Jul 22, 2010

The Old Baptist Test

In 1867 Elder John M. Watson of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, submitted for publication his book called "The Old Baptist Test or Bible Signs of the Lord's People." Elder Watson, however, died* before its publication and it was left to Elder R. W. Fain, a fellow medical doctor with Elder Watson, to edit and publish his book. Its republication, in our times, is due to Elder Harvey Fulmer, a "Primitive" or "Hardshell" Baptist minister, with whom I am personally acquainted.

This is a valuable book for any student of the history of the "anti mission movement" of the early 19th century, a movement that spawned the "Primitive Baptist" denomination. Elder Watson was a leader in this movement and was a spokesman for the movement in middle Tennessee, although his influence extended far beyond his adopted home state (he was born in North Carolina). He was a close associate of many of the leaders in this movement, such as Gilbert Beebe, Wilson and Grigg Thompson, John Clark, and James Osborne. He wrote articles for the movement's leading periodicals from the 1830s to time of his death, such papers as "The Signs of the Times," "The Old Baptist Banner," "The Primitive Baptist," "The Christian Doctrinal Advocate and Spiritual Monitor," "The Herald of Truth," and many other smaller temporary periodicals, no doubt. When the leaders of the movement visited middle Tennessee, Elder Watson was there to greet them and recommend them to his Hardshell brethren.

Elder Watson was an ardent defender, during the controversial and formative years of the movement, of those who declared non fellowship for all Baptist churches who supported mission societies, Sunday schools, theological schools, and other such things. He believed, like his brethren in the movement, that such things were unscriptural, not according to the "pattern" given to the church. He was also an ardent opponent of Arminianism and often associated it with the things above mentioned.

In his book he does the best he can to defend the beliefs and actions of the "old order of Baptists," as he called his newly formed denomination, charging that those who promote theological schools were usurping the authority of Christ in the sending out of missionaries and in training ministers. He also thought, like his Hardshell brethren, that Sunday schools were usurping the authority of parents, who alone ought to teach their children in the things of God, and were Arminian in purpose and effect, usurping the work of the Holy Spirit. His defense of the "old order," however, was not sound or cogent.

Elder Watson thought, and subsequently claimed, that all those Baptists who supported theological and Sunday schools, and mission societies, were all Arminian, a false claim. Part of the impetus of the anti mission movement was its opposition to Andrew Fuller and his "general atonement" view, a view that Watson and his "anti" brethren universally connected with all who supported such things. This, however, was another error, for history shows that many Baptists who supported the above things remained "five point Calvinists," and believers in "limited atonement." J. H. Grime, also of Tennessee, in his history of Tennessee Baptists, shows how many supporters of missions and schools were fully committed five point Calvinists.

The value of this book is manifold. First, its historical importance is of great value. It was published in 1867, forty years after the "Kehukee Declaration" of 1827, which was the first formal statement made by a group of Baptist churches against schools and missionary enterprises. It was also published thirty five years after the "Black Rock Address" (1832) wherein an even more formal general declaration of "non fellowship" was made by those who opposed schools and missions. Elder Watson was present through the 1830s and 40s when the most commotion over missions and schools was heard and can therefore be taken as a reliable witness to the events and debates that occurred between Baptists relative to schools and missions.

Second, the book is valuable for its giving us a "snapshot" of things during the formative years of the "Primitive Baptist" church. Who were the Baptist people who first made up this movement? Were they all alike? Were they homogeneous or heterogeneous? Elder Watson's book shows what other historical records show, that those first in the "anti mission movement" were hetero. This is a fact that today's Hardshells do not want to acknowledge, wanting all to believe that the first "Primitives" were all one in sentiment and doctrine. For instance, there was one faction of the movement called "Two Seeders," followers of Elder Daniel Parker, the one who is most credited, by historians, with creating the movement and the present day "Primitive Baptist Church." The influence of Parker, in the middle and west Tennessee area, was large. The first anti mission Baptists, at first, held him in high esteem. But, he began to preach a novel view which came to be called "Two Seeds." This view stated that the human race was composed of two seeds, the devil's seed, and the Lord's seed. Had it restricted his view on the "seeds" to simply this, all had gone well with him and his followers. But, Parker went further. He taught that the devil was eternal, without beginning, a view that many saw as being Manichaeism. He taught that the children of God, or good seed, existed with Christ, in spirit, from eternity past and that the devil's seed were the literal offspring of the devil. This led him to describe the new birth experience as the coming down from heaven of the children of God to possess the physical body. Parker's "two seed" faction, however, became onerous to the anti movement. It became the first faction to be cut off from the main body of the movement.

Elder Watson knew Elder Parker and became a bitter opponent of Parker and the faction he represented. A large section of Elder Watson's book is an attack upon this faction, probably because the "Two Seeders" had a comparably large following in Tennessee.

Another valuable aspect of Watson's book lies in the snapshot that he gives of other factions within the evolving movement. He refers to his "ultraist" brethren who had little or no concern for the "unbrought heathen," for any kind of evangelism, who denied means altogether, who had "violated" their "commission," the great commission. These are they who were "finding Arminianism where there was none," who labeled as "Arminian" those who taught means in the new birth and who addressed dead alien sinners, offering them the gift of eternal life. This "ultraist" faction, sad to say, is the faction which outlasted the others so that today's "Primitive Baptists" are almost solely made up of this faction.

Watson shows, however, that there was a large faction of brethren, like himself, who believed in means in new birth, who were open to church run missions and evangelism, and who openly exhorted lost souls to repent and believe in Christ for salvation. Sadly, this faction was forced out of the movement, so that by the end of the 19th century, none remained.

The "Old Baptist Test" also shows what Watson and his majority faction believed about "perseverence of the saints," and about "conversion." The "ultraist" faction would later go further from their historical roots and deny perseverence altogether, claiming that they believed in "preservation," and not "perseverence."

Today's Hardshells are debating these questions again as a result of the emergence of the "liberal movement." They are debating this question - "will all the elect hear the gospel and be converted?" Elder Watson affirmed that they would. Thus, those Hardshells today who deny that hearing the gospel and being converted is necessary for eternal salvation, fail the "test" of being "old Baptist"!

Will today's "Primitive Baptists" come forward and debate these things? Will they give reply to the historical facts presented in Watson's book?

*Elder Watson states, in his book, in the section giving his autobiography, the following:

"While on the subject of my ministry I will state, that my health is at this time, June, 1866, very bad; my physicians are very doubtful of my recovery; in fact, I am afraid I shall not live long enough to supervise the printing of this work..." (pg. 40)


GERALD said...


Stephen Garrett said...

Dear Gerald:

It seems like it must be! Thanks for the info!

As you know, the edition that I cited from has Elder Watson giving the date of his publication and ill health. I suppose the edition I cited was his last revised edition.

Thanks for commenting.