In carrying forth this analysis of the movement in American Christianity toward what Ross Douthat has termed “Bad Religion,” I am seeking to particularize this development in Baptist life. Several lines of thought began to challenge the evangelical Calvinist consensus among Baptists.
American Baptist Unity
Among American Baptists, a high degree of unity had developed around two major factors. First, the Separate Baptists and Regular Baptists discovered very few doctrinal differences between them. Therefore, they were able to agree on confessions of faith to achieve a visible unity of witness. They also shared evangelistic and church-planting zeal. Second, the Judson and Rice phenomenon gave rise to the General Missionary Convention and a united organizational front for missions.
Doctrinal Challenges Among Early American Baptists
For those following this series (Strange Bedfellows, Truth Compelled Us to Be, Two Roads Diverged), you will recall that we introduced some doctrinal challenges arising from the development of New Divinity thought. We must add to that a brief mention of three other issues that helped mold the Baptist response to early nineteenth century dynamics:
1. Free Will Baptists. Benjamin Randall strongly proclaimed universal love, universal grace, and universal atonement and made special efforts to represent his Calvinist brethren as mere fatalists who had no grounds for affirming true human responsibility.
2. Hyper Calvinism. The anti-mission-society movement was flirting with an American brand of hyper-Calvinism and splitting many associations over the issue of duty-faith and missionary organizations.
3. Opposition to Confessions and Regeneration. Alexander Campbell began his avalanche of criticism of Baptists over their use of confessions, their loyalty to the system of theology in the Philadelphia Confession, and particularly their advocacy of the need for the regenerative operation of the Spirit of God in producing repentance and faith.
The New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1833)
All of these factors together formed a phalanx of opposition and prompted the Baptists of New Hampshire to produce a confession of faith that would correct misimpressions and give an alignment of commitment to deflect the aggressive opposition. In that context, the statement provides an instructive study of careful, accurate, and clear synthesis of doctrine. For example, in article 7, “Of Grace in Regeneration,” the statement says:
“We believe that in order to be saved, we must be regenerated or born again; that regeneration consists in giving a holy disposition to the mind; and is effected in a manner above our comprehension or calculation, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in connection with divine truth, so as to secure our voluntary obedience to the Gospel; and that its proper evidence is found in the holy fruit which we bring forth to the glory of God.”
That is an excellent summary of the Spirit’s effectual operations and the voluntary nature of all actions of the human soul. We see the same careful and clear work in article 8, “Of Repentance and Faith,” which says:
“We believe that Repentance and Faith are sacred duties, and also inseparable graces, wrought in our souls by the regenerating Spirit of God; whereby being deeply convinced of our guilt, danger, and helplessness, and of the way of salvation by Christ, we turn to God with unfeigned contrition, confession, and supplication for mercy; at the same time heartily receiving the Lord Jesus Christ as our Prophet, Priest, and King, and relying on him alone as the only and all-sufficient Saviour.”
“Sacred Duties” as well as “inseparable graces” — what beautiful language and how appropriate for the particular challenges of their context. “Wrought in our souls, by the regenerating Spirit of God” — how consistent with the article on regeneration and how true to historic Particular Baptist soteriology. Their spiritual fervor in discussing how repentance and faith imply each other evangelically is instructive and edifying.
The American Baptists didn’t compromise on their statement on election in article 9, “Of God’s Purpose of Grace,” despite pressures from all sides. The New Hampshire Confession shows that election is:
1. Gracious. They saw election as the “gracious purpose of God, according to which he graciously regenerates, sanctifies, and saves sinners.” Election is an expression of God’s boundless grace, flowing from his eternal intention to save sinners.
2. Consistent with Free Agency. They also affirmed election’s perfect consistency “with the free agency of man.” This is certainly a historically rooted affirmation, but also particularly suited for correcting the misimpressions of both Free Will Baptists and hyper-Calvinists.
3. Consistent with Means. They said that election “comprehends all the means in connection with the end.” In other words, election does not render the use of means superfluous but establishes their necessity in the moral order of God. Not only that, but election positively “encourages the use of means in the highest degree.”
4. Glorious and Good. The doctrine of election doesn’t produce a mean-spirited narrowness but is “a most glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness.” As such, election is “infinitely free, wise, holy, and unchangeable.”
Throughout the young America, missionary-minded Baptists affirmed this warm evangelical Calvinism, with the exception of the opposition groups mentioned. While the New Hampshire Confession began to gain wide-spread popularity in the northern states, both the middle states and the South found the Second London Confession more comprehensively expressive of commonly held doctrine. That confessional muscle along with the contextualized polemical alertness energized Baptists to deal carefully and astutely with the doctrinal shifts (introduced briefly in the last entry) that would flood a large swath of evangelicalism in the final two-thirds of the nineteenth century.
The next entry on this subject will issue some caveats to be observed prior to indulging a close criticism of the harmful theological changes.