Doctrinally-driven Piety among Nineteenth Century Baptists: Editorial Introduction

In a pamphlet published by the Baptist General Tract Society in 1852 entitled The More Excellent Way, John L. Dagg (1794–1884) wrote, ”No religion is of divine origin, in which spiritual knowledge and spiritual affections are not united.” This theme drove Dagg’s writing ministry from beginning to end. He always wrote to edify the saints, to glorify God, to press truth on the mind in a way that begged for transformed affections, and, also, to challenge the unbeliever with the infinite danger and moral turpitude of not pursuing a saving knowledge of the triune God. A clear illustration of this is the statement of his intent given in the preface to his Manual of Theology. “In preparing it, my aim has been to present the system of Christian doctrine with plainness and brevity; and to demonstrate, at every point, its truth, and its tendency to sanctify the heart.” In the first book, the first chapter, the first sentence, Dagg wrote, “The study of religious truth ought to be undertaken and prosecuted from a sense of duty, and with a view to the improvement of the heart.” He continued, “When learned, it ought not to be laid on the shelf, as an object of speculation; but it should be deposited deep in the heart, where its sanctifying power ought to be felt.” In closing his discussion of the blessings of grace, dealing with the subject of the Christian’s daily warfare, Dagg caressed his cherished theme again in saying, “It is therefore our duty, that we may grow in grace, to cherish the holy affections, which arise heavenward, and to mortify the carnal affections, which are earthward in their tendency.” [303] Duty, to Dagg, was a beautiful word and arose from a proper evaluation of the excellence and worthiness of an object. That one perceives the pressing nature of duty, therefore, means that one has a perception of the moral excellence of spiritual things and is thus driven by moral oughtness commensurate with the goodness of the object. After a lengthy exposition and defense of the doctrines of grace, Dagg summarized some of the spiritual benefits of a hearty reception of those truths by proposing this scene: “The full salvation, as it comes forth from the triune God, in its completeness, and perfect adaptedness to our wretched and lost condition, becomes the object of our admiring delight, and calls forth our joyful ascriptions of praise.” [338]

Dagg’s words echoed a theme that had been set for decades in Baptist theological culture. The First London Confession of 1644 placed the beginning of piety in the work of the Spirit in granting faith. Such Spirit-granted and Spirit-driven faith would instinctively embrace the Bible as its guide and all of its doctrines as the most exalted and desirable truths for mental contemplation.

That faith is the gift of God wrought in the hearts of the elect by the Spirit of God, whereby they come to see, know, and beleeve the truth of the Scriptures, & not only so, but the excellencies of them above all other writings and things in the world, as they hold forth the glory of God in his attributes, the excellency of Christ in his nature and offices, and the power of the fulnesse of the Spirit in its workings and operations; and thereupon are inabled to cast the weight of their soules upon this truth thus beleeved [XXII].

Richard Fuller (1805-1876) joined with this same witness expressing an aspect of this commitment to the excellence and worthiness of biblical revelation and Christian truth at the first Southern Baptist Convention meeting in 1846 in Richmond, Virginia. Fuller preached from Haggai 2:7 on “The desire of all nations shall come.” He couched the concept of desire in its threefold nuance of expectation, wants, and happiness. Every nation and every religion witnesses to the expectation of a redeemer planted in human society and conscience by God’s clothing of Adam and Eve, Abel’s sacrifice of blood, and Noah’s post-deluge sacrifice of clean animals. Every want of the human soul will be finally unmet outside the full redemption of the Messiah, the God-man Jesus of Nazareth. And happiness, because “the mind of man can rejoice only in truth, and Christ is ‘the truth.’” Men’s affections “can only be satisfied with objects worthy of it, and Christ alone proposes those objects” that fix the heart and without which “the passions wander in unrest and pining through creation, fretting themselves with things gross and sensual, whose possession only stings us into a consciousness of our immortality, and whose best gifts are only a pleasing degradation.” But God is the life of the soul and “Christ alone reveals this Being, and reinstates us in his favor and love.” When Christ as the incarnate Word, the “Invisible steps forth upon this scene of visible things, on such a mission and in such a form, must not our hearts yield, melt, love, worship, adore.” This vision of the surpassing beauty and glory of Christ in His redemptive mission, prompted Fuller to press the corresponding “duties and the solemn responsibilities which the subject charges home upon us all.” Obedience to the Great Commission, an unalloyed intention to preach Christ, and confidence in the purpose of God grip one’s soul in light of the truth that Jesus indeed in the “Delight of all nations.” Considering, therefore what God has promised and “how intent and busy is the whole Trinity in the grand scheme of salvation, what difficulty can move us?” Christ is enthroned, and His throne is forever and ever, “all the resources of the universe are in the hands of the ascended Jesus,” and our every desire is consummated in the contemplation of His mysterious incarnation, His covenantally secure death, His victorious resurrection, and His final visible subjection of all things to himself when “the pealing chorus of a renovated world shall answer back the thundering acclamations of the skies, and every creature which is in heaven and on the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them shall say, Alleluia! The Lord omnipotent reigneth; Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” Truth and affection finally are united with no inconsistencies remaining.

Just as concerned about the sanctifying influence of Christian truth and its magnetic beauty, Charles D. Mallary (1801-1864), a pastor, educator, and first corresponding secretary of the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention published a book with the Southern Baptist Publication Society in 1860 entitled Soul Prosperity. Following Jonathan Edwards, as Dagg himself often did, Mallary noted, “A ready, active, and sweet discernment of the beauty and glory of divine things constitutes an important element in what we understand by soul prosperity.” He went on to assert that such discernment is “an essential part of spiritual knowledge, and is necessary to our progression in a heart-affecting acquaintance with the word of God.” [18] According to Mallary, soul prosperity must begin in regeneration for in it all spiritual life is given us and necessarily and relentlessly drives us toward the conformity of our souls to the image of God. “There must be a deep, and thorough, and radical change in our moral natures.” [8] Showing his oneness with Dagg on this concept, Mallary gives a poetic flourish to the rise and eventual consummation of soul prosperity as initiated by regeneration. “That sweet, celestial music of the faculties which moved on so harmoniously in Adam’s breast, but was broken and ruined by the fall, strikes up again its notes in the bosom, not indeed in a perfect strain, yet in humble imitation of the primeval song, giving pledges of improving melody through future years, and of perfect harmony to be regained n the mansions of the blessed.” [8] So with the doctrines of divine sovereignty, Mallary joined Dagg in seeing them as a powerful source of soul prosperity. Acknowledging that these truths were “too superficially considered by many of God’s people” he claimed that the doctrines surrounding God’s sovereignty, “especially in the bestowment of the saving benefits of His grace,” would lead to the “highest attainments in solid, masculine, well-proportioned piety.” He then quoted the texts of Daniel 4:35; Isaiah 46:10; Psalm 76:10; Acts 4:27, 28; John 6:44; Romans 9:18; Ephesians 2:8; Ephesians 1:11; Ephesians 1:4; 2 Timothy 1:9. All of these he labeled as “sanctifying instructions of the word of God.” Then he summarized their teaching as clearly demonstrating “that God is the uncontrolled sovereign of the universe; that the very wrath and rebellion of His creatures are employed by Him to accomplish His fixed and immutable decrees; that guilty, hell-deserving sinners are absolutely dependent on His unmerited favor for pardon and salvation; that, in bestowing eternal life on this man or on that, He is not controlled by the will or works of the creature, but by His own free, sovereign, gracious pleasure; and that His saving blessings are bestowed through Christ, according to His stable and everlasting purposes.” Having given this formidable barrage of doctrinal summaries, Mallary wrote, “These things are revealed for us to study, to believe and love, and that in thus doing our soul may prosper.” [295]

Dagg, Fuller, and Mallary would agree with perfect unanimity that any doctrine, including the doctrines of grace, separated from it full context in the whole of revealed truth will not accomplish the purpose of carrying us forward to spiritual maturity. “Mutilated, fragmentary doctrines,” Mallary noted, “make but fragmentary Christians, and when, urged with blind zeal and dogmatic violence, often tear churches and communities into fragments.” [298]. These doctrines, therefore, must be set in the context of the entire spectrum of biblical revelation so that we might see the full light of truth and not merely stare at the band of violet. No matter how incomprehensible God’s sovereignty may be or how mysterious his particular predestining love, all of it is “perfectly consistent with human accountability.” [298]

That is one of the reasons that this issue of the Founders Journal holds interest for our readers. Jared Longshore has done a study of Dagg’s Manual of Theology and his Manual of Church Order with a view of showing how the whole of each is designed to lead us to greater devotion, purer practice, and more complete holiness. The doctrinal treatise describes the ways of God with men in creation, revelation, providence, and redemption. None of the truths is given for mere mental challenge but for moral change and heart devotion. The description of church order focuses on God’s intent to give His people a community in which they have a constant source of admonition, designated means, as well as concrete opportunity to express love for God and love for neighbor and brother.

Another 19th to early 20th century figure, little known in our century, Thomas Lewis Johnson (1836-1921) had a distinguished career as a preacher and a missionary after having spent twenty- eight years as a slave. He was ten years old, under the yoke, when Richard Fuller preached at the first formal meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, and, in the sermon just consulted, presented with justifiable pathos, in prophetic intuition, and with lamentable irony a word concerning the dilemma of slavery. Having just called the newly formed convention to an earnest, sacrificial, and energetic commitment to world missions, he turned on the auditory and said, “Nor is it only the heathen at a distance; among ourselves how many thousands of the sons of Ethiopia are stretching out their hands, and how have they been neglected.” Then in the dark tones of a sober warning, Fuller continued, “My brethren, let us awake to our responsibility ere the wrath of God wake us to sleep no more, and the cry which goeth up into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth attract his righteous indignation.” [3:280] Johnson, converted through the witness of a black man, freed by the war, and called to ministry, studied in England at Spurgeon’s College and served as a missionary in the Cameroons. Spurgeon’s influence on Johnson was quite remarkable. Jared Skinner, with excellent research and composition, has given permission to publish his results in this journal. Skinner included some encouragement for more historical work to be done on this fascinating figure, but I have limited the presentation mainly to some brief biographical information about Johnson and his relationship with Spurgeon in particular. Between 1882 and 1909, Johnson’s autobiography, Twenty-Eight Years a Slave went through seven editions. Surely, as Skinner insists, his life should call for some careful attention. Hopefully readers of the Founders Journal will find more reason to admire the mysterious sovereignty of God in bringing about, in one life, a movement from a hopeless and helpless enmeshment in slavery to the freedom of Christian faith, the fulfilled opportunity for theological education and ministry on three continents.

Though Dagg and Mallary lived in the South during its days of defending slavery and would have little cultural context for expecting a slave to accomplish all that Johnson did, they would bow in gratitude to the divine grace that could take a former slave and make him a prime example of soul prosperity, and one in whom spiritual knowledge and spiritual affections were united.

That heart devotion, practical ministry, and firm grasp and commitment to doctrinal purity and knowledge may vibrantly co-inhere is the real desire of every soul born of God. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus in the Son of God?” ( 1 John 5:3-5). C. D. Mallary suggested a prayer that might be given earnest consideration—in spirit and intent if not exact content—as we seek to make progress in the vital necessity and joyful journey toward soul prosperity. I give this as a prayer for the spiritual good that might be done by this edition of the Founders Journal.

You that dwellest in pure and glorious light, and are the source of all true light and wisdom to your creatures, shine graciously upon my dark mind, and guide aright my present meditations. Holy Father, condescend to favor me with right apprehensions of your blessed word, that in its light I may clearly see what constitutes my highest prosperity; and give me right apprehensions of my own spiritual state, that I may know whether I have ever been made a partaker of this precious and ennobling benefit. If hitherto I have been deceived as to my true condition, and have been crying Peace, peace, when there is no peach, drive far away this awful delusion, and grant me true repentance, and a free pardon for all my aggravated offenses. But if, through the riches of Your grace, my feet have been rescued from the paths of sin and folly, and set in the right way, if I have been blessed with joy and peace in believing, and a scriptural hope of everlasting life, I would humbly and gratefully acknowledge Your favors vouchsafed to a sinner so vile and unworthy. Still does it become me to mingle my hearty thanksgiving with lowly and contrite confession. Since first I knew Your goodness, I have grieved Your Holy Spirit, broken my solemn vows, and often fallen, I fear, into sinful declensions. For the sake of Your well-beloved Son, my gracious Mediator, who bore my sins in His own body on the tree, pardon all my wanderings, and grant me grace that I may return with established purpose and renovated love to Your delightful service. May my present investigations be made eminently subservient to my spiritual good. Grant unto me heavenly discernment, that I may rightly test the reflection that may pass under my review, and so strengthen me that my mind and heart may retain, for their reproof, instruction, and comfort, whatever may be true, excellent, and improving. Grant unto me a meek, submissive, and teachable spirit; and as a newborn babe may I desire the sincere milk of the word, that I may grow thereby. Guard me against all error, guide me into all truth, establish me in every holy virtue, and fit my soul with true prosperity for the Redeemer’s sake. Amen.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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