Basil Manly: Fire From Light

Basil Manly: Fire From Light

The Transforming Power of Theological Preaching
–Part 1–

Tom J. Nettles

[This article is adapted from a paper delivered as the Founders Day Address at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, January 30, 1995]


Magnifying glasses fascinated me in the days of my pre-adolescent rascality. The concentration of light which enters a three-inch diameter magnifying glass into a circle one-sixteenth of an inch in diameter could set ablaze a pile of small twigs. Light is heat is fire.

Scripture employs the figure of light as

  • a summary of the attributes of God: “God is light” (1 John 1:5);
  • a picture of purity and holiness: “Walk as children of light” (Eph 5:8); “If we walk in the light as he is in the light” (1 John 1:7);
  • knowledge of and love for the distinguishing truths of the gospel: “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6);
  • Christ’s embodiment of all the essential attributes of deity: “The brightness of his glory” (Hebrews 1:3); “He was the true Light” (John 1:9);
  • the infinite perfection of his work as Savior: “I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12; cf. Rev. 21:23);
  • and of the ministry of one whose life is consumed in pointing to these truths of God and the person of the savior: “Ye sent unto John, and he bare witness unto the truth. . . . He was a burning and shining light; and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light” (John 5:33, 35).

When the excellence and majesty of God’s revealed glory, the truth of His revealed word, the beauty of holiness, and the perfection of Christ as Savior capture and purify the mind and heart of a preacher, the result will be a fire in his bones and fire in the pulpit. Concentrated light makes fire.

The great early Southern Baptist leader, Basil Manly, Sr, is a shining example of this truth. He was a man of heroic proportions, a Sir Galahad in whose hands the holy grail of the gospel maintained an effulgence of power and glory, a demonstration that the “meta-narrative” we know as the gospel is true, coherent, and worthy of faithfulness unto death, and whose life would be a chastisement to our post-modern sewer of intellectual cynicism, philosophical suicide, and sensual numbness. Manly would not be ashamed to be a voice through whom God might speak to a generation of darkened understanding the creative word, “Let light shine in darkness” (2 Cor 4:6).

His presence would also present a purifying challenge to contemporary Southern Baptists, irrespective of polemical affiliation. At a time when our Easter pageants and dramas, our singing and our interpretive dance are better than our preaching; when we are masters of manipulation and decision-getting but clueless on biblical persuasion; when we are clever at creating personal ministries of canonical proportions out of doctrinal idiosyncrasies but unconnected to the historic doctrines of the church; when we interpret freedom of conscience as a license to teach unhindered by historic Christian confession; when we can preach in thunderous tones about biblical authority but have greater tenacity in political criticism than we do in biblical exposition; when we have incredibly slick PR promoting evangelistic and missionary enterprises and at the same time are struggling concerning the unassailable distinctives of the gospel; when we have unprecedented opportunity for evangelism and theological education in dark lands; and when we see a burgeoning pool of talent and zeal awaiting training and direction; for this kind of time we should covet the mantle of Basil Manly, Sr.

Manly was a pastor, a political commentator, a family man, an administrator, an amateur naturalist, an educator as well as an educational theorist; but pre-eminently he was a preacher. J. P. Boyce remarked that in Manly’s latter years his position as general missionary and evangelist in Alabama gave him “abundant opportunity for preaching, which after all was his great gift.”[1]

Much could be said about Manly’s comprehensive gifts and contributions to his generation of Southern Baptists. Additionally, his weaknesses and idiosyncrasies could be easily criticized. The focus of these articles, however, will be on Basil Manly, Sr. as a public purveyor of theological truth, primarily through preaching. I will also make suggestions on the connection of this role to his passion for the establishing of a theological center for Baptists in the South.


Manly was born on January 29, 1798, near Pittsboro, NC. He was baptized by Robert Daniel of the Rocky Spring Baptist Church, August 26, 1816, and was licensed by the same church April 25, 1818, to “exercise his ministerial gifts wherever his lot may be cast.” After preparatory study under Dr. William T. Brantley in Beaufort, SC., he entered the junior class in South Carolina College in December 1819, then under the presidency of Jonathan Maxcy who died in June, 1820. He served as pastor at Edgefield Court House from 1822 till 1826 going there under “a call in providence amounting to an imperious duty.” His observations convinced him of the desperate need for a competent Baptist ministry “to build them up and rescue the sinking Baptist name” since many Baptist gatherings listened regularly to Presbyterian and Methodist preachers. Preachers were needed to “keep that wealthy and populous district” from falling into “other and meddling hands.”[2]

After a severe struggle and under a striking providence he became pastor of First Baptist Church, Charleston, SC, in 1826, following the justly and widely celebrated Richard Furman. From 1838 to 1855 he was president of the University of Alabama, giving it strong academic and moral leadership. He returned to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1855 to serve the Wentworth Baptist Church till 1859. He returned that year to Alabama to serve as a general missionary and evangelist for the convention and interim pastor at First Baptist Montgomery before retiring in 1864. He continued to preach and teach when able and finally moved to Greenville, SC, in 1867 to live with his son Basil, Jr., after the latter’s wife died. He died on December 21, 1868.

Manly was highly influential in calling for the establishment of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 by authoring the famous Alabama Resolution. When the Confederate government was organized, he attended the meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, and led in prayer at the opening session. He rode in the carriage with Jefferson Davis to the inaugural ceremonies and led the prayer on that historic occasion. He also served as first president of the board of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and delivered the first commencement address in May, 1860.

Preachers and Education

Basil Manly was an educator. Throughout his ministry, he pressed for the education of Southerners in general and Baptist preachers in particular. Education for every profession was necessary for a stable, economically viable and advancing culture in the South, but a clergy astutely educated in biblical and theological disciplines was especially necessary for the glory and dignity of the gospel ministry.

Manly’s persevering desire for the establishment of theological education in this form came from his own deep sense of the graciousness of the call to the ministry and the infinite excellence and importance of the task. As early as March, 1819, Manly had a burning desire for ministry but knew the necessity of education. “Indeed I know of no employment that would be more delightful to me,” he wrote to his friend Iveson Brookes, “than administering consolation and encouragement to the lambs of Christ and helping them on their way to heavenly glory.” This was not appropriate, however, until “the Lord is pleased to bestow more of his graces, more spiritual knowledge and understanding.” Manly considered it his “duty to sit at the feet” of those who could instruct him and “receive with joy those crumbs of comfort and instruction” which God may “kindly direct his servants to administer.”[3]

Manly actively sought time for study. In 1825, while at his first pastorate in Edgefield Village, SC, he entered into a “friendly understanding” with the church concerning the duties of pastoral visitation. “It is unreasonable in a congregation,” he urged, “to expect that a minister can spend his time in their houses, (and to visit a whole congregation often will consume all his time) and still carry on a course of mental cultivation, and present sound and well-digested discourses on the Sabbath.” He would visit if requested in cases of sickness and distress. Otherwise he would make his calls “subservient to the great end of [his] ministry, the spiritual welfare of the People.” For this purpose also, his home would always be open to calls.[4]

In March, 1835, Manly wrote that theological education must not be mixed with a general course of study but must be carried on as a separate exercise. Any attempt to combine the theological school with the general college is bound to fail. For the variety of subjects that need to be taught, the specific attention each kind of student demands, and the urgency of their calling Manly called for “an institution suitably furnished and endowed for the exclusive benefit of those who are entering upon the ministry of the word.”[5] Attempts of individual states to provide theological education were better than nothing but far inferior to what could be done if the states were to unite their personnel and funds.

In the absence of widely available opportunities for formal theological training, Manly, in 1843, urged churches to “loose the hands of their ministers” that they might be enabled “by study and attention, to direct the minds of their congregations into profitable channels for meditation.”[6] Those who felt a call to ministry but had no education Manly encouraged with the reminder that many in their situation had made substantial and valuable acquisitions of scriptural knowledge. But this could only be done by “study, hard persevering study.” Such study required time and this time “cannot be secured but by that relief from ordinary cares which the churches ought to supply.”[7]

In 1844, he renewed his call for a united venture of theological education contending “there is no object so important, so worthy to be cherished & sought by the Baptists at the South, as some great literary and theological centre, some rallying point embodying force enough to make us felt wherever we choose to lay out our arm.”

In planning to send Basil, Jr., whose “mind is worth cultivating with the amplest means in our power,” to Furman Theological Institute and Newton, Manly lamented the inability of the Baptists of several states to combine resources. Should they do so, they would “have at once three or four well-sustained professors, and an institution of sufficient force and completeness to attract all our first rate young men.”[8] Eleven years later Manly again lamented, “It’s a lamentation (is it not a reproach?) that there is not one theological school among the Baptists to which a Southern man may send a well educated son.”[9]

The very next year, concrete action was taken. Beginning in 1856, Manly was president of each of three educational conventions which secured the establishment of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In 1856, the preliminary steps were taken and Manly wrote a circular indicating the difficulties involved but affirming the “attainment of the general object as paramount.”[10] The committee was instructed and authorized to present a report concerning the procurement and management of funds and the availability of favorable sites. In 1857 the committee determined to establish the institution, selected the site at Greenville, and adopted a financial plan for its initiation and continued support. In addition, a committee on Plan of Organization was appointed by Manly. Somewhat apologetically he announced that the five appointed members of the committee were all relatively young men, but such was necessary in the devising of a new and bold plan for theological education. Accordingly he appointed J. P. Boyce (who, following the 1856 educational convention had delivered the justly famous address “Three Changes in Theological Institutions” before the trustees of Furman University), John A. Broadus, E. T. Winkler, William Williams, and Basil Manly, Jr. Four of these served as the first faculty at the seminary.[11] In 1858 the plan of organization was adopted, the professors were selected, and the institution’s interests were committed to a board of trustees.

J. P. Boyce recalls the scene at the close of the 1857 convention when the brethren from several states agreed to establish a common institution at Greenville.

The proposition was made, that Dr. Manly should lead in a prayer of thanksgiving for the unanimity which had been attained. Bowing himself upon the platform of the pulpit, he led the hosts of his brethren in acknowledgment of the Divine hand in all that had been done, and in thanks for the attainment of what he had hardly hoped his eyes would see. The great desire of his life time was secured. He saw that God was with His people, and he lost all apprehension as to the future result. The whole assembly was moved to tears. The gushings of his own heart stopped the utterances of his lips, and for a time the supplication of the Spirit was indeed made with tears and groans that could not be uttered.[12]

The Goal of Theological Education

What kind of preacher did Manly envision as the goal of theological education? His hopes may be summarized in two traits. First, the minister must be sound in the truths of God’s word. His direction of worship, his preaching, his counseling, and his evangelism must arise from confidence in the power of Spirit-blessed truth. He must believe that spiritual progress is never made without a corresponding advance in scriptural understanding.

Second, the minister must have true affections. He must manifest an earnestness built on a personal sense of sin, indebtedness to grace, love of the tri-une God, and faithfulness to his truth. He must deal closely with his own conscience so that he might do the same with those of his hearers. His scriptural understanding must at the same time be a spiritual understanding; he must have tasted that the Lord is good and have a relish for the things of heaven.

Years of ministry plus opportunities to hear a large number of preachers provided him with a rich understanding of the importance of these elemental qualifications. In an 1843 “Circular Letter” he wrote:

In addition to this, the pastors of the churches ought to take pains to explain, as fully and carefully as possible, the doctrines and duties of the christian religion. Whence arises the lamentable ignorance of doctrine, and the heresies and contentions which so frequently spring up in the churches, but from this neglect of indoctrinating new members? We preach too much merely to make men feel, and do not sufficiently aim to make them think and consider and “search the scriptures to see if these things be so.” An appeal to the feelings is often desirable, and is often attended with happiest effects; but it should not be all feeling.

The appeal to feeling apart from the inculcation of truth creates the possibility that a “bold and impassioned orator” could appeal to large numbers of undiscerning people and “inculcate heretical sentiments.”[13]

On the other hand, if these words be true and believed, they will evoke the deepest movement of holy passion, a reality which will affect even one’s preaching style. He wrote his friend J. L Reynolds that he felt concerned “lest you should be infected with the style and manner of preaching common at the north.” This was Reynolds natural tendency in some degree, that is “to glide into a stiff and rather formal delivery.” He lacked “ease;” to look at home in the pulpit was needed, and “an inward spring of animation and engagedness in the great work.” Manly recommended a “college of firebrands, that the measured pace which is characteristic of you might be quickened — that they might burn some points on your smooth and polished surface.”[14]

In 1846, Manly, described with clear agitation the consistent failure of a preacher to “feel” the power of the truth and the necessity of plowing deeply into the affections of his hearers. This lack of feeling led not only to dullness in style but virtual irrelevance of subject matter. The minister seemed “moved and interested himself,” Manly observed, and in some there may have been a “pleasing intellectual glow” but the church was “wholly unmoved.”

His failure is to be attributed, I think, to a want of experimental & close dealing with the conscience. He pinches nobody; he makes no one feel either afraid or ashamed or sick of sin. He does not give the nature, necessity, & evidences of repentance, of faith, of regeneration. He does not keep it constantly before the mind that his hearers are lost, and need to be saved; that this is his business with them, to save them from sin, and eternal damnation; the damnation of hell fire. …Alas what is to become of the souls of his poor hearers.[15]

Manly as a Preacher

These two principles (doctrinal soundness and earnest affections) served not only as a standard by which Manly evaluated the tendencies in the preaching of those he observed, they were the conscious guidelines of his personal ministry. He was keen to follow the Pauline command, “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (1 Tim 4:16). He maintained, therefore, a close biblical analysis of his personal weaknesses and graces.

A simple but sufficient illustration of this power of personal knowledge comes from his struggle with the call to the First Baptist Church in Charleston, SC. Manly pled his inadequacies and the great possibility that the church would chafe under his inability to meet the high standard to which they had become accustomed in Richard Furman. He countered, however, that he did not mean to “undervalue the grace of God which hath been bestowed on me. I am indeed a great wonder, a miracle of grace!” He knew in fact that “The grace of God has been exceeding great, that I should ever be counted faithful and put into the ministry.” He was also aware with “adoring thankfulness” that he had been the “instrument of calling some from darkness to light and from the power of Satan unto God” but he did not want to presume on the “wonderful and sovereign goodness of God” by moving from his “own proper sphere” to intrude into another man’s, thus incurring not God’s blessing, but his frown.[16]

The knowledge of sin and grace which informed Manly’s experience of the gospel, his view of the ministry, and the quest for the procurement of theological education for Baptists in the South is opened clearly in his preaching.

John A. Broadus characterized Manly’s preaching as “always marked by deep thought and strong argument, expressed in a very clear style, and by extraordinary earnestness and tender pathos, curiously combined with positiveness of opinion and a masterful nature. People were borne down by his passion, convinced by his arguments, melted by his tenderness, swayed by his force of will.”[17]

Manly’s “deep thought and strong argument” were expressive of his doctrinal passion. He was trained in the use of the original languages and consulted regularly the commentaries he considered most reliable. He added to these functions of sermon preparation, careful personal examination, deep reflection on the meaning of the text for his hearers, and the text’s doctrinal and experiential significance within the entire scope of biblical truth. In all it made for compelling instruction and heart-rending application.


Basil Manly shared the theological position of his Southern Baptist contemporaries. In the words of J. P. Boyce, “In his doctrinal sentiments, Dr. Manly was a decided Calvinist.”[18] Samuel Henderson, president of the Alabama Baptist Convention when Manly died, remarked in his memorial address in 1869, “In his doctrinal sentiments he was what Andrew Fuller would call a strict Calvinist.”[19]

Primarily, the Bible taught him his creed. Henderson remarks that Manly adhered to Calvinist doctrines “not because Calvin taught them, but because they appeared to him to be taught in the Bible.” These doctrines should be forced into the nomenclature of “Calvinism” only in the sense that the doctrine of justification by faith should be called “Lutheran,” that is, because it is a doctrine to which Luther gave distinctive exposition, not to imply in the least that it is an unbiblical idiosyncrasy. If the “five points,” to use the language of Henderson, are true at all, “they were just as true before Calvin’s day as they are now.” It is useless, therefore, says Henderson, to seek to stigmatize these doctrines (which he is defending as those which Manly held) by calling them “Calvinism.”

Manly, in fact, felt that the truths of the doctrines of grace were taught so clearly in Scripture that were minds not biased by pride and self-dependence, inferential argumentation would be superfluous. Naked Scripture quotation would suffice. In his circular letter on “Election” he explained:

If the human mind were not unreconciled to God, nothing more than the bare citation of the appropriate portions of scripture would be requisite to the universal reception of the doctrine they contain. The deep derangement of our nature is such that we are opposed to God, and chiefly in those attributes and measures which imply our guilt and ruin. Election is of this nature; and as it is more obviously of grace, purely and exclusively, than any other blessing, it is more violently disliked and opposed than any other, by whatever is unrenewed and unsanctified in the human breast. In regard of this perverseness, therefore, it is allowable to assist our conceptions and belief by reasonings and illustrations.[20]

This “Circular Letter” sought to address and correct the “unsound views and seductive arts” of the North River United Baptist Association. The Tuscaloosa Baptists concluded that the North River churches, since they would not affirm unconditional election and effectual calling, were a “different denomination from ourselves, holding principles adverse to ours, in fundamental and vital particulars.”[21] The doctrinal imprecision of the North River “immersionists” as we might call them (since the Tuscaloosa Association forbids our calling them Baptists) had promoted “error, discord, and schism.”

After publication of the article, he wrote Basil Manly, Jr., at Princeton that it had been read “avidly, both by the friends and foes of the doctrine of election.” The Methodists, he said were “Badly troubled with it” and did not know how to answer it or what to say. His experience showed him, however, that rather than deal with the biblical and theological context of election itself, its opposers would normally classify it as “worse than . . . universalism,” or express regrets that this cause of separation has been thrown in between the denominations. Another tactic in waiving the question of election was to “get off upon Reprobation or some other question.” Manly was sure it would exert influence because he had written it and that it was sure to prompt a counter attack.[22]

Manly was not a closet Calvinist. The truths of God’s sovereign, gracious wisdom should be discussed and preached openly and frequently because such disquisition brings God honor, will encourage the people of God, and will bring the unregenerate under conviction. The doctrines of grace are the foundation for all of his sermons, briefly cited in some, conspicuously present in many, and purposefully expounded in others. None of the distinguishing elements were omitted: unconditional election; the distinctiveness of Christ’s atoning work for the salvation of his people; the thorough sinfulness, damnability, corruption and bondage of fallen creatures; the necessity and efficacy of saving grace; and the certainty of perseverance for all those the Father chose, for whom Christ died and intercedes, and in whom the effectual work of the Spirit has begun.

Manly’s definition of election, punctuated by a large number of scripture proofs, includes all the doctrines of grace and implies all the obligations of Christian ministry and discipleship.

It relates to a purpose of God, in eternity, respecting individual human beings who are the subjects of it; who were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world,-elect according to the foreknowledge of God. Yet this election did not proceed on the ground of either faith or works foreseen in them; it is an election of grace and not caused by the moral character of the subjects. It is distinguishing, choosing some and not others; it fixes on persons, not on states nor conditions; the number of the elect is, to the mind of God, necessarily definite and certain; but within the gracious purpose, are inseparably included both the means and the end. Jesus Christ was chosen to be the Head of the Church, and all his people were chosen in him; and this choice of them in him, a fact transpiring in eternity, is the source of all the spiritual gifts and graces exercised by them in time.[23]

Though always ready and able to discuss the doctrines and the intricate netting of multitudinous issues raised by their exposition, his attitude toward the subject was one of great reverence, never flippancy or a sense of superior familiarity. Having the task of speaking publicly on such a subject he considered a “great responsibility.” Election, he wrote, is “a doctrine of the Scriptures to be firmly believed, to be plainly declared, and to be reverently approached. It is holy ground; not to be invaded and profaned by light and familiar disquisition.”[24] He believed it to be taught by none more frequently than the Lord Jesus himself and in none of his discourses more fully than in the prayer of John 17.

In 1831 Manly had preached a long series of messages on John 17 to his Charleston congregation. Titles of some of the sermons are: “The Knowledge of God;” “To Know God is Eternal Life;” “Prayer for the People and not for the World;” “Christ Asking to Be Glorified;” “Christ Pleading the Completion of His Work;” “Prayer That the Saints be Kept.” This series overflows with images of God’s sovereign design in election proportioned beautifully to complementary aspects of biblical and systematic theology. The propositional truths are then colored in the crimson pathos of the historical outworking of God’s eternal purpose.

In the sermon “Christ Asking to be Glorified,” Manly unpacks the “reason urged for its fulfilment,” that is for the fulfilment of Christ’s prayer to be glorified. Manly’s notes read:

God’s own design with regard to the ends of Xt’s Death — Our Blessed Lord speaks of this most familiarly, as being in his counsels, and intimately knowing all — (And it is appropriate for him to speak thus to his Father)… He speaks of his Father’s having given him some specially, to be saved — of having given him all power for this end — &c — that none might be lost. That this was spoken in the hearing of his Apostles & recorded was designed to convince us of the certainty of salvation — & to make us bow in admiration crying “O the depths &c”[25]

A bit later in discussion of the same point Manly mingles the theology of certainty with the emotional rigors of Christ in achieving redemption.

A consideration which wd. be likely to prevail — God’s own previous well understood design — and there is something tender in it as much to say — in pursuance of this design I have come seeking thy chosen, and am now in extremity — Glorify thy Son[26]

In the sermon “Prayer for Christ’s People, and not for the World” (John 17:9, 10), Manly speaks first of the “sense in which Christ prays for his own people and not for the world.” The subjects of his prayer are those “given him in the counsels of Eternity, and brought to him by faith and efficacious grace, or to be so brought.”

The circumstance under which Christ was placed had a character exclusively its own. He had, as Mediator, “received a commission with respect to the salvation of sinners. The Father had committed his saints into his hands — they had been brought, (some of them) unto Him — received his word — rested on him — He was now about to leave them. Might he not be permitted to indulge in the expression of desire suited only to them?” Manly granted several aspects of universal application and benefit in the mediation of Christ; he closed, however, by expanding again the premise that Christ prays for his people in a sense in which he does not pray for the world, “And it is the mercy of God to sinners that he does so.” Manly answered objections to this particularity and closed with a doubled-edged admonition: the saints should be encouraged with the certainty of God’s purpose (“But what shall we think concerning that protection which will be given to objects for whom he sacrificed his Son!”) and sinners must not be allowed any refuge to excuse themselves in their sin on the basis of the particularity of God’s grace (“Let none think to excuse himself from the guilt of neglecting the present case of his soul, on the ground that he may not be embraced in the special prayer of Christ”).

[Go to Part 2]