Friday, January 09, 2009

Baptist Roots in America

Baptist Roots in America: The Historical Background of Reformed Baptists in America, Samuel E. Waldron, Booton, NJ: Simpson Publishing. 1991, paperback, 50 pages. ISBN: 096225083X. $6.95 (This book is out-of-print. A PDF version can be downloaded at Simpson Publishing for $2.00.)

At the time he wrote the book,
Sam Waldron was a pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, MI. He is now a pastor of the Heritage Baptist Church of Owensboro, Kentucky and Professor of Systematic Theology at the Midwest Center for Theological Studies.

Other books and pamphlets by Waldron include A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, The End Times Made Simple, A Reformed Baptist Manifesto: The New Covenant Constitution of the Church, To Be Continued? and Faith, Obedience, and Justification: Current Evangelical Departures from Sola Fide.

This book is not a history of Baptists in America, or even a history of the Reformed Baptist movement in America. Waldron's purpose is to demonstrate the Baptist roots of the mid-twentieth century Reformed Baptist movement in America. He also declares why he thinks the movement was needed. He sees Reformed Baptists as the true successors of the Particular Baptists, and finds modern fundamentalism & evangelicalism to be a deviation from historic Baptist thought.

First is a brief chapter on "The Rise of Particular Baptists in America". This is brief look at Baptist history in early America giving information on the rise and then the growth of the Particular Baptists.

Second, Waldron looks at "The Decline of Particular Baptists in America". In this chapter he undertakes to answer the question "What happened?" "How did Calvinism and the Particular Baptist heritage almost totally disappear by the mid-twentieth century in America?"

After noting what he sees as an "innate tendency" of the depraved heart to compromise or reject God's truth, Waldron posits seven specific major factors for the decline of Particular Baptist theology. They are:

1. The American, Democratic Ethos -- popular American ideas of freedom, equality, fairness, independence, rights, etc. were against the Calvinistic theology of election, particular redemption and irresistible grace.
2. Revivalism -- though originating in a Calvinistic base, Waldron sees American revivalism as degenerating into anti-creedalism and Arminianism.
3. Methodism -- the Methodists were most frequently the frontier combatant and companion of the Baptists as Americans spread south and west, influencing the thinking of Baptist church members.
4. Inclusivism -- Baptist common battles for religious freedom, etc. may have caused them to emphasize fellowship around these common principles rather than separation over diverse doctrines in other areas.
5. Hyper-Calvinism -- reaction against "hyper-Calvinism" may have driven some to the opposite extreme.
6. Modernism -- as Waldron puts it, the anti-creedalism that opened the door to Arminianism could not be shut later against modernism. Modernism hides behind anti-creedalism, claiming the same rule of faith and practice as the orthodox believer while denying the very faith they hold.
7. The Fundamentalist movement -- too much emphasis on the fundamentals to the exclusion of a healthy emphasis on other doctrines (soteriology & ecclesiology); dispensational premillennialism; Keswick/higher life teaching rooted in Wesleyan perfectionism.

In the third chapter, Waldron briefly notes "The Rise of Reformed Baptists in America". He gives little particular elements of the historical rise, but rather focuses on some general elements that paved the way for the Reformed Baptist movement -- the popularity of Charles H. Spurgeon, the writings of A. W. Pink, the influence of Reformed theologians such as J. Gresham Machen, and the accleration in reprinting Puritan and Reformed literature. He does seem to pinpoint the original rise of the Reformed Baptist in the northeastern United States in the 1960s. It is interesting that this theology should resurrect in the location where it most likely first died.

Finally in his "Concluding Observations", Sam Waldron warns against the danger of hyper-Calvinism, encourages the upholding of Reformed confessional Christianity (for Baptists particularly found in the 1689 London Confession); and exhorts Reformed Baptists to impact American Christianity for its betterment. He insists the name "Reformed Baptist" is a good one -- the bearers are both Reformed and Baptist. In contrast, many Baptist and Reformed believers deny that one can be both.

When I first noticed this book on, I got a misconception of what it was supposed to be. I was initially disappointed to find that this book would not contain much historical information about the rise of Reformed Baptists in the 1960s. Once I understood the purpose of this book, I was able to appreciate it for what it is rather than depreciate it for what it isn't.

My Landmark and Primitive Baptist friends will both object to some things posited by Waldron. I also have disagreements with some of Waldron's assertions and positions. For the most part the book hits on target. It is correct that the Particular Baptists early on became the dominant Baptist group in the United States. It is equally true that sovereign grace soteriology was held by these Baptists and that it gradually diminished among the mainstream of its descendants. Waldron probably emphasizes too much the "death" of this soteriology (and perhaps underemphasized Baptist ecclesiology), since it was continued without interruption by the Primitive Baptists. He evidently concludes them out of the heir-ship of this theology because of some things he views as "hyper".

Waldron's seven major factors for the decline of Particular Baptist theology are certain to find detractors. He has done a good job in advancing the reasons behind the soteriological shift. There is probably something here with which almost everyone can agree or disagree. My thought is that readers might most readily draw back from points 1, 3, and 7 -- the American democratic ethos, Methodism and the Fundamentalist movement.

With a little thought one should be able to see how the average American, emphasizing his freedom and independence, might chafe under a "Calvinistic" system in which God chose who would be saved, fully paid for it, and sovereignly gave it to that person without his asking. The fact that others reconciled it in their minds is not evidence that the majority did not.

Methodism's role might surprise some. But as Americans spread south and west, Methodism was the chief rival for the hearts, minds and souls of the people as the Baptist farmer-preacher tended his flock and the Methodist circuit-rider rode his circuit. Rivalry turned to respect as Baptists and Methodists lived in the same communities, shared the same meeting houses, and married into one another's families. A trek through the minutes of an ancestral Georgia church brought this home to me in an unique way. At the beginning of the 19th century, these Baptists would not allow the Methodists to use the Baptist-owned meeting house. Within 40 years they were adopting a resolution of great appreciation to the Methodists for allowing the Baptists the use of their house while they were building a new one!

On first reading many might recoil from the idea of fundamentalism negatively affecting the Baptist heritage. Some early fundamentalist leaders were predestinarians, and fundamentalism shared agreement with Baptists on the fundamentals of the faith. But the struggle with modernism called for emphasis on the fundamentals and inattention to other doctrines so that fundamental soldiers might combine together to battle modernism. Ben M. Bogard's early jibes against fundamentalist J. Frank Norris (and their later collaboration) help make the point. Though fundamentalism initially agreed on the fundamental of the literal second coming of Christ, over a period of time dispensational premillennialism captured the fancy of most fundamentalists. Though the large number of Baptists who embrace dispensational premillennialism might think otherwise, it contains some elements unfriendly to Baptist soteriology and ecclesiology. I think back to the many times the Scofield Reference Bible was highly recommended to me, with the caveat that Scofield was right on everything but the church. Well, if he was wrong on so important an issue, his other views bears scrutiny as well!

Waldron does a good job presenting his thesis. I am not persuaded to admit to some of his points. I think the Baptist heritage was preserved in various ways through the period in which he finds the great dearth. But the emphases of the rising Reformed Baptists should cause us to inspect our faith, shine the light on any deficiencies, and sound once again the cry "Back to the Bible."


Anonymous said...

Interesting article. I too have seen this book but have never purchased or read it. I still believe in the "Fundamentals" but do not refer to myself as a Fundamentalist. I believe the title "Baptist" is historically descriptive enough. I believe Fundamentalism is historically eccumenical. I believe Reformed is Protestant. If the principles taught in Fundamentalism, Calvinism or Primitivism are Bible doctrine alone then they should fall under the meaning of the name Baptist. I know names identify but I believe Baptist principles protect core doctrines (whatever you may believe those core doctrines to be). The danger, for example is that when one claims to be a Reformed Baptist they are claiming a Reformed Heritage, not by admission but by association and this confuses the future generations into thinking that Calvin and Augustine were good men. Fundamentalism does the same damage in promoting pedobaptists such as Torrey, Sunday and the Wesleys. This in turn waters down how firm we stand on the doctrine of baptism. I just don't think we need a prefix to "Baptist".

R. L. Vaughn said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

I once had a lady ask me if I were a Fundamental Baptist. I would later learn she had a bad experience with a Fundamental Baptist preacher & church and was very harsh in her judgement against anyone who was "Fundamental Baptist" (so that is why she asked). But at the time I answered her, I didn't know anything about any of that. She asked, "Are you a Fundamental Baptist?" My immediate reaction was to say "I believe in the fundamentals of the Bible, but I am not a Fundamental Baptist." Most Fundamental Baptists I know tend to be strong in some areas of truth but weak in ecclesiology. While they often separate over fundamentals of the faith and moral issues, they often exhibit a very ecumenical spirit toward "pedobaptist fundamentalists". Of course, this is a generalization (which is part of the problem with labels).

Reformed Baptists have adopted and emphasized some things that often Baptists abandoned -- some that need to be emphasized. But in general, Reformed Baptists seem to tend to ecumenical fellowship with other Reformed groups, overlooking their views on church and baptism if they have strong agreement on the Reformed theology. This is probably too much of a generalization, but it seems fairly agreeable to what I've seen in my experience.

I definitely think there is merit in simply identifying oneself as a Baptist and then explaining what one believes to those who wish to know more detail.

I have written some things in the general area of thought that you might wish to read.

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