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The effect and implications of the theology of Elder Reuben Ross on Baptist life.

Theological studies have been traditionally concerned with the analysis of the various "writing" theologians. Yet, widespread doctrinal perspectives and changes--while influenced by these writers--take place primarily on the grassroots level through lesser-known individuals.

Among those lesser known in Baptist theological life is Reuben Ross. Ross, an ordained Baptist minister of early nineteenth-century Tennessee and Kentucky, changed his theological views from hyper-Calvinism to evangelical-Calvinism, and finally to a modified Calvinist or even Arminian position. Ross's theological adjustments affected his personal ministry and led to the founding of a new association, a fact that had implications for regional, and even national, Baptist life.

The Theology of Reuben Ross

Born on May 9, 1776, to a family of Scotch-Irish origin, Reuben Ross was a native of Martin County, North Carolina. (1) In 1798, Ross married Mildred Yarrell, and as a result of his wife's conversion to faith, he himself would take the claims of Christ seriously and experience salvation. At the age of twenty-six, Ross was baptized by Elder Luke Ward of the Skewarkey Baptist Church, Williamston, North Carolina, which was affiliated with the Kehukee Baptist Association. (2)

After his conversion, Ross experienced a call to ministry and was licensed. He was ordained in 1807 by a presbytery of Elders Ward, Joseph Biggs, and James Ross (Reuben's brother). (3) Ross's ordination preceded his household's departure for the Cumberland settlements of Kentucky-Tennessee, following a business failure. After a two-month journey by land, Ross and his family settled in Port Royal, Montgomery County, Tennessee, on July 4, 1807. (4)

While settling, the Ross family began worshipping with the Red River Baptist Church. Immediately, the church placed Ross in leadership roles. Fourteen days after his arrival in Port Royal, Ross preached for the Red River congregation. Three months later, on October 3, 1807, the church minutes noted, "Rec'd bro. Reuben Ross, an ordained minister and his wife Milly Ross by letter from the church in Martin Co., North Carolina." Two weeks later, the church selected Ross as moderator for the next church conference. (5)

As a Regular Baptist, Ross inherited the understandings of the doctrine of the atonement that were common to his time. His son, James, wrote of his father's theological views during this period of his life:
 He adopted the rigid views of his family and of the church to which
 they belonged.... [T]hey believed in particular and unconditional
 election and reprobation, that Christ died for the elect only ...
 that the almighty ... without the least regard to character or
 conduct had elected or selected one here and another there to be
 saved and had passed all others by as vessels of wrath fitted to
 destruction. (6)

While accepting this perspective, Ross had trouble rationalizing this understanding. He "could not understand how this could be when the sacred writings declare that his tender mercies are over all his words." (7)

In spite of limited education, Ross spent considerable time exploring the doctrine. Starting with his Bible, he searched the scriptures' teachings on the atonement. Over time, he saved the money necessary to purchase books that commented on this subject. At one point, Ross knew where to obtain a copy of Gill's Body of Divinity for six dollars, but he feared going in debt to purchase the tome. After saving the funds, his son noted that "the book, though, was at last bought, and for days we saw but little of him, so much was he absorbed in its perusal." (8) After purchasing Body of Divinity, Ross acquired two more influential documents. The first, Andrew Fuller's The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, became a major influence on Ross's thought. The second, Butterworth's Concordance, allowed Ross to trace key concepts throughout the scriptures. (9)

Ross's studies led him to open gospel invitations to all persons, without regard to their status of election. This action eventually led to his theological shift from hyper-Calvinism to evangelical Calvinism. (10) James Ross's memories of his father's doctrinal changes reveal that much agonizing went into the process; Ross did not change his stance easily. But the impression that his son offered was that these changes occurred rapidly and that Ross's shift to evangelical Calvinism was completed at an early date.

In contrast, James Madison Pendleton (1811-1891) noted that Ross's theological transformation occurred naturally, but gradually. According to Pendleton, Ross continued to hold to limited atonement even after he began issuing universal gospel invitations. But "it was not long ... before his investigations led him to the conclusion that what is styled 'general atonement' supplies the only consistent reasons for preaching the gospel to all men." (11) As Ross's views became known within the association, Pendleton listed three points at which Ross departed from prevailing theology:

1. Preaching the gospel to sinners, and the consequent duty of sinners to repent.

2. The nature and extent of the atonement of Christ.

3. The nature and extent of the influence of the Holy Spirit. (12)

Assigning specific dates to these developments in Ross's theology is difficult, which will become evident after an examination of the reaction to the new teachings in the Red River Association.

The Red River Baptist Association

The earliest Baptist congregation in the Cumberland region was organized in present-day Robertson County, Tennessee, in 1786. The congregation soon dissolved. The oldest continuous church in the area is Red River (originally, Mouth of Sulphur Fork of Red River), which was constituted in 1791. (13)

Four new congregations soon organized in the area: White's Creek (now New Bethel), Head of Sulphur Fork, Middle Fork, and West Fork of Station Camp. In 1796, these five churches organized the Mero District Association. (14) Internal dissension quickly led to the dissolution of this association, but in 1803, another association, Cumberland, was organized. (15) Due to the growth and number of churches in the Cumberland region, a second association, the Red River Association was organized on April 15, 1807. (16)

The first available minutes of the Red River Association, which contain an abstract of principles, date to 1819. The association's abstract conformed to the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, the normative confessional statement for Regular Baptists. This conformity included the understandings of classical Calvinism.

The Conflict

According to an 1826 associational circular letter by Elders Ross, William Tandy, and Sugg Fort, the conflict that eventually led to the formation of the Bethel Association began in 1816. In the 1826 letter, the writers noted: "An unpleasantness was manifested, by some of our elder brethren in the ministry, towards some of our doctrinal views, namely, the calling on sinners, in our congregations, to repent of their sins, and believe the gospel, and that the invitations of the gospel, were to all, to whom it was preached." (17)

Ross's son credited the opening of hostilities to a sermon preached by Ross in June 1817. At the funeral of Eliza Norfleet, Ross proclaimed: "Christ by his suffering and death has made an atonement sufficient for the sins of the whole world,--that salvation to all who will accept the terms, is as free as the light of heaven or as the air we breathe ... that the Almighty before the foundation of the world elected those to be saved, that he knew from the beginning would love and serve him." (18)

Some of the ministers present were perplexed. Elder Sugg Fort was sent to counsel Ross about the "grievous heresy of Arminianism" that he was proclaiming. According to the James Ross, Fort left the encounter converted to Ross's theology. (19) Pendleton also noted this conversion: "When Elder Ross began to preach to the impenitent, Eiders Lewis Moore, Jesse Brooks, Isaac Totevine, Sugg Fort and many others regarded him as transcending the limits of ministerial duty.... Fort, before a great while, saw that all men are the subjects of gospel address, and changed his mode of preaching accordingly." (20)

Yet, according to Pendleton, the conversion of Fort occurred gradually, not after a single meeting as James Ross recorded. Thus, both Fort and Ross most likely developed their views gradually over time. Pendleton noted with regard to Ross's three points of departure that he "was not prepared to present these three points at once, for at first he saw no logical connection between them, and his opinion in after years was that he was providentially restrained from their joint presentation; for, said he, "if I had introduced them all at once, I would have been crushed by my opponents." (21)

Ross's concept of "universal calls" evidently developed around 1816 and became public knowledge by the associational meeting that year. By June 1817, his theology had shifted even further. Fort and other comrades accepted Ross's views, but by no means did this acceptance happen concurrently.

By 1823, the "cold war" over theology began to heat up within the association. Apparently at the 1822 session (no minutes extant), a motion was made to divide the association and to instruct the churches to send their vote by church letter. The motion was defeated: nine voted for division, eighteen voted against, and two remained neutral. (22)

That same year, a new church, "Lebanon, being in Todd county, Ky.," petitioned for admittance into the Red River Association. The petition was postponed until the last session and was denied with no reason stated. Future actions shed light on this rejection. (23)

In 1824, the "cold war" escalated to a melting point. A convention of churches was scheduled to meet in November in order to work out all differences. (24) When the convention convened, it was actually an ecclesiastical trial, and Ross was charged with disturbing the peace of the association and "preaching contrary to the Abstracts of Principles."

Ross sought refuge in the second article of Red River's abstract by stating "if the Word of God is the only rule, there is no other rule, and I will be tried by no other." (25) After this declaration, the opposition died down. (26) Apparently, not all of Ross's theology was being challenged. The 1826 circular stated that the only "cause of grief" brought up at the convention was "the preaching of the atonement to be general or universal in its nature." (27) Thus, the "preaching of the atonement to be general," not the "extent of the atonement," was the issue debated. The main concern was the issuing of an invitation to the elect and non-elect, which was an evangelical Calvinistic practice and was a natural outgrowth of the revival atmosphere. This practice would be difficult to attack in that milieu.

The conflict may seem like a "splitting of theological hairs." If it were truly an Arminian controversy, the association most likely would have split earlier over the issue. In the end, the decision of the convention was to continue with the status quo: "We agree, after all that has been said on the subject of the atonement, although some little difference of sentiments exists, to live together in peace and harmony, bearing and forebearing with each other." (28) The "preaching of the atonement to be general" could have been accepted as "some little difference"; the "extent of the atonement to be general" could not have been classified as "a little difference."

The peace, however, was short-lived. After the 1825 associational meeting was convened, those in attendance discovered that sixteen of the twenty-eight churches represented had no intention of following the convention's advice. (29) Ross served on the committee responsible for arranging the agenda for the Monday meeting, and this committee recommended: "[That] the association ... divide herself into two ... the upper district to be called the Red River association, & the lower to be called [name to be determined later] giving each and every church in each district choice which association she will join & live in." (30) The recommendation was adopted.

A New Association

Following the 1825 Red River meeting, messengers met in October at Mount Gilead Church, Todd County, Kentucky, "to deliberate on the expediency or inexpediency of constituting a new Association." The churches represented were Red River, Spring Creek of West Fork, Drakes Pond, Union, Mount Gilead, Bethel, Little West Fork, New Providence (now Hopkinsville, First), Russellville, and Pleasant Grove. (31)

After deciding to organize a new association, which would be named Bethel, the messengers from Russellville and Union withdrew. After completing the organization, three churches--Elkton, Lebanon (now Trenton), and Mount Zion--were admitted. (32) Lebanon was the church that had been denied membership at the 1823 Red River session. This church was probably organized by the supporters of the evangelical theology, and the rejection could have led to increased animosity.

As part of establishing the Bethel Association, the constitution, abstract of principles, and rules of decorum of the parent association were adopted. This move seems unusual if the new body had accepted Ross's theology completely. (33)

Elders Ross, Tandy, and Fort were instructed to write a circular letter. The letter's objective was to justify the separation from the Red River Association. The epistle concluded with these words: "Dear Brethren, is it not abundantly evident from scripture that Christ satisfied the holy law of God, and by virtue of that satisfaction, all the mercies that a lost world receives from God, must flow?--and is it not equally evident, that on the ground of that satisfaction, that the Gospel is to be preached to every creature?" (34) Clearly, the point of contention in this controversy was over the proper audience for a gospel invitation.

The doctrinal position soon began to change within Bethel. In 1834, an unnamed church requested a revision of the constitution and abstract of principles. A committee, which included Elders Ross, William Warder, William Tandy, W. C. Warfield, Robert Rutherford, Robert Anderson, and Brother John Pendleton, was appointed to carry out the assignment and furnish each church with a copy of their report prior to the next session. Each church was instructed to vote on any proposed changes and indicate its preference at the upcoming meeting. (35)

The committee presented its report to the 1835 gathering, and "great unanimity of sentiment [was] expressed by the Churches on the subject of the revision." Because five new churches had joined the association and several of these churches had not instructed their delegates how to vote, the issue was resubmitted to the congregations. (36)

New articles were adopted in 1836 and were printed at that time. This document was a major departure from the abstracts adopted from the Red River Association. (37) Article four of the new confession taught that election was through the work of the Holy Spirit and the "obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ." No mention was made of a pre-creation determinism of the elect by God. (38) Article five proclaimed that "the Redeemer ... tasted death for every man" and that Christ is the "Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe" and that "all men every where are commanded to repent of their sins." (39)

The 1836 minutes concluded with a circular letter by Elder Anderson on the atonement, in which he wrote:
 [Limited atonement] reduces the atonement to the penuriusness of
 pecuniary transaction, and presents the god of love under the
 character of a narrow minded calculator, demanding for our surety
 the utmost farthing, determined to bestow no blessing for which he
 has not received the full compensation ... yet God commands every
 man, every where, to repent. The repentance of any man will not be
 available except through an atonement for that man, therefore, a
 call from God to every man must be founded on an atonement for every
 man in his own person. (40)

By 1836, new views were being accepted within the Bethel Association.

Ross continued to influence the association by pastoring several member churches and by serving as "father of Bethel Association." He served as moderator from 1825 to 1851, resigning due to ill health and age, but he remained active as long as his health allowed. Ross died on January 28, 1860, at the age of eighty-four. (41)

Theological Implications

Were the theological changes introduced by Ross through the Bethel Association mere isolated incidences, or were they felt beyond its boundaries? Four pieces of evidence support the supposition that Ross's theology had a rippling effect on Baptist life and thought.

First, Bethel grew astronomically in its early years. After a meager beginning of 8 churches and about 700 members, Bethel grew to 62 churches and more than 7,000 members by the Civil War. At that time, the association encompassed churches in eight counties of Kentucky and Tennessee and operated Bethel College (from 1854 to 1964). (42) Bethel also served as a parent to two associations--Cumberland of Tennessee (1871) and Christian County of Kentucky (1923). Bethel was also the grandparent to two Tennessee associations--Nashville (1900) and Robertson County (1915)--both from the Cumberland.

Second, in at least one instance, Bethel's 1836 articles were adopted by another association. In 1842, the Concord Association (Tennessee) reunited after a Regular/Separate Baptist split of fifteen years. After the reunion, the association assumed the name "Concord Association of United Baptists" and adopted a new confession, which was an adaptation of Bethel's 1836 articles. (43) Only one substantial difference exists between the two confessions. The Concord document included an article on the perseverance of the saints that was absent in the Bethel articles. Concord, when adopting a new confession, would have had the Bethel document available. The two associations were in correspondence with one another and exchanged printed minutes.

Third, Bethel's actions suggested future movements that would occur among Baptists. The 1836 articles reflected the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, which was adopted with adaptations in 1925 (revised in 1963, 1998, and 2000) by the Southern Baptist Convention and is known as the Baptist Faith and Message. In relation to atonement, this document is considered a compromise statement, at best, and/or weak by many Calvinists.

Finally, the teachings of Ross had a wider circulation through Pendleton. Although he was born in Virginia, Pendleton's parents moved to Kentucky shortly after his birth. (44) After his conversion, Pendleton was licensed by the Bethel church in 1830 and ordained by the Hopkinsville church in 1833. Both congregations were charter members of the Bethel Association. (45)

Pendleton had many links with Ross and his theology. Ross was on the presbytery that ordained Pendleton and delivered the ordination sermon. The first several years after his ordination, Pendleton served churches within the bounds of the Bethel Association. He gave the introductory sermon at the 1836 meeting--the year the new confession was adopted. (46) Pendleton eulogized his mentor with a funeral sermon on July 23, 1860, recalling how much Ross had influenced his life. (47)

In addition to Ross, Pendleton had another more direct contact with the new theology. Pendleton's father, John, was the lone lay member on the 1836 revision committee and was a messenger from Bethel church in 1825 to organize the new association. (48)

Ross's teachings would be given broader circulation by Pendleton through his writings. Pendleton is principally known for his ecclesiology, due to his association with J. R. Graves and Landmarkism. But Pendleton also wrote in many areas of theology, including a systematic theology, Christian Doctrines (1878), and a Church Manual (1867). Unlike Graves, however, Pendleton did not hold to limited atonement. In Christian Doctrines, Pendleton wrote:
 Now, if Christ did not die for all, and if it is the duty of all to
 believe in him, it is the duty of some-those for whom he did not
 die--to believe an untruth. This also reduces the matter to an
 absurdity for it cannot be the duty of any one to believe what is
 not true. We must either give up the position that it is the duty of
 all men to believe the gospel, or admit that the atonement of Christ
 has reference to all men. (49)

Pendleton's Church Manual probably has had the greatest influence with regard to the dissemination of Ross's views. Pendleton used as a model in his manual the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, a confession that has affinities with the 1836 Bethel articles. This manual remains in print today. Its accessibility helped make the New Hampshire Confession the statement of choice among Southern Baptists, through the Baptist Faith and Message.

Robert Kendall cited Pendleton and Landmarkism as weakening factors for Calvinism among Southern Baptists:
 Landmarkism ... was preponderantly symptomatic of a cultural
 deprivation. This contributed to a snowballing momentum that rolled
 with fury into the twentieth century, while also painlessly
 permitting a theological lag. This lull precipitated a theological
 sluggishness that in turn enabled many Southern Baptists to accept
 uncritically the bare remnants of Calvinism. (50)

At first glance, the theology of Reuben Ross appears to have no significant effect on larger Baptist life. Yet, the evolution of Ross's understandings of the atonement and the formation of the Bethel association have influenced Baptist theology to this day.

(1.) James Ross, The Life and Times of Elder Reuben Ross (Philadelphia: Grant, Faires, and Rodgers, 1882; rep. ed., Nashville: McQuiddy Printing, 1977), 21-22

(2.) Ibid., 51; J. M. Pendleton, "Life and Times of Elder Reuben Ross," Southern Baptist Review 6 (September 1860): 399; Ross, Life and Times, 69.

(3.) Ibid., 69-70, 77.

(4.) Ibid., 74-77, 107.

(5.) Minutes of Red River Baptist Church, 1791-1826: Robertson County, Tennessee, trans. Mary Holland Lancaster (Springfield, TN: Springfield Printing, n.d.), 64-65.

(6.) Ross, Life and Times, 278.

(7.) Ibid., 279.

(8.) Ibid., 280-81.

(9.) Ibid., 281.

(10.) Ibid., 282.

(11.) Pendleton, "Life and Times," 409.

(13.) John Bond, History of the Baptist Concord Association of Middle Tennessee and North Alabama (Nashville: Graves, Marks, and Company, 1860), 7-8.

(14.) Ibid., 8.

(15.) Ibid., 10.

(16.) J. H. Spencer, A History of Kentucky Baptists, from 1769 to 1885 (n.p., 1886; reprint, Gallatin, TN: Church History Research and Archives, 1994), 2: 226.

(17.) Minutes, Bethel Baptist Association (KY), 1826, 3.

(18.) Ross, Life and Times, 289.

(19.) Ibid., 290.

(20.) Pendleton, "Life and Times," 409.

(21.) Ibid., 410.

(22.) Minutes, Red River Baptist Association (KY), 1823, 3.

(23.) Ibid., 2-3.

(24.) Minutes, Bethel Baptist Association (KY), 1826, 4,

(25.) Pendleton, "Life and Times," 411-12.

(26.) Ibid., 412.

(27.) Minutes, Bethel Baptist Association (KY), 1826, 4.

(28.) Ibid., 4.

(29.) Ibid.

(30.) Minutes, Red River Baptist Association (KY), 1825, 3.

(31.) Minutes, Bethel Baptist Association (KY), 1825, 1-2.

(32.) Ibid., 1-2: Rusellville and Union churches joined later (1828 and 1830); Drakes Pond rejoined the Red River in 1831 or 1832.

(33.) Ibid., 3, 8.

(34.) Minutes, Bethel Baptist Association (KY), 1826, 4,

(35.) Minute, Bethel Baptist Association (KY), 1834, 4,

(36.) Minutes, Bethel Baptist Association (KY), 1835, 4.

(37.) Minutes, Bethel Baptist Association (KY), 1836, 4.

(38.) Ibid.

(39.) Ibid.

(40.) Minutes, Bethel Baptist Association (KY), 1836, 7.8

(41.) Pendleton, "Life and Times," 413, 417,

(42.) Timothy Mohon, "Revolt on the Borderland: The Exodus of Tennessee Baptist Churches from the Bethel Baptist Association in 1871--A Case Study in Baptist Ecclesiology," Kentucky Baptist Heritage 20, no. 1 (November 1995): 25; Carl Fields, "Baptist Education in Kentucky," in Baptists in Kentucky, 1776-1976: A Bicentennial volume, ed. Leo T. Crismon (Middletown: Kentucky Baptist Convention, 1975), 165, 172-73.

(43.) Bond, Baptist Concord Association, 40, 69-72.

(44.) Keith E. Eitel, "James Madison Pendleton," in Baptist Theoligians, eds. Timothy George and David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990), 188.

(45.) Ibid., 190,

(46.) Minutes, Bethel Baptist Association (KY), 1836, 1

(47.) Pendleton, "Life and Times," 419, 395.

(48.) Minutes, Bothel Baptist Association (KY), 1834, 4; 1825, 1.

(49.) Robert T. Kendall, 'The Rise and Demise of Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention' (M.A. thesis, University of Louisville, 1973), 94; James Madison Pendleton, Christian Doctrines: A Compendium of Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1878; rep. ed., Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1954), 245.

(50.) Ibid., 94.

Timothy Mohon is pastor of the Grand Prairie Baptist Church, Marion, Ohio.
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Author:Mohon, Timothy
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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