Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

20th C. Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics: Walter Rauschenbusch

rauschenbuschAfter a brief introductory chapter by editors Larry L. McSwain and Wm. Loyd Allen, Shapers begins with a 3-chapter section on “Foundations: A Legacy of Social Concern,” which profiles Walter Rauschenbusch (most famous theologian of the Social Gospel), Muriel Lester  (1855-1968)(British Baptist pastor, social worker, influential writer on contemplative spirituality, & globetrotting peacemaker), and Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961) (African American Baptist pioneer in education and social uplift in the Booker T. Washington tradition).  Each of these pioneering 20th C. shapers of Baptist social ethics was born in the late 19th C., in the wake of the U.S. Civil War (and the Crimean and Anglo-Boer wars), the Industrial Revolution and its resulting social dislocations, the beginnings of global resistance to Euro-American colonial imperialism, the mechanization of wars, the first international peace movement since pre-Constantinian Christianity, the birth of socialist politics (in both Marxist and non-Marxist forms), the rise of global movements of organized labor, and the international movement for women’s suffrage.  This is the matrix which gave rise to the Social Gospel and each of our 3 profiled pioneers can be seen as representing different facets of the Social Gospel. (A more complete picture of this foundation-era would have included chapters on John Clifford (1836-1923), Shailer Matthews (1863-1941), and J. B. Weatherspoon (1886-1964), pioneers all).

The chapter on Rauschenbusch is written by Paul A. Lewis, a friend of mine–and a closer friend of my fellow Baptist peace blogger, Mikeal Broadway who blogs at Earth as it is in Heaven, a blog my Gentle Readers should frequent.  Lewis is part of that generation (mine) of Southern Baptists who found themselves in the midst of seminary (in his case, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary near San Francisco) during the Fundamentalist Takeover of the SBC (1979-1994) and who sought a different way of being Baptist–which included pursuing advanced theological education in ecumenical, non-Southern Baptist, circles. Paul earned a Th.M. at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, which is related to the Presbyterian Church, USA, studying with Douglass Otatti whose “Reforming Protestantism” flows more or less directly from Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel tradition. Then Paul completed a Ph.D. at the United Methodist related Duke University, studying with Stanley Hauerwas–a profound critic of that tradition. (Paul used to say that he was a “misplaced liberal among the Hauerwasian communitarians.”) Today, he is Associate Professor of  Christian Ethics in the Roberts Department of Christianity, College of Liberal Arts, Mercer University, Macon, GA–a “moderate” Baptist institution related to the Georgia Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship–the more centrist of the two breakaway groups from the SBC. (I belong to the smaller, more liberal, breakaway group, the Alliance of Baptists.)

The chapter  begins with a biographical sketch of Rauschenbusch, the son of German immigrants whose father, August Rauschenbusch was a pietistic Lutheran missionary pastor who converted to Baptist views and helped to found the ethnic German Baptist Convention (today the North American Baptist Conference in the U.S. and Canada). Walter was born in Rochester, NY at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War and would die in the midst of World War I. His life spanned the post-bellum “Gilded Age” of U.S. Industrial Revolution extremes of wealth and poverty–which largely paralleled the contemporary Victorian era of the U.K. with it Dickensonian extremes.  His father was a professor in the German Dept. of the (then-new) Rochester Theological Seminary (now part of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School). 

Young Walter imbibed his parents warm pietistic faith, but was also disturbed by the bad state of their marriage–which others found “shocking.” (Victorian-era accounts are so veiled that it is difficult to tell, but might this marriage have even been abusive?) He desired to become a minister, even a missionary.  He was partially educated in Germany at a conservative Gymnasium (equivalent in the U.S. to a very rigorous high school, plus the first year or so of university) before earning an A.B. at the University of Rochester and his seminary degree at Rochester Theological Seminary.  But Walter’s dream of being a Baptist foreign missionary was denied by the Northern Baptist Foreign Missionary Society (today, the Board of International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches, USA). The officers of the Foreign Missionary Society found problems with Rauschenbusch’s views on the atonement–presumably that it deviated from the then-standard doctrine of “penal substitution” which evolved from Anselm to Calvin to the rigid and bloody forms of Reformed Orthodoxy.

Dismayed, Rauschenbusch became a pastor. He had been a student pastor at a German-language Baptist congregation in Louisville, KY during his seminary days, but now became pastor of Second Baptist Church at the edge of “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Tenderloin” slums in New York City.  The poverty and related problems of his congregation convinced Rauschenbusch that simply preaching about personal salvation was insufficient.  He became involved in works for social justice, calling himself a socialist (though never joining any socialist party) and joining with other socially active ministers in the “Brotherhood of the Kingdom.” He found himself part of the Victorian-era “Social Gospel” movement which paralleled the Progressive Era in U.S. politics.

The Social Gospel (which Rauschenbusch did not found), similar to movements of “Social Christianity” in the UK and Europe, connected Christian faith to Progressive or even democratic socialist politics. It firmly opposed the ideologies of “Social Darwinism” by which the Robber Baron industrial millionaires of the Gilded Age justified the peonage, child labor, dangerous working conditions, union-busting, and extremes of wealth and poverty.  Social Gospel ministers and theologians claimed that society, not just individuals, needed to be redeemed–and took on the prevailing view that saved individuals would automatically save societies. 

Rauschenbusch grew too deaf to continue serving his congregation adequately, so, after a European sabbatical in which he studied liberal theologies and biblical studies and the new sciences of sociology, took a position at his alma mater, Rochester Theological Seminary.  First, he taught a variety of courses in the German Department and, then, became Professor of Church History for the seminary as a whole.  From this position, Rauschenbusch became the major theologian of the Social Gospel. His work, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) was the best selling religious book in the English language for 5 years. Sadly, re-reading it today, far too much of it seems horribly contemporary.

Rauschenbusch wrote many other works, including Prayers for the Social Awakening (many of which wound up in the hymnals and liturgies of mainstream Protestantism),  Christianizing the Social Order (his most Constantinian-sounding title, but Rauschenbusch was not proposing any theocracy–but a “salt and light” penetration of institutions that would remake them away from greed, corruption, and oppression to mutual sharing and the common good), and his masterpiece, A Theology for the Social Gospel.

Lewis analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of Rauschenbusch for Baptist social ethics well.  He notes that MANY of the criticisms launched at Rauschenbusch are simply wrong–however rightly they may characterize others in the Social Gospel movement. Far from “minimizing sin,” Rauschenbusch had several chapters on sin in A Theology, noting the many personal and social dimensions.  He described the super-personal dimensions of institutional evil in ways that anticipated the later biblical studies of the “Principalities and Powers,” such as in the work of Jacques Ellul, John Howard Yoder, or Walter Wink.

Nor is it true that Rauschenbusch downplayed the atonement, although he did try to rethink it in ways that went beyond the objective/subjective fight that traces back to Anselm vs. Abelard.

Also, Lewis shows that the frequent criticism that the Social Gospel diluted the Christian message of personal salvation, to whatever degree it may be true of others, is certainly false when applied to Rauschenbusch.  His deep personal faith was well known and found literary expression.  He composed hymns and prayers.  He viewed his work as a kind of evangelism. And he knew that any social movement for justice would lack roots without a deep spiritual grounding–which he continued to find in the gospel, especially in the person and work of Jesus.

Rauschenbusch was a strong Baptist believer in liberty of conscience, religious liberty, and church-state separation, but NOT in apolitical, socially inactive church. His churches worked to address social evil and to influence policies–to stem alcoholism, prevent child labor, reform industry, work for economic justice, end poverty.  Toward the end of his life, in the wake of WWI, Rauschenbusch, who previously had given little thought to the gospel’s implications for war and peace, became a pacifist.  (The Social Gospel split at this point:  Parts of it were involved in the beginnings of a Christian pacifism that went beyond the traditional peace churches, and joined with the international peace movement.  Other parts of the Social Gospel movement justified WWI in terms of a “crusade for democracy” and would have sounded strangely like the U.S. evangelical cheerleaders of George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism.” Rauschenbusch went with the peacemaking stream.)

Lewis does a nice job also of showing some of Rauschenbusch’s blind spots and weaknesses. Like much of the rest of the Social Gospel leaders, Rauschenbusch shared the Victorian-era view of women and the family.  Indeed, his writings never mention the rising feminist/suffragist movement that was prominent in his lifetime–and he died 3 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment (1920) enfranchised women throughout the U.S. (But he would have seen Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, which shared much of the values of the Social Gospel, become the first national political party in the U.S. to adopt a women’s suffrage plank in their national platform in 1916). In fact, one giant motivator in Rauschenbusch’s determination that working men receive adequate pay and benefits was to make it unnecessary for wives and children to work. And he held to traditional views of male leadership in the family–though rebelling against the strict authoritarianism of his father’s example.  In this, he was simply a man of his time.

Similarly, Rauschenbusch held very negative views of Roman Catholics–as did most pre-Vatican II Protestants.  He assumed that Catholicism was the enemy of democracy and a heresy and threat to progress.  No matter how conservative or liberal, one would have been hard pressed to find Protestants with more charitable (or even accurate) views of Catholicism before the 1960s. To Protestants prior to the breakthrough with Pope John XXIII, Catholicism was a global superstition that was anti-science, anti-democracy, and firmly on the side of the wealthy against the poor.

Much of the Social Gospel was incredibly racist.  Here, also, Rauschenbusch was not guiltless. But Lewis fails to show how much better Rauschenbusch did here than many Social Gospel contemporaries. He held far too many sterotypes of African-Americans and other racial/ethnic minorities, but he did NOT share the enthusiasm for eugenics or the Social Darwinistic assumptions that “the white race” would spread while other races would shrivel and die out.  Rauschenbusch sometimes spoke out against this and opposed segregation. However, like most of the Northern Social Gospel advocates, racial issues were not on his “front burner” for good or ill. Those of his students who took the Social Gospel South (where it survived WWI and the Niebuhrian and Neo-Orthodox reaction), by contrast, made racial justice and reconciliation the number one moral issue of their lives.

Lewis also judges the Social Gospel for its supposed failure to reproduce itself, noting that while all of Rauschenbusch’s children shared his politics, none of them shared his faith.  This seems to me to be overly harsh. I have known many a fundamentalist evangelist whose children rebelled against the faith of their upbringing. Rebellion, deciding to be one’s own person, is part of the movement of one generation to another.  Most persons of faith worry that their children might not share their convictions and most parents struggle to understand the choices of their adult offspring, no matter the outcome or how close they remain.  The failure of Rauschenbusch’s children to become Christians could have much to do with WWI, which was preached as a “crusade.” Post-war periods usually show a decline in faith–as even the U.S. is experiencing now. Exposure of corruption in church and state leads to periods of disillusionment–it would have been strange if Rauschenbusch’s family had escaped the skepticism which set in everywhere after WWI.

And Lewis fails to note that Paul Rauschenbusch, Walter’s great grandson, is himself an American Baptist minister who is helping a new generation recover the strengths of the Social Gospel. See his updated edition of his great-father’s classic, Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the ChurchPaul Rauschenbusch is Associate Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel at Princeton University and a contributing editor to Beliefnet.com .  What one generation rejects is often rediscovered by another–and that is as true of the Social Gospel as of any other tradition. 

Lewis quotes H. Richard Niebuhr about F.D.R. Schleiermacher and applies this to later generations’ dismissive views of Rauschenbusch–and since I so wholeheartedly agree, I will let this quote close my post as it does Lewis’ chapter. 

Today, an ungrateful generation of theologians, which owes far more to its predecessors than it acknowledges, delights in pointing out the evil which lives after [Rauschenbusch], while it inters the good with his bones.

December 21, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, church history, ethics, heroes, liberal theology, peace, politics, Religious Social Criticism, salvation | 5 Comments

20th C. Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics: Chapter by Chapter

Longtime readers may remember my book review of  Twentieth-Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics, ed. Larry L. McSwain and Wm. Loyd Allen (Mercer University Press, 2008).  If not, read it here.   Because of my intense desire to give a different picture of the Baptist tradition (which turns 400 in 2009) than that promoted by fundamentalists and the Religious Right, I have decided to review each chapter of this edited work, separately. This will give mini-profiles of some very important Baptist thinkers and activists of recent history while also assessing the adequacy of the analyses offered in these pages, following the order of the McSwain/Allen volume.

I have already expressed disappointment at some of those left out, so I will follow this series with a series of profiles on figures I would like to see in any kind of sequel to this volume.    I hope readers will not see this as overly provincial.  I have great respect for many Christian traditions outside my own (Baptist) one:  I have taught briefly at 3 different Catholic institutions, one Presbyterian institution, and have been a Visiting Professor at a multi-denominational Evangelical seminary.  I have also been on staff of one ecumenical and one interfaith peace group.  My influences include Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim thinkers, as well as some who profess no religious faith.  My global prayer partners include a Palestinian Jesuit and a Palestinian Baptist, a Pentecostal theologian trying to revive the pacifist roots of his denomination, several Mennonites, 2 Quakers, lots of Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists, a Moravian couple, many non-denominational Christians, several Anglican/Episcopalian folk, people in various branches of the Stone-Campbell movement (especially, but not only, liberal Disciples), and a Greek Orthodox priest.

But I deeply value the historic strengths of my particular (Baptist) branch of the Body of Christ and I hate the distortions in the popular mind caused by right-wing, fundamentalist pseudo-Baptists.  So, blogging on this is one way that I can help correct these distortions (and keeps me from worrying that I will wake up to find that the auto industry in the U.S. has either been destroyed or that it’s “salvation” has been purchased at the cost of destroying organized Labor).  I’ll begin with the first chapter, tomorrow.

December 17, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, Christianity, church history, ethics, tradition | 3 Comments

Harvard and the Baptists

As a way of getting at the fascinating larger history of Christians and “higher education,” I have been thinking of writing some posts on “Baptists and Higher Education,” precisely because my dissenting tradition has had such a love/hate relationship with college or university education throughout our 400 year history.  On the one hand, many first generation, 17th C. Baptist leaders were highly educated: John Smyth (1570-1612) was a Fellow of Christ’s College, University of Cambridge.  Thomas Helwys (c. 1575-1616), a member of the minor gentry, had been a lawyer (barrister) trained at Gray’s Inn, one of the traditional 4 “Inns of Court” where London barristers lodged, trained, and practiced.  Roger Williams (1603-1683) graduated from Pembroke College, University of Cambridge.  Dr. John Clarke (1609-1676), who had studied theology, languages, and medicine before journeying to America (and who often earned a living as a medical doctor), may have studied at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

But as dissenters from church establishments in both England and Colonial America, Baptists found themselves barred from most colleges and universities which had religious tests for admission.  (It was not until the 20th C. that British Baptists could attend Oxford!)  Our emphasis on leadership by laity and our concern more for a converted and spiritually vibrant ministry than an educated and intellectual ministry made a virtue of a necessity.  Since so many university trained theologians ridiculed and persecuted Baptists, Baptists quickly developed (especially in America) a widespread suspicion of education.

But Baptist anti-intellectualism is only half the story. We also began building colleges, universities, and seminaries almost as soon as we legally and financially could do so–beginning with Bristol Baptist College in the U.K. in 1679!  I will explore the successes and failures of the schools Baptists have built in later posts. I want to start first with Baptist relations to prominent institutions of postsecondary education founded by others.

Nowhere is that relationship more complex and fascinating than with America’s oldest institution of higher learning, Harvard University in Cambridge, MA.  Harvard College (the undergraduate core of the university) was founded in 1636, established by the General Court of the Massachussetts Bay Colony.  It’s founding was intimately connected to the Puritan/Congregationalist established church of the Colony, although never formerly affiliated with any particular religious denomination. Yet there is no doubt that the Puritans had the education of ministers in mind as a major purpose in Harvard’s founding.  In the words of the General Court of Massachussetts Bay Colony:

After God had carried us safe to New England and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the civil government: One of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.

In 1640, Harvard College hired its first president, Henry Dunster (1612-1659 ), a Puritan clergyman fresh off the boat from England. Dunster was another Cambridge alumnus and modeled Harvard on his Cambridge experience. He wrote the original rules for admission to Harvard, designed its philosophy of education (emphasizing the classics with ministerial students receiving extra education in biblical languages and Reformed theology), and hired its first faculty, with Dunster himself teaching the biblical languages.  But by 1651, Dunster had become convinced of Baptist principles, especially believers’ baptism.  After the Boston authorities jailed Dr. John Clarke of Rhode Island and whipped layman Obadiah Holmes (1744-1832) for “unlicensed open air preaching,” Dunster openly declared his principles and refused to have his infant son baptized.

Naturally, this led to his termination as President of Harvard and Dunster spent the rest of his life pastoring a small independent congregation of mixed Congregational Puritans and Baptists–though it is uncertain whether or not Dunster himself was ever baptized as an adult.  And, with his ouster, Baptists were kept out of Harvard for the near term.

But that was not the end of the story by any means. As other colonial colleges (all church-related) sprang up, Harvard established the Hollis Chair of Divinity in 1721/22, the oldest endowed divinity chair in the U.S.  It was named for Thomas Hollis, an English Separatist who had just come to Baptist views. In giving the initial funding for the professorship, Hollis only asked that “if a qualified Baptist apply, he be given due consideration.” The Harvard trustees must have thought that Baptists were unqualified for a very long time because the current occupant of the Hollis Chair, Harvey G. Cox, Jr. (1929- ), an ordained American Baptist minister, is the first Baptist to be Hollis Professor of Divinity. (At that, Cox who has taught at Harvard since 1965, only became Hollis Professor in 2001, although for a long time before that he held another endowed chair, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Divinity!)

In the early 19th C., Congregationalists (the successors to American Puritans) divided with many of them becoming Unitarians. The appointment of a Unitarian to the Hollis Chair in 1805 set off a firestorm and led more orthodox Congregationalists to form America’s first freestanding theological seminary, Andover School of Theology. Harvard had “gone Unitarian” and the founding of Harvard Divinity School in 1816, although formaly proposed as a “non-sectarian” or ecumenical divinity school, was dominated by Unitarians for the next century.  Obviously, few Baptists would have found studying at Harvard attractive in those days–and by then we had been creating our own universities (beginning with the College of Rhode Island, later re-named Brown University, in 1764) and seminaries (beginning with Newton Theological Institution, now part of Andover-Newton Theological School, in 1825).

But there were exceptions. Rev. Jeremiah Condy and Rev.  Edward Upham, Baptist pastors in Colonial New England, managed to graduate from Harvard–probably by not going public with their religious convictions until after graduation. 

Richard Fuller (1804-1836), a major Baptist pastor and denominational leader in South Carolina (and, infamously, a major defender of slavery) earned a B.A. from Harvard College in 1824, graduating near the top of his class, despite having to leave for health reasons in his junior year. 

William Williams (1821-1877), a Southern Baptist who became one of the four founding professors of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1859, had originally thought to become a lawyer. After graduating from the University of Georgia (B.A., 1840), he earned his law degree at Harvard (LL.B., 1847).  He was later ordained and went into ministry and education without further formal education.

Samuel Francis Smith (1808-1895), a Northern (American) Baptist pastor, editor, hymnwriter, missionary statesman, and educator, earned a B.A. at Harvard College, but, because of the Unitarian dominance of the time, went to Andover Theological Seminary for his B.D. 

Crawford Howell Toy(1836-1919) was the most brilliant scholar Baptists in the South produced in the 19th C.  Educated at the University of Virginia (A.B., 1856) (the first “secular” university in the United States, “Mr. Jefferson’s school” attracted many Baptists in the South because it neither had religious tests for admission, nor mandatory theology classes from non-Baptist scholars giving a party line) and the University of Berlin (1836-1838) Toy taught Hebrew and Old Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (first in Greenville, SC then moved to Louisville, KY) from 1869 to 1879. But Toy was forced to resign because he had introduced “higher criticism” from Germany into his classroom teaching. So, in 1880 Toy became Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages at Harvard, where he taught in the Divinity School and the College and virtually created the Graduate Department of Near Eastern Studies.  Toy tried to stay a Baptist while at Harvard, initially joining Old Cambridge Baptist Church, but his acceptance of Darwinian evolution and of German critical views of Scripture was too radical for even Northern Baptists of his day and so (much to the dismay of the Dean of Harvard Divinity School who was trying for an ecumenical faculty!), Toy eventually became a Unitarian–which Southern Baptist conservatives have used ever since to claim that they were right to fire him.  (The Unitarians, on the other hand, found him “conservative” and “overly evangelical!”) Toy was a brilliant scholar and at his death, his list of publications ran on for 20 pages!

It was not until the 20th C. that Harvard began having a more fruitful relationship with Baptists.  Many times during the long ministry of that icon of Baptist liberalism, Harry Emerson Fosdick(1878-1969), Harvard tried to lure him to their campus, either as Senior Minister of the Memorial Church on campus or as a professor in the Divinity School. Fosdick always declined, preferring to teach at his alma mater, Union Theological Seminary, and to remain with Riverside Church–but Fosdick did repeatedly give lecture series at Harvard and often preached in the Harvard chapel (which was mandatory until after WWII).

Some prominent African-American Baptists have graduated from Harvard over the years.  Mordecai Johnson (1890-1976) earned a B.A. at Atlanta Baptist College (now Morehouse College) in 1911 before joining its faculty. He commuted in the summers to the University of Chicago (then a Baptist-related school) to earn a second B.A. (Sociology, 1913). He attempted to attend seminary at the oldest Baptist seminary in the U.S., Newton Theological Institution (now part of Andover-Newton Theological School), but was denied because of his race. So, he enrolled in the home of the Social Gospel, Rochester Theological Seminary (now Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School) and earned a B.D. in 1916. He earned an M.A. in Theology from Harvard Divinity School in 1922 before becoming president of Howard University in Washington, D.C. Harvard awarded Johnson an honorary Doctor of Divinity in 1923. Others followed in Johnson’s footsteps.

Gordon Blaine Hancock(1884-1970) was one of the most educated and influential African-American Baptists of his day. A.B., 1911, B.D., 1912, Benedict College; A.B., 1919, Colgate University; B.D., 1920, Colgate Theological Seminary (now part of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School); M.A., 1921, Harvard University.

Most famously, while Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968 )was pursuing his Ph.D. in philosophical theology at nearby Boston University, he took extra courses in contemporary philosophy at Harvard as a special student. 

Beginning in the 1930s and excelerating after World War II more Baptists began to earn theological degrees (or advanced degrees in related fields) at Harvard. Not all of these were from the more liberal end of the Baptist theological spectrum.  American conservative evangelicals, including conservative Baptists, began to hunger for the kind of academic credentialing that Harvard could give.  Among the conservative Baptist theological leaders who found their way to Harvard were the following influential figures:

  • Edward J. Carnell (1919-1967), B.A. (philosophy), Wheaton College; Th. B., Th.M., Westminster Theological Seminary; Ph.D., Boston University(Philosophy; dissertation on Søren Kierkegaard); Th.D., Harvard Divinity School (dissertation on the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr). During the ’50s and ’60s, Carnell was one of the most promising theologians and philosophical apologists for the post-war generation of evangelicals. He served for a time as the first residing president of Fuller Theological Seminary. His promise was cut short. Although colleagues didn’t know it, Carnell was suffering from depression and committed suicide.
  • George Eldon Ladd (1911-1982) was a Baptist pastor (Northern Baptist Convention, now called the American Baptist Churches, USA) and New Testament scholar. B.Th., Gordon College; B.D., Gordon Divinity School (now Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary); Ph.D., Harvard University Graduate School of Religion (Biblical and Patristic Greek). Ladd taught at Fuller and tried to bring evangelical biblical studies into conversation with mainstream scholarship, especially the post-war “Biblical Theology Movement.”
  • Paul King Jewett(d.1991), Ph.D., Harvard Divinity School, taught Systematic Theology at Fuller almost from its founding in 1947. Became a theological advocate for the ordination of women–a very controversial position for evangelicals in 1975.  Died before he could finish his multi-volume systematic theology.
  • David M. Scholer, a former colleague of mine, is Professor of New Testament and formerly Associate Dean at Fuller Theological Seminary.  An ordained American Baptist and self-confessedly recovering from a strict fundamentalist backgound, he is an expert on Gnosticism, the social aspects of early Christianity, and a strong advocate for women in ministry.  B.A., M.A., Wheaton College; B.D., Gordon Divinity School; Th.D., Harvard Divinity School.
  • Timothy George, church historian, conservative theologian, and founding dean of Beeson Divinity School, a conservative ecumenical seminary attached to the somewhat more centrist and definitely more Baptist, Samford University (Birmingham, AL) is an ordained Southern Baptist minister who pastored churches in his native Tennessee, in Massachussetts, and Alabama. He is a prolific author engaged in dialogue with Roman Catholics and is a leader of those Southern Baptists who want a more prominent place for historic Calvinism. (He also used to call himself a pacifist and co-edit The Baptist Peacemakerin the ’80s, but he has been silent about peace commitments since aligning himself with the “conservative resurgence” in the SBC. Since he was a former professor, this has been a sore point with me.) A.B., University of Tennessee at Chatanooga; M.Div., Th.D., Harvard Divinity School (Church history; dissertation on the Puritan leader John Robinson). 
  • James Leo Garrett, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Theology Emeritus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (who previously taught at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the mother-seminary of the SBC) was part of a generation of Baptist scholars that earned 2 research doctorates: 1 in a Baptist institution for credibility with the “folks back home,” and a second at a major non-Baptist institution for credibility with the wider realm of academic scholarship.  B.A., 1945, Baylor University; B.D., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1948; Th.M., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1949; Th.D., SWBTS, 1954; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1966.

But not all the Baptists that went to Harvard were conservative evangelicals. 

  • Charles W. Gilkey (1882-1968 ), Baptist pastor, advocate of the Social Gospel, and first Dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago, earned 2 degrees at Harvard. A.B., 1903, M.A., 1904, Harvard University; B.D., 1908, Union Theological Seminary (NY).  Additional graduate study done at the Universities of Berlin and Marburg, 1908-1909; United Free College, Glasgow, 1909-1910; New College, Edinburgh and Oxford University, 1909-1910. Ordained in 1910 by Hyde Park Baptist Church, Chicago, which Gilkey served for several years before becoming Dean of the Rockefeller Chapel and Professor of Preaching at Chicago.
  • Walter M. Horton (1895-1966)was a major “Neo-orthodox” theologian who spent most of his career at Oberlin College Graduate School of Religion. A.B., Harvard College, 1917; Ordained Baptist minister, 1919; B.D., 1920, S.T.M., 1925, Union Theological Seminary (NY); M.A., 1920, Ph.D., 1926, Columbia University. Additional study at the University of Paris (the Sorbonne), the University of Strasbourg, and the University of Marburg.
  • Henlee H. Barnette(1911-2006 ), Christian ethicist and Social Gospel advocate, earned a 2nd doctorate (Th.D.) at Harvard under the Baptist-turned-Unitarian James Luther Adams(1901-1994). 
  • Langdon G. Gilkey (1919-2004), son of Charles Gilkey (above), also began at Harvard. He had lost his faith as a young man and only rediscovered it through hearing Reinhold Niebuhr guest preach in Harvard’s chapel. After university he went to China to teach and was imprisoned by the Japanese for the duration of WWII. After repatriation, he enrolled at Union Theological Seminary to study with Niebuhr and became a major theologian of culture for the 2nd half of the 20th C.  A.B. (philosophy, magna cum laude), Harvard, 1939; B.D., Union Theological Seminary (NY), 1951; Ph.D., Columbia University, 1954.
  •  My own mentor, Glen H. Stassen, now Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, was Visiting Scholar at Harvard University’s School of International Relations and Visiting Professor at Harvard Divinity School, 1969-1972.
  • Greg Moberly, Professor of Old Testament at Andover-Newton Theological School (Newton Centre, MA), was raised as a Southern Baptist, but is an ordained American Baptist minister.  A published author and a major participant  in Jewish-Christian dialogue.  B.A., Cambellsville College; M.Div., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Th.M., Harvard Divinity School; Ph.D., Harvard University.
  • Benjamin Valentin, Professor of Theology of Culture (and Director of the Orlando Costas Latino/a Studies Program) at Andover-Newton Theological Seminary (Newton Centre, MA) is a major contemporary voice in Latino/a liberation theology.  A lay member in the American Baptist Churches, USA, he is an active member of Leon de Juda/Lion of Judah, an American Baptist congregation.  B.A., College of Rochelle; M.T.S., Harvard Divinity School; Ph.D., Drew University.

In 1959, Samuel H. Miller (1900-1968 ) became the first Baptist to become the Dean of Harvard Divinity School (and the only one to date). Miller was an American Baptist who initially enrolled in the Massachussetts Institute of Technology as an engineering major (1917-1918). Perceiving a call to the ministry he transferred to Colgate University (then a Baptist school) to earn his B.Th. in 1923. After serving several pastorates, Miller earned an M.A. (philosophy) from Harvard University in 1950. He was Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Andover-Newton from 1951-1958 and a Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School from 1954-1958, Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology from 1958-1959 and Dean of the Divinity School from 1959 to 1968. In 1961, he was awarded a Doctorate in Education from the University of Tennessee at Chatanooga and he was subsequently awarded many honorary doctorates. During his tenure as Dean, Miller successfully reconnected Harvard Divinity School to the lives of the mainline churches (a project undergoing renewal today).

Currently, Harvard Divinity School has 3 Baptists on the faculty. (By contrast, there is only one Unitarian at HDS–we’ve come a long way, baby. ) :

Charles G. Adams, B. A., University of Michigan, B.D., Harvard Divinity School), Senior Pastor of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, Detroit, 1969-2007 joined HDS in 2007 for a 5 year term as the first Nickerson Professor of the Practice of Ethics and Ministry.

Peter J. Gomes, Pusey Minister in the Harvard Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals for both the University and the Divinity School, is currently one of the most famous (and controversial) Baptist ministers in the country.  An African-American Baptist, after earning his A.B. at Bates College and his S.T.B. at Harvard Divinity School, served two pastorates before teaching and becoming campus chaplain at the famed Tuskeegee Institute (now Tuskeegee University) before coming to Harvard. At first Gomes was known as a conservative Black Baptist, an expert on the Puritans and classical music who, a registered Republican, officiated at the swearing in ceremony of President George H.W. Bush (1988). But when gay and lesbian students at HDS in the ’90s requested to use the Memorial Church for weddings, Gomes stunned the world by “coming out” as gay (though celibate) before championing the students’ request.  (He immediately became persona non grataamong high ranking Republicans!) Gomes, one of the nation’s outstanding preachers, has worked to help laity understand the Bible by “translating” the work of biblical scholarship to popular audiences. His works include The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (1999); The Good Life: Truths that Last in Time of Need (2001); Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living(2003); and The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News(2007).  An honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, where the Gomes Lectureship is established in his name, Gomes is the recipient of 23 honorary degrees and other awards. He has become outspoken against the Iraq war and occupation, American torture, and the intolerance of the Religious Right.

Harvey G. Cox, Jr. (1929-) is, as mentioned the current Hollis Professor of Divinity. A.B., University of Pennsylvania; B.D., Yale Divinity School; Ph.D., Harvard University.  Cox, an American Baptist minister who was reared in the evangelicalism of Pennsylvania Baptists, became mistakenly linked with the “death of God” theologians in the 1960s.  He was Protestant chaplain at Temple University; Director of Religious Activities at Oberlin College; fraternal ecumenical worker in post-war Berlin; Professor at Andover-Newton Theological School. (Cox was unable to be present for his own installation at Andover-Newton because he had been arrested for civil disobedience as a Freedom Rider in the Civil Rights movement!) He has been at Harvard since 1965, a theologian who has been most attentive to the intersection of theology and culture.  Influenced by Barth and Bonhoeffer (and, to a lesser degree, Tillich), Cox has been involved in the struggle for peace and human rights, liberation theology, interfaith dialogue (especially between Christians and Jews and Christians and Muslims) and has been one of the first “mainline liberal” Christians to take Pentecostalism seriously.  He has been a mentor to Baptist students and students from evangelical and Pentecostal backgrounds at HDS.

In 2001, Baylor University, the largest university started by Baptists which still retains significant Baptist connections, sent a delegation of faculty and students to Harvard Divinity School, beginning to forge relationships. Baylor, no longer connected to the now-fundamentalist-dominated Southern Baptist Convention, is still self-consciously Christian and Baptist, but has become the first Baptist university to have a chair of Jewish studies! Harvard Divinity School, for its part has now established the MacDonald Chair in Evangelical Theology, opening up new possibilities for evangelical Christians, including Baptists.

And so, the story continues.  America’s oldest university was founded by Puritans–and Puritans are one parent in the Baptist genealogy (the other parent is Dutch Mennonites). It’s first President became a Baptist and had to leave and when Harvard was dominated by Unitarians, it was not a friendly place for Baptists, including most liberal Baptists.  But, more than most non-Baptist universities in America, Harvard has held a strange attraction to Baptists across the theological spectrum–and now those connections are stronger than ever before.

August 10, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, church history, education | 4 Comments

Recovering Neglected Theologians # 1: The Venerable Bede

A Guest Post by  Tim J. Furry, Ph.D. Student at the University of Dayton (Ohio, USA). Tim blogs at The Moving Image.

The Venerable Bede (672-735) was a Benedictine monk who was raised in a monastery in Wearmouth, England (present day Jarrow). He was one of the first generations of Christians in England after Pope Gregory the Great sent missionaries there. He described his primary task as meditating on Scripture, but he is most famous for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Little is known about Bede’s life and his background, because the best source we have is the brief description he gave of his own life at the conclusion of his Ecclesiastical History. The greatest theological influences on his work were Augustine (of Hippo), Gregory the Great, and St. Benedict. Unbeknownst to many, Pope Leo XIII canonized him and made him a doctor of the church in1899. His tomb is currently located at Durham Cathedral.

            As previously mentioned, Bede’s major works were biblical commentaries. He commented widely on the Christian canon some of which include: Genesis, Samuel, Song of Songs, Habakkuk, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Mark, Luke, Acts, the catholic epistles, and Revelation. As far as we know, he was also the first to figurally exegete the Temple and the Tabernacle. He also wrote “scientific” works as well On the Reckoning of Time (which calculates the date of Easter), and he addressed the importance of grammar and rhetoric in other works. Some of these writings have been translated (some of these in the Liverpool University Press series, Translated Texts for Historians) in a mini resurgence of Bedan scholarship in the past fifteen years, and many more are in the process of being translated making learning about Bede much easier.

            Despite the growing attention, Bede’s importance today has yet to be fully realized. His writings on time, history, and the “world ages,” which are deeply indebted to Augustine, have much to say to the contemporary historical consciousness that dominates modern (and postmodern) thought. More specifically, the influence of his biblical exegesis on his writing of history is an important topic that merits further attention. (Shameless self plug: my doctoral research focuses on these issues of history, time, eternity, and figural exegesis in Bede). Those with an interest in ecumenical issues could also find Bede interesting and helpful. His scientific treatment on the date of Easter was an argument to persuade Celtic Christians who were not celebrating Easter with the Catholic Church. There is also more work to be done on the nature of monasticism in England during Bede’s time, which appears to have been less determined than what Benedict’s Rule’s stipulates. The Carolingian Reforms reintroduced a more stringent application of St. Benedict’s Rule and many post reform accounts of monasticism read these reforms back into Bede’s time.


N.B. : Remember, if you would like to contribute to this series, send me an entry at my email.

August 7, 2008 Posted by | church history, theology | 5 Comments

Invitation to Guest Series: Recovering Neglected Theologians

Okay, theology bloggers.  I hereby invite entries for a series of guest posts on Recovering Neglected Theologians.  What theologian (perhaps especially from your own denomination or theological tradition) has lapsed into obscurity–or is in danger of such–and deserves to be more widely read and appreciated–and why? Each entry should be submitted to my email. I will go to several theo-blogs and biblio-blogs and invite people to participate, but don’t wait for an invitation if you are interested.

For the purposes of this series, we can define “theologian” rather broadly: Not just academics who teach/have taught systematic theology (dogmatics, constructive theology), but also pastor theologians if they have a body of publications and have been influential beyond their local congregation.  Biblical scholars count if they attempt biblical theology instead of only writing as historians or philologists or archeologists or literary critics.  Likewise, with church historians who write as historical theologians (e.g. Jaraslov Pelikan, Geoffrey Bromiley, Justo Gonzalez, Timothy George, etc.) instead of simply as antiquarians or social historians.

I strongly believe in interfaith dialogue, but for this series, I am not interested in submissions about non-Christian theologians. This is to be an in-house discussion among Christians, although interested outside observers are always welcome.

Each entry should name the neglected theologian, describe their work and context in 2-4 brief paragraphs, and say why you think said person should be rediscovered by the Church universal or even by those in her or his own tradition who are now neglicting her or him.  I have in mind primarily figures from 19th C. onward (the modern and “postmodern” eras), but will take entries from the 2nd C. onward throughout the history of the Church and in any cultural or denominational context.

This was inspired by Ben Myers’ series a few years ago, “For the Love of God,” and by some recent reading I’ve been doing. I hope entries will be lively, humorous, and upbeat–the intention is not to put down others as we build up our neglected favorites.  Even the most influential theologians (e.g., the Cappadocians or John of Damascus in the Eastern Churches, Augustine, Thomas, Calvin, Wesley, Barth, etc. in the West) go through periods of neglect–and sometimes periods of revival. The “revivals” can take a “fundamentalist” form (for lack of a better term) in which one tries to simply demand that the church today believe every word of said bygone saint or creative retrievals in which certain features of said theologian’s work are highlighted and reexamined in light of new challenges in new contexts. It will come as no surprise that I think the latter is more fruitful.

I hope this will be fun and profitable. If I participate myself, it will be after others have taken the lead–giving readers a break from my voice all the time on this blog.

UPDATE: Please, do NOT use the comments section to ask me about certain theologians. Just submit an entry to my email. Try for 1,500 to 2000 words as a rough length.  It’s not up to ME to judge if so-and-so neglected theologian is worthy of recovery. YOU who submit entries will make that judgment–and give an argument for why they need to be recovered to readers of Levellers–and your own blogs if you reprint them. Clear?

August 1, 2008 Posted by | church history, testimony, theology, tradition | 12 Comments

This Week in Church History

I’ve been too busy lately and missed updating this series. 

02 September 1784, John Wesley consecrates Thomas Coke as the first “bishop” of the Methodist Church.  The title bishop is never used in the U.K., where Wesley still hopes for reconciliation with the Church of England, but is quickly adopted in the Americas.  A tireless itinerant preacher, Coke crosses the Atlantic 18 times on missionary trips–all at his own expense.

02 September 1973, Oxford don, fantasy novelist (e.g., The Lord of the Rings) and devout Catholic, J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) dies at age 81.  His novels were one strong influence on my teenage self as I found myself fumbling toward Christian faith.  In addition to the normal intellectual doubts I had as an adolescent, I found most of my experiences with Christians boring. Tolkien showed me that faith and imagination need not be enemies and this was enormously liberating to a teenager in the ’70s when churches throughout the U.S. South were organizing burnings of rock records (I didn’t participate) and were warning against the “paganism” of Star Wars!  I confess that I memorized large sections of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings before I was much good at memorizing Holy Scripture!

03 September 590, Gregory I (“the Great”) is consecrated pope.  He is considered the creator of the Medieval papacy since Gregory was the first pope to have secular political power.  “Gregorian chant” is named after him. He is the last of the 4 Latin “Doctors of the Church.”  Gregory was to give the basic shape to the liturgy of the Western (Catholic) Church for the next thousand years or more.  A former monk, he was also a great promoter of monasticism.

03 September 1894, H. (elmut) Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) is born.  Often overshadowed by his older brother, Reinhold, H.R. Niebuhr was one of the most profound theologians in America in the 20th C.–and arguably the one with the longer legacy.  Educated at Elmhurst College, Eden Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School, and eventually earning a Ph.D. at Yale University, Niebuhr taught at each alma mater, staying at Yale for the rest of his life.  A complex individual, different aspects of HRN’s thought influenced people as different as  James Gustafson, Julian Hartt, Hans Frei, Diane M. Yeager, Stanley Hauerwas, Douglas Otatti, and Glen Stassen.  Although I sharply disagree with HRN’s “binatarian” view of God, and largely agree with Yoder’s critique of his classic Christ and Culture (1951), I have been deeply influenced by HRN’s struggle to affirm the sovereignty of God in history and to deal with post-Troeltsch historical relativism in a constructive way.  HRN’s motto that “history is the laboratory of ideas” is a major guide to my thought.

04 September 1965, Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) dies in what is now the nation of Gabon, in western Africa.  Schweitzer was a true polymath:  A German composer and concert pianist, a theologian and New Testament scholar (most famous for the Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), but also equally influential with The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1930)), and a medical missionary to Africa.  His medical missionary work led not only to the founding of more than one hospital, but also to the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.

05 September 1997, Mother Theresa of Calcutta(1910-1997), founder of the Missionaries of Charity order, and winner of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, dies in Calcutta, India–where she spent most of her adult life serving the poor.

06 September 1851, Olbadiah Holmes, a Baptist layman, is given 30 lashes with a whip in Boston Commons for “preaching without a license” from the established (Congregationalist) Church.  He is so filled with divine joy, preaching during the beating, that he tells his tormenters, “You have touched me with rose petals.” This public flogging led one witness, Henry Dunster, the founding president of Harvard College, to convert to Baptist views and refuse to have his youngest child christened. (In turn, this decision led to the loss of Dunster’s post and Harvard’s first emergency search for a new president! Dunster spent the remainder of his life as a Baptist minister.) Holmes’ witness also helped sew the seeds against church-state fusions in America and to the founding of First Baptist Church of Boston. 

September 5, 2007 Posted by | church history | 1 Comment

John Smyth (1554-1612): Puritan, Separatist, Baptist, Mennonite

28 August 1612 is the day historians believe (records are shaky) that John Smyth died in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.  Smyth was a pivotal figure in church history–a major link in the growing radicalism of the Separatist wing of the English Puritan movement; a tireless champion of democracy and religious liberty; a biblicist and radical congregationalist who strove to defend liberty of conscience against what he saw as the tyranny of extra-congregational bishops; the “founder” of the modern Baptist movement; and an Elder in the Waterlander congregation of Mennonites in Amsterdam. 

John Smyth was born in Lincolnshire to “middle class” English commoners and educated at a Grammar School in Gainsborough.  Feeling a call from God to the ministry, he studied for the Anglican priesthood at Christ’s College, Cambridge University (A.B., 1575; M.A., 1595) becoming a life Fellow of Christ’s College.  During this era, many in the U. K. thought the English Reformation was not nearly thorough enough. The Church of England was still “too Catholic” for these dissenters.  Those wanting further reform, wanting to “purify” the Church of all unscriptural “papist” accumulations of tradition, were known as “Puritans,” and several of the colleges of Cambridge University were hotbeds of Puritan sentiment. Smyth’s teachers were Puritans and by the time he earned his M.A. and was ordained an Anglican priest(1595), Smyth knew that he could not go along with the Anglo-Catholic majority.

He managed to get appointed as a private chaplain to a minor noble in order to avoid the restrictions and scrutiny of a parish priest, but his Puritan preaching soon became too radical and he lost that post.  Since physicians did not need licenses to practice medicine in those days, and Smyth had studied biology at Cambridge, he supported himself as a family doctor while deciding his next move.

The mainstream Puritans wanted to work for reform within the Church of England, to “purify” the Church from within.  Those who lacked the patience for slow reform, or who had concluded that the Church of England had strayed so far from the gospel that it was a false church, became known as Separatist Puritans, or simply, Separatists.  Smyth became convinced of this need for reform “without tarrying for any” as one famous Separatist put it.  He gathered a congregation of like-minded London reformers and they met in secret since Non-Conformity to the established Church was illegal.  As their numbers grew, the group had to split peacefully to avoid notice, one group meeting in Scrooby and the other, led by Smyth, meeting in Gainsborough.  The Scrooby congregation, led by John Robinson, soon fled to the Netherlands–which had more religious tolerance than any other Western European nation at the time.  From there, the Robinson congregation would eventually sail to New England and enter history as the “Pilgrims” of American Colonial history.

Meanwhile, by 1607 Smyth’s Gainsborough congregation was again growing too large to keep hidden and to escape persecution they too fled to Amsterdam–financed by a prominent layperson in the group, Thomas Helwys (c. 1550-c. 1616), a lawyer (solicitor).   In Amsterdam, the Smyth congregation was offered a place to meet for worship by one Jan Munter, a member of the Waterlander Mennonite congregation in the city.  Smyth’s congregation met in the bakehouse owned by Munter.  At first, however, though grateful for the hospitality, they were wary of the Mennonites because Anabaptists had a reputation across Europe as heretics and revolutionaries–spread both by lies told by the Magisterial Reformers and by the horrid involvement of a few Anabaptists in the bloody-but-failed Peasant Revolution in Germany and by more in the even-more-disastrous attempt to bring in the Kingdom of God by revolutionary force in Münster, Holland.  The language barrier between the English Separatists and the Dutch Anabaptists probably didn’t help, either.

For that matter, the Mennonites had their own reasons for being wary of the Smyth group.  First, only recently had persecution against Anabaptists ceased in the Netherlands–and that persecution had taught them to be wary of outsiders.  Second, many congregations of English Puritans and Separatists, refugees like Smyth’s group, were fighting with each other and denouncing one another, which the Mennonites rightly considered scandalous.  So, the two groups approached each other cautiously, at first.

But by 1609, doubtless influenced by the Waterlander Mennonites, Smyth and his group had undergone several changes:  1) They had arrived convinced, like most Puritans and Separatists, of Calvinism. They now adopted a mild form of the Arminianism of the Remonstrants–as had the Mennonites.  2) They came to even higher views of Biblical authority than they had previously. Smyth would allow no translations to be used in worship, but preached extemporaneously from the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament, translating as he went.  3) They began to argue, as no other English Puritan or Separatist group did, for complete religious liberty and church-state separation, something Anabaptists had been advocating for nearly a century.  4) Finally, they came to adopt adult, or more precisely, believers’ baptism, on profession of faith.  In his 1608 book, The Character of the Beast, Smyth had already argued that the sacraments of a false church must also be false. Thus, those baptized in the Church of England had not really been baptized.  Some other Separatists argued similarly, but Smyth went further and rejected infant baptism altogether, since baptism clearly must follow repentance and faith.

 Some have argued that Smyth’s adoption of believers’ baptism was influenced not by the Mennonites, but by his own Bible study.  Yet, the timing of this conclusion is suggestive, and the mode these first “Baptists” adopted (pouring water over the head 3 times in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) was the same as that of the Waterlanders and, indeed, most Anabaptist groups–whereas simple Bible study would suggest full immersion as later Baptists argued.  But Smyth was still not sure of the orthodoxy of the Mennonites–he was not sure they were a “true church.” So, instead of seeking baptism from them, his congregation dissolved based on a written covenant and re-formed based on believers’ baptism.  Smyth baptized himself with a bucket and a dipper or ladle and then proceeded to baptize the rest of the congregation.

This act of self-baptism was shocking to all around. It forever earned Smyth the nickname, “the Se-Baptist” or “self-baptizer.”  Not even Jesus baptized himself, argued Smyth’s critics.  This criticism began to get to Smyth and he investigated the Mennonites more closely.  He came to agree with them on almost everything, including their pacifism and their rejection of swearing oaths, and he sought to merge the two congregations. 

  There were one or two sticking points. 1) Although it is embarrassing to modern Mennonites, Menno Simons and most Mennonites until the Dordrecht Confession held to a really peculiar theory of Christ’s birth, whereby he got none of his human nature from Mary, “passing through her like water through a pipe.” Smyth, and most others, considered this weird Christology to be an example of the heresy of Docetism, i.e., of making Christ only seem human.  2) If Smyth was wrong to baptize himself, would the Mennonites require him and the other Baptists to be rebaptized?

   The lawyer, Thomas Helwys, led a handful of others to break with Smyth over these points.  They saw their baptism as valid and wanted no other baptism.  Helwys, as a lawyer, had strong disagreements with the Anabaptist rejection of all oaths.  And, although he was a near pacifist, Helwys defended the right of governments to raise armies for purely defensive wars–although he quickly agreed that governments would claim that any wars they wanted to wage were “necessary,” “defensive,” and “just,” and this was often a smokescreen.  But Helwys and his followers could not agree to complete pacifism.  Finally, if the two congregations merged, then the exile in Amsterdam was not temporary, but permanent.  Helwys believed they had a duty to return to England and bear witness to the Baptist faith and take the suffering that followed.

In the end, the majority followed Smyth and became Mennonites–Smyth’s name is listed on the church wall today as an Elder.  Helwys and about 10 others returned to England in 1611 and founded the first Baptist congregation on British soil in Spitalfields outside London. But these first Baptists (later called “General” Baptists to distinguish them from the Particular or Calvinistic Baptists that arose a generation later) kept in touch with the Waterlander Mennonites, exchanging letters and members and considering one another “of like faith and order” for the next 50 years.   Despite the influence of Helwys, many of these early General Baptists also became pacifists.

Some have considered John Smyth to have been unstable because he changed his mind so frequently.  Yet, the changes were all in one direction and one could admire his willingness to revisit doctrine and practices repeatedly in light of fresh readings of Scripture.  There have been a few recent works on Smyth’s thought and, as Baptists approach our 400th anniversary in 2009, they might be good to study.

Mark Robert Bell, Apocalypse How?  Baptist Movements During the English Revolution (Mercer University Press, 2000).

James R. Coggin, John Smyth’s Congregation:  English Separatism, Mennonite Influence, and the Elect Nation.  (Herald Press, 1991).

Jason K. Lee, The Theology of John Smyth:  Puritan, Separatist, Baptist, Mennonite (Mercer University Press, 2003).

August 28, 2007 Posted by | anabaptists, Baptists, church history, heroes | 8 Comments

This Day in Church History

25 August 1560, led by John Knox, the Reformed Church of Scotland is established along Calvinistic Protestant lines.  The Scottish Parliament accepts the very Calvinist Scots Confession, forbids the mass, and declares that the pope has no jurisdiction in Scotland.  Like all other Constantinian state church systems, the Church of Scotland is intolerant of all dissenters, not only Catholic, but Protestant, Anabaptist, or Jewish as well.

August 25, 2007 Posted by | church history | Comments Off on This Day in Church History

Today in Church History

07 August 317  Birth of Constantius II, Son of Constantine “the Great” and Roman Emperor from 337 to 361.  Under Constantius, pagan sacrifices were outlawed in the Roman empire. Constantius was a devout Arian (a heresy condemned at the Council of Nicea, which had been called by his father–it’s not clear whether Constantine ever understood the theological issues at Nicea or just backed the faction he thought could best help him unite the empire!).  As a devout Arian, Constantius was a major foe of St. Athanasius, the tireless champion of Nicene orthodoxy during a time when it seemed that Arianism would become the dominant form of Christianity forever! (Politicians usually make lousy theologians, but they seldom realize this!)

07 August 1409 Close of the Council of Pisa.  This Council had been called by cardinals and bishops to end the schism in Western Christianity (since 1378) which had two rival popes–one in Rome and one in Avignon, France! The Council of Pisa’s solution was to excommunicate both popes (as schismatics and heretics) and elect their own, Alexander V.  This didn’t work–there were now three warring popes! But this situation was so intolerable to all of Western Europe that it led to the Council of Constance in 1417 which finally ended the schism and saw a return to one pope. (In official Catholic history there is only one “true” line of popes and the others are called “anti-popes.”)

07  August 1771 John Wesley’s call for volunteer Methodist missionaries to North America is answered by Francis Asbury, who becomes the “Father of American Methodism.”

August 7, 2007 Posted by | church history | Comments Off on Today in Church History

Today in Church History: Death of William Penn

penn-statue.jpgWilliam Penn (1644-1718), founder of Pennsylvania (“Penn’s Woods”) as a colony where Quakers and other Dissenters could enjoy religious freedom, died on 30 July 1718. He made peace with the Native Americans by the simple practice of treating them like equal human beings and dealing fairly with them–something few European colonizers were willing to try.  As long as Quakers dominated the Pennsylvania colonial legislature, it stayed out of wars and had no slavery (Correction–I am reminded that Penn owned slaves and that although Quakers abandoned slave-holding prior to the U.S. Revolution, they did not begin “without sin” in this area. Thanks to Friend Kirk for catching my inadvertant anachronism.)–but all that changed once Quakers were outnumbered (and then went into their “Quiet in the Land” apolitical phase). But in Colonial America only Catholic-founded Maryland and Baptist-founded Rhode Island rivaled Pennsylvania for religious liberty.  Much of that is the legacy of Friend William Penn.

July 30, 2007 Posted by | church history | 3 Comments