Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Book Review: Feet Washing - Heritage, Answers, Application

Nearly twelve years ago I reviewed The Washing of the Saints’ Feet by J. Matthew Pinson. Recently I have purchased another book on the topic from a Free Will Baptist author – Feet Washing: Heritage, Answers, Application by Thurmon Murphy.[i] This book is religious non-fiction, available in paperback from Amazon, FWB Publications, or the author.

After a foreword and preface, the author lists the scripture verses that are relevant to the topic, followed by ten chapters that elucidate the subject of washing the saints’ feet as a religious rite. Since Murphy is a Free Will Baptist, readers may come to the book with preconceived ideas – and are likely to be surprised (I did, and I was). Beginning on page 10 the author reveals a five-fold purpose for writing this book. The first is, “I want to show that those who do not practice feet washing are as fully franchised Free Will Baptists as those who do practice it.” Those who are not Free Will Baptists – and perhaps some who are – may be surprised by the notion that there are Free Will Baptists who do not observe feet washing as a rite/ordinance.[ii] Murphy’s aim is to consider both sides (p. 22). He brings a unique perspective by having been on “both sides.” On pages 33-36, he details his journey from one who practiced feet washing as an ordinance to one who believes “that Jesus never intended for us to literally wash one another’s feet.”

To fulfill his purpose of showing that those who do not practice feet washing are “fully franchised Free Will Baptists” the author visits the feet washing heritage of Free Will Baptists in chapters two and three. For the most part, he looks at the treatise, minutes, and writings of the Northern branch of Free Will Baptists, beginning in 1780 with Benjamin Randall. The reasonable conclusion is that Northern Free Will Baptists held a variety of views on the rite, from practicing it to not practicing it. The northern treatise was the foundation of the treatise of the Free Will Baptists who formed the National Association of Free Will Baptists in Nashville, Tennessee in 1935.[iii]

In chapters 5-8, Murphy considers “Six Arguments in Favor of Feet Washing.” He holds that these arguments do not stand up to scrutiny, and that there is “no scriptural or historical evidence that any of the New Testament churches practiced feet washing” (p. 152). He follows this with a chapter positing that the first century churches (after the close of the New Testament) did not practice feet washing. In his final chapter, the author presents “What Jesus Was Teaching.” His view is that the act of Jesus in washing his disciples’ feet teaches humility (p. 172), cleansing (p. 178), and service (p. 184). The author concludes that “When we have humbly served our fellow believers in various ways we have done exactly what Jesus meant for us to do” (p. 187).

Thurmon Murphy’s book is primarily a book by a Free Will Baptist written for Free Will Baptists. He speaks out of his experience to those with similar heritage and experience. This does not render it useless for others, though. There is a good deal of history for those interested in the history of feet washing. There is a good deal of theology for those interested in the theology of feet washing. This book contains valuable information for a broader readership than just Free Will Baptists. And good books on the topic of washing the saints’ feet are not constantly coming to the fore!

Interestingly, Murphy’s aim is at odds with Pinson’s aim (in the book I cite in the first paragraph), part of which is to re-energize the Free Will Baptists’ vision of washing the saints’ feet. Some of Murphy’s aim is more toward re-directing than re-energizing. At times I found Murphy’s views, reasoning, and conclusions at odds with my own as well. I was surprised at his primary focus on the Randall (Northern) movement while mostly ignoring the Palmer (Southern) movement. He explains this on page 134 – “apparently the Palmer movement left little in book form and it is difficult or even impossible to gather much information about them.”

I recommend the book with the understanding that I nevertheless do not agree with Murphy’s main thesis.[iv] If you believe in feet washing as a rite you will not agree with a good deal of what he says. You will find your position challenged (and, if withstanding the challenge, strengthened). If you do not believe in feet washing as a rite, you may come away with new support for your own belief. I am glad that I purchased and read Feet Washing: Heritage, Answers, Application. I think you will be, too.

[i] Columbus, OH: FWB Publications, 2018. According to the back cover, “Thurmon Murphy is a retired Free Will Baptist pastor with nearly sixty years’ experience…a 1964 graduate of Welch College” who has served in various state and national denominational positions. Murphy is also author of From the Red to the Rio Grande: a History of the Free Will Baptist Work in Texas, 1876 to 2014.
[ii] For example, A Treatise of the Faith and Practices of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, Inc. lists three “Ordinances of the Gospel” – Christian Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Washing the Saints’ Feet.
[iii] Most of the Northern Free Will Baptist movement merged with the Northern Baptist Convention (now ABCUSA) in 1911, but the remnant joined with the Southern Free Will Baptists in creating the National Association.
[iv] Feet Washing: Heritage, Answers, Application can be somewhat repetitive, but overall this probably serves Murphy’s five-fold purpose. There are also a few publisher’s issues, in my opinion, such oddities as a different font on the chapter nine heading, or chapter six bearing a different title than the one given in the “Table of Contents.” An index would also improve the usefulness of the book.

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