A Circular Letter to Southern Baptists in 1853

A Circular Letter to Southern Baptists in 1853

Robert P. Selph

Imagine that you are a Southern Baptist pastor in what is now called the Stone Mountain Baptist Association of Georgia in 1852. You arrive at the fourteenth annual session of your associational meeting and begin hearing the reports. The “Stated Religion Committee” report this year is quite disturbing. Much thought and prayer has gone into the committee’s work in evaluating the spiritual condition of the churches of the association in the past twelve months. Their conclusions center on a very alarming spiritual decline in the people of the churches with the responsibility laid primarily upon the pulpits. The pastors had increasingly been preaching less doctrine. Instead they spent greater portions of time trying to make church life more appealing to the common man. Time and energy previously given to the sovereignty and grace of God has been taken up in recent months, even years, with different measures to stimulate interest in spiritual matters.

Possibly the mentality was like this: “Make the Gospel as simple as possible, as easy as possible, and as appealing as possible. Work on the attractiveness of the church service and the programs, but by all means do not let the doctrinal instruction be a weariness to the common man. He hates to think his way through a worship service, so find ways to carry him through it and make it enjoyable. Don’t press the demands of Christ and the Gospel or you will lose potential converts right and left. Emphasize all that the Gospel will do for him, and having secured his immediate assent to your presentation, baptize him and take him into membership without regard for a changed life or a serious, obvious, and spiritual discipleship to Jesus Christ.” The result of such a “short cut” mentality?–a gradual, but sure spiritual decline.

One step the Stone Mountain Association took in dealing with this alarming decline was to enlist David Cook, Moderator, to write the “Circular Letter” for the following year. A circular letter was just as important as an appointment to preach the annual sermon. The letter was circulated among the churches prior to the annual meeting and then was read at the annual meeting. Each year it was to address a specific, stated need within the association. The following circular letter was presented to the Stone Mountain Baptist Association on September 10-13, 1853, during the fifteenth annual session that was held at the Macedonia Baptist Church in the vicinity of Atlanta, Georgia. It was secured from the minutes of the Stone Mountain Baptist Association by Pastor Bill Haynes of the Indian Creek Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Georgia. The emphases have been added.

I. That our churches ought to feel a deeper interest in, and higher observance of, the fundamental doctrines of the Bible.

1. We argue the necessity of impressing these doctrines upon the mind from the fact that they promote good religion.

“Make the tree good, and his fruit will be good.” To obtain the purest water, we must repair the fountain. To attain an eminent degree of piety, ”drink of the fountain of the water of life freely.” “In that day, there shall be a fountain opened in the house of David, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin, and for uncleanness.” The atonement of Christ, with special regard to the redemption of His people, is first, last, and midst, in the great and glorious economy of Grace. Like the circle of the sun, it comprehends all the attributes of God’s gifts to His children. The death of Jesus Christ, for us His enemies, embraces the most unmistakable proof of God’s electing love; His preordination of obedient, true believers, to “eternal life.” “As many as were ordained to eternal life, believed.” The assurance of an “eternal weight of glory,” to all that love God and keep His commandments, is uttered and continued by the Lord Jesus, when He, in His unspeakable agony and awful death, exclaims, “It is finished.” “The ceremonial law is finished; the rigorous, fearful, civil polity of the Jews is finished; the requisition of the moral code is finished; my suffering life is finished; my shameful, agonizing death is accomplished; Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us. If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.”

2. As the atonement of Christ is identified with the entire system of salvation, and as it corresponds with all those primary doctrines which it is our interest and duty to believe and practice, it is therefore necessary that these doctrines be preached and advocated, both in the pulpit and elsewhere, without fear of contradiction, and with unwavering confidence that God will sanctify them to His chosen people. Is the covenant of redemption true to the redemption of all that believe? Is election God’s choice from eternity of all that obey Him? Is predestination to holiness of heart and life a Bible doctrine? Is salvation by grace through the blood of Christ the heritage of God’s elect? Shall they persevere in pious living through the faithfulness of God? Do “all things work together for good to them that love God; to them who are the called according to His purpose?” Cannot Baptists answer these questions affirmatively? Surely. Then why neglect their propagation? Does the proclamation of truth injure the people of God ? Certainly not. When a man speaks a deliberate falsehood or is angry at the declaration of truth, or when he conceals a truth by using misleading language in any matter whatever, avoid him. Arminianism and Campbellism are subtly intending our dismemberment. Let us arise in the energy of the Holy Ghost, and “declare all the counsel of God, and contend earnestly for the faith once delivered unto the saints.”

3. The sovereignty of God is perpetuated and confessed in “the churches of the saints.” “God sitteth on the throne of His holiness. The Lord Omnipotent, reigneth. He shall reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet; the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” His sovereign, immutable decree produces all that is good for His church; and His permissive will tolerates moral evil. He “worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” In supreme power, and “dreadful majesty” He punishes the wicked. Executing the penalty of death upon the finally impenitent; He makes subservient to our benefit all the ills of life. Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee, the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain? The penitent thief He brings to Paradise, but the dying persecuted robber He commits to eternal wrath. “Righteousness, Justice, and Judgment are the habitation of His throne.” It belongs to His absolute will, it is the prerogative of the Great Supreme to welcome the saints to glory, and consign the wicked to unquenchable fire. “Come ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; Depart, ye cursed into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” His law of benevolence prepared Heaven for the righteous before they were born, from the foundation of the world. His penal law prepared Hell for the devil and his angels. “In my Father’s house are many mansions. Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am. Depart from me, ye workers of iniquity.” Thus, we give glory to God in the highest, thus God extends peace on earth, good will toward men. Alleluia! The Lord God Omnipotent reigneth! Let the earth rejoice. Let the multitude of isles be glad thereof.

4. In penetrating the mysteries of Divine Providence and Grace, we must recollect that to learn these doctrines, faith, prayer, and patience are indispensably necessary. Faith must receive the word of God as it is; prayer will unfold the oracles of truth to the humble inquirer;–and patience will tarry in the temple until the interpretation is audibly spoken by the Holy Spirit: “Ye have need of patience, that after ye have done the will of God, ye may inherit the promise. He shall take the things which are mine, and shall shew them unto you.”

Christians are not to learn the doctrines of grace in a day, or a year, “As newborn babes desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby. They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God.” What an immense blessing is it thus to have all the gifts of the immortal mind in exercise! It is stated that “an ancient mathematician, who had been working a problem for many weeks, when he had found the solution, ran out of his study, and through the streets of Athens crying–”I have found it–I have found it!” And the disciples of the Lord Jesus, who is ever working out the vast problem of man’s redemption, will find an answer to his devout inquiries, “with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” Therefore, “exercise thyself rather unto godliness.” Beloved brethren, descend “into the unsearchable riches of Christ.” Be exercised in exploring the infinite mind of God. Make new discoveries of the Divine perfections. “But we all with open face, beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the spirit of the Lord.”

II. These doctrines are the safeguard of the Body of Christ. “He is made all things to the Church that in all things He might have the preeminence. No other foundation can any man lay, than that is laid: which is Christ Jesus. Salvation will God appoint, for walls and bulwarks. If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do? For I, saith the Lord, will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her. Yea, and all the promises of God, in Him are yea, and in Him amen, unto the glory of God by us.”

To preserve the church of Christ from wicked encroachment, the citadel must be well defended and secured: “His place of defense shall be the munition of rocks.” Inherent strength is comprised and promoted within these enclosures. “As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about His people, from henceforth, even forever.” The sun in his orbit, burns and shines without hazard from any of his attendant planets. So be the Church of the adorable Redeemer. Let her “be as a city set on a hill which cannot be hid.” Let her be “the light of the world.” Illuminated by the Son of Righteousness, she is in her celestial training and towering majesty, the peerless queen of her Lord and King; subservient to no earthly pollution, or defilement from without, but guarded and honored by the power and intelligence of her Almighty and All-Wise Redeemer, she stands replete in the love of God, and beauty of salvation. “Upon His right hand did stand the Queen, in gold of Ophir.”

III. The visibility of the Church of Christ, by the inculcation and exhibition of these doctrines is better understood. “Ye are not of the world.” If the Church can be distinguished apart from the world in her principles taken from the Bible, and impressed by the spirit of God, she will evince, first, by her vitality, and secondly, in her sober, sincere and godly intercourse, that she alone is “the heavenly Jerusalem,” that in her alone are the dawn and light and glory of the precious Saviour’s image on earth. Grace “without money and without price” is free grace; it is unmerited, therefore it must be and will be illustrated in Christian character, and exemplified in Christian conduct.

IV. To do these things, the power is given us. “All power in heaven and earth is mine, and to whomsoever I will, I give it,” says our Immanuel, “which name, being interpreted, is God with us.”

1. In the government of the Church, the distinctiveness of these doctrines must be quietly and affectionately advocated and enforced. We require a good moral character of every applicant for church membership. But we need no reference to a man’s previous life. If God has converted, has shed abroad His love in his heart, this contains all the elements of moral character. Ananias might not object to the baptism of Saul. His previous persecutions of God’s children were no barrier to his immersion, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Caution, however, in the reception of applicants for immersion should be persistently and intelligently observed. And in the admission by letter of Baptists from a distance, there should be the most scrupulous adherence of moral character. A church letter, written sometimes in full fellowship, is but a transcript of hypocrisy and base imposition. Never admit to church membership any person on the merit expressed in his letter, unless his commendation is borne out in Christian conduct. Object to him and reject at once his letter of recommendation, if he is not in action what his letter signifies.

Reclaim, as speedily as possible, backsliding Christians. Excommunicate incorrigible members. Never mind their great age. The hoary-headed sinner is the most ingenious contriver of mischief. Have no lenience for the opulent hypocrite. “Wealth maketh many (mischievous) friends.” “Holiness becometh God’s house.”

2. In the good character of Jesus Christ’s preacher, and deacons, these truths must be sanctioned and sanctified.

Aaron and the Levites (deputy priests) were irreproachable. Paul exercised himself “daily, to have a good conscience void of offense toward God and toward men.” He addressed the deacons of Philippi with profound regard and unwavering confidence; and placed them second in the scale of pious distinction and manifest utility, in the Philippian church. From the deaconship of Stephen, he rose to the ministration of the Gospel, and was crowned with the earliest honors of the martyrdom of the New Testament. “Be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord.”

3. The ordinances of God’s house will be diligently and devoutly attended to. “Faith without works is dead.” Where there are no Christian works, there is no Christian faith. Christian faith is lively, animating, productive. “I will show thee my faith by my works.” Strong faith has strong and powerful evidence in the love of God. “God is love. We love Him, because He first loved us.” Here is the motive power of heavenly ordinances. This is the great interpreter of Christian action and patient suffering. “The love of Christ constraineth us.” In the ordinances of preaching, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, prayer, exhortation and praise, “the King is held in the galleries.”

4. In the secular support of Gospel Ministers, the fundamental teachings of the Scriptures are patronized and appreciated. Nor is it sufficient that brethren endorse these truths with their lips, whilst their hearts are far from them. Brethren in the Lord, do not censure us for our candor. Suffer this truth. Never, never were the people of God more in opposition to their own welfare; never, never did they reproach the Gospel of Christ, the doctrines of the Cross, more bitterly and cruelly than in withholding the support that is due to the Ministers of the Lord Jesus. “The Lord loveth a cheerful giver.” The love of Christ is intercepted by the cheerless withholder of the Minister’s dues. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” The Minister and his widowed wife, and orphanized children are blessed in receiving the laborer’s hire. But the church is more abundantly blessed in imparting cheerfully what the minister is entitled to.

‘Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of Hosts; if I will not open you the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”

-David Cook, Moderator

This letter addresses the very issues being raised now in Southern Baptist life with regard to doctrinal laxity and the low vital spirituality among our fifteen million church members. A major difference between David Cook’s day and our own is the belief in the Doctrines of Sovereign Grace which prevailed then. Though man’s wicked nature recoils under the declaration of such truths, they alone, embraced and applied to life, as David Cook clearly explains, secure the true and lasting blessing of God upon His Church.

Today the majority of Southern Baptist churches do not believe the same doctrines as our forefathers. The doctrinal preaching of the English Particular Baptists, the American Baptists affiliated with the historic Philadelphia and Charleston Associations, as well as nearly all Southern Baptists from 1845 to 1920 would not be welcome in Southern Baptist churches today. The call must go out again today, as in DeKalb County, Georgia, in 1853–we must return to understanding, preaching, and applying Biblical doctrine as in days gone by. To some, such belief and practice would surely squash evangelism, bleed the life out of any mission enterprise, and dampen the joy of our churches. But this is simply not so. The Christian faith of Boyce, Dagg, Carroll, Mell, Broadus, Manly, Gambrell, and many other Southern Baptists, not to mention Spurgeon, Carey, Wayland, Judson, Rice, Edwards, and Whitefield, will not have such effects if rightly proclaimed and applied. Indeed, exactly the opposite is true.

If this letter tells us anything, it tells us this: the five truths of Calvinism are historic Baptist theology. Preaching these “Doctrines of Grace” will not injure the people of God, rather, it is the surest way to build them up in the faith, comfort their souls, purify their daily lives, expand before their eyes the love of God, and make them more diligent students of the Scriptures.

No, we do not teach heavy-duty doctrine for some intellectual ego trip. A pastor is called to speak as a dying man to dying men the careful and thorough exposition of God’s revealed truth. Therein do men learn of the unsearchable riches of Christ, the excellencies and infinite attributes of the transcendent God of majesty, and the strait gate and narrow way that leads to life eternal. Only from such a doctrinal pulpit will Christ’s lambs be fed and grow into strong soldiers in Jehovah’s army. Only there will sinners be sufficiently warned and the costs of discipleship be enumerated.

Have we fallen prey to the church growth nonsense of ballooning our attendance with generic methods that would entice self-centered sinners into having an interest in Jesus regardless of doctrinal convictions? Have we bought into an “ends justifies the means” pragmatism that is only concerned with adding baptisms with minimal instruction, even though the result is pervasive doctrinal ignorance? Does not the poor attendance and Bible understanding of many “members” bring an indictment on our preaching methods?

Imagine a church where the people come not needing any awards, recognitions, sensational music, or special days. Imagine that they only come to seek God and to worship in spirit and in truth at the feet of Jesus. They would need nothing to dress Jesus up or to make church “interesting.” Smaller churches wouldn’t be so worried about losing all the program-hunting church people who gauge the value of a ministry by whether it offers all the social attractions their children supposedly need. Parents would assume their responsibility to teach and train their children to view the church and the worship of God for what they really are. This lofty goal will be achieved to a great degree where the pulpit is not as concerned with programs and promotions as it is with grounding God’s people in solid truth and setting before sinners the fulness of God’s holy law and the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ.

John Dagg on Church Membership

“The churches are not infallible judges, being unable to search the heart but they owe it to the candidate [for membership] himself, to exercise the best judgment of which they are capable. To receive any one on a mere profession of words, without any effort to ascertain whether he understands and feels what he professes, is unfaithfulness to his interests, and the interests of religion.”