History, Providence, and Good News

When the Judsons, and then Luther Rice, adopted the immersion of believers only as the proper Christian baptism, they sent shock waves through at least two denominations. Both the Congregationalists of New England and the Baptists of America knew that something notably, and hopefully, mercifully providential had happened. After a lengthy narrative of the events leading up to the change of their views that led them to be immersed, the report of the Board of Commissioners of the Congregationalists quoted from a letter from two of the men that accompanied Judson on the trip to Burmah. “What the Lord means by thus dividing us in sentiment, and separating us from each other, we cannot tell. This we know, the Lord seeth not as man seeth; and it ill becomes us to be dissatisfied with what he does. We hope and pray that these unexpected things may not damp the missionary spirit which has been kindled, but that it may burn with a brighter and purer flame.” The committee expressed perplexity for this issue should have been decided long before Judson undertook an engagement of so high and responsible a character. Meanwhile, Judson felt as perplexed and as abandoned as did his sending committee, and wrote them that the dissolution of ties with them and with his missionary colleagues was one of the “most distressing events which have ever befallen me.” He went on to say, “I have now the prospect before me of going alone to some distant island, unconnected with any society at present existing, from which I might be furnished with assistant labourers or pecuniary support. Whether the Baptist churches in America will compassionate my situation, I know not. I hope, therefore, that while my friends condemn what they deem a departure from the truth, they will at least pity me and pray for me.” He did at the same time indicate his willingness, should the Baptists organize a society, “to consider myself their missionary.” It is true that the Congregationalists deemed this a “departure from the truth,” but, as Ann Judson expressed it in a letter to a friend, “Thus my dear Nancy, we are confirmed Baptists, not because we wished to be, but because truth compelled us to be.” So William Carey wrote, “I consider their baptism as a glorious triumph of truth over prejudice, and bless the Lord for it.” The question as to whether this particular providence would prompt any action on the part of the Baptists still was unknown. As Luther Rice traveled home by way of Brazil, he wrote ahead to Lucius Bolles, a Baptist pastor and editor of the Missionary Magazine, expressing a willingness to ”cast ourselves into your hands, and the hands of the Baptist churches in America.” Moreover, Rice set forth a plan to travel to the churches and associations to organize them into a society. “I should proceed,” he informed, “to use entreaties relative to the formation of a Baptist Missionary Society, or the adoption of some measures by the Baptist churches in America, for the effectual and permanent patronage of a mission offered to them by so remarkable a dispensation of divine Providence.” In December 1813, the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Magazine opened with an article entitled “Remarks on the Foreign Mission.” The first lines stated, “We have the pleasure of stating to our readers, that under the smile of Providence, we have now a fair prospect of sending the gospel to some of the benighted heathen.” At the same time William Carey wrote, “Do stir in this business; this is a providence which gives a new turn to American relation to Oriental Missions.” When Carey wrote a bit later, he urged, “I hope the Baptist Brethren in America will exert themselves to support the two who have for conscience sake deserted their all.” Within a week of Ann and Adoniram Judson’s baptism, Joshua Marshman wrote, “It seems as though Providence itself were raising up this young man, that you might at least partake of the zeal of our Congregational missionary brethren around you.” He followed with a clear assertion of their duty to improve this providential event: “After God has thus given you a Missionary of your own nation, faith, and order, without the help or knowledge of man, let me entreat you, and Dr. Messer, and brethren Bolles and Moriarty humbly to accept the gift.” Well, they did; and as they say, “the rest is history.”

But, all of that also is history, as is everything else that has happened. What we mean by such a phrase is, “Those events are so obviously formative, that in the development of the Baptist denomination, its emphasis on missions, the eventual formation of the Southern Baptist Convention, its growth, the dual role of W. O Carver as a professor of missions and the subtle sower of pious liberalism and anti-Calvinism among Southern Baptists, the corrective of the Conservative Resurgence, and numberless other details, including thousands of children born on the mission field while their parents were pursuing the biblically induced dream of Adoniram and Ann Judson and Luther Rice there exists a self-evident connection so certain as to form a pattern of necessity.” But from God’s perspective, all events of this present age until the coming of Christ have the certainty of history and thus are in his mind with all their necessary connections. It is thus that he “works all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11) infusing his sustaining and directing power into every part of it, both animate and inanimate, non-rational and rational, voluntary and involuntary. It has the certainty of history to him because it exists in him intrinsically as his decree. When we see, dull as we are, some extraordinary manifestation of merciful activity, we call it an arrangement of Providence. This is because we can see the pattern more clearly when an event more nearly duplicates the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, in self-sacrifice, in obedience to the will of his Father to save those that the Father had given Him before the foundation of the world (John 17.2; Ephesians 1:4). This certainly was what impressed the Baptist woman that gave $5 to Luther Rice, as a particular gift provided to her, having “engaged at the feet of Jesus” for such an opportunity with the prayer for the Lord “to crown your labours with success, and raise up many in our highly favoured country to accompany you in spreading the joyful news of salvation in the pagan world, and multitudes of both sexes to contribute liberally for the support of this important undertaking and the illumination and redemption of God’s chosen.” Thus the company surrounding the Judson phenomenon in ever-widening concentric circles gave an accurate appraisal in their conviction that all this was a remarkable Providence—determined by God in his decrees concerning all the events of the world, but particularly that merciful decree that a number of the fallen human race, rebellious and culpable and deserving only of wrath, he would save and bring infallibly to glory. If God has counseled within Himself to save even one of such creatures, that is Good News; and the events that lead to it constitute a special merciful Providence.

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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