From Downgrade to Downfall

A popular perspective of movements shaping fundamentalism from 1880s to the 1920s, being a lightly edited transcript of a series of lectures given for the Adult Bible Fellowship of Tri-Cities Baptist Church during the spring of 2012 (Part 1)

by Dave Sproul

If we do not learn from history, we are forever doomed to repeat its mistakes!

As American Baptists, we trace our history to Roger Williams who was banished from Massachusetts in the 1630s for his strong position on the separation of church and state. He fled to Rhode Island, establishing a new colony where he also established the first Baptist Church in America.

Our purpose in this brief survey, however, is to deal with more recent history, primarily that period beginning in the 1880s. The events in occurring then were water-shed events shaping our movement to this day.

I. Preparation: Events that laid the groundwork of major change among Baptists

A. Charles Darwin’s Book The Origin of Species – 1859

Darwin’s thoughts caught the imagination of the scientific community. At last was a way to explain God’s creation and leave out God. His later book on The Descent of Man was even more controversial and openly challenged the Genesis account of man’s creation.

B. Charles Spurgeon and the Down Grade Controversy

To this day Spurgeon is known as the “Prince of Preachers.” By any standard, he was the most powerful and influential preacher worldwide in the 19th century. Spurgeon could say that someone had been saved in every seat of the 6,500-seat Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. Many thousands flocked to his services every Lord’s Day. His writings were voluminous. He was a major influence in the Baptist Union in England and many of his students became pastors in the organization.

Along the way the Darwinism and the ideas of German Rationalism began infiltrating the Baptist Union. They were going “downgrade” in the sense that they were departing from the “higher ground” of faith in the inspired Word of God and the fundamental doctrines of the faith.

Spurgeon, began attacking liberalism and its lowered or weakened views on inspiration. He persistently warned the brethren of down-grade in the Baptist Union. Unable to stem the tide, in l887 Spurgeon withdrew from the Baptist Union. He could no longer fellowship where unbelief was tolerated. Spurgeon wrote in the Sword & Trowel, “It is our solemn conviction that where there can be no real spiritual communion there should be no pretense of fellowship. Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin.” [Emphasis ours.]

Spurgeon’s withdrawal made it necessary for the officials of the Baptist Union to respond. One of the world’s greatest preachers had withdrawn from his own denomination. At a meeting called by the Baptist Union to discuss Spurgeon’s action, the liberal Charles Williams advanced a motion censuring Spurgeon and his withdrawal. Sadly and ironically, the motion was seconded by James Spurgeon, the Spurgeon’s brother. James Spurgeon did not withdraw from the Union. The vote was overwhelming with hundreds voting for the motion and only eight or nine votes opposing. The vote and the controversy no doubt hastened the death of Spurgeon.

C. The Invasion of German Rationalism — Higher Criticism

For some years in the 1800s German Rationalism / Higher Criticism had been raging on the continent and infecting many religious bodies. Its main attack was upon the verbal plenary inspiration of the Scriptures. It denied that the original manuscripts were God-breathed and without error.

German rationalism arrived in America in the 1880s. Within a few years the shock waves could be found in all the major denominations. The rise of rationalism led to a battle in numerous religious bodies during the 1920s. This battle became known as the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy. The conflict was between those who believed the Bible and those who did not. Sadly, every battle (with one exception) was won by modernists who took over the denominational bodies, including the Northern Baptist Convention (now known as the American Baptist Convention).

II. Exodus from Mainline Denominations

A. The Northern Presbyterians

The Presbyterian church as a whole represented a great bastion of orthodoxy in the 17th and 18thcenturies. Princeton Seminary was a strong Biblical training ground for ministers. Distinguished men such as B.B. Warfield, Charles and A. A. Hodge graced its faculty. But by the l890s the drift in the Northern Presbyterian denomination was painfully evident.

For the next 25 years the situation worsened. In 1923 1,300 Presbyterian ministers signed a document called the Auburn Affirmation, affirming that they could fellowship with those who had various theories concerning the Scriptures.

About this time, J. Gresham Machen, a brilliant Princeton theologian, wrote Christianity and Liberalism, a volume demonstrating two approaches to Scripture, that of faith and that of the rationalist. Among those who joined in his protest were Robert Dick Wilson and Oswald Allis, fellow professors at Princeton Seminary. All were vilified unmercifully. After much battle and heartache, acting upon their convictions and the Biblical teaching of separation from apostasy, these men left Princeton and the Northern Presbyterian Convention. Several of the leaders of this fight, including Machen, had their ordination removed by the Presbyterian denomination. In the meantime, they started Westminster Theological Seminary near Philadelphia. Today the Northern Presbyterian Denomination is but a shell of its former self and is now known as the Presbyterian Church USA.

B. The Methodists

Methodists have a great history traced back to John Wesley who is said to have won over a million souls to Christ during his 55 years of ministry. Although differing with George Whitfield on some theological matters, they together made an unforgettable impact on Great Britain in the 1700s.

Meanwhile, Methodism was having a great affect on the colonies along the southeastern seaboard. In the early l800s it moved West with the pioneers and many were swept into the kingdom in revivals in Kentucky and Tennessee. The movie “Sheffy,” produced by Bob Jones University, is the life story of an itinerant Methodist evangelist in the hills of Kentucky in the early l800s.

The basic fundamentals of the faith were firmly held by the Methodist Church in the north and south in the l9th Century. For many years Sam Jones was the most noted Methodist evangelist in the south. He held large city wide meetings with tens of thousands professing salvation. He died while holding meetings in the Mid-West. The news was flashed to newspapers all across the country. As his body was returned to Atlanta by train, many tens of thousands lined the tracks in quiet respect for the dead warrior passing by.

Succeeding him was Dr. Bob Jones Sr. in the 20thcentury. He was born and reared in a Methodist Church in Alabama. Early in his ministry he left the church of his youth because of the rapid advance of modernism. Like Sam Jones before him, he held large city wide meetings with more than a million people professing salvation. Journalists who covered both his meetings and those of Billy Sunday claimed there were more lasting results from those saved under Jones than Sunday.

Those old time Methodists believed in Biblical holiness and lived that way. Their personal habits and dress might seem strange to some believers today. They believed that co-habiting out of wedlock was “living in sin.” They strongly opposed the dance, alcohol, and the worldliness of that day. Dr. Bob Jones Sr. would often open a city-wide meeting with a message on the dance.

On a personal note, my maternal grandfather was a Methodist circuit riding preacher who believed and preached the gospel. He had two sons, Nelson and Floyd, who were lay Methodist preachers. My Mother and Father were saved through the ministry of Methodist preachers. I was saved under the preaching of a Free Methodist woman evangelist. (Not defending women in the ministry but the Word was given and 17 were saved the night I came to Christ). Free Methodism is a splinter group from Methodism.

However, by the turn of the 20thcentury, modernism was heavily affecting Methodism in the north. Christian colleges and seminaries were succumbing to “higher criticism.” The south was soon to follow. By 1927 modernism was so advanced in Methodism and other major denominations that Dr. Bob Jones Sr. felt led of the Lord to start Bob Jones College in Florida. While traveling he witnessed young people losing their faith in denominational schools. In l939 the Methodist Protestant Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South combined to form The Methodist Church. In l968 The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren united to form the present United Methodist Church. Today the United Methodist Church may be the most apostate church in the world. They basically deny all the historical verities of the faith. They promote homosexuality, lesbianism, same sex marriages, and practically every leftist cause. They are totally bereft of any vestige of Biblical Christianity.

As an example, in the l960s we held a revival meeting in an independent Baptist Church in central Wisconsin. Numerous people visited the meetings from a local Methodist Church and were saved. The Methodist pastor strongly rebuked the Baptist pastor for what had been preached to his people. Interestingly enough, once a month the local newspaper ran the front page of the paper from fifty years before. That month it told of the Methodist and Baptist Churches combining for a week of revival meetings. The sermon titles looked like they were stolen from my list of messages. How sad! In our many years in evangelism we often had Methodist people visit our meetings but seldom would I meet one who was saved and knew it. If I did, it was usually an elderly person.

C. Conflict in the Northern Baptist Convention

In 1907 several Baptist organizations united to form the Northern Baptist Convention. From the beginning there were some major internal problems. The University of Chicago was founded in l890 by the American Baptist Society with a large gift from John D. Rocke- feller. It became one of the key Baptist Seminaries in the Northern Baptist Convention From its earliest days there was evidence of liberalism among the faculty. In a few years it was in full bloom.

Northern Baptist Theologcial Seminary was founded in l913 to offset the liberalism of University of Chicago. (Both were a part of the NBC). Today Northern Baptist Theological Seminary claims it is evangelical. But the word “evangelical” is a very flexible term which can mean almost anything you want it to mean. Originally, we Baptists were “evangelical separatists.” But then the word “separatist” was sheared off. Today the term “evangelical” simply means we are lost to some extent and need to be saved to some extent. It is a broad elastic term that says basically nothing.

Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia was established in 1925 to offset the liberalism of another NBC seminary. Today Eastern is on the extreme left.

Rochester Theological Seminary, now Crozer Rochester Theological Seminary, was started in l850. Perhaps its best- known president was Augustus H. Strong (author of Strong’s Theology)who strongly believed in the inerrancy of the Scriptures. He served as president from l872 to 1912.

Its best known graduate may be Walter Rauschenbusch, the father of the social gospel. While in seminary he learned about Higher Criticism, which led him to comment that his “inherited ideas about the inerrancy of the Bible became untenable.” He did not believe in the substitutionary atonement because he claimed Christ did not teach it. He claimed that at 17 he repented of personal sins but not his social sins.

His two books, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) and Theology of the Social Gospel(l917) had a great impact on the NBC and many other denominations. In essence the books claimed that Christians were totally wrong about the purpose of Christ’s death. We were not to spread the gospel and urge people to be saved, but rather our job was to act in a Christlike spirit to reform society. It was reformation without regeneration which had a great appeal to the unsaved heart then and still does today.

By 1920 the NBC as well as Methodist, Presbyterian and other denominations were headed full speed into the apostasy. The liberals were in control and were determined to ultimately rid themselves of Bible believers who continued to believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures. Could anything or anyone stop them?

Our next article in this series will continue the story.

Dr. David Sproul is a senior consultant with International Baptist Missions.