"Controversies of the Early Baptists of Virginia"
Predestination and Arminianism. Classes of Baptists in England. The immigration to Virginia of both classes. Their discussions here. Division; action regarding it of Ketocton Association; of Sandy Creek; of the General Association; of Kehuki; of the General Committee. Reunion.
THE Early Baptists of Virginia were not agreed in their opinions on the doctrines of grace. Their differences on these subjects they inherited from their fathers of the English churches. Those doctrines, subsequently known in Ecclesiastical History as Calvinism and Arminianism, attracted, until the fourth century, very little attention. The controversies between Augustine and Pelagius then brought them prominently forward. Until the Lutheran Reformation, however, they were confined for the most part to the schools, and produced therefore no special public agitation. Before the Reformation, they did not disturb the harmony of Baptist churches. After that period, they were regarded by them as questions of much moment, and ultimately divided them into two parties. In England, one of these parties assumed the Arminian ground, and were afterwards known as "General Baptists." The other maintained the Calvinistic doctrine, and were denominated. "Particular Baptists." Together they have always formed, as is well known, one of the most numerous bodies of English Dissenters, and have counted among their number some of the ablest men, poets, orators and writers, that Britain ever produced. To say nothing of their laymen, such as Harrison, Ludlow, Lilbourne, Penn, and others, their list of ministers is singularly brilliant. The names of Tombes, Bampfield, Bunyan, Gosnold, Knollys, Denne, Cox, Jessey, Du Veil, Dell, Smyth, Helwisse, Barbour, Grantham, Russell, Gale, Emlyn, Whiston, Foster, Toulmin, Gifford, Steed, Vaux, Collins, Lamb, Price, Keats, Harris, Sutton, Adams, Mann, Harrison, the Stennetts, Piggott, Stinton, Delaune, Sharp, Gill, and a multitude of others would give fame to any denomination of Christians in any age or country. 1 Had these great men "agreed to disagree" on the doctrine of Predestination, and had their people mingled together freely in their devotional meetings as they did here, their differences would soon have been forgotten; and united they would have exerted an influence in favor of truth, of the extent and benefit of which they themselves probably never dreamed. Unhappily they kept up their collisions; were thrown asunder; and afterwards existed as two separate, and in some respects antagonistic, denominations.
1 Benedict's Hist. Bapt., edit. 1848, pp. 320 et seq.
The Baptist immigrants to Virginia came from both these classes. Here they all joined the same churches, mingled together indiscriminately, and while the churches were few and weak, lived together in unbroken harmony. When, however, Baptist principles began to extend, churches to multiply and flourish, and dangers and persecutions were to some extent withdrawn, their hereditary differences were again exhumed and urged by their brethren in England, they again separated from each other. Guided by "elective affinity," the churches were no longer one, but two. General Baptist churches and ministers, and Particular Baptist churches and ministers, assumed their positions, and without much discussion or agitation, not however under these, but under new names. Their doctrines were the same in Virginia as in Europe, but for some reasons not now readily ascertained, they were here known, not as General and Particular, but as Separate and Regular Baptists, the former Arminian in sentiment, the latter Calvinistic.
Divided, however, as they were, these two classes of Baptists still loved each other warmly and sincerely. Essays were soon made to reunite them. These essays were conducted mainly by the Associations, and with great mutual kindness and respect, but unhappily without immediate success, although earnestly supported by leading brethren on both sides. The first public movement in this direction was inaugurated by brethren in 1767, but received no very definite form. Three years afterwards, in 1769, the Ketocton, a Regular, or Calvinistic Association in northern Virginia, addressed the Sandy Creek, a Separate, or Arminian, Association in southern Virginia, but mostly in North Carolina, on this subject. Their letter was as follows:"BELOVED IN OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST:
"The bearers of this letter [they were Rev. Messrs. Garrett, Mager and Saunders] will acquaint you with the design of writing it. Their errand is peace, and their business is a reconciliation, if there is any difference subsisting. If we are all Christians, all Baptists, all New Lights, 2 why are we divided? Must the little appellatives, Regular and Separate, break the golden band of charity, and set the sons and daughters of God at variance? 'Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!' But how bad and how bitter it is for them to live asunder and in discord! To indulge ourselves in prejudice is surely disorder, and to quarrel about nothing is irregularity with a witness. Oh, dear brethren, let us endeavor for the future to avoid this calamity."
The messengers were cordially received, the address was read, and the subject entertained and maturely considered. The proposed reunion received the concurrence of the body, but was deferred by an alleged necessity of settling
2 A recent name of reproach.
with more deliberation some of its details. Of the original Sandy Creek Association, which then embraced in its district large portions of Virginia, North Carolina, and western South Carolina, this providentially was the last business session. It assembled the next year, but only to arrange for a separation into three kindred bodies. The churches in South Carolina agreed to meet for organization at Saluda; those in North Carolina, at Haw River, for a similar purpose; and those in Virginia, at Thompson's, Louisa County, where they were organized as the Rapid Ann Association in 1771, but were soon after merged as a body into the General Association of the Baptists of Virginia. Thus for a season the desired union failed; but some progress had evidently been made towards the object proposed.
We have seen, in a previous chapter, the organization of the General Association, with its peculiar character and object. In this body, both parties were members, and happily and harmoniously co-operated. At its second Annual Meeting, which was held in 1772, the subject of a re-union of the churches was brought up, and entertained, as entirely consonant with its designs. We have before seen that the Kehuki Association occupied, at this time, a part of South Carolina, the whole of lower North Carolina, and all that region of lower Virginia south of James River. 3 To this body the General Association addressed itself, and sent as messengers to confer with it on the subject, Samuel Harris, Elijah Craig, John Waller, and David Thompson, four of its ablest and most influential ministers. They attended the session, but with no success. Discussions on doctrinal subjects were provoked, and were conducted probably in a bad spirit. One of the impediments seems to have been that the General Association had published no Declaration of Faith. At its meeting in 1774, after the report of its messengers to the Kehuki, a "Question concerning a Confession of Faith" came up, and being maturely considered, that body decided that "A Confession of Faith is more proper for churches than for an Association." 4 However these things might have been, the spirit of union now received a melancholy check, and for a short time division in that quarter, and not union, was industriously fomented.
Agitations and discussions regarding the Doctrines of Grace became general, and the session of the General Association itself for 1775 was rendered painfully memorable by their introduction into that body. Samuel Harris, Jeremiah Walker, and John Waller, defended the principles of the Separate Baptists, and William Murphy, John Williams, and Elijah Craig, sustained those of the Regular Baptists. Pamphlets had during the previous year been written and published by some of these gentlemen on both sides of the question at issue. 5 Great ability, candor, and Christian courtesy characterized these debates, which were continued a greater part of the session. The Association was called upon to express its opinion as to which of the contending parties was
3 Semple's History, &c., pp. 45-47. Burkett and Read's History Kehuki Ass'n.
4 Semple's History., &c., p. 55.
5 These pamphlets I have not seen. No copies are accessible.
right, but the exact form of the question debated is not now of record, and cannot therefore be more definitely stated. At the close of the day on Monday a vote was had, and it was found that, by a very small majority, the sentiments of the Association were in favor of the Regular, or Predestinarian opinion, and adverse to that of the Separate, or Arminian doctrine. The decision was announced, and the Association adjourned amidst feelings of the most painful character. The minority were silent. The majority, after consulting together, determined to bring up the subject again the next day upon the question, "Whether their opinions on these subjects should be made by the brethren on either side a bar to Christian fellowship and communion."
The General Association met on Tuesday. The two parties assembled apart, but in contiguous places. They opened communications with each other, all of which were conducted by messages, either verbal or written. The proceedings were exciting in the highest degree. The Regulars proposed to the Separates terms of union, which asked their assent to two propositions only; that "salvation is of the special electing grace of God;" and that "salvation is without merit on the part of the creature." To this message the Separates, after consultation, sent the following written response: —"Dear Brethren: A steady union with you makes us willing to be more explicit in our answer to your terms of reconciliation proposed. We do not deny the former part of your proposition, respecting particular election of grace, still retaining our liberty with regard to construction. And as to the latter part, respecting merit in the creature, we are free to profess that there is none." To this truly gratifying message, the Regulars sent the following Answer: —"Dear Brethren: Inasmuch as your Christian fellowship seems nearly as dear to us as our lives, and seeing our difficulties concerning your principles with respect to merit in the creature, particular election, and final perseverance of saints are in a hopeful measure removing, we do willingly retain you in fellowship, not raising the least bar, but do heartily wish and pray that God in his kind providence in his own time may bring it to pass, when all Israel shall be of one mind, speaking the same things." The effects of these communications were most happy. Both parties were deeply moved. By an instant and simultaneous movement they came joyfully together. Delight was in every heart. The Association restored to harmony, now resumed, finished its business, and adjourned.
The decision of the Association was universally approved by the brethren, and ratified by all the churches.6 The reunion was, for the time, as happy as the conflict had been distressing. It was, however, not yet considered to be upon a basis as broad and stable as was desired. When, therefore, some years afterwards, the General Association, having as was believed accomplished its mission, was dissolved, and the General Committee, composed of chosen messengers from all the associations in the State, was instituted to take its place, much solicitude was felt on that subject. At the Annual meeting of that Committee for 1783, it came before the body, upon "A proposition to adopt a Confession of Faith." Why this measure was thought important, and why the General Committee — as its predecessor, the General Association, had done — did not decline it, we have now no data by which to determine. Serious apprehensions were felt and freely expressed, that the union between the Regular and Separate bodies was not — should the proposed measure be carried out — sufficiently strong to survive the shock it would receive. The Committee decided upon a middle course. It adopted "The Philadelphia Confession of Faith," but with such modifications and reservations as rendered it entirely unobjectionable. It was careful to affirm that, with its consent, none should be considered as obliged to embrace its teachings in all respects, and that "It should not usurp a tyrannical power over the conscience of any." The following are the recorded conditions:"We do not mean [in adopting this Confession of Faith] that every person is to be bound to the strict observance of everything therein contained; nor do we mean to make it in any respect superior, or equal to, the Scriptures in matters of faith and practice; all that we propose, is to express the opinion that it is the best human composition of the kind now extant; yet it shall be liable to alterations whenever the General Committee in behalf of the Association shall think fit."7 These proceedings evince several important facts. They show that all classes of Baptists in Virginia earnestly desired a solid and permanent union with each other; that all their controversies were conducted in such a style and spirit as not seriously to jeopard this result; that the mutual personal bearing of the litigants was always singularly respectful and courteous; that the high honor and Christian character of each other were invariably fully conceded; that no one questioned the motives, purposes, or sincerity of another; that in their opinion Confessions of Faith were not proper for Associations; that when, after having been pressed to do so, the General Committee adopted the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, it was simply as an exposition, in general terms, of the leading principles which Baptists believe to be taught in the word of God, and not as a standard to govern them in their faith and practice; that all trials and other proceedings in the churches were directed by the Scriptures, and not by
6 Semple's History of the Virginia Baptists, pp. 60, 61.
7 Semple's History, &c., pp. 59, 60.
any human confession of faith; and that all these considerations met the universal favor of the churches and the people.
Notwithstanding all these proceedings, impediments to the permanent reunion of the two classes of Baptists in Virginia, of an embarrassing character, were continually springing up. The most formidable of these was found in the appeals supposed to have been addressed to the leading members of each class by their English brethren, to maintain here the separate organizations that had characterized their fathers in the Mother Country. Desirous to put these agitations forever to rest, the General Committee, at its session in 1786, adopted unanimously the following proceeding:"It is recommended to the different Associations to appoint delegates to attend the next General Committee, for the purpose of forming a [more perfect] union" between the Separate and Regular Baptists of Virginia.8 The next annual meeting of the Committee was held at Dover, in Goochland County, and commenced August 10th, 1787. In this meeting every Baptist Association in the State, without a single exception, was fully represented. The record of proceedings, as published by Semple, is as follows:9"Agreeably to appointment the subject of the union of Regular [Particular] and Separate [General] Baptists was taken up,"and referred to an able committee, to consider and report the conclusions at as early a period as practicable. In due time the committee reported, and after full consideration, "a happy and effectual reconciliation was accomplished." In the debates on the subject, the following considerations mainly occupied the meeting: —"The objections on the part of the Separates," says Dr. Semple, from whom this narrative is extracted, "related chiefly to matters of trivial importance, which had been for some time remedied."---------------------------
"On the other hand, the Regulars complained that the Separates were not sufficiently explicit in their principles, having never published nor sanctioned a Confession of Faith."
"To these things it was answered by the Separates, that a large majority of them believed as much in their Confession of Faith as they did themselves; and that they did not approve the practice of churches binding themselves too strictly by Confessions of Faith, since there was danger that they might usurp finally too high a place; that if there were among them some who leaned too much towards the Arminian system,
8 Semple's Hist. Va. Bap., p. 73.
9 Hist., &c., pp. 74, 75.
they were men of exemplary piety, and great usefulness in the Redeemer's kingdom; and that they conceived it better to bear with some diversity of opinion in doctrine, than to break with men whose Christian deportment rendered them amiable in the estimation of all true lovers of genuine godliness; that some of them, indeed, had now become fathers in the gospel, who previous to the bias their minds had received, had borne the brunt and heat of persecution, whose labor and sufferings had been blessed and were still blessed to the great advancement of his cause; and that to exclude such as these from their communion would be like tearing the limbs from the body. These and such like arguments were agitated in public and in private, so that all minds were much conciliated before the final and successful attempts for union."
"The terms of the union," continues Dr. Semple, "were entered upon the minutes. They embraced the general recognition of the principles set forth in the Confession of Faith previously adopted, with the limitations and explanations before made by the General Association. After considerable debate as to the propriety of having a Confession of Faith at all, other than the Bible, the report of the committee was adopted, with the following addition. 'To prevent the Confession of Faith from usurping a tyrannical power over the conscience, we do not mean (by giving it our approval) that every person shall be bound to the strict observance of everything therein contained, but only that it holds forth the essential truths of the gospel, and (shows) that the doctrine of salvation by Christ, through free and unmerited grace alone, ought to be believed by every Christian, and maintained by every minister of the gospel. Upon these terms, we (such is the record) are united; and we desire that hereafter the names, Regular and Separate, shall be buried in oblivion; and that henceforth we may be known by the name of The United Baptist, Churches in Virginia.'"
These proceedings were adopted by all that immense and talented assembly, composed of both parties, unanimously. Every heart was thrilled with joy; and as it went forth, it was hailed and ratified by the churches with inexpressible delight. All former party feelings were thenceforward banished; the names, Regular and Separate, were heard no more; all were practically as well as in name, "The United Baptist Churches in Virginia." ==================
[Robert Boyle C. Howell, D.D., The Early Baptists of Virginia, 1857, pp. 53-59. This is chapter seven of the book. - jrd]
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