From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist Convention

Founders Journal 70 · Fall 2007 · pp. 3-22

From the Protestant Reformation
to the Southern Baptist Convention

What Hath Geneva to Do with Nashville?

Thomas K. Ascol

Sometimes Baptists live under the mistaken notion that they came into existence with little or no influence from any other evangelical group. Some even believe that Baptist churches have existed from the time of John “the Baptist” to the present. While the principles that Baptists hold dear originate in the Word of God and have been found in various degrees of purity throughout church history, our origin as a distinct group can be traced to the early seventeenth century.

Modern Baptists arose out of the spiritual impetus of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. We are a Reformational people. In many respects the seat of the Reformation in Europe was Geneva where John Calvin helped train countless pastors, missionaries and future martyrs to preach the gospel throughout the world. The Scottish Reformer, John Knox, called the academy established there “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on earth since the days of the Apostles.”[1]

The Southern Baptist Convention came into existence in 1845. Over the years Nashville, Tennessee became home to the offices of the SBC Executive Committee as well as the Sunday School Board (now called LifeWay). Though local churches hold the final authority in our denominational polity, Nashville has become symbolic as the “headquarters” of what has become the largest missionary sending agency in the world.

As disjointed as the worlds of sixteenth-century Geneva and twentyfirst–century Nashville may appear, there is in reality a close and vital connection between them. The relationship becomes apparent when we trace some of the main features of the Southern Baptist family tree.

We Baptists look to the Scriptures to justify our existence, and that is just as it should be. We are a people of the Book. The Bible, and the Bible alone, is our authority. We look no further than the Scriptures to seek direction for our faith and practice. History is not our authority. Nevertheless, history can be our assistant as we learn from the biblical insights of those who have gone before us. In this day when it seems that an identity crisis is epidemic among Baptists, especially among those known as Southern Baptists, wisdom dictates that we consider afresh our heritage and take note of how the Lord taught and guided our forefathers who were committed to the Baptist way in the face of great challenges and struggles.

The heritage of Southern Baptists is rich, and it stretches back hundreds of years before our actual formation as a denomination in 1845. Our roots extend all the way back to the fertile soil of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation.

From the Protestant Reformation to 1619

The nineteenth century Scottish theologian William Cunningham called the Protestant Reformation “the greatest event, or series of events, that has occurred since the close of the canon of Scripture.”[2] It was, quite simply, a great work of the Spirit of God, a revival of biblical Christianity. Without a doubt, the Reformation stands as the most significant revival since Apostolic times.

General Characteristics of the Reformation

Before an obscure monk named Martin Luther nailed ninety-five theses to the church door at Wittenburg on October 31, 1517, the church of Christ had been living in spiritually dark times. The Bible had been kept from the common people. The Roman Catholic Church had largely perverted the gospel of God’s grace by teaching that salvation comes from the hands of the priests through the administration of the sacraments in response to human works and merit.

With the dawning of the Reformation these perversions of the gospel were exposed, and a renewal of biblical Christianity emerged. Though the story of how this awakening came and spread across Europe and Great Britain is a fascinating one, we must limit ourselves in this article to an overview of what happened and leave the question of “how” it happened to a later study.

With the rediscovery of the Bible in the sixteenth century came a reawakening to God’s way of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. In fact, that little word alone provides a real key to understanding the main themes of the Reformation. In Latin the word is sola and it was used in five phrases that capture the essence of Reformational theology.

Five Reformation Themes

1. Sola Scriptura: Scripture Alone

The Reformers taught that the Scripture alone is the final authority for what we must believe and how we must live. This view sounds commonplace to us today, but it was radical in the sixteenth century. For centuries the Roman Catholic Church had asserted its authority over against that of the Bible. The authority of the Pope, tradition and councils were all regarded as authorities along with the Bible. Against that view, the Reformers asserted sola Scriptura: the Bible, and the Bible alone, is our only infallible source of authority for faith and practice.

2. Sola Gratia: Grace Alone

How can a sinful man become right with a holy God? That is always the most important religious question. It was the question that plagued Luther’s conscience and nearly drove him insane before he was converted. Rome had developed a very elaborate system in response to that question. Rome’s answer involved human works and merit—a sinner must perform sufficiently well before God if he would receive the blessing of salvation.

But through the study of the Scriptures the Reformers rediscovered that salvation is the gracious gift of God. Man contributes nothing to it. It is only by the sheer, absolute grace of God. Bible words like election and predestination, which magnify the grace of God in salvation, were rediscovered, having been largely forgotten or drained of their meaning by the mainstream of medieval Roman Catholic teachers.[3]

3. Sola Fide: Faith Alone

The Reformers taught that the means whereby a sinner is graciously justified before God is faith—not faith plus merit or faith plus works—but faith alone. Luther discovered that the Bible teaches that the sinner must place his trust in Jesus Christ in order to gain a right standing before God. Through faith alone the righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to the one who believes.

4. Solo Christo: Christ Alone

The Reformation rejected Rome’s requirement that common church members put their faith implicitly in the church’s teachings. Instead, they argued, Jesus Christ alone is the proper object of faith. He is to be trusted for salvation—not priests, popes, councils or traditions.

5. Soli Deo Gloria: The Glory of God Alone

In one sense the Reformation can be seen as a rediscovery of God—a reawakening to the greatness and grandeur of the God of the Bible. It is God, not man, who belongs at the center of our thoughts and view of the world. And it is God’s glory alone that is to occupy first place in our motivations and desires as His children. He created us and the world for Himself, and He redeemed us for Himself. Our purpose is to glorify Him.

Certainly there are other truths that would need to be discussed in a thorough consideration of Reformation theology, but these themes summarize the essence of Reformed thought. It is obvious that the Reformers did not invent these teachings. They simply rediscovered them in the Bible and brought them out into the light for all of God’s people to experience. Baptists have been greatly influenced by these Reformed themes.

John Calvin

The most systematic exponent of Reformation theology was John Calvin, the Reformer of Geneva. His Institutes of the Christian Religion is a classic whose value is recognized by his followers and critics alike. Sadly, Calvin is more often vilified than read in our day. It has become quite fashionable among some Baptists to caricature his ministry and his teaching. He is often ignorantly portrayed as a harsh, prideful, sinister heretic-burner. For example, Joe Underwood, writing for Baptists Today, has erroneously charged that Calvin “ordered (and secured) the bloody, or fiery, execution of hundreds who disagreed with his doctrine and discipline.”[4]

It is true that one man, the Unitarian Michael Servetus, was executed in Geneva in 1553 because of his anti-Trinitarian views. That was a tragic event—one of many such tragedies that occurred well into the seventeenth century throughout Europe and England where church and state were joined together. While we can never justify the burning of heretics in the sixteenth century, neither can we overlook the harsh realities of that cultural context. Calvin was a man of his times.

But Calvin was also one of the most gifted expositors and systematizers of God’s Word that the world has ever seen. From the Scriptures he argued that God is sovereign over every aspect of life—including man’s salvation. Everything and everyone has come from God, was created for God, and will ultimately bring glory to God. Calvin clearly grasped and simply taught the depravity of the human race, which has left men without spiritual ability to come to Christ by their own power. He emphasized the glory of God in the grace of Jesus Christ that works to save sinners. Calvin expounded the biblical themes of election and predestination, showing them to be the unconditional blessings of God’s sheer grace, which guarantee the salvation of helpless, lost sinners. He explained that the death of Jesus provided a definite atonement for sin, and that because of that death, sinners can be forgiven of sin and reconciled to God. Such reconciliation is effected, Calvin said, through the powerful work of the Holy Spirit when He effectually calls sinners to Christ through the proclamation of the gospel.

All of this is what is typically meant when someone speaks of “Calvinism” or “Reformed theology.” Neither term is usually employed as a reference to everything that Calvin or the other Reformers taught. Calvin’s views on infant baptism, church-state relationship, church officers, and government are rejected outright by many who would nevertheless describe themselves as Calvinists. “Calvinism” is a worldview. It sees creation, history and salvation from a God-centered perspective. In particular, “Calvinism” is used primarily as a soteriological term. It is a short-hand reference to those biblical doctrines that magnify the glory and grace of God in salvation.

Synod of Dort, 1618–19

This view, which sees God at the center of salvation, stands in stark contrast to the more man-centered view of Arminianism, which has become prevalent in our day. The difference between these two positions was made plain by the deliberations which took place at the Synod of Dort in 1618 and 1619.


When Calvin died in 1564, Jacob Arminius was four years old. He grew up to become a student of Theodore Beza, who was Calvin’s successor at Geneva. In the course of preparing a defense of his teacher’s view of predestination, Arminius became convinced of the opposing position. He went on to reject unconditional election and predestination and taught instead that God elects people based on His foreknowledge that they will exercise faith in Christ.

By the time he died in 1609, Arminius’ views had been widely promulgated and debated throughout the Netherlands. The debate intensified the year after his death when his followers, called the Remonstrants, drew up five statements setting forth the views of Arminianism. Arminian theology was in essence a rationalizing of Calvinism. It attempted to remove the tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility by diminishing the significance of the former. The synod of the Dutch Reformed Church convened at the city of Dort in 1618 and 1619 to deal with the Remonstrant articles.

The five points of the Arminians may be summarized as follows:

1. God elects or does not elect on the basis of foreseen faith or unbelief.

2. Christ died for every man, although only believers are saved.

3. Man is not so corrupted by sin that he cannot savingly believe the gospel when it is put before him.[5]

4. God’s saving grace may be resisted.

5. Those who are in Christ may or may not fall finally away.


After seven months and 154 sessions the synod rejected the Remonstrant articles (the five points of Arminianism) and published their view of the doctrines that had been called into question. These Canons of Dort consist of fifty-nine articles with thirty-four additional paragraphs. They were published under five “heads of doctrine” (with the third and fourth being printed together) and have come to be known as the “five points” of Calvinism.

The so-called five points of Calvinism as they were expressed at Dort may be summarized as follows:

1. Election is the unchangeable purpose of God whereby, before the foundation of the world, He, out of mere grace and according to His sovereign good pleasure, chose certain persons to be redeemed by Christ.

2. The death of Christ is “of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world” (Article III). The saving efficacy of that death extends only to the elect because “it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation and language all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to him by the Father” (Article VIII).

3. Though man was originally created upright, because of the Fall, “all men are conceived in sin, by nature children of wrath, incapable of any saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto; and, without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God” (Article III).

4. Those whom God chose from eternity in Christ, He calls effectually in time and “confers upon them faith and repentance, rescues them from the power of darkness, and translates them into the kingdom of his own dear Son” (Article X). God does this by causing the gospel to be externally preached to them and powerfully illuminating their minds by His Holy Spirit, so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God. By the Spirit’s work of regeneration He pervades the inmost recesses of a man; He opens the closed heart and softens the hardened heart and infuses new qualities into the will, which, though heretofore dead, He quickens (Article XI).

5. Those whom God effectually calls do not totally fall from faith and grace. Though they may temporarily fall into backslidings, they will persevere to the end and be saved.

The order of these “contra-remonstrant” articles has been rearranged to facilitate the use of an acrostic as an aid to memory: T-U-L-I-P—Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints. This is what is meant by the five points of Calvinism, or, as they are sometimes called, “the doctrines of grace.” Once again, it is not accurate simply to reduce Calvinism to these five points. It is a way of viewing the world that stems from a clear vision of the sovereignty of God in creation, providence and salvation. These five points do clarify the Calvinistic understanding of the gospel, but they in no way say everything that Calvinism declares about salvation.


It might be beneficial to distinguish Calvinism from hyper-Calvinism because the two are often confused.[6] (Indeed some writers and teachers confuse them so often and so willingly that one must wonder if the practice is intentional.) In one sense, hyper-Calvinism, like Arminianism, is a rationalistic perversion of true Calvinism. Whereas Arminianism destroys the sovereignty of God, hyper-Calvinism destroys the responsibility of man. The irony is that both Arminianism and hyper-Calvinism start from the same, erroneous rationalistic presupposition: Man’s ability and responsibility are coextensive. That is, they must match up exactly or else it is irrational. If a man is to be held responsible for something, then he must have the ability to do it. On the other hand, if a man does not have the ability to perform it, he cannot be obligated to do it.

The Arminian looks at this premise and says, “Agreed! We know that all men are held responsible to repent and believe the gospel [which is true, according to the Bible]; therefore we must conclude that all men have the ability in themselves to repent and believe [which is false, according to the Bible].” Thus, Arminians teach that unconverted people have within themselves the spiritual ability to repent and believe.

The hyper-Calvinist takes the same premise (that man’s ability and responsibility are coextensive) and says, “Agreed! We know that, in and of themselves, all men are without spiritual ability to repent and believe [which is true, according to the Bible]; therefore we must conclude that unconverted people are not under obligation to repent and believe the gospel [which is false, according to the Bible].”

In contrast to both of these, the Calvinist looks at the premise and says, “Wrong! While it looks reasonable, it is not biblical. The Bible teaches both that fallen man is without spiritual ability and that he is obligated to repent and believe. Only by the powerful, regenerating work of the Holy Spirit is man given the ability to fulfill his duty to repent and believe.” And though this may seem unreasonable to rationalistic minds, there is no contradiction, and it is precisely the position the Bible teaches.

Why are these things so important to our discussion? Baptists have been confronted with these theological issues throughout their history. The Arminianism–Calvinism–Hyper-Calvinism debate has played a decisive role in shaping our identity as Baptists, and particularly our identity as Southern Baptists.

The Emergence of Modern Baptists in England

While the Calvinism-Arminianism debate was raging in Holland in the early seventeenth century, other forces were at work in England that ultimately resulted in the rise of modern Baptists.

In the last half of the sixteenth century the Puritan movement began to emerge in England. Though they did not all share the same ecclesiastical goal, Puritans, Separatists and Independents were all essentially English Calvinists. It is from this common source (perhaps with some influence from Continental Anabaptists) that the two streams of Baptists in England originated. One was Arminian and the other was Calvinistic.

General Baptists

The Baptist denomination began in the seventeenth century in England. A man named John Smyth, who had been brought up in the Calvinist-Puritan tradition, came to question a number of the ideas that he had been taught, especially infant baptism. After being exiled with his congregation to Holland, Smyth became convinced that he needed to be baptized as a believer. In January of 1609 Smyth poured water over himself and Thomas Helwys as an expression of believers’ baptism. They then baptized the remainder of the congregation.

Smyth and his followers were strongly influenced by the Arminian view of salvation. They were called “General Baptists” because they held to a universal or general view of the atonement (i.e., that Jesus died for no one in particular but for everyone in general). Smyth did not remain a Baptist long. He soon joined the Mennonites. Helwys led the church back to England in 1611, where he was imprisoned for his views on religious liberty. This represents the first modern Baptist church on English soil.

The Arminian Baptists were unable to spread their principles very far. By 1626 there were only six General Baptist churches in England with a total membership of around 100. These churches eventually drifted from Arminianism into Unitarianism and actually died out in the next century. A “new connection” of General Baptist churches was organized in 1770 and, under the leadership of Dan Taylor, continued on into the nineteenth century.

Particular Baptists

The other group of Baptists to emerge in seventeenth century England went by the name of “Particular Baptists.” Like their Arminian counterparts, their name reflects their theology, being a reference to their Calvinistic view of Christ’s atonement as definite, or particular. That is, they believed that Jesus’ death did not merely make salvation possible for everyone in general. Rather, they understood the Bible to teach that Jesus actually paid for the sins of His particular people—His elect—when He died on the cross. These Particular or Calvinistic Baptists emerged during the 1630s when a Calvinistic Separatist church came to believe that baptism should be administered only to believers.

The Particular Baptists went on to affirm not only believers’ baptism but believers’ baptism by immersion. By 1641, at the latest, there existed a Baptist church which practiced baptism by immersion.

The Particular Baptists began to suffer under false accusations from their theological opponents. They were accused of being Pelagian in their view of sin and man, of being Anabaptists, of being General Baptists and of being anarchists. In order to declare openly their principles (with a special concern to distance themselves from the Anabaptists and General Baptists), the seven Particular Baptist churches of London decided to publish a confession of faith in 1644. As William Lumpkin has argued, “Perhaps no Confession of Faith has had so formative an influence on Baptist life as this one.”[7] It clarified the distinctive, Baptist view of the church while affirming the Reformed view of salvation.

This First London Confession served Baptists well until the latter part of the century, when Baptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists began to suffer persecution under the harsh restrictions of the Clarendon Code adopted by Parliament. In an effort to show their substantial doctrinal unity with their fellow sufferers who were paedobaptistic, the Particular Baptists called for an assembly, which met in London in 1677 to draw up another confession of faith. It was modeled primarily on the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterians and, to a lesser degree, on the Savoy Declaration of the Congregationalists. Because of the political climate, this Second London Confession was not published openly until 1689 when it was issued with the endorsement of 107 Baptist churches across England and Wales.

While the General Baptists were degenerating into Unitarianism in the eighteenth century, the Particular Baptists began to decline through the parasitic influence of hyper-Calvinism. Though they remained orthodox in belief, many Particular Baptist churches became hardened by a fatalistic spirit. One hymn from this period[8] exemplifies their attitude:

We are the Lord’s elected few,
Let all the rest be damned.
There’s room enough in hell for you,
We’ll not have heaven crammed!

Fortunately, this hyper-Calvinism did not go unchecked. Ultimately it was challenged and overcome in the late eighteenth century by Andrew Fuller, William Carey, John Suttcliffe and others. These men and their colleagues rejected what they called “false Calvinism” and returned to the evangelical Calvinism (what they called “true or strict Calvinism”) of their Particular Baptist forefathers. This revitalized Reformed theology gave birth to the modern missionary movement with the formation of the Particular Baptist Missionary Society in 1792.

Baptists in America

In the seventeenth century both General and Particular Baptists joined others in the quest for religious freedom by sailing to America. The Particular Baptists were the first to actually organize churches in the new land. Though he remained a Baptist for only a short while, Roger Williams founded the first Baptist church in America in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1639. The next year John Clarke established a Baptist church in Newport, Rhode Island, which by 1644 had adopted immersion as the proper mode of baptism.

Overall, General Baptists fared far better than their Calvinistic counterparts in the New England colonies. In the Middle Colonies and the South, however, it was the Particular Baptists who took the lead. The development and character of Baptist work in the South is reflected in the organization and outreach of early associations. The first three Baptist associations in America were also the three most influential in shaping the faith and practice of Baptist churches in the South.

The Philadelphia Association

Pennsylvania proved to be fertile soil for Baptist work in the eighteenth century. The first Baptist church was formed there in Pennepek in 1688 by Elias Keach, the son of the famous Benjamin Keach, a Particular Baptist pastor in England. Through the younger Keach’s strenuous labors several other churches were planted in and around Philadelphia. In 1707 five of these churches joined to form the Philadelphia Association, which not only was the first but also soon became the most influential Baptist Association in America. These congregations recognized the 1689 Second London Confession as their own. In 1742 they formally adopted a version of that confession which Benjamin and Elias Keach had slightly edited to include articles on hymn singing and laying on of hands.

These churches were so crystal clear in their affirmation of Calvinism that one former Southern Baptist theologian derisively referred to the association as the “Philadelphia Synod” and to the church members as “baptizing Presbyterians.”[9] The Philadelphia Association sent numerous missionaries and church planters throughout the South during the middle and latter eighteenth century. It was responsible for the rapid growth of “Regular Baptist” (which is what Calvinistic Baptists came to be called) churches and associations in the South.

The Charleston Association

The next influential association in the South was the Charleston Baptist Association. It also has the distinction of being the first association on southern soil. The First Baptist Church of Charleston was instrumental in organizing the association. This church, which was the first Baptist church in the South, was actually founded in Kittery, Maine, in 1682 by William Screven. It began as a Particular Baptist church, having formally adopted the Second London Confession. In 1696 Screven and the congregation moved to Charleston, where four years later they reaffirmed their adherence to the 1689 Confession.[10]

In 1751, under the leadership of Oliver Hart and the influence of the Philadelphia Association, the Charleston Association was founded. Sixteen years later, in 1767, the association adopted the Second London Confession. Through the influence of this association across the South, Reformation theology became even more firmly embedded in the Baptist movement.

The Sandy Creek Association (Separate Baptist)

The Great Awakening that swept through the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s made a significant impact on Baptists in two ways. First, the comparatively few Baptist churches that existed at the time were directly affected by the revival and saw tremendous growth in their memberships. Second, many Congregationalist churches that developed out of the revival eventually became Baptist. One historian has described these “New Light” Congregational churches as “halfway house[s] on the road to becoming Baptists.”[11] Most of these who made the change to believers’ baptism had been converted under George Whitefield. This phenomenon caused the great evangelist to muse, “My chickens are becoming ducks!” Baptists gained over a hundred new churches this way in addition to gaining some of their most outstanding leaders, such as Isaac Backus, Daniel Marshall and Shubal Stearns.[12]

These churches born out of revival became known as “Separate Baptist,” and they saw rapid growth in the South and on the frontier. The most incredible display of such growth came through the ministry of Shubal Stearns and his brother-in-law, Daniel Marshall.

In 1755 Stearns and Marshall moved to Sandy Creek, North Carolina, where they started the first Separate Baptist church in the South. They began with sixteen people and within three years had three fully constituted churches with a combined membership of over 900. In only seventeen years this church gave birth to forty-two churches and sent out 125 ministers.

In 1758 the Sandy Creek Association was formed. The Separate Baptist churches that joined together in forming it had a healthy skepticism regarding confessions and creeds. This grew out of experience with the dead orthodoxy they had left behind in Congregationalism. This distinguished them from the Regular Baptists, who were enthusiastically confessional in their churches. However, this distinction must not be stretched beyond what the historical record will bear.

Regular Baptists, Separate Baptists and Calvinism

Some historians have interpreted the Separate Baptist “aversion to creeds” to mean that they were opposed to doctrinal precision in general and to Reformed theology in particular. The “Sandy Creek tradition,” as it has been called, has been unjustly described as consisting of an evangelistic zeal that was in some sense hostile to the Calvinism of the Regular Baptists. According to this perspective it “minimized Calvinism and emphasized evangelism.”[13] The historical record, however, simply will not bear this judgment. The following three reasons are sufficient to make this plain.

1. Regular Baptists were thoroughly evangelistic

In the first place, the Calvinism of the Regular Baptists was thoroughly evangelical, as the work of the Philadelphia and Charleston Associations clearly demonstrate.[14] The parasite of hyper-Calvinism did develop in some churches (especially in Kentucky), but this was rightly regarded as a perversion of Reformed theology.[15] Evangelistic concern, therefore, would not have been foreign to Regular Baptists, nor would Separate Baptists have thought it to be so. The eventual union of Regular and Separate Baptists in the South was not at all encumbered by any perceived lack of evangelistic concern on the part of the Regulars.

During Oliver Hart’s ministry as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, the congregation sent a request to the meeting of the Charleston Association in November, 1755. They asked the association to secure a missionary to labor among the destitute people “in the interior settlements of this and neighboring States.”[16] This took place before Daniel Marshall and Shubal Stearns migrated from Opekon, Virginia to begin the Separate Baptist movement at Sandy Creek. In response to the church’s request, the association commissioned John Gano to preach the gospel at the Jersey Settlement on the banks of the Yadkin River—not far from Sandy Creek—in what is now North Carolina. Far from being a dividing point, Sandy Creek actually became something of a meeting point for the evangelistic fervor of both the Charleston and Separate Baptists.

Furthermore, a later pastor of FBC Charleston, Richard Furman, helped organize the General Missionary Convention (Triennial Convention) in 1814. At the organizational meeting on May 21 of that year, the delegates asked Furman to preach. His closing appeal clearly refutes the charge that “Charleston Calvinists” were something less than concerned for evangelism and missions.

Let the wise and good employ their counsels; the minister of Christ, who is qualified for the sacred service, offer himself for the work; the man of wealth and generosity, who values the glory of Immanuel and the salvation of souls more than gold, bring of his treasure in proportion as God has bestowed on him; yea, let all, even the pious widow, bring the mite that can be spared; and let all who fear and love God, unite in the prayer of faith before the throne of Grace; and unceasingly say, “Thy Kingdom come.” And O! let it never be forgotten, that the Son of God hath said: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” Amen and Amen.[17]

By 1845, the year of the founding of the SBC, the Triennial convention had compiled an impressive missions record: they had missionaries among 8 Indian groups in North America; in numerous European countries as well as in Africa, Burma, Siam, China, Assam, India and Asia. “The total program by 1845 involved 17 missions; 130 mission stations and outstations; 109 missionaries and assistant missionaries, of whom 42 were preachers; 123 native preachers and assistants; 79 churches, 2,593 baptisms in the previous year, and more than 5,000 church members; and 1,350 students in 56 schools.”[18]

Furman also led his church to participate in a “Quarterly Concert of Prayer for world missions” and recommended this practice to all the churches of the association by 1795. After 1810, the church held this prayer meeting on the first Monday of every month.[19]

In 1800 the General Committee of the Charleston Association called on that body to engage even more diligently in the concerted work of missions.

Is there not at this time, a call in providence for our churches to make the most serious exertions, in union with other Christians of various denominations, to send the gospel among the heathen; or to such people who, though living in countries where the gospel revelation is known, do not enjoy a standing ministry, and the regular administration of divine ordinances among them?[20]

It is obvious from these examples that the Regular Baptists were energetically engaged in the work of evangelism and missions.

2. Separate Baptists came from a Reformed background and were very Calvinistic

Secondly, it must not be forgotten that the Separate Baptists came from a background of Congregationalism, which had as its confessional foundation the Savoy Declaration, which was a thoroughly Reformed confession of faith. Those who separated from Congregationalism after the Great Awakening did so not because they rejected Reformed theology but because they rejected a dead formalism that substituted agreement with a creed for vital, experiential Christianity. Separate Baptists were not people with no theological convictions. And the insights we have into those convictions declare an agreement with that Calvinistic understanding of salvation which has been handed down from the Protestant Reformation.[21]

For example, the first covenant of the Separate Baptist Sandy Creek church contained strong affirmations of predestination, effectual calling, and perseverance of the saints. The preamble states:

Holding believers’ baptism; laying on of hands; particular election of grace by predestination of God in Christ; effectual calling by the Holy Ghost; free justification through the imputed righteousness of Christ; progressive sanctification through God’s grace and truth; the final perseverance, or continuance of the saints in grace….[22]

When the Sandy Creek Association adopted their Articles of Faith in 1816, the decidedly Calvinistic Basil Manly, Sr., chaired the committee that wrote them. It is not surprising, then, to read in Article III:

That Adam fell from his original state of purity, and that his sin is imputed to his posterity; that human nature is corrupt, and that man, of his own free will and ability, is impotent to regain the state in which he was primarily placed.

Also in Article IV:

We believe in election from eternity, effectual calling by the Holy Spirit of God, and justification in his sight only by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. And we believe that they who are thus elected, effectually called, and justified, will persevere through grace to the end, that none of them be lost.[23]

Here we have four of the five points of Calvinism stated and affirmed by the Separate Baptists of North Carolina. This is consistent with the report which David Benedict gives of the unification of Regular and Separate Baptists in Virginia in 1787. During the negotiations, the Separates assured the Regulars that, although they had never formally adopted a full confession of faith, the large majority of them nevertheless believed the Regular Baptist confession just as strongly as did the Regulars themselves.[24]

Even more telling are the doctrinal commitments that were embedded in the foundation of churches that Separate Baptists planted in Georgia. The Kiokee Baptist Church was planted by Daniel Marshall in 1772. The covenant that the church adopted at its founding opens with these unequivocal words:

According to God’s appointment in His Word, we do hereby in His name and strength covenant and promise to keep up and defend all the articles of faith, according to God’s Word, such as the great doctrine of election, effectual calling, particular redemption, justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ alone, sanctification by the spirit of God, believers’ baptism by immersion, the saints’ absolute final perseverance in grace, the resurrection of the dead, future rewards and punishments, etc., all according to Scripture which we take as the rule of our faith and practice, with some other doctrines herein not mentioned, as are commanded and supported by that blessed Book: denying the Arian, Socinian, and Arminian errors, and every other principle contrary to the Word of God. Now yet since we are exhorted to prove all things, orderly ministers of any denomination may when invited, preach in our meeting house.[25]

These doctrinal commitments are representative of those held by churches that formed the Georgia Baptist Association in 1784.

3. Leading Separate Baptist pastors were Calvinists

Not all Separate Baptist pastors were convinced Calvinists, but many of their most prominent pastors were. The Separate Baptist commitment to Reformed theology is clearly evident in the expressed convictions of leaders such as Shubal Stearns, Daniel and Abraham Marshall, Richard Furman and Isaac Backus.[26] The latter, in 1797, near the end of his life, wrote:

The enmity which men have discovered against the sovereignty of the grace of God as revealed in Holy Scriptures hath now prevailed so far that every art is made use of to put other senses upon the words of revelation which than God intended therein. He said to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy,” Rom. 9:15–16. This was the doctrine that God made use of in all the reformation that wrought in Germany, England and Scotland after the year 1517; and by the same doctrine he wrought all the reformation that has been in our day, both in Europe and America.[27]

The church covenant from the Kiokee Baptist church demonstrates that the founding pastor, Daniel Marshall, was convinced of the doctrines of grace. Inspired by the impassioned preaching of George Whitefield, Marshall became a Presbyterian missionary to the Mohawk Indians along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. When hostilities among various tribes forced his removal from that work, he settled near Winchester, Virginia and began worshiping with a Baptist church that belonged to the Philadelphia Association. His son writes that only after “a close and impartial examination of their faith and order” (which certainly would have included the Philadelphia Confession of Faith) did he and his wife submit to baptism.[28]

Abraham himself was instrumental in writing the first articles of faith for the Georgia Baptist Association of churches in 1790. Called the “Abstract and Decorum,” the articles reflect the Calvinism of the Philadelphia Confession.

3d. We believe in the fall of Adam, and the imputation of his sin to his posterity. In the corruption of human nature, and the impotency of man to recover himself by his own free will—ability.

4th. We believe in the everlasting love of God to his people, and the eternal election of a definite number of the human race, to grace and glory: And that there was a covenant of grace or redemption made between the Father and the Son, before the world began, in which their salvation is secure, and that they in particular are redeemed.

5th. We believe that sinners are justified in the sight of God, only by the righteousness of Christ imputed to them.

6th. We believe that all those who were chosen in Christ, will be effectually called, regenerated, converted, sanctified, and supported by the spirit and power of God, so that they shall persevere in grace, and not one of them be finally lost.[29]

The three associations—Philadelphia, Charleston, and Sandy Creek—that were largely responsible for the spread of Baptist work throughout the South in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were all consciously devoted to Reformational Christianity. That is, they all adopted confessions of faith that affirm the basic tenets of the Protestant and Reformed view of salvation. In the case of Philadelphia and Charleston, the confession of faith was essentially the Second London Confession of 1689, the most Reformed of all the major Baptist confessions. Through these streams Southern Baptists trace our heritage. What they teach us is that many of the roots of our biblical convictions extend all the way back to that great movement of God in the sixteenth century known as the Protestant Reformation.


The evidence which has been presented clearly demonstrates that Southern Baptists come from Reformation stock. For all of the important distinctives that separate us from the leading Protestant Reformers, Baptists owe a debt of gratitude to God for those faithful leaders of the sixteenth century. With all of their shortcomings, they were nevertheless used of God to return to the Scripture alone for their authority. By doing so they rediscovered the blessed gospel of God—that gospel that reveals salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and brings glory to God alone. To this, surely, every Southern Baptist can say, “Amen!”

When those 293 delegates registered in Augusta, Georgia, in May, 1845, to form a new denomination, they assembled from churches and associations which consciously held to a Reformed or Calvinistic understanding of salvation. One notable example is Patrick Hues Mell. In addition to being one of the original delegates who founded the Southern Baptist Convention, Mell went on to become one of the most influential leaders which the denomination has ever produced. He served as President of the convention for seventeen years.

In 1851 The Southern Baptist Publication Society published Mell’s “concise and popular exposition” of the doctrines of grace.[30] He produced this work not only to refute some attacks by a non-Baptist writer, but also to counteract what he saw as some tendencies toward Arminianism among his Baptist brethren.[31]

Mell’s concern for sound doctrine determined the character of his pastoral ministry. Mrs. D. B. Fitzgerald, one of the long-time members of the Antioch Baptist Church in Oglethorpe, Georgia, where Mell served as pastor, described his initial efforts at the church with the following words:

When first called to take charge of the church Dr. Mell found it in a sad state of confusion. He said a number of the members were drifting off into Arminianism. He loved the truth too well to blow hot and cold with the same breath. It was a Baptist church and it must have doctrines peculiar to that denomination preached to it. and with that boldness, clearness, and vigor of speech that marked him, he preached to them the doctrines of predestination, election, free-grace, etc. He said it was always his business to preach the truth as he found it in God’s Word, and the leave the matter there, feeling that God would take of the results.[32]

This is the spiritual and doctrinal heritage of the Southern Baptist Convention. We are witnessing a growing revival of this heritage in our day. With the return to the authority of God’s Word, such an outcome is inevitable. In a sense, this renewal is nothing less than a doctrinal homecoming for Southern Baptists. It is a return to the faith of our fathers. And if what our Baptist and Southern Baptist forefathers believed was true in their day, it is still true today—the Bible has not changed, God has not changed, and truth has not changed.

This revival is not something to be feared by those who do not understand it or who disagree with its theology. All Bible believing Southern Baptists will readily acknowledge that the last fifty years of our denomination’s history have left the majority of our churches in need of spiritual revitalization. When the unregenerate members of our churches far outnumber the regenerate members, something is terribly wrong. When most of our 16.3 million members never even attend a church worship service on Sunday, it is obvious that we have problems. When only a small fraction of our churches even attempt to practice discipline anymore, it is time for us to wake up and admit that we need help.

My prayer is that the Lord is in the process of sending help by calling us back to the healthier streams of biblical Christianity that characterized earlier generations of Southern Baptist life. Theological nicknames are not important. Neither is “winning” a doctrinal debate. In fact, my hope is that no Southern Baptist will try to coerce another to “dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’” on the fine points of theology. Such efforts are unhealthy and distracting. What we need—what we absolutely must have—is a return to the doctrine and practice of the churches of the New Testament.

I like what that great nineteenth-century Southern Baptist statesman John A. Broadus said about this matter. When he was traveling through Switzerland, gazing at the majestic Alps, he wrote the following in a letter which was published in the Western Recorder:

The people who sneer at what is called Calvinism might as well sneer at Mont Blanc. We are not in the least bound to defend all of Calvin’s opinions or actions, but I do not see how anyone who really understands the Greek of the Apostle Paul or the Latin of Calvin and Turretin can fail to see that these latter did but interpret and formulate substantially what the former teaches… Whatever the inspired writers meant to teach is authoritative, the truth of God.[33]

What does Geneva have to do with Nashville? Precisely this: The biblical doctrines of God’s grace which were expounded so clearly in the former are the theological heritage of the denomination whose main offices are located in the latter. So you may legitimately refer to those in our denomination who are returning to this heritage as “Calvinists.” Or you may call them “Reformed” in their theology. Whatever label one uses, it should be remembered that this resurgence in the doctrines of grace is a recovery of the doctrinal foundations of the SBC.¶


1Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed., The Reformation, a Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981), 173.

2 William Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (first published 1862; reprint edition, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 1.

3 There were, of course, notable exceptions. A small but stubborn stream of teachers who insisted on predestination and election can be traced throughout the middle ages. Among them were Gottschalk of Orbais, Thomas Bradwardine and Gregory of Rimini.

4 Joe Underwood, “Retired Missions Leader Wonders if Loyalty is to Calvin or Jesus?” Baptists Today (March 9, 1995), 16.

5 J. I. Packer, “Introductory Essay” in John Owens, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1959), 3.

6 One of the finest treatments of true Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism is Iain Murray, Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1995).

7 William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, revised edition (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1969), 152.

8 Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1988), 233.

9 Molly Marshall, at the inaugural Hoover Lectures at Richmond Seminary, April, 1995; tape transcript.

10 The Charleston Confession of Faith, A Summary of Church Discipline, and The Baptist Catechism, all of which were published by the Charleston Association, have been recently reprinted under the title, Some Southern Documents (Birmingham, AL: Society for Biblical and Southern Studies, 1995).

11 W.G. McLoughlin, quoted in H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1987), 205

12 McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 203.

13 Fisher Humphreys, The Way We Were: How Southern Baptist Theology Has Changed and What it Means to Us All (New York: McCracken Press, 1994), 85. Humphreys follows the view of Walter Shurden as set forth in “The 1980–81 Carver-Barnes Lectures” (Wake Forest, NC: Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1980). William G. McLoughlin sees the distinctions between Separate and Regular Baptists as having little or nothing to do with Calvinism. Both groups were, in his estimation, convinced of Calvinistic theology. When describing the decline of the General, or Arminian Baptists of New England in the late eighteenth century, McLoughlin parenthetically identifies the Baptists who were “Calvinists” as “the Separate Baptists.” He further explains that “in the South the Calvinists split into two wings, the Regular, or Particular Baptists (led by evangelists from the Philadelphia Baptist Association like [Benjamin] Miller and [Peter P.] Van Horne), and the Separates (led by New England Separate Baptists)” in The Diary of Isaac Backus (Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1979), 3:1246.

14 See McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 239–42.

15 See Purefoy, A History of the Sandy Creek Baptist Association (first published New York: Sheldon & Co., 1859; reprint edition, New York: Arno Press, 1980), 55–60, in which Purefoy calls the hyper-Calvinists, “The New Baptists.”

16 Cited in Robert A. Baker and Paul J. Craven, Jr., Adventure in Faith, the First 300 Years of First Baptist Church, Charleston, South Carolina (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1982), 156.

17 Ibid., 196.

18 Ibid., 232.

19 Ibid., 221–22.

20 Ibid., 226.

21 This point is clearly demonstrated by comparing the two confessions of faith which Isaac Backus wrote for churches he served. Before coming to Baptist convictions, Backus wrote a confession and covenant for the Titicut Separate Church in 1748. It is thoroughly Calvinistic and advocates paedo-baptism. Seven years later, after becoming a Baptist, Backus performed the same service for the First Baptist Church at Middleborough. Though the latter document advocates believers’ baptism, it maintains the same Calvinistic stance which is found in the earlier confession (at times, employing identical language). See Backus Diary, 3:1529–32, 1588–92.

22 George Washington Paschal, History of North Carolina Baptists (Raleigh, NC: The General Board of North Carolina Baptist State Convention, 1930), 1:401. Paschal doubts, without justification, those records which attribute this covenant, including the preamble, to Shubal Stearns. See also William Lumpkin, Baptist Foundations in the South (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1961), 36 and McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 229.

23 Purefoy, A History, 104–5.

24 David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America, (Boston, MA: Manning & Loring, 1813), 60–62; quoted in McBeth, A Sourcebook for The Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1990), 164–65.

25 Timothy and Denise George, editors, Baptist Confessions, Covenants and Catechisms (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1996), 205–6. This statement was revised in 1826 concerning how members were received and dismissed. See Thomas Ray, Memoirs of Daniel and Abraham Marshall, Pioneer Baptist Evangelists to the South, expanded and illustrated edition (Springfield, MO: Particular Baptist Press, 2006), 24.

26 McLoughlin says of Stearns that “his style of preaching did much to set the tone of the new evangelical Calvinism of the revival that broke out in Virginia and North Carolina” (Backus, Diary, 3:1248). Tom Nettles has described Furman as a “staunch Calvinist” (By His Grace and for His Glory, [Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2006], xxxix).

27 Alvah Hovey, A Memoir of the Life and Times of Isaac Backus (1858; reprint edition, Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1991), 356; quoted in Iain H. Murray, Revival & Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750–1858 (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 181–82.

28 Jesse Mercer, A History of the Georgia Baptist Association (Washington, GA: NP, 1838; reprint edition, 1979), 371.

29 Ray, Memoirs, 247–48.

30 Mell, A Southern Baptist Looks at Predestination (Cape Coral, FL: Christian Gospel Foundation, n.d.), 15. This is a reprint of the original work which was entitled, Predestination and the Saints Perseverance State and Defended (Charleston, SC: The Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1851). The material in this book first appeared as a series of articles in the Christian Index, the Baptist paper of Georgia.

31 Mell, A Southern Baptist Looks at Predestination, 15–16.

32 P. H. Mell, Jr., Life of Patrick Hues Mell (Louisville, KY: Baptist Book Concern, 1895), 58–59.

33 Life and Letters of John A. Broadus, (American Baptist Publication Society, 1901; reprint edition, Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1987), 396–97.