J. P. Boyce and the New Year

Just before his twenty-second birthday, when J. P. Boyce was editor of The Southern Baptist, he wrote an editorial welcoming the opportunity for a new resolve for holiness and usefulness presented by the new year. Boyce had graduated from Brown College under the presidency of Francis Wayland, had taken the post (gratis) as editor of the South Carolina paper, had been married for just over two weeks, was yet to enroll at Princeton, serve as pastor in Columbia, teach at Furman, and found the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The Southern Baptist Convention was three and one-half years old. On January 3 1849 (170 years ago), Boyce reminded his readers that with a new year we ought to begin a new life. We should isolate a “besetting sin to conquer,” pursue some “additional act of benevolence” and of “love to God.” In all, “let us,” he encouraged, “in beginning a new, also begin a holier, year of our lives.” We should, according to Boyce’s admonition, “display openly the evils which we find” in our hearts, make a “profitable display of them before God and our own minds,” with a view to being led “to repentance, which shall draw down upon us the blessing of forgiveness.”

Boyce spoke of 1848 as a year in which “kingdoms have tottered, monarchs have been disrobed of their power, and the crown of royalty has been trampled in the dust.” Brutalities had abounded with an “utter disregard for the rights and interests of others.” (Some of the 1848 revolutions across Europe resulted in expanded democratic rights while others were eventually overcome with the restoration of absolute monarchies.) At the same time, France now was open to the gospel, Boyce noted, with only the resistance of the carnal human heart as an obstacle. Other fields of labor also called for devoted effort and support. “Our heavenly Father has work for us to do,” the young Boyce reminded his Baptist readers, “and how we should be straitened until it is done.” Most particularly, “it is the will of our Father that his Gospel should be spread throughout the world and to do his will should be our meat and drink.” Domestic missions and publication of sound material also should claim the resources and gifts of Baptists in the South so that the year may be looked back upon as one “spent in the service of our Redeemer.” The cross-currents of the temporal and the eternal, the political and the missional, the church and the state were prominent even in these short observations of Boyce so early in his ministry. The difficulty of discerning, much more of achieving, a pure detachment between these earthly and heavenly realities would only increase throughout his ministry. But, given the truth that God is both Creator and Redeemer, detachment is not the answer, but priorities, relationships, and navigation between their respective ports-of-call is perpetually the challenge for sinners who have been called as saints.

I included this article in an anthology of short works by Boyce [Stray Recollections, Short Articles, and Public Orations of James P. Boyce, Founders Press 2009]. Russell Moore wrote the foreword to that anthology and had insightful observations about Boyce’s place as a flawed saint, whose positive influence has, nevertheless, lived with at least as much durable presence as his flaws. These contributions exude the ambience of eternity in their leading features. One could make the case, Moore observed, that Boyce’s understanding of the relation of science to revelation was naïve, his view of the spirituality of the church isolated Christians from legitimate involvement in ethical issues in society, and that his “views on human slavery and white supremacy, though typical of his day, were condemnable and contrary to the Bible he believed.” Boyce, Moore wrote, “would be the first to tell you that he deserves to be in hell, spared that only by the shed blood of Jesus.”

Given these controvertible positions and the way in which Boyce sought to engage them with a conscience void of offense toward God and man, we still must not pass over the irreplaceable gifts of Boyce that truly transcended the murkiness of the social/moral complex of his day. He saw his life as having, in Moore’s words, “no loftier purpose than to train men to stand in pulpits appealing to sinners to find their life in a crucified and resurrected Messiah.” Embedded in the seminary he founded, therefore, was an undoubting commitment to “biblical authority, confessional fidelity, and ecclesial identity.” Boyce did not equivocate on such “controversial concepts as the biblical truth that God is sovereign in providence and in salvation.” He worked to encourage “disciplined congregations, evangelistic Christians, and missionary associations.” Moore looked to the positive influence of other flawed saints including the “flawed man or woman who pointed you to the gospel.”

Though we cannot be detached from the concerns that arise in this world, we still can strive not to follow the “course of this world” and, as Moore emphasized, “to teach others to do the same, through the only gospel that justifies rebels, purifies, consciences, and resurrects corpses.” For that reason, we should “thank our Father that he used James P. Boyce to help preserve biblical truth so that you could one day hear it and believe.” We should ask God “to send us more men and women of this caliber, willing to pour themselves out for a cause greater than self-glory.”

What Moore pointed out was precisely what Boyce called for in his New Year editorial. Certainly, it is good advice to display before our own minds the evils we find in our hearts with a view to both repentance and mortification of sin. At the same time, we should find great encouragement in the amazing signs of grace present with us and in the sinners that have preceded us so we can testify with Paul, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, . . . remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you” (1 Thessalonians 1: 2-4).

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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