In the 1820s, Baptist missionary Timothy Flint floated down the Mississippi River into Missouri, the state that had ignited the slavery issue in America and pushed the nation closer to civil war. But among the local Baptists, Flint noted another kind of division. “Even among our own brethren,” he lamented, “it is well known, that there is some feeling of a questionable nature, some rivalry between the pupils, the doctors, and schools, of Andover and Princeton.”
In the Presbyterian denomination, this “rivalry” became known as the Old School–New School Controversy, a schism between those who adhered to the ideas of Jonathan Edwards (i.e., Andover) and opposed slavery, and those who promoted a stricter adherence to the Westminster Confession (i.e., Princeton) and defended it. But in the Baptist church, Edwards’s ideas transcended the issue of slavery, taking root in a place they never would among Presbyterians: the Deep South.
In 1845, when the Triennial Convention split over the rights of missionaries to own slaves, Edwards’s ideas didn’t rend the Baptist denomination as they had the Presbyterians in 1837. Instead, the newly formed Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) swallowed them whole.
Edwardsean Theology in the South
In 1858, Princeton professor Lyman Atwater asked, “What is meant by ‘Edwardsean theology’? Was it the theology of Jonathan Edwards, or Edwards the son and his confederates and successors?” In the case of Southern Baptists, it was both. In fact, so extensively did Jonathan Edwards influence Baptists in the Antebellum South that there were four recognizable schools of Edwardsean thought below the Mason-Dixon line: (1) simple Edwardseanism, (2) New Divinity Edwardseanism, (3) Fullerite Edwardseanism, (4) and implicit Edwardseanism. As diverse as any religious group in America, Baptists needed a broad theological tradition that was practical, revivalistic, and Calvinistic, yet loosely confessional. In Jonathan Edwards and his New England disciples, they found a people after their own hearts.
In Jonathan Edwards and his New England disciples, Baptists found a people after their own hearts.
The primary way that Edwards captured the minds and hearts of Baptists in the early 19th-century South was through his own writings (simple Edwardseanism), particularly his works on revival and Christian spirituality. The architect of the first Baptist association in the South, Oliver Hart, relished Edwards’s A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737). The Baptist who established the first state convention in the South, Richard Furman, recommended Edwards’s works as a “means, in the conversion of many.” Another Baptist pastor in Virginia copied nearly every one of Edwards’s resolutions into a small book, “that I may have them always at hand.” Southern Baptists even shared Edwards’s works with their own children. Basil Manly Sr. (1798–1868), one of the cofounders of the SBC, who enjoyed Religious Affections (1746) and Freedom of the Will (1754), wrote to his son Basil Manly Jr. about his reading of The Nature of True Virtue (1765). Edwards didn’t simply shape Baptists; he also produced Baptists. Manly Jr., who would eventually draft the Abstract of Principles at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was converted as a freshman at the University of Alabama largely by reading Edwards’s Personal Narrative (1740).
Southern Baptists saw their own reflection in Edwards. In his work on Baptist polity, James L. Reynolds, professor of theology at Furman Academy, appealed to the Lord’s Supper controversy in Northampton:
In the famous controversy between Pres. Edwards, and Solomon Williams, concerning the half-way covenant, the former took the broad scriptural ground, that none but such as gave a credible evidence of their faith in Christ should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. But, as a pedobaptist, he was obliged to admit that those who had been baptized in infancy were “in some sort members of the Church.” In this they were both agreed. Here Williams erected his strong battery, and managed it with great effect. He proved that the position of his opponent, if maintained, would annihilate infant baptism. Either that ordinance must be given up, or Edwards must surrender. He did not choose to abandon infant baptism, and was vanquished, not by the truth of his opponent, but by his own error.
Reynolds was retrieving Edwards’s theology and, in his view, improving it. Nevertheless, just pages after critiquing Edwards, Reynolds praised his “heavenly spirit.”
Southern Baptists admired Edwards as both a brilliant mind and a moral exemplar. As a result, he garnered a near-mythical reputation among the most pro-slavery and pro-Confederate of Baptists. In 1860, Georgia pastor Charles Dutton Mallary boasted, “The world has seen the light and felt the power of but few men more remarkably than President Edwards. He was not less distinguished for piety than for gigantic intellect; and it was the meekness and gentleness of his piety that went far to make him, as a Christian, so prosperous and so great.”
However, Southern Baptists did not simply revere Edwards as a revivalist or a pious Christian. Some also devoured his metaphysical works. Patrick Hues Mell, a militant defender of slavery who would become the longest-tenured president of the SBC, once referred his readers to Edwards’s “able treatise” The End for Which God Created the World.
Although Mell despised Samuel Hopkins, Edwards’s chief disciple, other Baptists in the South also consumed a steady dose of the “New Divinity.” Jonathan Maxcy (1768–1820), the first president of South Carolina College, was the most Hopkinsian Baptist to ever walk the earth. Maxcy made little distinction between the “penetrating sagacity of an Edwards, or Hopkins” and held to the moral governmental theory of atonement, the signature doctrine of the New Divinity crafted by Joseph Bellamy (in which Christ died not to exchange his righteousness with sinners but to honor the law and vindicate the Moral Governor). So impressed were Edwards’s New England successors by Maxcy that his “Discourse” was anthologized in Edwards Amasa Park’s edited volume on the doctrine of atonement, cementing the young president in the pantheon of New Divinity theologians.
Southern Baptists admired Edwards as both a brilliant mind and a moral exemplar.
Maxcy passed on his New Divinity Edwardseanism to his student William B. Johnson, the first president of the SBC, who also rejected traditional penal substitutionary atonement in favor of a moral governmental view. Johnson, who once praised a fellow Baptist for being “imbued with the Spirit of ‘New England Theology,’” wasn’t the only Baptist to promote a kind of Dixie Divinity. James Mims and Jesse Hartwell in South Carolina and Thomas Meredith and John White in North Carolina also held to moral governmental theory. According to one pastor in Virginia, Timothy Dwight’s Theology Explained and Defended was a standard work in the Baptist minister’s library at mid-century.
Across the Atlantic, English Baptist Andrew Fuller (1754–1815) integrated elements of moral governmental theory into his own view of the atonement and was greatly influenced by Edwards and, to a lesser extent, the New Divinity. Fuller’s influence on Southern Baptists was truly titanic. His evangelical brand of Calvinism was characterized by an emphasis on missions and a de-emphasis on limited atonement. Landmark Baptist J. M. Pendleton, who pastored churches in Kentucky and Tennessee, speculated, “Eternity alone will reveal all the good accomplished, by God’s blessing, on Fuller’s Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation.” In Kentucky, after pastor William Vaughn was “interrogated by a young minister as to what books he ought to read, [Vaughn] told him the Bible first, and then Andrew Fuller.”
The English Baptist was so popular among his Southern counterparts that he, like Edwards, was invoked on different sides of the theological debate. When William B. Johnson denied the traditional doctrine of imputation, he cited both Edwards and Fuller—much to the chagrin of more orthodox Southern Baptists, who instead claimed Edwards and Fuller for themselves. Nowhere was Fuller’s influence more obvious than in the Triennial and Southern Baptist Conventions, missionary organizations inspired by Fuller’s Baptist Missionary Society. Just as one Baptist in South Carolina was nicknamed “the Jonathan Edwards of the South,” so another Baptist in Missouri was nicknamed “the Andrew Fuller of America.” In Georgia, a Cherokee Baptist named Dsulawe was even given the name Andrew Fuller.
Many Southern Baptists were unknowingly influenced by Edwards’s ideas. For instance, Baptist associations across the South often participated in “concerts of prayer” in order to promote revival, extending an evangelical tradition begun by Edwards during the First Great Awakening in An Humble Attempt (1747). Edwards’s A Faithful Narrative had a similar effect on the Baptist tradition of reporting revivals, a work that “was canonized as the prototype” for later revival narratives. The Life and Diary of David Brainerd, Edwards’s most popular work during his lifetime, established Brainerd as “a virtual patron saint for America’s (as well as Great Britain’s) emergent Protestant missions movement.” Pastor Jeremiah Bell Jeter compared the life of Brainerd to that of the apostle Paul! Indeed, with so many streams of Edwardsean thought in so many different places, it’s difficult to measure the vast scope of Edwards’s influence in the Antebellum Baptist South.
With so many streams of Edwardsean thought in so many different places, it’s difficult to measure the vast scope of his influence in the Antebellum Baptist South.
Among a people with whom he never sympathized and in a region in which he had no obvious connection, Jonathan Edwards’s ideas found fertile soil. Not even the abolitionism of Edwards’s New England successors could stem the tide of those ideas to the slaveholding South.
Today, Jonathan Edwards is often caricatured as an austere Puritan who preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” However, this sermon was rarely listed among those works by Edwards that Southern Baptists consumed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Instead, they were seeking a religion of the heart, and in Edwards they discovered a trove of treatises, biographies, and sermons on Christian spirituality.
In a broad Southern Baptist Convention (and American evangelical tradition) that continues to accommodate various political, social, and theological views, Edwardsean themes like the glory of God, the religious affections, and global missions still draw together an array of Christians from different backgrounds and denominations for the sake of winning souls.