Thursday, April 05, 2007

Whitsitt controversy

One of the controversies Shurden discusses in his book Not a Silent People is the controversy over Baptist origins, aka the Whitsitt controversy. In the 1890s, William Heth Whitsitt (1841-1911) wrote an article for the Johnson's Encyclopedia, in which he set forth the belief that the Baptists in England began to baptize by immersion in 1641 and previously had not practiced immersion. Before this he had anonymously proposed this theory in New York Independent in 1880 (or at least later claimed several of such editorials). In September 1896 he put out a book on the subject entitled A Question in Baptist History.

"During the autumn of 1877, shortly after I had been put in charge of the school of Church History at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in preparing my lectures on Baptist History, I made the discovery that, prior to the year 1641 our Baptist people in England were in the practice or sprinkling and pouring for baptism. I kept it to myself until the year 1880..."

Whitsitt's "discoveries" set off a firestorm which only subsided with his dismissal as president and church history professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. The battle against Whitsitt was led by such men as T. T. Eaton, John T. Christian, and B. H. Carroll. Later commentators would claim that these men "won the battle but lost the war", pointing out that all six of the Southern Baptist seminaries taught as church history the very point Whitsitt raised.

Did Whitsitt and his followers really win the war? The battle never came into most primitivistic Baptist groups, who had been separated from the Convention Baptists long before Whitsitt -- even before the Convention. Shortly after the Whitsitt controversy, some Landmark Baptists took their marbles and went to play elsewhere. Landmarkers evidently gradually went "underground" in the SBC, and a Baptist academia full of Whitsitt's disciples was left to teach Baptist origins as they saw it. Yet well over 100 years later it is becoming evident that common Baptists and young historians within the SBC (and elsewhere) don't believe that Whitsitt's word is the final word.

In the next several posts, we will consider what are the various theories of Baptist origins.

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