“Our great distinguishing characteristic”

Founders Journal 73 · Summer 2008 · pp. 26-32

“Our great distinguishing characteristic”
H. H. Tucker and the Battle for Church Purity

Jeff Robinson

In January of 1866, Baptist leaders in Virginia introduced a proposal that would integrate Southern Baptists and Disciples of Christ–Campbellites–into a single denomination.

The development stunned many Baptists in the commonwealth, but editors of the Religious Herald newspaper supported the union of the two denominations with a level of enthusiasm that captured the attention of H. H. Tucker, editor of the Christian Index in Georgia. Tucker fired an editorial volley aimed at underscoring a crucial point that Virginia editors had apparently overlooked: such a union with the Campbellites amounted to an egregious violation of Baptist doctrine and polity, particularly as it related to regenerate church membership. If the Campbellites wanted to become Baptists, each individual would have to assent to Baptist and evangelical doctrine, testify to a clear work of grace in their hearts and submit to believers’ baptism by immersion. After all, Tucker argued, to be a Baptist was to be committed to a pure church.

Religious Herald editors jousted with Tucker for several months over the proposed union, but leaders among Baptists in Virginia wisely voted to remain separate from the Disciples. In the end, Baptist ecclesiology had defeated a dangerous form of pragmatism, Tucker wrote in the aftermath. Happily, Tucker argued, Baptists in Virginia had chosen to remain faithful to their regulating principle of sola Scriptura, a principle that demanded that the church be comprised exclusively of those whose hearts had been subdued and renovated by a unilateral work of the God’s effectual grace.

Who was H. H. Tucker and why is he an important witness to call to the stand in defense of Baptist principles?

H. H. Tucker: “The Jonathan Edwards of the South”

In his tribute to Tucker in the preface of a 1902 volume of editorials which the Georgia Baptist Convention published, Henry McDonald, Tucker’s pastor for many years in Atlanta, called his late parishioner the “Jonathan Edwards of the South.” Indeed, Tucker was Edwardsean in his ability to synthesize theology with crucial worldview-related disciplines such as philosophy, contemporary culture and religious movements of his day.

Born in Warren County Georgia in 1819, Tucker bore the namesake of his grandfather, Henry Holcombe, one of the eminent Baptist pastors in Georgia in the early nineteenth century. Holcombe was one of the founders of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Tucker spent his teen years in Philadelphia and received a classical education, graduating from Columbian College in Washington, D. C. in 1838 and for two years he practiced law in Forsyth, Georgia.

In 1948 two landmark events occurred in Tucker’s life: he married Mary Catherine West (she died a few months later and he remarried, having two children) and he abandoned his work as an attorney and surrendered to the high calling of Christian ministry. Soon, Tucker moved to Penfield, Georgia and received private theological instruction from J. L. Dagg at Mercer University. Tucker pastored for only one year and labored as a Christian educator for more than a decade. He served as president of both Mercer University and the University of Georgia, teaching theology, history, philosophy and the Bible at both schools.

While Tucker was noted as an educator, his work as editor of the Christian Index was the means by which he achieved perhaps his greatest notoriety in Georgia and across the Baptist South, a kingdom Tucker tenderly referenced in his editorials as “my Southern Zion.” Tucker spent four separate tenures as editor of the Index from 1866–just a few months after the close of the Civil War–through 1889. In 1888 Tucker bought the Index and operated it until his abrupt death in September of 1889.

While Tucker served as a pastor for a brief time, but viewed himself as a shepherd-editor at the helm of the Index, writing often on doctrine and biblical exposition. He sought to teach, rebuke and warn from the editor’s chair. Upon his death, one longtime admirer said of Tucker, “the ink that touched his pen turned to light.”

A stalwart evangelical Calvinist in the mold of Dagg, J. P. Boyce, Basil Manly, Jr., P. H. Mell and John Albert Broadus, Tucker wrote prolifically on the doctrines of grace and related topics such as divine providence. He also fed readers on a regular diet of practical divinity–prayer, family worship, sanctification–demonstrating how Christian doctrines worked out in real life. Perhaps more than any other topic, three subjects captured the attention of his pen most often, subjects which Tucker saw as intimately interrelated, subjects demanded by Baptists’ commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture: regenerate church membership, the doctrine of regeneration and the pernicious threat to church purity of Finneyite revivalism.

“Our great distinguishing characteristic:” A Pure Church

Tucker argued that regenerate church membership was a logical extension of the doctrine of sola Scriptura, and he insisted that it was a doctrine that sat at the heart of the Baptist genius. The doctrine of regenerate church membership was not singled out and separated from Tucker’s theology, but was an irreducible extension of it; if the doctrines of grace were true and God had chosen to save a people, sent His Son to die as their substitute and caused them to persevere to the end, then, by logical necessity–and in fidelity to the overwhelming teaching of the New Testament–the church must be comprised of believers only. The Baptist view of the church was, in Tucker’s mind, a necessary complement to Reformed soteriology.

This doctrine rings clear from his polemic against the union of Virginia Baptists and Campbellites, in which Tucker argued that membership requirements for a Baptist church could be synthesized into a single litmus test: “A person must first come before the church and relate his experience of grace; that is, he gives satisfactory evidence from a relation of his feelings that he has passed from death unto life and become a new creature. We cannot conceive of such a thing as a church on the New Testament model, except it be composed entirely of those who have made a credible profession of their faith; that there can be any difference of opinion on such a subject as this, is to us a strange mystery…This is our great distinguishing characteristic.”[1]

Tucker viewed regenerate church membership as a key battleground in the war for the glory of God.[2] Thus, one of the key doctrines that “holds all of Christianity together,” he argued, is regeneration, or the new birth.

“Yet they stumble at the words:” Regeneration

Remove the necessity of regeneration, Tucker argued, and you undermine the New Testament church; For Tucker, regeneration was the track upon which the train of theological orthodoxy traveled, pulling along all the graces of redemption–repentance, faith, justification, adoption, sanctification, glorification–in its path: “Right views of regeneration are apt to carry with them right views of the whole body of divinity; while on the other hand, wrong views on this subject are apt to lead to errors innumerable and disastrous.”[3]

For Tucker, regeneration constituted the irreducible core of the gospel because it serves as the means by which rebellious sinners become the adopted sons of heaven. Any theological movement that denies the necessity of regeneration must be met square on with the truth of Scripture, Tucker asserted.

Regeneration was a critical doctrine, Tucker argued, because the fallen human heart, left to its own devices, would never overcome its opposition to its Creator. Thus, Tucker correctly expected his assertion of the centrality of regeneration to stir up controversy, for some who considered themselves Christians (and Baptists) opposed the doctrine of salvation by sovereign grace with as much zeal as had the pseudo-disciples of Christ’s day.[4]

While Tucker viewed some Arminians as genuine believers, still, their theology existed close to a deadly slough which sought to leave something for man in salvation: “Some will accept Christ and His gospel, yet they stumble at the words, ‘No man can come to me except the Father which hath sent me draw him.’ They cannot wholly rid themselves of the Pharisaic thought, that the first motions toward salvation originate in man; for even human faith has its author in heaven.”[5]

Tucker warned that the outcome of such theology was potentially lethal, such that “Many, who are Christ’s ‘disciples’ up to this point, abandon Him when it comes to this,” and “Thus does history repeat itself.”[6] The cry of many in Tucker’s day–and a tired refrain heard far too often in 21st-century Baptist life–was that preachers should resist teaching such discouraging doctrines because they risked offending the sensibilities of some who might otherwise seek after Christ. These doctrines, the argument went (and still goes) undermine evangelism. Tucker’s rejoinder to this assertion was pointed: only the biblical gospel saves.

“The man whose preaching drives nobody away is not preaching the gospel,” he wrote. “The man who does drive people away by declaring the truth is doing exactly what Jesus Christ did…. Let the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation, as in everything else, be proclaimed as with an angel’s trump, though men should be outraged by it now as when Jesus annunciated it.”[7]

In Tucker’s view, Baptist churches did not want those who were repulsed by such core biblical teachings, for their inclusion would only besmirch the integrity of the membership rolls and compromise the congregation’s witness.

But the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation, Tucker pointed out, naturally stirs up the rebellious emotions of the unregenerate as illustrated by the pseudo-disciples who abandoned Jesus: “It was the doctrine that they could not bear. They were disgusted; they turned away from him, and never did come back. Up to this point they had received his instructions, but when it came to this, their nature rebelled, they could not endure it, and they abandoned him forever.”[8]

Tucker’s emphasis on regeneration arose out of a fundamental belief that depraved man lacked the moral ability to come to God. Dead men cannot seek God. Sinners, Tucker asserted, are like the Pharisees; they want to seek God on their terms and in their own time. The New Testament, however, does not speak of salvation as being available at the whims of man.

Thus it was the bad news of human depravity and the good news of the new birth which, more than any other tenet, animated Tucker’s grave concern over the new methods being used to manufacture “revival on demand,” methods that presupposed a Pelagian view of human nature, methods that were infiltrating Baptist churches in the post-Civil War South and filling their rolls with non-Christians.

“The Kind of Evangelistic Work Popular at This Time:” Revivalism

In the winter of 1885, a revival preacher well known in the South and Midwest brought to Cincinnati his itinerant ministry, promising to produce, in one week, an abundant harvest of evangelical fruit. Accounts of the revival in local newspapers indicated that many had indeed been converted through the revivalist’s “sensational new measures.” A few months later, however, “judicious Christians from Cincinnati and other places” offered a different outcome once the fires of emotion had banked: “The revival meetings of last winter were failures … . The conviction seems to have now been formed that it is better that churches do their own work by their own pastors and members, and that the religious interest of last winter was dissipated and not deepened or extended or instructed by the employment of evangelists.”

In commenting on Cincinnati’s encounter with the new methods which self-styled evangelists employed, Tucker referenced a similar event that took place in Georgia: “A little more than a year ago, it was claimed that eighteen hundred persons were converted in Atlanta, as a result of an evangelist’s labors. It would be hard to find one in a hundred of them now.”[9]

Because of its assumptions of free will and its exaltation of experience through such methods as the “anxious bench” at the expense of vital, life-giving gospel truths such as regeneration, revivalism found a ready opponent in Tucker. In one generation in America, Charles Finney’s new methods of revival–built upon a denial of original sin and a lessening of human depravity–had seriously eroded bedrock aspects of conversion such as effectual call, the new birth and the necessity of discipleship.

In dozens of editorials and articles, Tucker opposed revivalism and asserted the traditional view that revival is every bit as a much a sovereign effusion of God’s Spirit upon a church as is the new birth that changes the heart of a sinner. He often reported on protracted meetings that boasted large numbers of converts and took every opportunity to warn readers: “We are ashamed to defile our columns with such abominable stuff. We publish the above [account] to let our readers see the kind of evangelistic work that is popular at this time. We wish it understood that we protest against it; and we counsel our brethren everywhere to be on their guard lest they be led astray.”[10]

Tucker was no mere theological contrarian.[11] It would be easy to dismiss his critique of Finneyite methods and their fruit as the ravings one who possessed Calvinistic tunnel-vision. Nothing could be further from reality. Tucker’s concern was driven by a heartfelt desire to see churches filled with spiritually healthy persons whose hearts had been subdued by the Spirit of God.

Revivalism, Tucker asserted, exchanged the biblical doctrine of the new birth for decisional regeneration. It also undermined the supremacy of the preaching ministry of the local church. As a result, Tucker pointed out, souls were placed in grave peril; many of the new revival’s converts joined churches and presumed they were Christians, but possessed no genuine interest in the effectual grace of God. Often, Tucker warned, the roving evangelists themselves assured those who responded to the altar call, or who “broke through” to God after spending the appropriate amount of time on the mourner’s bench, that they were indeed recipients of salvation. Only God can save a sinner, and the Holy Spirit alone can grant genuine assurance; revivalists who sought to do both, Tucker argued, were doing the devil’s bidding to the eternal doom of many.[12]

Throughout his numerous comments and editorials on revival, Tucker regularly argued that God pours out increased measures of grace through the pulpit ministry of the local church.[13] A new assumption that “no revival can be gotten up without a professional revivalist and protracted meetings” Tucker called a “mischievious heresy” because such a view “displaces our pastors or makes them appear second rate.”[14]

Elsewhere, Tucker characterized revivalism as “religion by power of attorney,” and called on pastors to be faithful in preaching the word, parishioners to be fervent in prayer, and he exhorted fathers to be constant in teaching the Bible in their homes.[15] God’s blessing comes through these simple, biblically-sanctioned means, and not through the novelties of the professional revivalist “who acts as an attorney for the church,” he argued.[16] Further, Tucker believed it to be impossible to predict when the Holy Spirit would move in such a way to produce a widespread awakening of the sort that revivalist ministers guaranteed.

Not only did revivalism promote works salvation and instill an unshakeable confidence in the unregenerate that they were converted, it also trampled on the blood of Christ and robbed God of His glory. As Tucker saw it, thieving glory that belonged to God alone was the most devious aspect of the “new school” of revival.[17]

Conclusion

Tucker was a massive figure on the Baptist landscape in the Southern states over the second-half of the nineteenth century. As editor of the Index, he promoted the purity of the bride of Christ by defending the necessity of regeneration and warning Christians against the vagaries of revivalism. While revivalists boasted of adding large numbers of their converts to the local church, Tucker exposed their numbers game as “ill gotten gain” that polluted local churches and duped souls to their eternal damnation.


Notes:

1 Henry Holcombe Tucker, “Startling and Suggestive,” The Christian Index and Southwestern Baptist (11 December 1879), 4.

2 Ibid.

3 Henry Holcombe Tucker, “The New Birth,” The Christian Index and Southwestern Baptist (14 April 1887), 8.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Henry Holcombe Tucker, “Disgusted,” The Christian Index and Southwestern Baptist (12 February 1885), 8.

9 Ibid.

10 The Christian Index and Southwestern Baptist (27 August 1885), 1.

11 This notion is clear from Tucker’s positive case for authentic revival, which articulated by publishing, then affirming, an editorial by the Rev. George F. Pierce, a Bishop in the Methodist-Episcopal Church. Pierce was neither a Calvinist nor an adherent to regenerate church membership. On March 1, 1883, Tucker devoted most of his editorial space to Pierce’s writing on revival and appended comments expressing his agreement. One of Tucker’s stated goals was to show that he was not an opponent of revival as some had labeled him: “We do not agree with our Methodist brother on some subjects of great importance; but the world knows that they have relied very greatly for their success on revivals; and it will be admitted that a man who agrees with them on the subject of revivals is not opposed to revivals.” Like Pierce, Tucker favored the time-honored historical view of revival that it was a gift sent from God and could neither be predicted nor manipulated.

12 Ibid.

13 Tucker followed Jonathan Edwards view on this issue. Calling Edwards a “revivalist preacher” is only partly accurate, for the language fails to account for the fact that Edwards was simply functioning in his pastoral role at Northampton, feeding his congregation on a steady diet of exegetical sermons, when God blessed his efforts in a profound manner through an increased effusion of the Holy Spirit. Even a portion of the title of one of his best-known works on revival, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton shows that Edwards, far from seeking to secure revival through a novel set of means, was surprised by it. Tucker regularly used this argument.

14 Henry Holcombe Tucker, The Christian Index and Southwestern Baptist (4 February 1886), 1.

15 Henry Holcombe Tucker, “Religion by Power of Attorney,” The Christian Index and Southwestern Baptist (4 February 1886), 8.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.