Thursday, November 30, 2006

Baptist history and historians

Some modern Southern Baptist historians[1] have accused Landmark Baptist historians[2], past and present, of inaccuracy and/or misrepresentation concerning Baptist history and the origin of Baptists. Southern Baptist historians generally teach that Baptists began in the early 1600's in England. Landmark Baptists generally teach that Baptists began with Jesus Christ and have existed from that time to the present. In reference to this teaching, SB historians charge "Landmarkers" with poor scholarship and/or deliberate misrepresentation.

Southern Baptist scholars should be commended for both the quality and quantity of research they have done in the historical field. But they are not the only ones investigating Baptist history; neither should anyone think they are free of bias. They, as well as others, can be guilty of arrogance, inaccuracy, and misrepresentation in their writings.

The charge of arrogance is not a charge against the personal character of Southern Baptist historians, but rather refers to the attitude sometimes shown toward Baptists outside their conventions and seminaries. Some of these historians write in a way that implies they think they are the only qualified historians, and that espousal of the "Landmark" position automatically disqualifies one as a serious historian. Virtually discrediting all who went before him, Morgan Patterson writes, "Baptist historians...have thus usually lacked the special training and necessary leisure to give their efforts thoroughness and perspective" [Baptist Succession: A Critical View, Foreword, Judson Press, 1969]. He says in another place, "It (the landmark view of church perpetuity, rlv) is a view of Baptist history which is held by few, if any, recognized or trained historians" [The Quarterly Review, April-June 1964, pp. 5-6]. The Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, Vol. III, (p. 1757) indicates the new generation of Baptist historians writes "based on adequate research and scientific methodology." With a few strokes of the pen, all historians who beg to differ are summarily dismissed as untrained. The type of arrogance of which I speak is apparent in The Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, Vols. I-IV. This certainly can be considered an official publication. These volumes name local and district associations within the different states in a manner that is revealing. In almost every state, the list has two divisions: (1) Extant and (2) Extinct. Extant means "currently existing". Extinct means "no longer existing or no longer active." The Encyclopedia includes all associations cooperating with the Southern Baptist Convention as extant or existing. All other associations, actually extinct or simply existing apart from the State and Southern Baptist Conventions, are EXTINCT. What pride! What arrogance! Baptists that do not cooperate with the S.B.C., no matter how active, are extinct.

The Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists also demonstrates the inaccuracy of some Southern Baptist historians. Pages 904, 906, and 2353 give incorrect information on several Missouri associations. It says that the Camden County Association "disbanded and became a part of the Lamine Association in 1979." Yet in 2000, this association still existed with 5 churches. The ESB further states that "In 1947 Cedar County Association was included in the Nevada Association." However, in 2000, Cedar County Association still existed apart from the Nevada Association and the Convention. 15 churches represented. The Central Missouri Association is "last 1883: R. S. Douglas conjectures that it probably disbanded and united with other associations." Nevertheless, it still existed in 2000. Under the County Line Association, one is told to "see Douglas-Ozark County Association", implying that County Line is out of existence. But in the year 2000 they were still meeting. The information concerning the Polk County Association lists them as a Convention Association in 1954 with 12 churches, stating, "In the 1950 annual meeting 22 of the 36 churches were dropped from the association roll for non-cooperation." What actually happened in 1950 was that the Polk County Association excluded "the Co-operative Program and all organizations connected with it" [Polk County Association minutes, 1950]. The General Superintendent of the Missouri Baptist General Association then dropped those churches from the state association's roll. If a Texas "historian" without "special training and necessary leisure" can find out these things without ever leaving Texas, why don’t Missouri Convention historians who are "recognized and trained" know the facts? Such inaccuracies seem inexcusable. Pages 1398-1403 and 2519 list several thriving Texas local associations as out of existence. Note these examples: "Angelina...dissolved to join Unity Association in 1927...Bethlehem is now extinct...(Central) merged with the Sabine-Neches in Oct. 1927 to form the Sabine Valley Association...the last minutes available (of the Mt. Zion Association), 1908, indicate that the churches had begun to join Neches River and Rusk-Panola associations...Some (Salem association) churches began cooperating with Pittsburg Association in 1927, and Salem soon became extinct...Some (Shelby County association) churches went into Shelby-Doches Association from 1925-1935. This body is now extinct." This is just sloppy work, IMO. All of these associations still exist (2006) and cooperate with either the American Baptist Association or the Baptist Missionary Association of America. Any of the above information could have been easily determined to be incorrect. It would not have taken a trained and recognized historian! A simple phone call would have worked in most cases. These are just some examples of what is multipied many times over in the ESB.

The arrogance that allows such inaccuracies can also lead to misrepresentation. One of the most pervasive misrepresentations by the Convention and Southern Baptist historians has been to identify all non-cooperative Baptists as "anti-missionary". Any opposition to their mission system is equated with opposition to missions. Such is polemics more than history. But even of Daniel Parker and his Predestinarian Church, one of the most adamant of the "anti-missionaries", J. M. Carroll asked, "how many churches, country or city, can show such a record (of labor)?" [A History of Texas Baptists, p. 50]. Few churches of its day, or even in the present, can show such a record of organizing as many other churches - but still they are labeled "anti-missionary" because they don't accept the board method of "missions". The ESB (p. 746) states that the Cumberland River Association of Kentucky is "an antimissionary association." Yet, according, to their minutes, in 1996 their 25 churches gave over $210,000 to home and foreign missions. The Stockton Valley Association, of Tennessee and Kentucky, complained in their 1992 minutes, "They (the churches) are not anti-missionary as they are referred to in Wendell H. Rone’s Baptist Associations of Kentucky; however, they could be called 'anti-missionary society'...the Stockton Valley Association has had direct missionaries from their churches throughout the years and they have been very successful by this method..." This kind of evidence could be multiplied, but these examples voice what has happened time and time again to Baptists that oppose missionary societies and mission boards. Southern Baptists have refused to admit the difference of the positions (anti-missionary & anti-missionary society), and thus misrepresent the obvious practices of many Baptist churches.

Another common misrepresentation is the history of so-called "landmark" principles concerning the origin, nature, authority, and ordinances of the church. They are represented as arising "in the Southern Baptist Convention in the middle of the nineteenth century" [Tull, p. 3, Baptist History and Heritage, Jan. 1975] and that "J. R. Graves...helped to inaugurate...the Landmark movement" [Smith, p. 19, Baptist History and Heritage, Jan. 1975]. Although Graves and his influential paper spread his ideas throughout the South, he emphasized principles already believed by Baptists. While declaring "landmarkism" a new movement inaugurated by Graves on one hand, Southern Baptist historians are forced to admit on the other that "one can find in the writings of his day practically every doctrinal element involved in the Graves' system" [Baker, p. 2, Baptist History and Heritage, Jan. 1975].

Some landmark Baptist historians (and those predating landmarkism) have recorded unverified claims and misrepresented facts, whether knowingly or unknowingly. The same can be said of Southern Baptist and other non-landmark historians. Particular historical research must stand or fall on its own merits - don’t try to impress me to agree just by saying you are "recognized and trained"!

[1] The complaints against "landmark" historiography are not limited to Southern Baptist historians. This is discussed from the standpoint of Southern Baptists because the citations are of Southern Baptist historians. Note also that early "Landmark" historians were Southern Baptists as well.
[2]This accusation applies to others who hold church successionism, but because of the Landmark movement being within the SBC, SB historians usually discuss this in the context of Landmarkism.


Anonymous said...

I am always curious when folk assert that English Baptists began in the 1600's. Has anyone explored the history of the Welsh Baptists? They, in fact, started the first Baptist Church in Gloucestershire, England which is right on the border with Wales. I don't have the dates because my memory just doesn't serve in that area.



PS. As an aside, Robert, are you familiar with A.H. Newman's History of the Church, 2 volumes? I know it is dated now, but it was my history text whilst at the Chicago Divinity School...I always enjoyed those books.

Anonymous said...


I too have found the same problem with the SBs bias toward non SB associations. I know from first hand experience that Central Missouri still exists. We correspond with them, preach with them, etc. Recently, we've (Bethel) started correspondence Stockton Valley. We've been visited by members of Cedar and Polk County Associations.

In my little time spent in researching the United Baptists, my desire has always been to tell the truth no matter how bleak or raw it may sound. I believe the Landmarks have their place to write history just like the SBs who were taught by SBs to think like SBs. (Which is funny to think that alot of SB associations used to be United Baptists).

David White

P.S. I posted anonymous because I can't remember my password!

R. L. Vaughn said...

Jim, that would be interesting to find the oldest English Baptist church was a Welsh Baptist church! Thanks for mentioning Newman's History; I am familiar with it but have never used it that much. I think maybe I'll use the reminder to go back and take a look at Newman again.

David, good to hear from you again. I think what you mention is a good reminder for us all to consider our biases and not let them overcome what we find in our historical research. (Glad to hear of your correspondence with Stockton Valley and visitation with Polk & Cedar Counties. Have you ever heard of a Barry County Missionary Baptist Association?)

Anonymous said...

The name doesn't sound familiar, but I'm sure I can find out more about them from the other MB associations. The past two years have brought the Missionary Baptists our way. They are wanting to get into fellowship with Bethel which mothered most of the associations in MO.

Another thing I find interesting is that writers like Douglass don't even consider Bethel the oldest association in MO. I've read where some thought Bethel dissolved since it's no longer representing where it was founded aroudn Jackson, MO. But we are still alive (50 miles west of Jackson) and still the oldest association west of the Mississippi.


Anonymous said...

I am coming back to make a to the oldest church in England ... if my memory serves me and it does sometimes.I know that in 900 AD there was a church in Wales...and I believe that if you go to Orchard's History you will find that there was one in Wales (England) prior to the coming of Austen to conquer the land for the Catholic church so that would be prior to about 600AD...I simply believe that Paul went to Spain and possibly to England. Spain had early churches.