Baptists in the modern era

Tom Nettles Tom Nettles is Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.
01 March, 2009 5 min read

Baptists in the modern era

Erroll Hulse reviews volume 3 of Tom Nettles’ Baptist history — The Baptists; key people in forming a Baptist identity.

In this third volume, which completes his magisterial history of the Baptists, Tom Nettles continues to focus on the issue of Baptist identity. In other words, how would we describe Baptists? What do Baptists believe? What are their distinctive features?  And how do they do church?

Biography is the chariot which Nettles employs to drive the reader through Baptist history — a story adorned with gifted pastors, leaders and missionaries. Human interest abounds. The main characters for the first two volumes were respectively:

1.   John Smyth, Thomas Grantham, Dan Taylor, John Spilsbury, William Kiffin, Hanserd Knollys, Benjamin Keach (who was the first to introduce hymns in public worship), John Gill, Andrew Fuller, and William Carey.

2.   On the American scene; Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, John Leland, Oliver Hart, John Gano, Richard Furman, Shuabal Stearns, Basil Manly, John Broadus, E. T. Winkler, and Lottie Moon.

3.   On the European scene; Robert and James Haldane and Gerhard Oncken.


Following on from these earlier times, volume three begins with the battle of the Downgrade — Spurgeon versus John Clifford, whom Nettles nicknames ‘the irrepressible liberal’. The story then turns to describe A. H. Strong and E. Y. Mullins (who were weak in their resistance to modernism) and outright modernists Shailer Mathews, William Newton Clarke and Harry Emerson Fosdick.

The role of the fundamentalists of the early twentieth century is described, with special attention given to the extraordinarily fiery and controversial John Franklyn Norris (1877–1952).

The recently published book Catch the vision by John J. Murray (Evangelical Press,            2008) is commended to readers as a lucid account of the modernist movement and the doldrums of the period from about 1900 to 1950, followed by the recovery of the reformed faith in the 1960s.

The Baptist preacher and writer A. W. Pink (1886-1952) lived through that barren period, finding himself rejected on all sides. Eventually he had only his writing ministry to pursue.

Living in isolation in the far north of Scotland in the Isle of Lewis, Pink nurtured and encouraged a tiny band of widely scattered reformed survivors by means of his magazine Studies in the Scriptures.

Southern Baptists

During 1900 to 1950 and beyond, right up to the present day, the battle has raged within the Southern Baptist Convention, which is by far the largest Baptist constituency in the history of the church and in the world today.

The basic subjects contested are the historicity of Adam and Eve; the reliability of the historical events recorded in the Bible; the reality of eternal punishment; and the inerrancy of Scripture. In the forefront of this battle today are leaders Paige Patterson and R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

As we would expect, Tom Nettles, who is senior professor of Church History at Southern Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, has an intimate knowledge of this struggle. He unfolds the drama of reformation at Southern — which is the oldest and most prestigious Southern Baptist seminary and, with 4,300 students, the largest seminary in the USA.

Whetting the appetite

With a view to whetting your appetite for Tom Nettles’ book, let me describe three biographical vignettes condensed from its pages. I will describe John Clifford, C. H. Spurgeon (the leading contenders in the Downgrade Controversy of 1887-1892) and John Norris as representing the fundamentalists.

John Clifford (1836-1923)

John Clifford was a man of extraordinary energy and administrative efficiency. He had great vision for unity and progress and became nationally famous. His portrait hangs in the National Gallery.

Clifford spent his boyhood under the appalling child-labour regime, starting work between five and six in the morning and working until seven or eight at night. His conversion took place in a Baptist prayer-meeting when, he relates, ‘The beautiful simplicity of God’s marvellous plan of salvation appeared clear to my vision; I grasped the hand of the Father, led thither by Jesus Christ’.

Dr Clifford became vice-president of the Baptist Union in 1887 and president in 1888. He was therefore leader of the Baptist body during the eventful ‘Downgrade’ Controversy. He brought to the BU discussions a wide tolerance of the views against which Spurgeon protested. They were to him no more than the necessary ‘adjustment of theological belief’.

His ideas of doctrinal soundness were so flexible and optimistic that at the very moment when modernism was engulfing the Baptist ministry he pronounced it ‘sounder than it had been for the last twenty or thirty years’.  He led the Union to draw up a declaration of general Baptist beliefs which was so general that it could easily accommodate liberals.

Clifford led the meeting which declared by 2,000 votes to 7 that the Baptist body was evangelical to the core. Henceforth the Baptist denomination was committed to the principle that wide departure from the older evangelical faith could be permitted without the least charge of heterodoxy.

C. H. Spurgeon  (1834-1892)

Charles Haddon Spurgeon was England’s best-known preacher for most of the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1854, just four years after his conversion, Spurgeon, then only 20, became pastor of London’s historicNew Park Street Church.

The congregation quickly outgrew its building, moved to Exeter Hall, then to Surrey Music Hall. In these venues Spurgeon frequently preached to audiences numbering more than 10,000 — all in the days before electronic amplification.

In 1861 the congregation moved permanently to the newly constructed Metropolitan Tabernacle. Here year after year Spurgeon preached three times a week to a full house of 6,000.

According to Nettles, Spurgeon ‘surpasses all other ministers of the gospel in the rare combination of biblical clarity, theological coherence, rhetorical zest, perspicuity of diction, universality of appeal and urgency of application’.

Spurgeon was introduced to the Puritan writings at a young age through time spent with his grandfather at Stambourne. The preaching of his grandfather made deep impressions on him: ‘The dew of the Spirit from on high never left the ministry and wherever my grandfather went, souls were saved’.

Spurgeon’s popularity was greatly increased by the publication of his weekly sermons — which eventually multiplied into 100 million copies in 23 languages. The sale of the sermons helped to finance the theological college which he founded in 1856. His writings extended to 135 titles and the theology of the Puritans permeated his sermons and his books.

If we take Spurgeon as the exemplar of Baptist identity, we would embrace with him the 1689 Confession of Faith which he adopted when he began his ministry at New Park Street. Spurgeon was clear about the value of this Puritan legacy. When the Calvinistic confessions and catechisms of the 17th century had been abandoned, ‘there followed an age of drivellings, in which our Nonconformity existed, but gradually dwindled down, first into Arminianism, and then into Unitarianism, until it almost ceased to be’. (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 29, p.394).

John Franklyn Norris (1877-1952)

As a Baptist, John Norris was prominent among the fundamentalists in North America who fought the modernist downgrade with great energy. He was converted and baptised at the age of thirteen and at eighteen was called to train for the ministry at the Southern Baptist Seminary, recording the highest grades up to that time.

His success in the ministry was phenomenal. Only thirteen attended his first service in Fort Worth but within a year there were 400 members. By his second anniversary a new church building had been erected and the membership was 1,000. He also became editor of The Baptist Standard, a leading Baptist paper.

Norris’ ministry made such an impact in public life that the alcohol industry suffered financial loss. On one occasion the mayor asked if Fort Worth did not have fifty red-blooded men willing to hang the preacher!

J. F. Norris was labelled ‘the most belligerent fundamentalist now abroad in the land’. He threw everything he could at modernism. Great clouds of controversial dust arose and the issues were often prejudiced by the aggressive manner in which Norris contended for the faith.

But at least he tackled the issues, even if he lacked tact in doing so. In contrast to Norris was the ministry of E. Y. Mullins whom Nettles describes as ‘the reluctant evangelical’.

Just samples

These three are just samples from the full cast of characters that Tom Nettles parades before us — including, as mentioned earlier, such men as E. Y. Mullins and A. H. Strong, who gave way under pressure and compromised, and J. B. Gambrell who refused to do so. Hopefully these glimpses from a very large canvas will encourage readers to invest in this excellent and absorbing Baptist history.

The Baptists; key people in forming a Baptist identity; Volume 3, The Modern Era by Tom Nettles (462 pp hardback, Christian Focus, 2007).

Tom Nettles is Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.
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