October 23, 2017

Historic Baptist Principles? … or the seed of defeat in the soil of revival

Don Johnson

We’ve started a series of posts republishing the sermons from the inaugural Pre-Convention Conference of Northern Baptists, recorded for us in the book Baptist Fundamentals. My copy is from the collection provided by Maranatha Baptist University’s Roger Williams Heritage Archives, a Logos format collection of resources available here. Portions of this material are copyrighted by Maranatha and are used by permission.

Last week I wrote a commentary on the Opening Address and thought I might do the same on the second one this week. As I worked through the material, I was brought up short. Something the speaker said utterly shocked me. How could this have been included in the historic conference? How could the speaker have been given a platform to speak, considering the view he advocated?

Well, we decided (our Proclaim & Defend committee) that we couldn’t post the sermon in its entirety as if we endorsed its content. Instead, I am posting this article which will highlight portions and explain the history. It is true that if you have two Baptists in a room, you will have several opinions, so disagreement among Baptists is not unusual. But the purpose of the Pre-Convention Conference was to prepare a fundamentalist strategy for the subsequent Convention. The participants all considered themselves to be fundamentalists and were united in their concern for the Convention. At least that was the idea.

The second message in the book is called “Historic Baptist Principles.” It was delivered by Frederick L. Anderson, at the time a professor at Newton Seminary and chairman of the board of managers for the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society. Anderson no doubt considered himself to be a fundamentalist and his message begins with a fairly traditional rehearsal of Baptist distinctives. He affirms positions most Baptists have heard many times. I wonder if his affirmations were partly designed to lull the listener to sleep as he approached the main point of his message. Regardless of intent, you will see what I mean from the highlights.

Frederick L. Anderson sounds very contemporary when he tells us the central defining concept of Baptists is the gospel:

The fundamental principle of the Baptists, in common with many other evangelicals, has always been the gospel, which is the essence of all Scripture. They have through their whole history been out-and-out evangelicals. With them the gospel is the determining factor not only in the theory of the church, but also in its actual external organization and polity. Among Baptists, the gospel creates the atmosphere, sets the ideals, molds the thought and feeling, shapes methods and machinery. Legitimately, the gospel should dictate even such externals as our choice of music and singers, our form of public worship, the shape of our church building, and certainly the symbolism of our ordinances.

He goes on to define the gospel this way:

The gospel is the good news of the free forgiveness of sin and eternal life (beginning now and going on forever) through a vital union with the crucified and risen Christ, which brings men into union and communion with God. This salvation is graciously offered on the sole conditions of repentance and faith in Christ. It is a God-given salvation, all of grace, having in it the divine power of regeneration and sanctification. It is not self-earned or self-won, though it depends on the whole-hearted self-surrender of the sinner to Jesus Christ — to believe in him, to love him, and to do his will, to serve men as he served them. It is God’s unspeakable gift.

So far so good, the observant reader will not find much disagreement with these statements, although one might state the matter slightly differently depending on one’s system of theology. From this foundation, Anderson rehearses fairly typical Baptist distinctives such as “The Immediacy of the Communion of the Soul with God” by which he means the Priesthood of the Believer and opposes the sacramentalism of Rome and the Reformers. The next principle is “The Voluntariness of Religion” in which he opposes infant baptism and separation of church and state, beloved Baptist principles. A hint of what is to come in the message is included in the opening paragraph of this section, however:

All true religion is at its root purely personal, the free response of the free spirit to the gracious spirit of God. Forced religion is no religion at all. Its very life is its willing devotion. Consequently no one — parent, pastor, Church, or State — has a right to compel any act in the sphere of religion. Even the desire to compel a religious act shows a fundamental ignorance of the very nature of religion itself. [Bolded portions my emphasis.]

What does Anderson mean by standing against any Church compelling a religious act? We shall see. His next point, and I think his main point comes next, “The Equality and Liberty of Believers.” By this he means that the Convention can make no requirement of agreement to any doctrinal statement or creed, the very strategy the Fundamentalists were going to call for in the Convention in this and succeeding years. I will quote this section extensively, again bolding portions I wish to highlight:

If communion with God is immediate, and every believer has an equal right to the fulness of the blessing in Christ on purely spiritual terms, all Christians are on an equality in their relations to God. In this sphere there is and can be no special privilege. The Duke of Wellington knelt in St. Paul’s beside a laborer, who, recognizing him, started to rise. “Stay, man,” said the duke, “we are all on a level here.”

From this principle spring our doctrines of the democracy of the local church, of the invalidity of the distinction between clergy and laity which is foreign and repugnant to the inner spirit of our religion, and of the independency of the local church. This independency is a necessary corollary of democracy and indispensable to its preservation, as is clearly set forth in the noble declaration prefixed to the by-laws of the Northern Baptist Convention. The Convention is thereby constituted not a legislative, but a purely advisory body, having no authority save that moral authority which comes from its faith, wisdom, and character, and the molding of its decisions by the Holy Spirit.

But immediate communion with God guarantees not only the equality, but also the liberty of all believers. In the end every Christian is responsible to God, and to God alone. What he hears in the secret place, he must tell, and he has not only the duty but the right to tell it, and must be granted freely large liberty in thus reporting his experiences of the grace of God. There is only one limitation here, and that is that within the organized church of Jesus, founded as it is on the gospel, opposition to the fundamental principles of the gospel cannot be permitted. Otherwise evangelical Christianity commits suicide.

Still even here there should be moderation and discrimination. We should distinguish between prejudices stated, between our definition and the things defined, between form and substance. We should not only allow, but indeed cherish, divergencies and varieties within the evangelical type. Only thus can our denomination be enriched, broadened, kept fresh and vigorous. No three Christians could have been much more different than Peter, John, and Paul, and yet they could give each other the right hand of fellowship. Inclusion within the limits of the gospel and not exclusion must be our ideal. It is a fact that all other denominations from Roman Catholics down to Quakers retain men of very different views in their fellowship. Why should not we do the same?

No two Christians are alike, no two have the same experience, no two see alike the many-sided Christ in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden. None of us have yet attained to a full understanding of the Son of God and the unsearchable riches of his salvation. There is always a possibility that some one else may have penetrated farther into the secret of godliness than we have, and may have attained a larger or profounder view of God than we. So while on the one hand we must guard with jealous care the heavenly treasure of the gospel against all who would dissipate or rationalize it away, must fight for it, and die for it, if need be, on the other hand we must be equally vigilant against spiritual pride, hereditary prejudice, narrow dogmatism, a desire to force our views on others equally spiritual and equally Christian, and an unwillingness to count others, who also commune with our Christ, better than ourselves. (Phil. 2:3)

And here comes in the question of the imposition of a creed. Now I am in favor of creeds. I like the man who believes something and believes it with all his heart, can tell what it is, and proclaims it from the housetops. Only the great believers have ever influenced men largely and beneficially. I have made it a practice every five or ten years to write my own creed for my own satisfaction, and some of these creeds have been published. I see no objection and indeed much good in a group of agreeing brethren formulating their creed and publishing it, if they wish. But in view of the equality and liberty of believers, no man has a right to try to impose his creed on others. He has the right to hold the creed, to proclaim it, to seek to win others to it, but he has no right to demand that others shall sign or favor it, if it contravenes their experiences in the secret place or their Christian judgment. Nor has he any right to cast them out of his love and fellowship so long as they hold the gospel fast.

Consequently I oppose any creedal statement whatever in the Northern Baptist Convention, or any other formal gathering, because it would be sure to be regarded as an attempt to impose that creed on all Baptists contrary to their liberty in the gospel to differ from us, and, as we could not all agree, it would surely be divisive and exclusive in its tendencies. This is just the opposite of seeking to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.

Notice the subtlety with which Anderson advocates for his position. He says, “Now I am in favor of creeds.” He means he is in favor of them if you keep them to yourself. Don’t you dare attempt to impose them on your religious bodies or make it a test of missionary candidacy or the qualifications of professors in your seminaries. Don’t require those who train your young men to openly state their compliance with an orthodox statement of faith. You would do damage to their soul liberty by making that requirement! Who knows if that professor has not “penetrated farther into the secret of godliness than we have”?

Well… reading that I was shocked and dismayed. How could we publish this as if we are in agreement with it? We can’t. All of the members of the board of the Fundamentalist Baptist Fellowship International willingly sign whole-hearted agreement with our doctrinal statement every year. We are glad to do so. We think there should be orthodox tests of fellowship.

Discovering this message among those addressing the Pre-Convention Conference of 1920, I began to do some research on Frederick L. Anderson. His advocacy against a creed was no one-time affair. He consistently sided with the liberals in opposing a doctrinal test for missionaries. In The Baptist, June 18, 1921, pp. 629-630, he debated Frank M. Goodchild on the subject in an article headlined, “Should the Northern Baptist Convention Adopt a Doctrinal Standard?” Anderson is arguing for the “No!” side here.

When the 1922 Convention in Indianapolis came around, the Fundamentalist side was cleverly out-maneuvered by Cornelius Woelfkin. William B. Riley led the push for a standard doctrinal statement, but Woelfkin proposed a substitute motion, “The Northern Baptist Convention affirms that the New Testament is the all-sufficient ground of our faith and practice, and we need no other statement.” Weaver reports, “Fundamentalists lost the vote, 1,264 to 637.”[1] Beale says that many Fundamentalists, including, unfortunately, J. C. Massee (see the Opening Address from the 1920 Pre-Convention, here), “believed that a vote for Riley’s motion would be a vote against the New Testament itself.”[2] Assessing the outcome of the 1922 convention, Frederick L. Anderson declared “nothing could be further from the truth than to describe the result at Indianapolis as a liberal victory. It was nothing of the kind.” He further stated, “On the first rising vote in this Convention I voted with the fundamentalists, because I thought that on that point which I had carefully investigated years ago they were right. On another important matter I voted against them in accordance with a life-long conviction, very carefully re-examined in recent months.” (Full article from the Watchman Examiner, July 27, 1922, p. 955, available here.)

David Beale describes Anderson as “the tolerant professor” in his book, In Pursuit of Purity. He notes that Anderson “identified with early Fundamentalism … addressing the preconvention Fundamental conference in Buffalo when they organized the Fundamental Fellowship in 1920.”[3] The reference brings us back to the message we are discussing in this post. Beale says, “Anderson’s was the only address that the preconvention audience did not applaud.”[4]

What are we to make of the moderates who affirm (they claim) the fundamental doctrines of the faith but hinder and ultimately oppose the efforts of Fundamentalists to call men to accountability to those doctrines? The problem has not gone away with the end of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. Fundamentalism has always struggled against the drag of more tolerant conservatives in its midst.

As I researched Frederick Anderson, however, I came across one more thing even more incredibly shocking than his impeding the efforts of Fundamentalists in the Northern Baptist Convention. He is reported as saying this on the virgin birth:

My mind is still open on this subject, which I do not consider of the first importance. I am rather inclined to believe in the virgin birth, but it is not essential to Christian faith (cf. Peter and Paul), and should not be made a condition of church membership or ordination. (Cited as from a work by Anderson, The Life of Jesus, here and quoted in Beale, p. 176.)

When we assess Anderson, what are we to say? Was he a Fundamentalist? He was inclined to be, he says, but not that it matters. I entitled this article: “Historic Baptist Principles? … or the seed of defeat in the soil of revival.” Unfortunately, with friends like these, we simply do not need any more enemies.


Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

  1. C. Douglas Weaver, In Search of the New Testament Church: The Baptist Story, 1st ed, Baptists (Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 2008), 137. []
  2. David Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism since 1850 (Greenville, S.C: Unusual Publications, 1986), 206. []
  3. Beale, In Pursuit of Purity, 176. []
  4. Ibid., p. 193. []


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