in some places post-Christian, society.

Third, like their nineteenth-century frontier counterparts, twenty-first-century Baptists might reflect on the methods they use for introducing persons to faith in terms that address biblical imperatives, spiritual insights, concrete morphologies, and cultural contexts.

Finally, like African-American Christians renouncing slavery and claiming civil rights, today's Baptists might consider the relationship between personal salvation and the Beloved Community, a covenantal concern for grace, justice, and community, not simply in the world to come, but in an affirmation that "the kingdom of God has come near," then and there, here and now.


(1) Richard J. Hooker, ed. The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution: The Journal and Other Writings of Charles Woodmason, Anglican Itinerant (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953), 109. See also John G. Crowley, Primitive Baptists of the Wiregrass South 1815 to the Present (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1998), 8.

(2) Howard Dorgan, Giving Glory to God in Appalachia: Worship Practices of Six Baptist Subdenominations (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987).

(3) Sidney Mead, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 104.

(4) Elmer T. Clark, Small Sects in America (New York: Peter Smith, 1981).

(5) Bill J. Leonard, Baptist Ways: A History (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1990), 6-9. This segment of the text provides a list of certain common characteristics of Baptist identity.

(6) William L. Lumpkin and Bill J. Leonard, eds., Baptist Confessions of Faith Second Revised Edition (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2011), 213.

(7) Ibid., 111.

(8) Leonard, Baptist Ways, 6-7.

(9) Lumpkin and Leonard, Baptist Confessions, 112.

(10) Ibid., 154-155 (London Confession, 1644); and 286-287 (Second London Confession, 1689).

(11) Dorgan, Giving Glory to God, 27.

(12) Ibid., 294. The Second London Confession of Particular Baptists notes that "worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible Elements in this Ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally, and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified.... the Body and Blood of Christ, being then not corporally, or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of Believers ..." The New Hampshire Confession says that in the Supper "baptized believers" "are to commemorate together the dying love of Christ, preceded always by solemn self-examination. (See Lumpkin and Leonard, Baptist Confessions, 383.) The North American Baptist Association's 1955 confession suggests that "the Lord's Supper as a church ordinance is to be ministered to baptized believers only and in Scriptural church capacity." (See Lumpkin and Leonard, Baptist Confessions, 396.)

(13) H. Wheeler Robinson, The Life and Faith of the Baptists (New York: George H. Doran Company, n.d.), 13.

(14) Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists, 3rd ed. (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1978), 30.

(15) Paul S. Fiddes, Tracks and Traces: Baptist Identity in Church and Theology (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2003), 6-7.

(16) William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1963), 9-10.

(17) Torbet, A History of the Baptists, 3rd ed., 19.

(18) Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972) 132.

(19) Lumpkin and Leonard, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 110.

(20) William G. McLoughlin, Soul Liberty: The Baptists' Struggle in New England, 1630-1833 (Hanover, NH: Brown University Press, 1991), 13-14.

(21) Lumpkin and Leonard, Baptist Confessions, 109-110.

(22) Ibid., 145 and 150.

(23) Ibid., 110.

(24) Ibid., 150.

(25) Ibid., 208-209.

(26) Ibid., 211.

(27) Ibid., 110. See other Arminian-oriented confessions such as the True-Gospel Faith, 179.

(28) McBeth, Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990), 107.

(29) Lumpkin and Leonard, Baptist Confessions, 357.

(30) Ibid., 358.

(31) Ibid., 389.

(32) Ibid., 389-390. The Freewill Baptist web page includes the following: Salvation--Man receives pardon and forgiveness for his sins when he admits to God that he is a sinner, when in godly sorrow he turns from them and trusts in the work of Christ as redemption for his sin. This acceptance of God's great salvation involves belief in Christ's death on the cross as man's substitute and the fact of God's raising Him from the dead as predicted. It is a salvation by grace alone and not of works. Who Can be Saved?--It is God's will that all be saved, but since man has the power of choice, God saves only those who repent of their sin and believe in the work of Christ on the cross. Those who refuse in this life to repent and believe have no later chance to be saved and thus condemn themselves to eternal damnation by their unbelief. See

(33) Ollie Latch, History of the General Baptists (Poplar Bluff, MO: General Baptist Press, 1954), 3.

(34) Ibid., 150-151.

(35) Ibid., 151.

(36) Ibid., 218.

(37) Ibid., 253.

(38) Ibid., 256.

(39) John Brine, A Defense of the Doctrine of Eternal Justification (London: n.p., 1732), cited in H. Leon McBeth, Sourcebook, 116.

(40) Ibid., 117.

(41) John Gill, A Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity (London: n.p., 1769), cited in McBeth, Sourcebook, 119.

(42) Ibid.

(43) Ibid.

(44) Andrew Fuller, Memoir, cited in McBeth, Sourcebook, 130.

(45) Andrew Fuller, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, 1781, cited in McBeth, Sourcebook, 133.

(46) Limited Atonement (Particular Redemption)," DoctrineAndPractice.htm#PrimitiveBaptist_Doctrine.

(47) David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America (New York: Sheldon, Lamport and Blakeman, 1855), 391-393, cited in McBeth, Sourcebook, 143. McBeth references divisions in Second Baptist Church, Boston, in 1743, regarding Regular/Separate Baptist differences.

(48) Ibid.

(49) David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America (Boston: Manning & Loring, 1813), 1:37-42, cited in McBeth, Sourcebook, 162-163.

(50) David Benedict, A History of the Baptist Denomination in America (New York: Lewis Colby and Company, 1848), 657-658.

(51) Ibid., 658.

(52) Mechal Sobel, Trablin' On. The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 97.

(53) Ibid., 101.

(54) Ibid., 98.

(55) Ibid.

(56) James Melvin Washington, Frustrated Fellowship-.The Black Baptist Quest for Social Power (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986), 205.

(57) Ibid.

(58) Benedict, A History of the Baptist Denomination, 652.

(59) Lumpkin and Leonard, Baptist Confessions, 372.

(60) Ibid., 380.

(61) Ibid.

(62) Ibid., 381.

(63) Ibid., 377-378. Debates over these issues continues among twenty-first-century Baptists as evidenced in the "Anti-Calvinist" response set forth by a group of Southern Baptists and based on the acronym POINSETTIA, affirmed in the following doctrines: "Pursuit Unconditional: God desires all to be saved and has made a way of salvation in Christ for any person. Own Guilt: Fallen man inherits a sinful nature but is condemned only because of his own sin. Inclusive Atonement: The substitutionary atonement of Christ is effective and available for every person. Natural Responsibility: God's grace takes all the initiative in saving souls. Man's free response is not a work. Spontaneous Regeneration: Any who repent and believe are regenerated at that point, not before or apart from it. Election Available: In election, God saves people without predetermining their souls for heaven or hell. Temperate Foreknowledge: God's sovereign omniscience does not mean he causes human decisions about Jesus. True Freedom: God gives to each person actual free will to accept or reject his call to salvation. Indestructible Security: When one is saved, God promises to complete the process, sealing their eternal fate. Almighty Gospel: As we share God's love, the gospel is the means of bringing any person to Christ." See Bob Allen, "'Traditional' Southern Baptists counter Calvinism," June 9, 2014,

(64) Bill J. Leonard, "A Sense of the Heart:" A History of Christian Religious Experience in the United States (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014).

Bill J. Leonard is the founding dean and professor of church history at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
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Date:Jun 22, 2014
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