Monday, November 07, 2016

The Fortune of Texas Baptists: Arguing the Atonement

Some Texas Baptists today adamantly argue the atonement, whether it was particular/limited or general/unlimited. At the close of the 19th century, though, Texas Baptists had an argument that challenged the orthodoxy of the atonement itself.

George M. Fortune was pastor of the First Baptist Church of Paris, Texas, from 1891 until 1896. After resigning as pastor, he continued to preach there as a supply until the summer of 1897. After that he left and moved to Indian Territory (not yet a state).

George M. Fortune was (probably) born in Virginia.[1] He may have been the son of Zachariah Fortune and Sarah Churning/Chewning (d. 1883) who married in 1831 in Nelson County, Virginia, and later moved to Meigs County, Ohio. They had a son named George who is about the right age, but it cannot with present facts be established who are the parents of our George M. Fortune.[2] If these are his parents, his movements can be traced as follows.

In 1850 the family was in Virginia and by 1860 had moved to Ohio. In 1870, George and his wife Esther (nee Brown, perhaps) were living by themselves, without any children, in Darwin, Clark County, Illinois. His occupation is listed as “minister, gospel”. Around 1879 he was the pastor of the Methodist Church of Havana, Illinois.[3] He and Esther were living at Waverley, Morgan County, Illinois in 1880, with four children of their own and a stepdaughter. A state census shows that in 1885 George and Esther were in Douglas, Butler County, Kansas. By 1886 he was married to Anna and they had a son named Dean born in December of that year.[4] By 1891 George Fortune was in Paris, Texas, having passed through Arkansas for a time before arriving there.[5] After leaving Texas, the Fortunes lived at McAlester in Indian Territory – where his occupation is listed as lawyer rather than minister.[6] They lived in McAlester until at least 1907,[7] and are then found in Clifton, Wilson County, Kansas in 1910 and 1920.[8] In 1910 he was a farmer who owned or worked on a poultry farm. In 1920 he is once again listed in the census as a minister. George M. Fortune died December 7, 1929. He, his wife Annie and their son Dean are buried at the Buffalo Cemetery in Wilson County, Kansas.

In late 1891 the First Baptist Church of Paris, Texas,[9] being without a pastor, invited George M. Fortune – recently from Arkansas – to preach for them. Afterward they called him as their pastor. According to one member of the church, “He was a man of fine address, of a literary turn, and seemed to be scholarly in his attainments, and withal a fine pulpit orator.”[10] Soon Fortune preached views not heard in the average Baptist pulpit, “that Christ’s death on the cross was not effectual for salvation, there was no personal Satan, original sin did not exist, there was no eternal punishment, and that the Scriptures were not fully inspired by God.”[11]  In 1894 Fortune published two sermons on the atonement. According to Fuller, Fortune “boldly and pointedly repudiated the doctrine of the vicarious atonement of Jesus Christ, denying that Christ died for, and instead of sinners, becoming the sinners’ substitute; rejecting also the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ; maintaining that we are not saved by Christ’s death, but by his life.” Both of the state Baptist papers quickly condemned Fortune’s sermons and his position.

In 1895 the Baptist General Convention of Texas adopted a resolution declaring, among other things: “Resolved, that no one shall be recognized a member of this body who holds and teaches...that Christ is not the believer’s substitute, penalty and righteousness, a doctrine held by ‘Fortunism’.”[12] The First Baptist church of Paris was denied seats at the Convention. In spite of the strangeness of Fortune’s views, a majority of the church followed him, causing them to break ties with the regular Baptists of Texas. The offended minority of the church investigated his background. They which found he had been a Methodist preacher in Illinois, a Baptist preacher in Arkansas, as well as a lawyer and temperance lecturer in Kansas. There seemed to be a possibility that he had a living wife from a first marriage. The minority of the church called a special meeting in Paris, which met on February 11, 1896.

In 1896 a Baptist council meeting in Paris found Fortune guilty of heresy, declaring they “after careful consideration do unhesitatingly declare said George M. Fortune, on the following points, anti-scriptural.” The council alleged he was in denial of nine biblical points of doctrine and teaching three aberrations of Baptist church polity – and also recognized the minority as the true First Baptist Church of Paris. The majority of the church kept G. M. Fortune on as pastor until 1896. He continued to supply the pulpit for them until he left for Oklahoma (then still a territory) in 1897.[13]

It is not clear the extent of the influence that George M. Fortune beyond the area of Paris, Texas. Though the Baptists across the state were much astir about the situation, the fallout appears to have been limited. Fortune did move in circles throughout the state, though, For example, the Galveston Daily News in August 1893 reports that Fortune was assisting Baptist pastor J. C. Wingo in a protracted meeting in Bryan, Texas.[14] He published at least two pamphlets on the subject in the mid-to-late 1890s, Atonement: a Sermon and The Atonement: Retrospective and Constructive. It is also unclear what happened to the majority of the Baptist Church in Paris that adhered to the positions or person of G. M. Fortune.[15] At the time Fuller wrote his history in 1900, he claimed they “have become so demoralized in faith and doctrine by Fortune’s heresy that they are not able to do anything for Christ…As a body they are repudiated by Baptists everywhere, and seem to be making no effort to keep up an organization…”[16] Perhaps the fortunes of Fortunism died with those who followed him.

The quick overall response to pastor Fortune’s unbaptistic positions and the strong opposition from within his home church probably kept the controversy contained and the repercussions restricted. Churches should not be hasty to hear and call those whom they do not know, but should promptly respond to advanced error in the pulpit.

A History of Texas Baptists: Comprising a Detailed Account of their Activities, Their Progress and Their Achievements, J. M. Carroll, Author, J. B. Cranfill, Editor, Dallas, TX: Baptist Standard Publishing Co., 1923
A Texas Baptist History Sourcebook: a Companion to McBeth’s Texas Baptists, Joseph E. Early Jr., Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2004
Decatur Daily Republican (Decatur, Illinois), Thursday, July 29, 1897
“Fort v. First Baptist Church” in The Southwestern Reporter, Volume 55, St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co., pp. 402-410
History of Texas Baptists, B. F. Fuller, Louisville, KY: Baptist Book Concern, 1900
Honey Grove Signal (Honey Grove, Texas), Vol. 5, No. 33, Friday, February 14, 1896, p. 1
The Baptist Standard (Waco, Texas), July 30, 1896
The Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas), Vol. 52, No. 157, Sunday, August 27, 1893
The History of Menard and Mason Counties, Illinois, Chicago, IL: O. L. Baskin and Co., 1879
The New York Times, Sunday September 13, 1896
U. S. Federal Censuses, 1850-1920


[1] Most censuses give his birth location as Virginia, but West Virginia and Georgia are also given
[2] The 1900 Federal Census gives his birth in December 1848 (in Georgia), but his tombstone gives December 1845.
[3] The History of Menard and Mason Counties, Illinois, Chicago, IL: O. L. Baskin and Co., 1879, p. 525
[4] It is not clear whether they separated or Esther died.
[5] History of Texas Baptists, B. F. Fuller, Louisville, KY: Baptist Book Concern, 1900, pp. 398-408; Fuller was a member of First Baptist, Paris, Texas
[6] 1900 U. S. Federal Census, South McAlester, Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory
[7] U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 on McAlester, Oklahoma, City Directory, 1907
[8] U. S. Federal Census for Wilson County, Kansas in 1910 and 1920
[9] This body was organized in 1854 upon the New Hampshire Confession as a United Baptist Church.
[10] History of Texas Baptists, Fuller, pp. 398-399
[11] A Texas Baptist History Sourcebook, Early, p. 54
[12] This resolution also condemned “Martinism”.
[13] The Decatur (Illinois) Daily Republican reported in July of that year that Fortune said, “For myself I shall not again accept the pastorate of any orthodox church. These organizations are so constructed as to place the control of their affairs into the hands of the least admirable part of the congregation...I, therefore, must seek a place where I may feel the force of present duty and leave the future in the hands of God.” (Decatur Daily Republican, Thursday, July 29, 1897, p. 3
[14] The Galveston Daily News. (Galveston, Tex.), Vol. 52, No. 157, Ed. 1 Sunday, August 27, 1893, p. 9
[15] One leader of the “Fortune Faction” was Dr. Joseph Marston Fort. In The Baptist Standard (July 30, 1896) J. B. Cranfill wrote, “It would not have been possible for him [Fortune, rlv] to have accomplished the harm he has done in Paris but for the help and co-operation of Dr. J. M. Fort, who not only shares Dr. Fortune’s infidel views, but is a man who has no scruples whatever in adopting any means, fair or foul, in accomplishing his nefarious purposes.” In September a warrant was issued for the arrest of Cranfill on charges of libel, but the outcome is unknown. See “A Preacher to be Arrested: Charge with Libeling a Leading Citizen of North Texas,” The New York Times, Sunday September 13, 1896, p. 6
[16] As a resident of Paris and a member of the church faction that opposed Fortune, B. F. Fuller’s opinion is certainly biased. Evidence – such as the struggle to control the church building – suggests the “Fortunites” surely had not given up only three years after Fortune left. But Fuller’s assessment does seem to summarize the end result.

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