Basil Manly: Fire From Light

Basil Manly: Fire From Light

The Transforming Power of Theological Preaching
–Part 2–

Tom J. Nettles

[Back to Part 1]


Not only is Manly’s theology and preaching accurately classified as Calvinism, it was intentionally confessional. Doctrinal unity was among the greatest of goods that a church, or a group of churches in association, could seek. He defended the associational confessions under which he ministered and felt it inappropriate for churches to be non-confessional. His was a clear and unalloyed affirmation of the Confession of Faith of the Charleston Baptist Association. In a series of resolutions at the 1833 South Carolina Baptist Convention concerning the management of funds, the convention discussed a fund established by the “Charleston Juvenile Female Education and Missionary Society.” Authority to disburse the money of this fund, when sufficient to support a beneficiary, was granted to the Society including the power to designate a church that would have the privilege to name the benefiting individual “provided the church they may designate do hold and continue to hold the Confession of Faith now acknowledged in the Charleston Baptist Association.”[1]

Manly found that Alabama Baptists shared his confessional convictions. The dominating presence of the commitment to common faith as a foundation for their unity and mission caused a thorough investigation of any churches that would apply for membership in the association. Only when such applying churches were examined and “found orderly and orthodox” were they received. This commitment to the disciplinary use of confessions also gave rise to a stern warning against any attempt to create growth in the churches by minimizing doctrinal truth. In 1844, the associational gathering for which Manly wrote the circular letter on the doctrine of Election, advised the churches:

We would call on the members of our Churches, individually, to take pains to acquire just and thorough views of the doctrines which are most surely believed among us; we call on the Churches to insist on these views in the reception of members; and to recollect that no addition or fulness of numbers is desirable from among persons, who, either are willing to remain ignorant of the great doctrines of the Gospel, or who doubt or disbelieve them.[2]

At this same meeting a query concerning doctrinal uniformity was considered: “Is it consistent and proper for a Church in this Association to call a minister to the care of her, who openly declares his disbelief of the doctrines set forth in our Abstract of Principles, and preaches contrary to them in important particulars.” The answer given by the association was one simple word: “No.”[3]

A controversy between the Tuscaloosa and North River Associations reached resolution in 1849 when the North River Association adopted “such articles as generally may be assented to by the denomination.” Manly stated in his diary: “The North River people abandon their heresy and errors; so far as we can judge of men’s real sentiments by their words.”[4] During this controversy, however, Salem church, a member of the Tuscaloosa Association, voted out her articles of faith and received a reprimand from the Association.

While the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the only authoritative standard of doctrine, and rule of duty, it is still deemed expedient to have summary statements or abstracts of principles, for the sake of distinctness; and we disapprove of the conduct of the Salem church in voting out her articles of faith.[5]

Manly rightly believed that the shorter confessions used by many Baptist associations in the South were distilled versions of the Philadelphia confession, that is also the Charleston Confession. His circular letter of 1844 demonstrates this in the exposition of article 7 which stated “We believe that God’s elect shall be called, regenerated, and sanctified by the Holy Ghost.” Manly condensed his discussion and sought to seal his argument that the doctrinal subject of his letter was at the heart of Baptist soteriology in the following manner. “What we have yet to say, shall be in the words of a confession adopted by many congregations of Christians in England, baptized on profession of their faith, in 1689; adopted, also, by the Philadelphia Baptist Association in 1742, and by the Charleston Baptist Association in 1767.”

Those whom God hath predestinated unto life, he is pleased in his appointed and accepted time effectually to call by his word and spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ: enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly, to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Christ yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.

All the Scripture proofs were printed in full.


To describe our subject’s preaching as theological is not a redundancy, but a necessary nuance. One may be a Calvinist and yet not have thought through the connections of those truths with other doctrines. Doctrinal preaching in this case may be sterile and abstract, larded with fragmented and amputated parts. It should be lively and whole, full of spiritual knowledge that is essential to our understanding the things freely given to us by God.

Preaching may even be confessional and yet not expressive of the symbiotic relationship which unifies the doctrinal categories in which we necessarily speak of divine truth. But with Manly all of these realities appeared before his mind as one truth–each part necessarily interconnected with all other parts. Part of this close theological reasoning came from the discipline of reading Manly had acquired. He was skeptical about reading anything other than proven works. In advising his son Basil concerning a course in German, he conceded that it might be of some benefit for “polite learning” and to a philologist it might be useful, “but as to theology, where you find one sound evangelical Divine among them you find a hundred, either of disguised infidels or of crazy transcendentalists & enthusiasts. The possible benefit therefore, to me, appears scanty.”[6]

His sermons were filled with doctrine, scripture proofs and application. If he had one doctrinal theme in mind it would suggest to him several others vitally related to his subject. The necessary and supportive aspects of those contiguous doctrines Manly would explain and apply to his subject with brilliance and pertinence. This element is not absent from any of his extant manuscripts and outlines.

In his sermon “Sanctification through the Truth,” Manly defines sanctification as “that change by the Spirit of God upon us which imparts a holy tendency to our powers–gives spiritual affections–conforms us to the mind and image of God–and peculiarly sets us apart, consecrates, and devotes us to his service.” He then distinguishes sanctification from justification on the one hand and regeneration on the other. “This is a distinct grace,” notes Manly. “Although never found but in connection with justification, it is to be distinguished from it.” He then parenthesizes two words which are fully nine months pregnant: “(Show how).” It is in the “show how” for which Manly was so famous with his contemporaries who heard him preach that many of his most memorable passages were executed.

He has been observed occasionally to leave the most elaborately prepared notes,…and abandon himself to a “side thought,” apparently picked up by the way–on which his conceptions were so vivid, so impassioned, so unctuous, as to enchain and thrill an audience with the richness and pathos of his utterances. It seems to have come up as with a pleased surprise from the great depths of his soul, like a fountain suddenly struck by the shaft of an artesian well. He has been known to devote perhaps half the time of an ordinary service to one of these unexpected “rills of thought.” When I say unexpected, I do not mean to affirm that it was altogether, on his part, unpremeditated–for in such instances he had at least familiarized himself with the main thought,–but I mean to say that in the expansion of that thought he left himself an indefinite margin in the pulpit. This peculiarity showed the rapidity with which his mind acted in grasping and happily expressing the most profound truths both in doctrinal and practical Christianity, and it may serve to show the importance of every minister’s cultivating the habit of extemporary speaking.[7]

Manly continued his discussion of doctrinal relationships. Sanctification is “distinguished from Regeneration chiefly by its progressiveness–Regeneration is making new, and is instantaneous–In sanctification, we are made holy, as being `changed into the same image, [etc.]‘” We are sanctified in Christ as our covenant head who is not only the pattern but the principle of sanctification. “It is impossible to be holy without being in Him,” Manly said, “And it is impossible to be in Him without being holy.”

In “Christ Pleading the Completion of his Work” Manly argues initially for an inherent right of Christ to glory because of his eternal pre-existence sharing a glory peculiar to the Godhead. No voluntary concealment of that glory could forfeit the intrinsic right to the glory. While on earth in his body, he was still in heaven in his deity; the nature of the union also rendered it impossible for Christ to sin or do anything wrong. The resumption, however, of his former glorious state he plead for on the ground of his completed work. This completed work came as a mediator, one who is both God and man, who “can lay his hand upon us both.” He must be man to take man’s place “to obey, suffer &c–He must be God, because nothing less wd. present that natural exemption from legal demands which wd. allow of his merits being transferred to the benefits of others.” But we must not think that the necessity of such a mediator meant that God the Father was unwilling until the Son’s condescension moved him. No, “It was a work his Father had given.” The Father and Son were one “in counsel, will, and design.” The covenant between Father and Son “is often adverted to in the Scriptures–the father as free to send as the son to go–and all divinely consentaneous.”

Manly also preached the intricacies of the distinctions between things God wills by mandate and those that he wills and accomplishes efficaciously. The consistency of natural freedom with moral bondage, the perfect compatibility between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, the certain purposes of God necessitating the historical means by which those purposes come to pass, the justice of God in the discriminatory grace of Christ’s atoning work[8] –Manly shied away from none of these but treated them clearly, scripturally, and always with the conviction that his auditory would benefit from the truth if he applied it with wisdom and they responded in grace; or perhaps they would intensify their own destruction if they turned the grace of God into lasciviousness.

A. E. Taliaferro remembered accompanying Manly on a preaching tour through Talledega and Calhoun counties in Alabama. He wrote to Charles Manly, “What a feast I enjoyed from the pulpit, and in private conversation!” He called it a “traveling theological course, the lessons of which I shall never forget.”

I rarely ever heard him preach without pain. My anxiety to get every thought caused me to severely tax the faculty of attention, and his thoughts were so mighty, and my effort of mind so great to grasp and retain them, that it greatly excited and worried my mind and an intense head ache was the result. But I cared nothing for the painful tarrif I paid and would go again and again.[9]

The average audience would experience much greater pain and would probably be much less willing to invest such a high tarrif.


Manly could also be classified as an Edwardsean, not in the sense of the early nineteenth century New England theologians by that name, but in the real sense of Jonathan Edwards. Baptists in the South followed the teachings of Jonathan Edwards much more closely than did Jonathan Edwards, Jr., Timothy Dwight, and Samuel Hopkins. Mell, Mallary, Mercer, W. B. Johnson, John L. Dagg and others found a coherent framework for their theology in the mighty thoughts of the great theologian of the First Great Awakening. Three prominent ideas stated in a distinctive Edwardsean style were (1) the definition of freedom as it relates to the so-called will; (2) the necessity of distinguishing between natural ability (or inability) and moral ability (or inability); and (3) that personal religion consists most prominently in sanctified religious affections.

In Manly’s preaching, these ideas are not exceptional and clandestine, but characteristic and clear. While these same thoughts could be the result of conversance with the writings of Andrew Fuller, since many Baptists in the South read him, in Manly’s case his acquaintance with Edwards was direct. In Feb., 1830, Thomas Screven gave Manly a gift of books from the library of Oliver Hart, a former pastor of the Charleston church, the father of the Charleston Association, and Screven’s maternal grandfather. Among the volumes Manly retained (the others were sent to Furman Academy) were volumes by John Owen, Richard Baxter, John Gill [The Cause of God and Truth], John Brine, Isaac Backus, one entitled Anti-paedo Rantism by Abel Morgan, and one he lists simply as “Edwards Against Chauncy.” In this polemic with Chauncy, Edwards developed his view of religious affections. In the climax of one of Manly’s “reflections,” he parenthetically noted “(President Edwards’ meditation).” Probably he would either read, summarize, or extemporize one of Edwards’ lovely meditations concerning the complacency of God’s love for the Son and the Son for the Father. In 1844, writing to Basil Manly, Jr., he remarked “Edwards on the Nature of Virtue I have laid by to read.”

His familiarity with Edwards on the will can be clearly deduced from the following:

What is moral freedom of will? We can give no better definition, than that a man is always at liberty to do that which he thinks, on the whole, to be best. That a man should be just as capable of doing, and as free to do, what he thinks not best, is no notion of freedom at all. It is an absurdity. It is necessary that he should be inclined, by his constitution, to do that which, (all things taken together,) seems to him, at the moment of choice, best; and, if not,–he would not be a free moral agent.[10]

Manly’s absorption of Edwards’ view of the relation of the affections to true knowledge and faith governs the entire structure of the sermon “To know God is Eternal Life” preached in July, 1831, just more than a year after he added “Edwards against Chauncy” to his library. Spiritual knowledge implies “light in understanding and approbation in the heart.” And more particularly to know the true God “is to know him so as to approve, choose, love, and obey Him–to perceive all those qualities of moral excellence and beauty in Him, which gain the assent of the will, & of the affections.”

Manly’s employment of the Edwardsean distinction between the “natural” and “moral” aspects of human nature pop up many places in his sermons and addresses. In a discussion on reprobation Manly argues,

But objectors forget that this is the sense in which they suppose God has reprobated all mankind, themselves included; i.e. determined to leave them to their own free choice. There is no other reprobation taught in the Scriptures; none which destroys human liberty or impairs the sinner’s natural power, which limits the offers of mercy or bars the gates of Heaven against any man who is disposed to enter; and there is no impediment to salvation, of any kind, but the want of a right inclination.[11]

This concept he employed in preaching. Reflecting at the close of one of his sermons Manly implores, “Let none think to insure 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 XT.” After an expository and theological enforcement of that thought, Manly continues, “And what does conscience testify? Has not God oft striven with thee? Hast thou not resisted? Though some who have resisted have afterward been conquered and overcome, you are not sure it will fare thus with you. But you are sure that coming now in obedience to the drawings of the spirit you will find a welcome and be safe. Why do you not come? Is it not plainly, because you like it not.”[12]

Manly even gave precise definition to the aspects of one’s natural capacities which established true moral agency. “We are left…in full possession of all that is necessary to moral agency.” “These three things,” he continues, “are the essentials to moral agency; understanding, to comprehend the nature of the action; conscience, to appreciate its moral quality; and will, to apprehend motives and choose freely.” To Manly it was clear that none of these was taken away or hindered by God’s operation of grace and thus “the agent is fully a moral agent.”[13]


Manly’s theology, along with that of all his contemporaries was experiential and evangelistic. Boyce reminds us of this when he writes, “The holding these doctrines of grace has been thought by many inconsistent with the preaching of the gospel to all men. Certainly Dr. Manly felt no such inconsistency; on the contrary no one could preach the Gospel more freely than he. No one ever urged sinners more earnestly and successfully to believe in Christ as their Savior. No one felt more than he the duty to give to every man a message, as sent from God to him.”[14] Samuel Henderson makes the same observation:

Those who are accustomed to urge the trite objection to these doctrines, that they paralyze Christian activity and lead to licentiousness, we can triumphantly point to the ministerial usefulness and personal piety of him whose memory is so dear to us all, for its refutation. Profoundly as he had investigated these high questions, (and certainly he was as competent to look into them as any of his brethren,) he saw nothing in them but what served to fire his zeal and stimulate the growth of piety in his own soul. It was because God had said that His “word should not return unto Him void,” that he was encouraged to preach it–it was because “God worketh in him to will and to do,” that he was encouraged to “work out his own salvation”–it was because “the increase was of God,” that he was encouraged to “plant” and to “water” the heavenly seed.[15]

Manly himself is very specific in applying the principle that God’s decree determines that the appropriate means be used. In the same way that knowledge, though not piety itself, is necessary for the growth of piety, and truth, though not efficacious for sanctification in its bare presentation, is, nevertheless, a fitting and necessary means in the hands of the Spirit for sanctification, even so, though human activity is not efficacious in the conversion of sinners the preaching of the gospel is both fitting and necessary for the conversion of sinners. In his sermon on “Christ’s Prayer that the Saints be Kept,” Manly argues, “His cause requires the labour of our hands. The salvation of a world hangs instrumentally on us.” The world does not know this and may be “disgusted with [Christians],…hate them…and if it should conclude it could spare them, would perish in the privation.” He continues to enforce this point:

The Lord might have employed angels or the spirits of the just in this work–but he has chosen his people, his living disciples only for it. If they do it not it will never be done. The Lord has gone into heaven and they must now go everywhere preaching.

Manly’s style of preaching bulges with this interpenetration of doctrine with experience. While engaged in even the most involved and delicate doctrinal peroration, his passion centered on application of the teaching to the experience of the hearer. Each sermon closed with a series of “Reflections.” Each of these reflections reconstituted some element of the argument within an applicatory framework. Usually some encouragements and admonitions were given to Christians, some doctrinal idea was set within its transcendent context to push the hearer beyond the boundaries of time and creation into the presence of the eternally blessed God. Even the ordering of the “Reflections” was designed to leave his congregation considering the claims of the message of their hearts.

At the close of his message “Christ Pleading the Completion of His Work”, Manly lists reflection number three: “It is finished–God is glorified–O Sinner! thou mayst be saved.” The manuscript leaves us to imagine how Manly would extemporize on such a magnificent reality. Perhaps this was one of those “bubbling fountains of more than ordinary interest and promise” which Manly would not exhaust in his study. He would “cork up” the thought and, when he came to his sermon would “uncork it and just let the fountain flow.”[16]

Not just in sermon but in life were these applications made. If Christ could plead with his Father with such pastoral solicitation for the fulfillment of a thing certain to be, then Manly certainly must plead in prayer to the Father. Manly’s deep pastoral sensitivity received particular note from Thomas Summers, a Methodist Episcopal pastor in Charleston who had met with Manly for prayer on several occasions. Manly’s prayers were like a man talking with his friend, or rather like a child to his father. There was a “wonderful simplicity, and fulness, and variety, and pathos, and power” in his prayers. At the funeral of Summers’ daughter Manly prayed “Such a prayer I never heard before or since.” It was “marvelously full of sympathy, and submission, and faith, and hope, singularly adapted to the mournful occasion and very soothing to the stricken heart.”[17] His loss of two children, a boy a few months old and a girl still-born at four months, doubtless increased his sympathy on this occasion.

Manly’s pastoral and evangelistic concerns would not allow him to join in the increasing tendency he detected in his day to use “new measures” in evangelism. When Manly engaged in evangelistic exhortation following a sermon by James Furman, “It was agreed immediately to go home and spend time in our closets.”[18] Another entry into his diary paints this scene: “As many as felt disposed remained behind after dismission according to an intimation from the pulpit to that effect–And it was a most solemn season. We have since learned that during prayer one young man (James Du Pres, Jr.) seems to have emerged into the light and liberty of God’s children.” On a Tuesday afternoon, “A meeting for inquirers was appointed…at my house.” And this, “When the congregation was dismissed many staid behind and engaged in prayer & conversation.” An inquirers meeting in the lecture room Manly describes this way:

Tuesday evening–One of the most solemn meetings I have ever seen was held in our lecture Room by our own people–being our stated service there. Toward the close of the meeting, when the feeling of the Assembly was peculiarly solemn, they were called on to decide whether they would make the subject of religion their immediate concern or whether they would put it off longer & run the hazard involved in a hateful refusal of Xt.–A few moments were given them for deliberation, during which the brethren and sisters fell on their knees & silently wrestled with God a short time. After that, I prayed. When risen from our knees, the question was put in a solemn manner, & those who had come to the resolution to begin at once the work of returning to God, were called on to rise.

Several rose–and those who had not risen, were affectionately exhorted to beg of God to allow them to reconsider their fatal decision.

This resolution was not mistaken for an act of repentance and faith but a recognition of the need to pursue God if they were to find him. This was Manly’s practice of the Puritan doctrine of seeking.

In 1822 Manly baptized 146 at Edgefield Court House. At the close of a wedding he performed in November of that year he records that “eternal things had taken hold of their minds. Even the bride wept profusely.” Then as he was looking for an appropriate hymn with which to close a number of young people, “all dressed in their finest for the wedding, rushed up as if unable longer to restrain, and, in a flood of grief, fell down before me, and begged me to pray for them.”[19]

During his days in Charleston, however, Manly began to observe the intrusion of “new measures” caused by the shift in evangelistic theology and methodology under the powerful influence of Charles Finney. Manly’s first reaction to this was cautious but grew into alarm and a persevering warning against the utilization of those methods. His great desire for purity in evangelism can be seen in the unusual contact he had in Charleston with Asahel Nettleton. Nettleton, one of the best known and most effective evangelists in New England during the first three decades of the nineteenth century (“the respected promoter of revivals in the northern states” as Manly called him) had been involved in an ongoing dispute with Finney over the use of new measures. In 1830 he came to Charleston and Manly sought to visit with him, but due to schedule conflicts was unable to do so.[20] Manly summarizes the reports he received of Nettleton: “His methods are peculiar and it is said that tho’ he takes a great deal of pains to disclaim the idea of being able to do anything, there seems to be an affectation of singularity for the sake of effect, and an air of self-sufficiency about him.” With this information, Manly felt free to observe, “I believe that an unbiased and discerning mind would not fail to be impressed that those motives & sentiments lurk in his bosom, perhaps unknown in some measure to himself.” If Manly were so careful about even Asahel Nettleton, it is no wonder that he recoiled at what he saw when he began to observe the legacy of C.G. Finney.

When the new measures were used in a meeting in the Episcopal church, Manly’s review was mixed. One of the preachers he considered to be “a man of very common means” who would “settle down among the common herd” once the “edge of novelty wears away.” In another he found “much to approve” but some things in the “manner of stating truth to condemn.” He queried, “How would you like his stating that the obstinate sinner drove the Almighty away from him grieved, disappointed, defeated!” The result of the new measures would be to split the Episcopalians, Manly surmised.

In 1844, when Manly became aware that a protracted meeting had resulted in the reception to membership of a man who “had been twice excommunicated for gross immorality” and only a few days before he was admitted he was at the meeting “drunk, cursing the church, & old Mr. Hood!!,” he could only remark painfully, “It is easy to see whither these things tend.”[21]

The previous year Manly had warned of this dangerous procedure. “Great care should be taken in ascertaining that a real change of heart has been effected, and that the feelings of the candidates do not arise from some high wrought excitement which will pass off and leave them worse than before,” he warned. The lust for great numbers and making a great show and “parade of converts which we have made” creates such carelessness and has the tendency to make the church “a harlot” by “opening the door of admission so wide as to allow unbelievers, unconverted, and graceless persons to crowd into it without restraint.” This will end in harming the living members, compromising the purity of the church, and creating a group who joined under “transient excitements” but during a time of winnowing will tread the Son of God under foot, and become so hardened in conscience that no voice will reach them. “How much these remarks apply,” Manly continued, “to the mode of admitting members common among us in seasons of excitement, let the churches judge.”[22]

The methods designed to create such excitements Manly found both disturbing and unbiblical. Applying 1 Corinthians 14 directly to what he observed, he felt that the simultaneous practice of singing, praying, and exhortation (sometimes more than one) violated the plain letter of Scripture. “Such proceeding are not calculated to convert souls, endowed with reason and understanding, to Christ,” Manly wrote. “It would seem rather as if we were, not ministers of Christ, but exorcists, and endeavoring to drive out the devil by magical incantations and strange noises.” It is impossible to create understanding with one exhorting, another singing, and yet another praying, and all at the top of their voices.[23]

A greater trial, even, than observation of this came for Manly when his brethren sought to induce him to engage in it. In September, 1846, Manly preached in the churches and was urged to participate in the camp meetings in Talledega county, Alabama. His preaching awakened serious concern and inquiry in the churches but people “do not move from their seats.” That, however, was the “criterion of good effects these days.” He observed that preachers who would not “say as much of heart awakening and instruction in truth in a whole sermon” as Manly would say “in five sentences,” and not even so clearly or pungently as to manner, would nevertheless raise a “perfect storm of passions” and have people around them in heaps apparently under conviction of sin.

Haunted by thoughts that he had outlived his age (and this 22 years before he died), or that the Lord was to lay him aside as a useless laborer, Manly resolutely determined that he “could not fall in with” their methods, though fellow preachers urged him; and even if he were sure that people would be brought to the front by an urgent appeal of his, he would “be little inclined to make such appeals, for such a purpose.” He had experienced spontaneous movements of people to come to the front for counsel and prayer, which he called a “blessed season of tenderness and grace.” In allowing this he explained fully what inquirers could expect from such an act but he “never stood urging–nor used any artifice…in my whole life.”

Even with this conscientious resistance to the developing artifices of the day, Manly had no desire to be a hindrance to the earnest efforts of others. “You tell me,” he wrote his wife, “that I have a chilling and repressive look and manner when I am not pleased.” He was not aware of this but supposed that it must be so. “I desire not to offend against the generation of God’s children. I would absent myself sooner than hinder the least particle of good to anyone.” Those with whom he disagreed in method “have been earnestly seeking the favor and blessing God, for the meeting, and they look for a great work.” Manly added his desire, “The Lord grant it may be so!–A revival of pure religion and undefiled.”[24]


It is my prayer that we may find encouragement in such an example: That we follow him where he followed Christ and the truth, that we catch the passion of his vision for a God-honoring, truth-honoring, gospel-centered, theological education loyal to the faith once delivered to the saints, and add our prayer to his, that in the midst of confusion and change we might pray for a revival of pure religion and undefiled. “The Lord grant it may be so!”