A Biographical Sketch of R. B. C. Howell

A Biographical Sketch of R. B. C. Howell
Benign Controversialist

By Dr. Tom Nettles

R. B. C. Howell, the second president of the Southern Baptist Convention, presiding from 1851 through 1858, is described in Cathcart’s Baptist Encyclopaedia as” one of the ablest and most learned men in the South.”

In addition, the encyclopaedia claims that “no one exercised a greater or more beneficial influence within or outside of the church. His life was unspotted, his Christian course was marked by the highest virtues. His courtesy and kindness of heart made him a universal favorite, notwithstanding the fierce theological debates in which he was often engaged.”

The “fierce theological debates” in which he was engaged were threefold. His first conflict had to do with the intrusion of Campbellism into Baptist life in Nashville, virtually destroying the First Baptist Church of that city. In 1835, when Howell came to be its pastor, he led in restoring respect and honor to the Baptist name in the community. In addition, his leadership led to the construction of a beautiful building for the worship gatherings of the church.

His second conflict was with the anti-missionary forces of Tennessee and Northern Alabama. These forces responded negatively to the formation of the General Missionary Convention and the work of its most notable agent, Luther Rice, referring to him as a “modern Tetzel.” In addition to the ecclesiological objections they held toward centralized organizations, they discountenanced some of the methods used by the agents, declaring them to be Arminian in methodology, thus denying their Calvinistic heritage. Eventually, however, the anti-mission society movement degenerated into pure hyper-Calvinism and denied the validity of giving a free offer of the gospel to all men, railed against theological education, and viewed Bible societies as totally unwarranted by the Word of God.

Such an unfortunate confrontation with forces ostensibly affirming Calvinistic soteriology might prompt an overreaction in the faint-hearted and result in a dismissal of all references to the doctrines of grace. Not so with Howell, as indicated by the present reprint. Moreover, in his book entitled The Covenants, Howell discusses the covenant of redemption and the prerogative of God to refuse to redeem any of his rebellious creatures. Howell concludes:

The whole arrangement was, therefore, of his own sovereign grace, uninfluenced by human merit. But this conclusion is not only inferrable from the facts before you. His entire sovereignty in this whole transaction is expressly affirmed in his word:–”not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing (purifying) of regeneration, and the renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our savior; that being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs, according to the hope of eternal life” [R. B. C. Howell, The Covenants (Charleston: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1855), pp. 37-38].

Further, as he is discussing the work of the Holy Spirit in the covenant of redemption, Howell affirms the necessity of the effectual deposition of the gifts of God through the work of the Holy Spirit. After quoting several scriptures related to the grace conferred by the Spirit, Howell concludes:

Thus he secures your enlightenment, your regeneration, and your sanctification, for which when an apostle prays, he predicates his assurance of an answer, upon the faithfulness of God to his promise given in the covenant. “Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it” [R. B. C. Howell, The Covenants (Charleston: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1855), p. 42].

Though Howell was personally Calvinistic, he disliked the division that often surrounded the discussion of these doctrines. In his book, The Early Baptist of Virginia, chapter 7, he lamented that Arminian and Calvinistic Baptists maintained separate organizations in Virginia. For Howell their division was a rather unhappy state of affairs, and he rejoiced greatly when he was able to report that “all former party feelings were thenceforward banished.” He makes a slight historical blunder, however, in calling the Separate Baptists “Arminian Baptists.” The Separates, arising out of Congregationalism, had a confessional heritage as strongly Calvinistic as that of the Regular Baptists. The only point of contention concerned validity of confessions of faith as a means of determining spiritual condition. For the Separates, such fear is understandable, since their former Congregationalism substituted confessional orthodoxy and consistent morality for personal conversion. A close reading of the sources demonstrates that the Separate Baptists Howell calls Arminian and the Regular Baptists whom he calls Calvinistic differed on virtually no doctrines. Their eventual union, therefore, does not signal an abolishment of differences between Calvinism and Arminianism but rather a blending of attitudes regarding the use of Confessions.

The third major controversy of Howell’s life was his continuing contest with J. R. Graves. This particular conflict resulted in Howell’s stepping aside from the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1859, to which he had just been elected for a fifth two-year term. Through a long and quite often vitriolic confrontation, Howell maintained two cardinal principles. One, the decision of a local church in the matter of discipline cannot be overturned by any superior body, since there is no body superior to a local church. Graves had been disciplined by the church in Nashville and sought from other sources a reversal of the church’s action. Two, individual churches must be catholic in spirit and not uncharitable in their attitude toward people of other denominations. As Howell surveys the various divisions that had torn Tennessee Baptists, his basic love of unity extorts from him a lamentable cry:

When shall we have wisdom and piety enough to resist successfully these endless innovations? For ourselves, we protest that we are not Antinomian Baptist, nor Free Will Baptist, nor Old School Baptist, nor Campbellite Baptist, nor Landmark Baptist, but what we have ever been Baptists of the old apostolic stamp, taking the Bible as our exclusive guide, loving all who love Christ and ready always to do what we can to reclaim the erring and to save the lost. The treatment proper for Pedo-baptist preachers, may, as we believe, be safely left to the churches, where it of right belongs, and when, after all, it must be left under the guidance of the word and spirit of God. These churches may err on the side of a mistaken charity; they may precipitate themselves into a proscriptive bigotry, but a praying Christian hear will by the grace of God, eventually lead them safely out of all extremes [quoted in Joe Burton, The Road to Augusta (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976), p. 163].

The present article “Perseverance of the Saints” comes from R. B. C. Howell’s book entitled The Way of Salvation. It is characterized by great clarity of thought, impeccable organization, and thoroughness of understanding of the Calvinistic doctrine of perseverance. Two indivisible but unconfused themes run through it: the sovereignty of God in the granting of salvation, and one’s nature determining the activities of one’s will.

Howell’s organization is very logical and helpful. Initially, he gives clear delineation to what is and what is not consistent with the doctrine of perseverance. First, he indicates that perseverance is predicated only of those who are truly born again, not all those who profess to be saved. Second, one must distinguish between backsliding and true apostasy. Third, one must realize that the proper means are always employed in true perseverance.

Howell’s second course of action is to deal with the objections that many people raise to this doctrine. Included in this are the objections that since angels and our first parents apostatized, why not Christians? Second, why does the Scripture abound with so many warnings against apostasy, if such is impossible? And third, doesn’t such a doctrine create a careless and dangerous security? In all of this Howell reminds the reader that:

the indubitable evidence of a man’s ‘faith in regeneration’ is, not alone that he has been excited, and experienced fears and sorrows, and confidence and raptures; nor that he does many righteous acts, and is lauded as imminently devoted; but it is that he sustains the tests to which he is subjected in the Christian profession.

In short, Howell clearly professes that he mark of perseverance is exactly that–perseverance. He assures the reader of “the inseparable connection which always subsists as well between sin and misery, as between holiness and salvation.”

Howell then turns to state the positive side of the case. He derives his defense of perseverance from five sources. First, the perfections of God conclude that the saints will persevere. Second, the relations of believers to Christ assure their perseverance. Third, the activity of the Spirit on behalf of believers ascertains their pursuit of holiness to the end. Fourth, the new nature, which characterizes the regenerate person can do no other than pursue holiness, even though it may fall into snares and temptations at times. And fifth, the express declarations of the divine Word of Truth affirm that indeed the one who calls us will “confirm you unto the end that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

If the denominational heirs of Howell would digest the insights of this particular article, many errors and heartaches caused by a slight understanding of sanctification could possibly be corrected. The absurdities that arise out of ungodly definitions of “once saved, always saved,” and the non-biblical, but not-the-less confident, assertions of such false doctrines as the carnal Christian would greatly diminish, if not vanish entirely. May God grant us such a day.