A Biographical Sketch of Basil Manly, Sr.

A Biographical Sketch of Basil Manly, Sr.

By Dr. Tom Nettles

Basil Manly, Sr. was another of the major architects of Southern Baptist life. Educator, preacher, administrator, and denominationalist, Manly played a strategic role in the development of the major concepts contributing to the uniqueness of Southern Baptists. Having an older brother, Charles, who became governor of North Carolina, and a younger brother, Matthew, who became Justice of the Supreme Court of that state, and himself manifesting no small gifts in several endeavors, both educational and ecclesiastical, no man of his age possessed greater contextual insights or sympathetic gifts to discern the needs of the Baptists of the South in the mid-nineteenth century.

Born in 1798 in Chatham County, North Carolina, Manly graduated from the College of South Carolina in 1821. After approximately four years at Edgefield, South Carolina, he accepted the pastorate of First Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. While there, in addition to satisfying the remarkable demands of such a church field, Manly aided in the establishing of a Baptist newspaper for the South and led with others in the founding of Furman University.

The delightful humors of God’s providence, however, establish Manly’s greatest work at that time as the formative and pivotal influence on the life of J.P. Boyce. Born in 1827, for the first ten years of his life Boyce benefited from the inimitable ministry of Manly. In his funeral discourse upon the death of Manly in 1868, Boyce recalled the effectiveness of Manly’s ministry.

After a lapse of more than thirty years I can yet feel the weight of his hand, resting in gentleness and love upon my head. I can recall the words of fatherly tenderness, with which he sought to guide my childish steps. I can see his beloved form in the study, in the house on King Street. I can again behold him in our own family circle. I can remember the very spot in the house, where the bands which he was accustomed to wear with his gown were laid on a certain Thanksgiving Day on which he dined with us. I can call to mind his conversations with my mother, to whose salvation had been blessed a sermon preached on the Sunday after the death of one of his children upon the text, ‘If I be bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.’ And once more come to me the words of sympathy which he spake while he wept with her family over her dead body, and ministered to them as it was laid in the grave [John A. Broadus, Memoir of James Petigru Boyce (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1893) p. 17].

From 1838-1855 Manly presided over the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. In addition to his settling the floundering institution on a solid basis during that time, he played the part of concertmaster in orchestrating the events that resulted in the call for a consultative convention of Baptists. When in 1844 Baptists in the South suspected they were gradually but certainly being excluded from equal participation in both the home and foreign mission organizations, Manly produced a strongly worded resolution from Alabama Baptists to the acting board of Triennial (or General Missionary) Convention in Boston. This six-point resolution, according to a letter written to his son Basil, Jr., “passed standing and unanimously.”

2. Resolved, That our duty at this crisis requires us to demand from the proper authorities in all those bodies to whose funds we have contributed, or with whom we have in any way been connected, the distinct, explicit, avowal that slaveholders are eligible, and entitled, equally with non-slaveholders, to all the privileges and immunities of their several unions; and especially to receive any agency, mission, or other appointment, which may run within the scope of their operation or duties [“the Alabama Resolutions (1844),” A Baptist Source Book, ed. Robert A Baker (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1906), p. 107].

When the new convention was formed, Manly was elected as President of the Domestic Mission Board to be located in Marion, Alabama. Unable to continue long in the responsibility, due to heavy obligations elsewhere, his continued desirability among Baptists in the South is seen from offers extended to him to accept the presidency of Mercer, Furman, Howard and at least two other schools.

His commitment to education prompted Manly to expend great amounts of energy upon the establishing of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He presided for several years over an ad hoc committee convened specifically for ascertaining whether the difficulties standing in the way of establishing a seminary were insuperable. When finally established, his own son, Basil, Jr., and his former parishioner, J. P. Boyce, formed one half of the original faculty.

Administrative gifts properly recognized and appreciated, one must still conclude that Manly’s greatest love, indeed his point of greatest power, was the proclamation of the gospel. John A. Broadus, no mediocre evaluator of preachers, describes Manly’s gifts in Memoir of James Petigru Boyce.

His preaching was always marked by deep thought and strong argument, expressed in a very clear style, and by an extraordinary earnestness and tender pathos, curiously combined with positiveness of opinion and a masterful nature. People were borne down by his passion, convinced by his arguments, melted by his tenderness, swayed by his force of will (Broadus, Memoir, p. 16).

That description of his preaching in general holds true in particular for the sermon reprinted in this volume.

A polemical situation had arisen between the Tuscaloosa and the North River Associations in Alabama. The North River Association, under the leadership of David W. Andrews, had altered its confession on the doctrines of election and effectual calling so that a danger of susceptibility to Arminianism was very real. One church had even cast aside its entire confession to which an investigative council had responded:

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.

In an effort to reconcile both parties to the question, the council recommended adoption of this present sermon preached by Basil Manly, Sr. All members stated candidly that the “sentiments and doctrines meet our cordial and entire approbation.”

The one purpose of this sermon is to demonstrate conclusively from the full range of biblical and theological considerations that no final contradiction exists between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Manly studiously and admirably avoids diminishing one truth for the sake of the other. Several other errors are clearly excluded in Manly’s presentation.

One, he never identifies human responsibility with free will. Though he speaks of men acting freely, of sinners freely working their own destruction, moral freedom, etc., he always does it in light of one’s nature and motivating powers. God’s divine operation does not take away “the power of understanding, or the faculty of conscience or the capacity to will, freely, in view of motives.”

Two, Manly allows grace to be grace and doesn’t assume its necessity for the creation of man’s duty to God. “The sinner’s inability consists not in his dependence on God, which is no hindrance; but in his guilty disinclination to him.”

Three, Manly does not permit man’s sinfulness and culpability to snatch certain events away from the sovereign control of God. The cross becomes paradigmatic in Manly’s understanding of the absolute congruity between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. “This fact was foreseen–predetermined: yet will any man say that the parties concerned were not both free, and guilty, in their course.” Furthermore, God is never the author of any event “so as to excuse the actors, or to involve him in the guilt of them” God may well be the author of the events but not “so as to excuse” the guilt of the men involved.

Another strength of this sermon is seen in the pulsating evangelical calls to repentance and faith. All men are duty-bound to repent and believe although they have no right to grace and no claim on God for it. Manly exhorts “I desire that I may be enabled to present the truth of God in such a light to your minds, as to carry conviction to your consciences.”

Manly viewed alter calls as entirely inappropriate and inconsistent with the nature of the gospel. In spite of this, or, better, consistent with this, his love of the gospel and desire for the sound conversion of sinners thrust him into the arena of controversy to affirm the consistency of divine efficiency with human activity.