Early Baptists and Easy-Believism

Early Baptists and Easy-Believism

Tom J. Nettles


The term “easy-believism” carries such pejorative overtones that none openly defends it. Zane Hodges sees it as a term used to disparage the idea that “eternal life can be obtained by a simple act of trust in Christ.” Hodges understandably resists the terms “intellectual assent” and “cheap grace” also. In fact no one wants such epithets attached to his theology, especially on the basis of the other fellow’s definitions.

Certain aspects, however, of each of those terms have the ring of truth and can’t be avoided in any biblical understanding of saving grace. Sinners are saved “freely,” as a gift, and that by grace. Though this is free it certainly isn’t cheap. Grace comes only because the Father spared not his own Son, and those to whom it comes are called to forsake final affection for every temporal thing. Also, saving faith certainly involves both the intellect and assent. The gospel consists of propositional truth–the “form of sound words,” the “deposit”–which must be grasped by the intellect to some degree; and saving faith cannot exist without assent, for if one did not assent to the truths he could not believe. The gospel, however, does not remain simply an object to be mastered by our minds but is also a subject that acts upon, masters, and subdues us. Furthermore, in one sense belief is “easy.” It comes as a gift of God; it is sovereignly bestowed; it can neither be gained by hard work nor resisted. Nothing could be easier than to be the recipient of a gift that omnipotent love is determined to bestow. But again, true faith does not remain easy because it calls us to conquer the flesh, the world, the evil one, and death itself; not as an option, but as a necessary demonstration of genuineness. This is impossible, as the disciples, to their astonishment, learned from Jesus himself.

The determination, therefore, of whether a soteriology, and consequently an evangelistic methodology, encourages mere “cheap” and “easy” cerebralism must come from looking at its views of regeneration, repentance, assurance, and self-examination. Let us concede that the front entrances of all evangelical systems have written above the door:

To him that worketh not, `tis gracious and free;
Only believe and the Lord you will see.

That some belief saves and other doesn’t is obvious. The manner and content of the preacher’s message lets us know whether the door really leads into a house that separates from the world outside or whether it is just a facade with the world on both sides of the hinges.

Easy believism fails to give full weight to Jesus’ words, “With man this is impossible” (Mark 10:23-27) by attributing to the unregenerate nature sufficient holiness to produce evangelical repentance and faith. As a result, it leaves all professions of faith virtually unchallenged as to genuineness. The normal and inevitable fruit of true Christian life then becomes regarded as an optional next step.

Great confusion dominates discussion of this issue in Southern Baptist life today. I have heard several pastors and evangelists manipulate congregations into frenzied decisions by warning against the deceit of an “easy-believism” gospel. Their preaching, however, offered no solution and demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of the issues involved.

Early Southern Baptists avoided this error. Their foundation in the theology of the Philadelphia Confession via Charleston and the long continuance of the Edwardsean theology of the First Great Awakening made their preaching and evangelism not only fervent, but searching and uncompromising. The generation which flourished prior to 1845, and in some instances straddled that pivotal date, erected a style of ministry and churchmanship which sustained Southern Baptists into the early decades of the twentieth century. An examination of their lives and ministries reveals several strengths which would serve as a positive instruction to any generation. These areas are: 1. The depth of personal conversion, 2. The applicatory emphasis of their preaching, 3. Their insistences on human responsibility, 4. Their clear grasp of the doctrine of election and its implications, and 5. Their practice of self-examination.

Deep Personal Conversion

Both the experience and description of conversion reveal a balanced and biblical theology of law and gospel and the necessity of regeneration. Richard Furman’s description of Edmund Botsford’s conversion is instructive. Botsford (1745-1819), called by C.D. Mallary “one of the fathers of the Baptist denomination in the southern states,” exhibited a sacrificial zeal as a preacher in South Carolina and Georgia.

At age 20 he arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was directed to the ministry of Oliver Hart. Botsford found in Hart “a faithful man of God” whose “preaching directed him to the Saviour.” His efforts at personal reformation led him to find “much complacency in the change which was produced both in his temper and conduct” while remaining “a stranger to the corruptions of his own heart, to the imperfections of his own righteousness, and to the purity, spirituality, extent, and strictness of the divine law.”

His views changed, however, when the text, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them” was pressed to his conscience. “It was then he saw his righteousness wholly defective; his heart corrupt, and his whole nature polluted. He saw that the curse was levelled at his devoted head, and feared that his eternal condemnation was inevitable. He felt now more than ever, his need of a Saviour.”

God soon delivered him from his fears and terrors by granting to him faith in Christ. Furman quotes from Botsford’s memoirs where the latter reflects upon the day of his conversion.

“It was,” says he, “a day of light, a day of joy and peace. On that day I had clearer views than formerly, of sin, of holiness, of God, and of Christ; and different views from all I had ever before experienced. I think I was enabled to devote my whole self to God, as a reconciled God. I think I then so believed in Christ as to trust in him, and commit my all into his hands. At that time and from that time, I considered myself as not my own, but his; his, not the world’s; his, and no longer Satan’s; his for time, and his for eternity.

“In the morning of that day I considered myself far, yea farther from God, more odious to him, and to myself, than ever I had seen myself before; I was depressed by sin, and concluded I never should be converted. But a text which had often given me hope, now came to my mind and encouraged me to pray — ‘Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me,’ and that, ‘come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,’ together with several other encouraging words; at length these words made the greatest impression, ‘my grace is sufficient for thee.’ These words were as apples of gold in pictures in silver. I saw the grace of God in Christ was sufficient for every purpose, respecting the salvation of a sinner, from first to last. My guilt was removed; my sorrow turned into joy; and I had peace through believing in the freeness and fulness of this great salvation. I was indeed like a new man; everything in me; all around me, appeared new. A new song was put into my mouth, even praise to my God and Saviour. I could not but express my joy to the family where I lived, though they were strangers to every thing of the kind; and some of them really thought I was deranged. This unspeakable happiness continued without any intermission for two whole weeks, and I then thought it would continue forever” (Richard Furman, The Crown of Life [Charleston: Wm. Riley, 1822], pp. 23-25).

This same Edmund Botsford was very active in witnessing, preaching in the open, and giving to the destitute. Largely through his faithful ministry in speech and letter the young William B. Johnson, an irreligious young man, was converted. Johnson later became the first president of the Southern Baptist convention.

Botsford also took very seriously the obligation to preach to the slaves and talk to them individually about their eternal interests. In one of his published works, he produces a conversation between two slaves, Sambo and Toney. Sambo has been converted and seeks the salvation of Toney. The conversation rests on Botsford’s theology of evangelism, sin, conviction, conversion, and repentance.

Sambo’s earnestness about the infinite importance of eternal life induces Toney to plead, “I wish, Sambo, you would tell me how I must pray and how I must repent and believe the gospel; for I never think upon these things in my life before.” Sambo responds:

I have no much time now for talk with you Toney; I must go to the boat and see about unloading the cotton. But I would advise you, Toney, for pray the Lord for direction, and as for you must pray, just pray as you can, and the Lord will hear you when you pray with all your heart. I can stay no longer, but I beg you for think seriously upon what I have said to you. Sit down, Toney, and think over your whole life and think which the best–that you go on in sin and at last go to hell, or turn to God and believe in the Lord Jesus, and so be happy in your soul while you live, and be prepared for heaven when you die.

At the encouragement of another friend, Toney attends a meeting where the sermon text is, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” After a very clear and strong presentation of the person and work of Christ and the necessity of an efficacious work of the Holy Spirit, the minister exhorted his hearers to close with Christ.

Toney relates the content of the sermon to Sambo. Specifically, he tells Sambo how the minister exhorted his hearers to pray to the Lord for mercy. The following conversation ensues:

Sambo – And did you do as the minister tell you?
Toney – Yes, over and over again.
Sambo – And did you find peace?
Toney – No, I no find for twenty times.
Sambo – Well, what you do then? Had you mind to leave off for prayer?
Toney – Yes, a hundred times.
Sambo – And how come you no leave it off?
Toney – 0 Sambo, I can’t leave it off, because I believe the word the minister tell me, he say without faith or believing in Christ all the world could not save me. So I think with myself, If I leave off prayer, I loss for true, and I can but be loss if I pray. I go to Uncle Davy and tell him all my trouble, and beg him pray for me.
Sambo – And what did Davy say to you?
Toney – He tell me that nobody could help me, that I must believe in Jesus Christ, or I would be damned; but he say, the word of the Lord is in your favour, for it say, “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”
Sambo – Well, what you do then?
Toney – Do? I know not what for do. I looked upon myself as a poor loss sinner. I had no body for blame but myself, and I often think I should drop into hell. However, I continue for pray and begging for mercy, till one day the Lord enable me to believe in Jesus Christ, and give me peace in my soul.

Toney’s preacher reveals quite a bit about Botsford’s understanding of depravity and the way of repentance. After a full display of the work of Christ, Botsford has the preacher describe the nature of true sorrow for sin.

Then you say why are not all poor sinners saved. I will tell you, before they can be saved, they must come to the Lord Jesus Christ; this they will never do while they love sin, nor till they feel themselves in a lost ruined state, and this they will never see till the Spirit of God shew them their sin, and this he does many ways, sometimes by preaching sometimes by a godly friend talking… but I will tell you how you may know if the Spirit of God is at work with you — If you feel sorry for sin and hate it, if your hearts are full of trouble about your soul, full of guilt and shame, and fear, and like the poor man in the text [you] are smiting your breast and crying God be merciful to me a sinner.

The avoidance of attaching efficacy to a form of words is quite remarkable. As Botsford’s story demonstrates, a deep ploughing of sin in the human heart and the necessity of genuine spiritual change dominate the morphology of conversion among early Baptists in the South.

Very Applicatory in Preaching

Baptists in these years had an appropriately exalted view of preaching and were greatly influenced by the applicatory preaching of the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards. In one of his admonitions to preachers, Furman urged them to read Baxter, Bunyan, Boston, Doddridge, Edwards, and John Newton. C. D. Mallary commended Owen, Watts, Whitefield, Fuller, Scott, and, again, Edwards. They learned much about applicatory preaching from such spiritual bibliography and were sincerely zealous in seeking to reach the consciences of their congregations. In a sermon on the “Constitution and Order of the Church,” Furman’s call to the unconverted is remarkably impassioned:

Without a breach of charity, I conclude, this large assembly may be divided, into saints and sinners; and it cannot be supposed that, having been describing, with an eye intent on the sacred volume, the duties of gospel ministers, I can feel indifferent to those obligations which are indispensable to the servant of Christ; or unconcerned for my hearers according to their states and characters. Permit me then, if there be such in the hearing of my voice, who have never sincerely turned to God, never felt the pangs of pious grief, or been awakened to a due sense of eternal things; to call on you by every argument, which humanity, reason and religion, can suggest; to attend seriously to the calls of the gospel, and apply to Christ for salvation! You are now in time, and under the sound of grace, but while I am speaking, time is rapidly passing away, and eternity as fast advancing. Should the king of terrors arrest you in your impenitent and unhallowed state; how certain and awful must your ruin be? How will you answer for the neglect to your own conscience, in the world of spirits; or appear in the presence of your offended and injured God; of the neglected and slighted Savior? Where will you appear, in that tremendous day, “when the heavens shall pass away with a great noise;” the earth be thrown into convulsions and wrapped in flames; the sun extinguished and the stars dissolved? 0! hearken now to the voice of Christ; it calls you to salvation: On this important errand he has sent his ministers; “As though God did beseech you by us, we pray you, in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God! Lay down your arms of rebellion; touch the golden sceptre of grace, and live.”

None in early Baptist congregations was exempt from close and searching scrutiny. Intensely aware that unbelief often appeared in congenial and benign form, preachers gave sober warning against a sense of security built on false principles. The obviously profligate, carelessly “on the road to eternal ruin” make easy targets for warning and admonition. The self-righteous likewise overtly manifest a spirit and belief contrary to the gospel and “must be effectually turned if they are ever admitted to the Saviour’s heavenly rest.” The “self-deceived hypocrite,” however, cannot as clearly and easily be convinced of his condition. He rests in apparent safety and seems well-satisfied with his profession of faith and with his subsequent adherence to the principles of Christian faith. They may be members of the “most pure and regular Church on earth,” take advantage of all opportunities and ordinances of divine worship, possess much knowledge, be eminent for “intellectual endowments” and even “spiritual gifts,” and “be very confident of their interest in the Divine fervour;” they may demonstrate zeal in religion and yet “be strangers to regenerating grace.” What can be said to rouse one so sure of his safety to flee from the wrath to come? The examination must be close and uncomfortable.

But there are self-deceived hypocrites, who have never suspected themselves to be guilty of hypocrisy, but who notwithstanding possess not that simplicity and godly sincerity which the gospel calls for. They will perhaps be zealous for the most orthodox doctrines of Christianity; for its spirituality and experimental nature, as far as these are considered in theory; while in spirit and conduct, they are quite the reverse of what the Christian should be, and really is: they bring in truth, influenced by carnal, worldly motives, and at heart, more concerned to obtain the approbation and praise of men, or to provide for their present ease and indulgence, than to be interested in the favour of God, or to serve and glorify him; so blinded are they by self-love, and a good opinion of themselves, that the glaring inconsistency of their conduct, though perhaps evident to everyone else is not discovered by themselves, or if discovered . . . is set down by them to the account of human imperfection, the corruption of nature, and the force of temptation — while in fact, imperfection is not sincerely lamented by them, corruption not mortified, and temptation not truly resisted. . . . They ask for blessings which they never sincerely desired, and give thanks for mercies which they do not prize, nor improve.

These professors of faith, so dangerously deceived, must be converted or perish for “without holiness, no man shall see the Lord.”

Applicatory preaching of this nature is far removed from two current errors. One, conveniently called easy-believism refuses to call into question the salvific status of virtually any profession. The second engages in a harangue against the consciences and spirits of church members and seeks second professions of faith. Its content focuses on the doubts of church members, ridicules their lack of assurance, and demonstrates a woeful lack of apprehension of the true nature of searching preaching which is based on a grasp of the effects of regeneration, the inevitable and observable increase in holiness and in love of Christ and the gospel.

Deeply Committed to Human Responsibility

The early Baptist understanding of human responsibility was two-pronged: 1) the responsibility of the minister to use all legitimate means for the progress of the gospel and, 2) the responsibility of saints and sinners to love God and hate sin. Basil Manly Sr. makes this clear in his message “Divine Efficiency Consistent with Human Activity.” Insistent always that “if their ministry were rendered effectual to any, it is because God opens the hearts of such persons,” they nevertheless recognized the propriety of appointing to this service creatures who are, themselves, the subjects of redeeming grace: who “like the rest of mankind, have been held under the power of sin, but have also experienced deliverance from that state of thraldom.” It is a service, not committed to angels, but to men.

This commitment brings the sober responsibility of personal discipline and public ministry. In personal discipline the minister must work for God’s glory, place the business of the gospel ministry before any other business or interest, attend to the improvement of mental powers, and cultivate a gratitude to God and jealousy for the truths of the gospel.

Responsible faithfulness is the subject of Furman’s message “Rewards of Grace Conferred on Christ’s Faithful People.” It highlights the unity between efficacious grace and human faithfulness. Furman defines faithfulness as the “conscientious and regular discharge of the duties incumbent upon us.” In true disciples, Furman insists that “holiness and fidelity are necessarily connected.” Mallary says that “God will not people his Kingdom with the lovers of sin, and the despisers of his Son.” True regeneration always bears spiritual fruit and causes one to do what he is responsible to do. Though faith and repentance “do not precede regeneration but are the fruits of it,” they are “the acts of the creature: it is man that believes and not God; it is man that repents and not his Maker” (Mallary, Christian Index, 1843 p. 59).

The permeation of Edwardsean theology into Baptist life is quite remarkable. One of its major impacts appears in the acceptance of the distinction between natural inability and moral inability. This distinction justified their conscientious and fervent calls for sinners to do what they were “unable” to do. “Nothing hinders a compliance with the requisitions of the gospel but the sinner’s rebellious will,” says Mallary. C.F. Bremley contends with the sinner, “You know you are under no constraint to sin against God; it is your own wilful and deliberate act and God holds you responsible for it.” Another writer says, “Free agency consists in liberty to act according to our will, without restraint short of the limit of our natural powers.” Mallary again, “The want of power is the want of will,” and again, “It is certain that all men possess those natural faculties, the right use and proper use of which would enable them to walk in the way of God’s commandments: it is very easy for that person to do right, who is willing to do right.” This theology led to a high sense of the responsibility of fallen man.

They also greatly admired Edwards’s personal life. Mallary said, “Modern times cannot boast of a more holy man than President Edwards.” Edwards’s profound appreciation and contemplation of the sovereignty of God “contributed much to the amazing depth, the delightful symmetry and perfection of his purity” (Mallary, Christian Index 1943, p. 78). Such an appraisal could hardly fail to be accompanied by an emulation of Edwards’s view of the holy character of saving faith.

Relationship of Election to Faith

The commitment among these Baptists to the doctrine of election could be multiplied greatly. This doctrine has no tendency to destroy morality when seen in harmony with the full revelation of God. Reduced to an abstraction and ripped from its proper connections in Scripture, it has been a part of the malady of antinomianism. However, in disengaging from one error we must be careful not to rush to another. We must not, in the words of C.D. Mallary, “fritter down the doctrines of grace, and give countenance, by our faith and teaching, to self-righteous presumption.” When one sees how election serves the production of holiness and the construction of the image of Christ in believers he can see clearly that no one “has any further evidence of his election of God, than he mortifies the deeds of the body, becomes crucified to the world, and possesses the mind that was in our Lord Jesus Christ.” In this way our forefathers’ commitment to the doctrine of election was an antidote to the so-called easy-believism.

Duty of Self-Examination

Early Baptist ministers were not mere mechanics putting together machinery in accordance with instructions, but were themselves both subject and object in the vital warnings, admonitions, and instructions they sought to give to others. Since so many professing Christians, in the light of truth, appear destitute of an experimental acquaintance with conversion, “it becomes us,” Furman advised, “to maintain a holy jealousy over ourselves, lest we should be deceived; and to feel a tender concern for others” (“Conversion,” p. 19). The sixth applicatory point made by Furman in his funeral oration for Oliver Hart concerned “the necessity of strictly examining ourselves that we may not indulge a presumptuous hope, nor suffer at last the fearful disappointment of those who will be disowned by Christ in the day of his appearing.”

How serious we would be in our preparation and how eager to do everything to attain an acquittal if we were to stand before an earthly judge in the cause of life and death. How much more should our minds be affected, Furman reminds us, when we realize we are to stand before the “judge of all the earth, whose eyes are as pure flames, piercing into the secret recesses of the soul.” In light of this, we must look with the utmost care into the state of our souls and let nothing deceive us. Conscience must be armed with the word of God as we conduct the examination.

Part of self-examination consists of an inventory of progress in the knowledge of God and a candid evaluation of one’s zeal for God’s glory. Oliver Hart, in his laborious self-examination, illustrates the profit gained for himself and others in the fulfilling of this duty. The following entry to his diary came August 5, 1754, in a period of time just before “the power of divine grace was eminently displayed” in the church at Charleston.

Monday, August the 5th, 1754. I do this morning feel myself oppressed under a sense of my barrenness; Alas, what do I for God? I am indeed employed in his vineyard, but I fear to little purpose. I feel a want of the life and power of religion in my own heart: This causes such a languor in all my duties to God: This makes me so poor an improver of time. Alas! I am frequently on my bed when I ought to be on my knees — to my shame. Sometimes the sun appears in the horizon, and begins his daily course, before I have paid my tribute of praise to God; and perhaps, while I am indulging myself in inactive slumbers. Oh! wretched stupidity! Oh! that, for time to come, l may be more active for God! I would this morning resolve, before thee, 0! God, and in thy name and strength, to devote myself more unreservedly to thy service than I have hitherto done: I would resolve to be a better improver of my time that I have heretofore been: To rise earlier in the morning, to be sooner with thee in secret devotions, and Oh, that I may be more devout therein! I would be more engaged in my studies. Grant, 0, Lord! that I may improve more by them! And when I go abroad, enable me better to improve my visits; that I may always leave a savour of divine things behind me. When I go to thy house to speak for thee, may I always go full fraught with things divine, and be enabled faithfully and feelingly to dispense the word of life. I would begin and end every day with thee: Teach me to study thy glory in all I do: And wilt thou be with me also in the night watches; teach me to meditate of thee on my bed: may my sleep be sanctified to me, that I may thereby be fitted to thy service, nor ever desire more than answers this important end. Thus teach me to number my days, that I may apply my heart unto wisdom.

When the reformation of these days comes, or as it progresses, it will be evidenced in a recovery of these vital aspects of gospel truth which so efficaciously undergirded the ministry of our early Baptist forefathers in America.