The Faith of Ezra Courtney, Pioneer Missionary in the South

The Faith of Ezra Courtney, Pioneer Missionary in the South

Joe B. Nesom

[This article is taken from a paper entitled, “The Faith Once Delivered: An Examination of the Theology of Ezra Courtney, with a Consideration of Progress, Declension, and Resurgence,” first delivered to the Louisiana Baptist History Association. Dr. Nesom is the Vice-President of the Louisiana Historical Association, and Chairman of the Committee on Baptist History of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.]

Courtney’s Life

Ezra Courtney (1775-1855), was born, according to the inscription on his gravestone, in the Darlington District of South Carolina. 0th sources have the year as 1771 with Pennsylvania as his birthplace.[1] According to the records of Bethel Black River Church in Burnt County, South Carolina, he was “working” for the church in the year 1790. Whatever the word “working” may refer to, it indicates involvement in the affairs of God’s kingdom in a notable fashion while Courtney was only a teenager. As a young man, Courtney married Elizabeth Dearmond. Their first child, a daughter named Sarah, was born on August 25, 1792.[2]

After living for a time in the Darlington District, where Courtney was listed as a licensed preacher at the Ebenezer Church, he and I family moved to Amite County, Mississippi.[3] Just to the south lay West Florida which was then under the dominion of the Spanish king. Oppression by Roman Catholic authorities in the area had already been felt by newly arriving Baptists, and when Courtney preached to a group of them some nine miles from Baton Rouge, the Catholics threatened him with arrest. However, the Alcalde, a local official the Spanish government, protected him. As the American population increased, a new day of political change and church growth arrived.[4]

Ezra Courtney was, from the first, active in the establishment numerous churches in both Mississippi and Louisiana, and helped organize the Mississippi Baptist Association in 1806. He served eight terms as its moderator. The Mississippi Association was comprised of churches located in southwestern Mississippi and southeastern Louisiana.[5]

Ever a theologian of discernment, he never lost his balance and was quick to oppose the anti-missions sentiment that had a growing appeal for many in the early 1800’s. At a time when English Baptists were still often tentative in their support for William Carey’s work in India, Ezra Courtney gave himself enthusiastically to the missionary cause in the newly opened territories. And when the heterodox doctrines and practices of the Campbellites seduced some of the most prominent Baptist pastors, Courtney stubbornly stood his ground. In House Upon a Rock, the official history of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, Glenn Lee Green called Courtney, “a vigorous and faithful Calvinist, unrelenting in his stance.” Green also described him as a man who knew the difference between “authentic Christianity and all proposed substitutes.”[6]

Courtney’s Faith

Was Ezra Courtney in the mainstream of Baptist doctrine and practice or was his teaching aberrant? What did Ezra Courtney believe to be scriptural doctrine?

Courtney’s faith was a God-centered faith. His primary concern was the doctrine of salvation. He taught, (1) the total depravity of all human beings, that all of Adam’s children are sinners and therefore unable of even desiring the favor of God unless God should grant them grace, (2) the unconditional choice of God in salvation, that God chose his elect in eternity and that the choice of God does not depend on any human action, (8) that Christ’s atonement was definite, that is for the elect alone, (4) effectual calling, that those who have been chosen by the Father and atoned for by the Son, will be called by the Holy Spirit to regeneration and, (5) the perseverance of the saints of God, that God is the author and finisher of our faith; therefore, we may be certain that those who were chosen by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and sealed by the Holy Spirit will continue in faith until death and will not fail of the grace of God for all eternity.

The Articles of Faith which Courtney helped draft for the Mississippi Association are a concise guide to the doctrines he preached. They are as follows:

  1. We believe in one true and living God; and that there are a trinity of persons in the Godhead-the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, the same in essence, equal in power and glory.
  2. We believe the scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God, are of Divine authority, and the only rule of faith and practice.
  3. We believe in the fall of Adam; in the imputation of his sin to all his posterity; in the total depravity of human nature; and in man’s inability to restore himself to the favor of God.
  4. We believe in the everlasting love of God to his people; in the eternal unconditional election of a definite number of the human family to grace and glory.
  5. We believe that sinners are only justified in the sight of God, by the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is unto all and upon all them that believe.
  6. We believe all those who were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world are, in time, effectually called regenerated, converted, and sanctified; and are kept by the power of God, through faith, unto salvation.
  7. We believe there is one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ, who by the satisfaction which he made to law and justice, “in becoming an offering for sin,,’ hath, by his most precious blood, redeemed the elect from under the curse of the law, that they might be holy and without blame before him in love.
  8. We believe good works are the fruits of faith, and follow after justification, are evidences of a gracious state, and that it is the duty of all believers to perform them from a principle of love.
  9. We believe in the resurrection of the dead, and a general judgment, and that the happiness of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked will be eternal.[7]

The Articles of Faith of the Mississippi Baptist Association are obviously a succinct presentation of the theology of the Magisterial Calvinistic Reformers with a Baptistic ecclesiology attached. The dominant doctrinal interest is clearly soteriological.

An examination of other associational articles of faith and of the confessional statements of the numerous Baptist churches organized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reveals a common commitment to these same principles. The wording may vary a bit but the doctrine of salvation is always the central feature, and the five soteriological concerns of the Synod of Dort are always represented.[8]

But why should there be such a monolithic stand for evangelical Calvinism among the Baptists of the South? why should they, in common with the Presbyterians and the pre-Oxford movement Episcopalians, espouse such doctrines? Not only do the confessional statements set forth the “doctrines of grace,” but the same is true of the Baptist catechisms most often used in the early 18OO’s.[9]

The Baptists living in the southern colonies were, like most of their brethren in the North, heirs of the English Particular Baptist tradition. In the 1640’s an assembly composed of Puritan divines produced the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Particular Baptists of England had already issued their own confession in 1644 but, in 1677, wishing to show their similarity to the more numerous Presbyterians and Congregationalists, the Baptists drew up a new confession based upon the Westminster and Savoy Declaration. Its ecclesiology was Baptist, yet it retained word for word most of the Westminster Confession. Years later, James P. Boyce, the founder of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, would still be calling the Westminster Confession, “our confession”.[10]

In 1689, the Baptist Confession was re-issued. For 200 years it would remain the confession of faith of the Baptists in England and Wales. In 1742 Baptists in the Philadelphia Association added an article on psalm singing and one on the practice of laying on of hands and republished it as the Philadelphia Confession. The printer was Benjamin Franklin.[11]

In the South the Charleston Association would publish the 1689 confession in its pristine form. Along with the Keach’s Catechism and a church manual, the 1689 confession would become the only confession of great influence in the life of Baptists in the south. Dr. Richard Furman, pastor of First Baptist Church, Charleston, S.C., gathered all the children, both white and black, before large congregations to examine their progress in Keach’s Catechism.[12]

By 1845, the year the Southern Baptist Convention was born, the doctrines set forth in the 1689 confession would reign supreme. W. B. Johnson, John L. Dagg, P. H. Mell, R. B.C. Howell, Richard Fuller, Basil Manly, Sr., Basil Manly, Jr., Jesse Mercer, James P. Boyce, and John Broadus are all representative early SBC statesmen who unequivocally held to the Reformed doctrine of salvation. [13]

Men like Ezra Courtney brought to the frontier a commitment to the same doctrines. They stood shoulder to shoulder with their better known brethren and they enjoyed a practical ecumenicity unknown in our day, as men from different denominations addressed the meetings of associations and presbyteries. Although the followers of John Wesley were not in agreement, the influence of George Whitefield produced Calvinistic brothers even among the Methodists.

It should be noted that these “frontier” preachers were not uneducated men. The stereotypical circuit rider full of zeal and owning only a Bible and perhaps a hymnbook is off the mark. Numerous academies for the instruction of young pastors came and went. They were often taught by one man, as was the case with Courtney’s teacher, John M. Roberts, of Statesburg, South Carolina. Roberts, a graduate of Brown University, operated a school in the classical tradition.[14] Courtney and the many other men who received their training in this fashion would have had a working knowledge of Latin and Greek and sometimes even of Hebrew. Their libraries included many of the standard commentaries of the day.

The circular letters written by Courtney reveal a refined literary style and testify to his resolute steadfastness in defending the orthodox faith. In 1832 Courtney wrote,

Dear brethren, we have often thought that the growth of errors was owing to the ignorance or want of information that prevailed… to our astonishment, the same errors that these dark ages produced are proclaimed and received by more than we could expect. When Alexander Campbell first came before the public as a writer, his religious views and feelings were thought to be identified with the Baptists. Some thought him a champion in Israel; but it was not long before some discovered a want of stability in him. Like clouds that are carried about of the winds, like a wandering star, he has gone from the highest views of Calvin to the lowest grade of Arminianism. Poor man, how desperately he has fallen! When Mr. Campbell announced that historically believing that Jesus Christ was the Son of God was the only requisite to baptism and that baptism was regeneration itself, the Baptists knew too well what these heresies had done and would do again if admitted. [15]

Demise of Historic Baptist Soteriology

Today, 160 years after Ezra Courtney wrote those words, Arminian doctrine, with the addition of a truncated version of the Reformed doctrine of perseverance, is the dominant soteriology of most Baptists. And, contemporary evangelism often degenerates into the practice of calling for the acceptance of several propositions followed by the repetition of a ritual prayer. The differences between modern Baptist practice and old-fashioned Campbellism may not be as great as some would like to think.

One hundred sixty years after Courtney spoke of a departure from “the highest views of Calvin to the lowest grade of Arminianism,” semi-Pelagianism is found to be the dominant feature in the soteriology of both major factions involved in the recent controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention.

The right wing with its fundamentalist orientation for the most part eschews the historic Baptist doctrine of salvation. The left wing with its liberal orientation is equally warm to the notion that man is capable of improvement by the exercise of his innate freedom. It is often said that God has done all that he could do and now man must do what only he can do. This position is popularly expressed in this way, “Satan cast a vote against you, God cast a vote for you, now you hold the deciding vote.”[16] Ezra Courtney, who was convinced of mankind’s absolute inability would be astounded by the implied dualism in such a statement and by the exalted view of man’s ability and God’s impotence.

It is impossible to say when this doctrinal declension began but by 1843 a question was raised concerning the advisability of a change in one of the Mississippi Association’s Articles of Faith. Courtney was made chairman of the committee which was assigned the task of investigation. The article in question was the fourth which asserted “the unconditional election of a definite number of the human family to grace and glory. Courtney marshaled many passages of scripture in order to show that the article should be retained without alteration.[17] The Association voted to reaffirm the doctrine. According to Boyd, the article was still held by the Association when he wrote his history of Mississippi Baptists in 1930.[18]

Still, the necessity of mounting a defense for the old confession suggests that some were moving in a different direction. Why should this have been the case? First, the advent of hyper-Calvinism with its assault on the biblical doctrine of human responsibility and its anti-missions agitation probably caused many people to react in the extreme so as not to appear to give aid and comfort to heretics. Men like Courtney were able to maintain their evangelical character in both doctrine and practice. They would fight on two fronts at once: against Campbellism and its faulty doctrine of salvation and against the so-called “primitives” and their faulty doctrine of evangelism.

Second, the nineteenth century was preoccupied with ecclesiology not soteriology. The burning question for many was not, “How can I be saved?” it was, “what is the true church?” Campbellites inaugurated a “restorationist” movement and judged themselves to be the true church. The Oxford movement called Anglicans to look again to apostolic succession. It was in the nineteenth century that Rome officially promulgated the doctrine of papal infallibility. Various sects and cults gave their own answer to the question. Joseph Smith claimed a latter day revelation and established the “true church.” him self.

Among Baptists J. R. Graves would teach a high church system that we have come to know as Landmarkism. The old Baptist doctrines would be partially retained, some would be ignored, and others would be rejected entirely, as in the case of the doctrine of the universal church. Because of Landmark influence, it would be 1963 before the Southern Baptist Convention would adopt a statement containing an affirmation of the real existence of the church universal.[19]

A third reason for the eventual rejection of Reformation theology in popular practice was the gradual neglect of catechetical instruction. Failure to teach the doctrines of grace would considerably weaken them in the minds and hearts of Baptists. Still, as late as the 1918 publication of The New Convention Normal Manual for Sunday School Workers, the confession of faith that F.H. Kerfoot had written for the Eutaw Baptist Church in Baltimore and that had been adopted by many other churches was included. Kerfoot was Boyce’s successor at Southern Baptist Seminary and later corresponding secretary for the Home Mission Board. It is entitled, “What We Believe According to the Scriptures,” and includes a section which identifies doctrines held in common with other denominations. It read as follows:

  1. The absolute sovereignty and foreknowledge of God
  2. His eternal and unchangeable purposes or decrees.

    That salvation in its beginning, continuance and completion, is God’s free gift.

  3. That in Christ, we are elected or chosen, personally or individually, from eternity, saved and called our from the world, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.
  4. That we are kept by his power from falling away, and will be presented faultless before the presence of his glory. Read Romans 8,9,10,11; Acts 13:48; Ephesians 1:4,5; Ephesians 2:1-10; 1 Peter 1:2-5; Jude 24; Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5.[20]

And the same allegiance to Reformation theology persists in the “Baptist Faith and Message,” a modified version of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith which has been the theological consensus statement of the Southern Baptist Convention since 1925. The priority of regeneration is acknowledged and repentance and faith are called “inseparable experiences of grace.” The statement on election, free agency and perseverance could have been written by Courtney himself.[21] It is consistent with the historic Reformed, Puritan and Baptist traditions.

Nevertheless, it is clear that most Baptists at the end of the twentieth century are ignorant of their heritage and of the doctrines that their denomination regards, on paper at least, as the standard for our faith and practice. what factors contributed to the popular demise of the doctrines of grace in the twentieth century?

Thomas J. Nettles has identified two developments that have played a very important part. One, the tendency to overlook doctrinal distinctives for the sake of fiscal unity. Orthodoxy has come to be defined by many as support for the Cooperative Program.[22] Thus, often when a presbytery is called for the purpose of examining a candidate for the ministry, little attention is given to his understanding of doctrine and much attention is given to his commitment to denominational support.

In the second place, there is a great difference between the attention given to doctrine in the Baptist Press in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nettles says, “A second factor in the change involves increasing indifference toward doctrine in literature and Baptist papers. In fact, not only is doctrinal distinctiveness over-looked, it is actually discouraged by many contemporary Southern Baptists.”[23]

Another factor is the popular dominance of Dispensational theology. Southern Baptists were not forced to form alliances with Dispensational and largely Arminian teachers in the fight against Liberalism, as were orthodox men in other denominations (the Presbyterian Church being one example, which resulted in a weakening of that denomination’s adherence to the Westminster standards). Still, among Baptists, the influence of popular, non-Southern Baptist, evangelical literature along with growing acceptance of the Scofield Reference Bible brought doctrines into Southern Baptist life that were not consonant with the doctrines of grace. It might be argued that the late twentieth century controversy mirrors the earlier controversy in other denominations minus the influence of leaders who are themselves committed to the historic Baptist doctrine of salvation.


A generation ago it was possible, but difficult, to find seminary professors and denominational leaders who believed and taught the historic Southern Baptist doctrine of grace. Today there are professors, seminary deans, editors, denominational employees, missionaries, agency trustees, a growing number of younger, often well educated pastors, and a host of enthusiastic church members who would agree with the theology of Ezra Courtney.

What has caused this revitalization of evangelical Calvinism among Southern Baptists? Let me suggest four reasons.

First, the assertion of many in the polarized climate of the recent controversy that they alone represent the true ideological tradition of our Baptist ancestors has encouraged many people to examine the claims made by both sides in the light of our history. What is often discovered is this: the historic Southern Baptist doctrine of biblical authority is in close agreement with that which is being contended for by today’s conservatives. Yet, the historic Southern Baptist doctrine of salvation has been largely forsaken by contemporary conservatives and moderates alike. Also, that Baptists have loved religious liberty through the ages is found to be quite true, but it becomes equally clear that the central concern was not “soul-competency” (however understood) but the proclamation of a well-rounded theology with the grace of God in the salvation of sinners as its dominant theme.

Second, there has been a renewed interest in Baptist history in the last generation. Many are willing not only to concern themselves with generic biographical data concerning such figures as Carey, Fuller, and Spurgeon, as well as the early Southern Baptists, but also willing to examine what those men believed and taught.

Third, the renewal of Reformed theology in evangelicalism, across denominational lines, in large measure by the publication of new works as well as the re-printing of hundreds of older books, has played a significant role The re-printing and wide distribution of Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology and the re-printing of John Leadly Dagg’s Manual of Theology have made a great impact in introducing contemporary Southern Baptists to their doctrinal heritage.

Fourth, this resurgence has been fostered and conserved by a generation of younger pastors and professors. A national conference, “The Southern Baptist Conference on the Faith of the Founders” (commonly referred to as the “Founders Conference,” which is only in its eleventh year) has already given birth to another regional conference, a youth conference and a theological journal. Like Mark Twain, who, when informed that his death had been reported in the press, responded that his demise was highly exaggerated, it now appears that the faith of Ezra Courtney will not only endure but prosper.