Thursday, June 24, 2010

The man and the controversy

W. H. Whitsitt: The Man and the Controversy. James H. Slatton. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780881461336. $40.00. 348 pages. Hardback.

I had thought to write a review of the book above, but my mind has been in somewhat of a fog lately and I haven't been able to focus on it. Instead, I'll make some comments on W. H. Whitsitt and the book, but not properly a book review. For a recent review of the book by Andrew C. Smith, click

William Heth Whitsitt (1841-1911) was the third president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the center of a late 19th century controversy on Baptist history, Baptist succession and the ordinance of baptism.

James H. Slatton follows Whitsitt's life mostly through the accounting of Whitsitt's private diary and letters to his wife-to-be Florence Wallace. Slatton fortuitously discovered these records while on a pastoral visit, and persuaded the Whitsitt family to donate the materials to Virginia Baptist Historical Society and subsequently researched the records for this biography.

Slatton begins the story with Whitsitt's Civil War service under Nathan Bedford Forrest. It is this period which Whitsitt credits as widening his horizons to broader religious thinking.

"The experiences of war were a liberal education to many soldiers...One of the earliest and most distinct conclusions that I had reached was that I had been misled by the representations of the Tennessee Baptist. I returned to Tennessee a wiser and gentler man. I had got my learning in the hard school of experience, and I had a right firm hold upon it. Though it was not acquired from books and colleges it was none the worse on that account. I was now and then mortified by the memory of the rude and somewhat hysterical sentiments, and resolved to lay them aside forever." (p. 14)

What began with Southern exposure blossomed in European light. From the Civil War to the University of Virginia to Southern Seminary to the Universities of Leipzig and Berlin, Whitsitt continued to broaden his views. Whitsitt's personal diary and correspondence reveals he became (somewhat secretly) a quite unorthodox Baptist -- certainly for his time and location. He questioned the exclusivity of Christianity, possibly held falling from grace, did not require reimmersion even from the Campbellites (called it stupidity and sectarian arrogance) and apparently agreed with Crawford Toy's progressive views on inspiration. But it was his accounting of Baptist history that created a firestorm. His version of Baptist history denied the historical succession of Baptist churches from the time of the apostles and posited their use of immersion baptism as a recent innovation. He first broached the issue in unsigned articles in the New York Independent in 1880. Articles he wrote for the 1896 Johnson's Universal Encyclopedia began the controversy and his A Question in Baptist History fueled it.

Those only passing acquainted with Whitsitt will be intrigued by the ironies of his life. The archenemy of Landmark ecclesiology was an early friend to all members of its "Great Triumvirate". J. R. Graves preached the sermon at Whitsitt's ordination. Whitsitt preached J. M. Pendleton's funeral. Yet it was not the southern Landmarkers who brought to light Whitsitt's departure from Baptist orthodoxy. It was Herman Melville King, pastor of the Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island. Whitsitt denied that the Providence Church then existing was the same church formed by Roger Williams in 1638. This brought forth King's rejoinder in the New York Examiner and then his book
The Baptism of Roger Williams: a review of Rev. Dr. W. H. Whitsitt's inference (Henry Melville King, Providence, RI: Preston & Rounds Co., 1897). King's defense of his own church's history (which to this day claims the 1638 constitution) brought Whitsitt's articles to the notice of the Baptist public. Doubly curious, Whitsitt actually took the same position of J. R. Graves on the Providence church not being the oldest Baptist church in America.

It is often stated that the Landmarkers drove W. H. Whitsitt from the presidency of Southern Seminary. It is true that Landmark Baptists mounted an assault on Whitsitt's view of history, and their opposition eventually had effect. But Whitsitt's supporters were actually successful three successive years in beating back Landmark attacks. Rather, Whitsitt was sacrificed on the altar of the Southern Seminary. His supporters lost the will to fight, and evidently thought it best for Whitsitt to go rather than the seminary suffer because of him and his views. Though removed from the presidency of Southern Seminary for his views, Whitsitt's version of Baptist history would gradually become the prevailing orthodoxy. Only recently have historians other than Landmarkers questioned it.

Who was this man who was the center of one of the great Baptist controversies of the last two centuries? Slatton's book attempts to answer that question from previously unavailable sources. Whitsitt's letters and diary reveal a man who regularly criticized his colleagues, Baptist preachers, Baptist churches, Baptist associations and Baptists in general -- he called J. P. Boyce a "dunderhead" and spoke equally unfavorably of other Baptist leaders, sometimes even of his friend and mentor John Broadus. "[Whitsitt] was a complex man..." No doubt! "At one time he predicted Baptists eventually would drop their insistence on immersion - and should. In his most important published work, however, he identified immersion as their defining practice."

"He agonized over the narrowness of his fellow Southern Baptists and whether he could stay with them in good conscience. Later, when the issue was joined, he took his stand as a Baptist to the bitter end - and a Southern one at that!

"He argued that he had been assailed for the mere assertion of a mere historical fact, and that the issue was not doctrinal. Yet he consistently argued that at stake in the controversy was the essential Baptist doctrine of the universal spiritual church, and that it was the foundation on which the Baptist vision of the church stood! - surely a doctrinal issue." (p. 327)

Directly opposite of Morgan Edwards -- who lamented that the kind of reasoning used to deny anointing the sick with oil would lead Baptists to discontinue every positive rite -- Whitsitt believed the abandoning of things like feet washing and anointing the sick with oil should lead Baptists to abandon immersion and strict communion as well.

"The crowd this evening filled aisles and gallery, and the Baptists must receive a position in the respect of the citizens such as they have never held before. I am half disposed to look with better favor upon them, although I can perceive no good reason why they should retain either immersion or strict communion. Still they do retain them, and it would be destructive to say aught against either of them. The time is coming, far off perhaps, when both will be abolished.

"Both of them are according to the Apostolic model--at any rate immersion is beyond any question the Apostolic mode--but so are foot washing, the holy kiss, the anointing of the sick with oil and numbers of other items that have fallen into disuse in deference to changes in time & season. Why hold to those when these are rejected?" (pp. 10-11)

The complexity of the man and his controversy, as accounted by Slatton, will compel the student of Baptist history and theology to devour this highly readable volume. I highly recommend it.

[Note: The index in Slatton's book in horrendous and should be corrected before the next printing. It is usually off by several pages.]

Related at Google Books:
W. H. Whitsitt: the Man and the Controversy by James H. Slatton

A Question in Baptist History: Whether the Anabaptists in England Practiced Immersion Before the Year 1641? by William Heth Whitsitt

Did They Dip? by John Tyler Christian


Mark said...

It is just amazing that a man could go through the war with Ol' Bedford and have less loyalty to a faith than he started with. He sounds like a modern day United Methodist.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Yes, I agree. Interestingly, his private thoughts indicate he continued to think highly of General Forrest throughout his life.

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark said...

Well, that is interesting. I believe General Forrest became a Presbyterian in later life.Not sure how that figures into this.