This paper was left by the distinguished author at the time of his death, and has been given to the Sunday School Board.)

IN the year 1879 I attended, as fraternal messenger from the Southern Baptist Convention, the Anniversaries of our Northern Baptist brethren at Saratoga, New York. At the same time and place was held the meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. I remember as a pleasant incident of that occasion, a visit of the Rev. Dr. Jessup, Moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly, to a meeting of his Baptist brethren. Being invited to speak he urged upon them the impqrtance of greater devotion to the work of Foreign Missions (Dr. Jessup himself a foreign missionary). Failing in this he asked the Baptists what reason they could give to God for their separate existence as a denomination. The interrogation of Dr. Jessup chanced to be in a line of my own thinking and stirred me up to the question afresh;-what reason is there for the separate existence of the Baptists as a denomination? Why should we have our separate churches, ministers, colleges, boards, missionaries and societies? Why not merge our existence and enterprises into those of our fellow Christians of other denominations? This is a question that will apply to others as truly as to us; but we are responsible for our own existence and must give answer for the same to God and to a generous public whose sympathy „ and support we desire. I wish there could be an intelligent, candid and loving discussion of this question by every one of the denominations of Protestant Christendom. The public has the right to demand of each one of the different sects, upon the penalty of withholding sympathy and support, a reason for its separate existence. As to ourselves, we recognize the justice of the demand and will offer our answer. Let the people hear and judge of the strength of our plea.


The first reason that would arise in the mind of an intelligent, free people would likely be: This is a land of religious liberty, and if the Baptists wish to maintain a separate existence no one has the right to object. According to this the right to our separate existence lies in the fact that we wish it.

I desire emphatically to deny this right and the principle upon which it rests. Religious liberty does not consist in the right to do as one pleases in religious matters. Government can not hinder my being a Baptist. This is true: but it is very poor logic to say that because Government has no right to interfere with my religion, therefore I may do as I please.

The exercise of religious liberty is subject to two very important restrictions: (a) It must not run counter to the will of God. Christ said, ”Go ye therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you.” There is no liberty of man that can supervene this law of the risen Lord. In accordance with this the apostle writes: ”As free . . . using your liberty ... as servants of God.” ”To this end was I born and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth,” said the Lord. ”The church is the pillar and ground of the truth.” There is no room left for the exercise of my individual preferences in the kingdom of Christ. Others may claim their right to a separate denominational existence on the ground that this is a land of religious liberty; but God forbid that Baptists should urge this poor plea,

(b) Again, the exercise of our religious liberty must not interfere with our duty to our fellow men. Brethren, I solemnly avow that in the present religious condition of mankind the needless multiplication of denominations is a crying sin against humanity. The great bulk of the human family are without the knowledge of the true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. Think of this, and then look at this typical town. It has 1,500 inhabitants. There are in it six or seven Protestant denominations. Each has its own house of worship, minister, services. These represent thousands of dollars every year. Yet the people who attend services might be easily gathered into one house of worship and served by one minister. Before the bar of reason and conscience, the remaining five or six with the attendant cost must stand as a needless expenditure of labor and means, for which I believe God will hold men responsible. The needless consumption of men and means in this way is to-day more than enough to supply the destitution of our country. In our own State it is more than we all have ever done to give the gospel to the heathen. If we had all the men and all the money that we need for Christian work at home and abroad the case would be different. But how does it stand ? Here are six or seven men to supply a population of 1,500; and in China or India there is one minister to four or five million. Needlessly to multiply denominations because we wish to, while the bulk of the human family is dying without the knowledge of Christ, is folly and wickedness; it is rebellion against the last command of Christ; and argues an indifference to the perishing souls of man. Again, I say, with increased emphasis, God forbid that Baptists should justify their separate denominational existence on the ground that this is a land of religious liberty and no one has the right to interfere with us.


In the further discussion of this subject, it would be an injustice not to recognize the substantial unity that exists among the various Protestant denominations upon many of the cardinal doctrines of the gospel. I need mention only the divinity and messiahship of Christ, his atoning death, his resurrection, ascension and mediatorial reign, the office of the Holy Spirit, the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, the necessity of repentance and faith, the general judgment and the rewards and punishments of the future life. I gladly recognize all this and rejoice in it. While not agreeing about everything, I praise God that there is so much about which we are agreed. Some one may say: ”If there exist this substantial unity why let minor differences disturb you? Let each go his way as he thinks best and all live in peace.” In answer we ask, Does not so great unity demand that we strive after complete unity and escape the many and grievous ills of having so many different sects? If we differed about the things upon which we are agreed and agreed only upon the things about which we differ, then truly we would be compelled to say, Let each go his way and live in peace. But since there exists so great community of sympathy and thought and effort among us why should there be six or seven Protestant denominations in a town of a few hundred inhabitants? There should be an intelligent, candid and loving discussion of this subject.


I wish now to clear the subject of a serious misapprehension. The Baptists are often charged with dividing Christendom upon a bare ordinance, and that one of the externals of religion. We are charged with building up a denomination upon the shallow and narrow basis of a mere rite; with rilling the air with our cries about the little thing of how much water is to be used in baptism. We are charged with separating ourselves from others by the arbitrary restrictions that we have placed around the Table of our common Lord, and with bigotry arrogating to ourselves a wisdom and sanctity superior to others. These are the characteristics that are supposed to mark the people called Baptists.

Even among many Baptists this subject fails of an intelligent understanding and therefore of a correct and proper statement. Ask scores of Baptists what is the difference between their own and other denominations and the answer will be: Baptists believe in immersion. This is a correct answer as far as it goes; but it is a very imperfect and shallow presentation of the truth. Or perhaps the answer would be: Baptists practice close communion. This again is correct so far as it goes; but as a full and fair answer to the question it is superficial and misleading. Even intelligent Baptists are sometimes very careless in the statement of the fundamentals of the denomination. Dr. Gotch, the president of a Baptist College in England, says in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, perhaps the most splendid monument of learning in the nineteenth century, ”The Baptists as a denomination are distinguished from other denominations by the views they hold respecting the ordinance of baptism.” To proceed from so high a source this statement is a marvel of shallowness and carelessness. I demur to the statement of the venerable Dr. Armitage in the North American Review for March, 1887, that the distinguishing difference of the Baptists is ”in the demand for a positive moral change wrought in the soul by the direct agency of the Holy Spirit as an indispensable qualification for membership in the churches.” And what shall I say of that popular and useful little book from the pen of the venerable Dr. Pendleton, ”Three Reasons Why I am a Baptist?” A truce to all these brethren, honored and beloved as they are; but in the statement of the fundamental distinction of their denomination they need to go deeper and lay bare the broader foundation that the full truth may be known.


The fundamental principle of the Baptists is their belief in the supreme authority and absolute sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures; and their separate existence is the practical and logical result of their attempt to apply this principle in all matters of religion. This is the bed rock on which the denomination rests; and we do not come down to the true foundation until we reach this. I will show you by the shortest of short methods that the statements of Drs. Gotch and Armitage and Pendleton come short of the full truth. Ask Dr. Gotch why the Baptists believe in immersion; and he will tell you because the Scriptures teach it. Ask him if some other way would not do as well his reply would be: We have no right to alter any of the plain and positive commands of the Bible. This brings us to the bed rock truth stated just now. In the same way you ask Dr. Armitage why Baptists believe in a converted church membership; and he will tell you that it is because the Scriptures so teach. But why not admit to the church all who belong to the same family and nation? The answer would be: We have no right to go beyond the teachings of the Scriptures. If you ask Dr. Pendleton why he practices close communion so-called, that is, why he restricts the invitation to the Lord’s Table to baptized believers; there is but one answer that he would think of giving you: The Bible teaches us that the Supper was ordained by Christ; and he has taught us in his Word that only baptized believers are to approach it; and that we have no right to go contrary to his Word.

Let us look a moment at this principle and its importance. A father says: Son do this. But his son does something else. When asked about it he says: Well, I thought that what I did was as well as what you told me to do. A master says to his servant: Do this. But he does something else and when asked about it replies that what he did was altogether more convenient and withal more proper. Such a course of conduct in a son or servant when deliberately settled upon is a direct arraignment of the wisdom and authority of the father or master. Baptists say that in matters of religion there must be absolutely nothing like this. God’s Word is the supreme and infallible rule for our guidance. We must not go contrary to it in any article of belief or in any duty enjoined. It is no partial revelation. By it the man of God is thoroughly furnished unto all good works. This is the fundamental position of the Baptists; and every peculiarity which characterizes them is the practical outcome of this principle.

This is the ground on which the Protestants of the sixteenth century planted themselves-the ground on which Luther stood in his great struggle against the Church of Rome. When he stood at the Diet of Worms in the presence of the emperor and the dignitaries of the Church and State and was called on to recant, his reply was, ”I am bound by the Holy Scriptures: my conscience is held by the Word of God. Here I stand; I can not do otherwise. God help me. Amen.” In accord with this is the justly celebrated saying of Chillingworth: ”The Bible, the whole Bible and nothing but the Bible is the religion of Protestants.” Baptists say that the decrees of Popes, Councils, Assemblies, Conventions or what not are of no authority save as they are sanctioned by the Word of God. Traditions are worthless save for their historical or probative value.


And let me show you how it is that this fundamental principle has led to the separate existence of the Baptists and to the peculiarities that mark their denominational life.

(a) Take for example, the question of baptism. Luther said that the primitive baptism was immersion and that the primitive practice should be restored. The Baptists said the same thing and following out their belief immersed all who came to them even though they had been sprinkled before. Strange to say, for this Luther hated the Baptists hardly less than he hated the Catholics. Calvin said that the word baptize means to immerse and that it is certain that immersion was the practice of the primitive churches, but that in this matter the churches ought to have liberty. Here now are the points of agreement and the points of difference between the Reformers on the one hand and the Baptists on the other. They all agreed that immersion was the practice of the primitive churches. Luther and Calvin thought that they were at liberty to practice another form, the Baptists said that we ought to do what the Master commands; and that we have no liberty to change a positive ordinance which he has ordained. Here the work of separation begins. The issue was not as to what the act of baptism is, but whether we have the right to change it. Before the court of the highest scholarship of the world it has never been an open question as to what the true baptism is. It really is not now, as it was not in the time of Luther and Calvin. The question is about the right to change it; and it is not that Baptists think too much of one form above another. I am frank to say for myself, that if it were a matter left to our choice whether we should immerse or sprinkle, while immersion is a beautiful and significant ordinance and sprinkling is a meaningless ceremony, still I would give up immersion rather than divide Christendom on a mere rite:-I say if it were left to our choice. But it has never been left to our choice: And when others say that they will change the ordinance, the question between them and us is, not what is the true baptism but whether there is any right or authority to change it. Baptists do not yield their position about baptism because it is the surface indication of a great underlying principle. Principles are of use to us because of the guidance they afford us in practical life. What honor or consistency is there in avowing a principle and then denying it in our daily conduct ? We see how it is then that the peculiarity of Baptists upon immersion results from their fundamental position. They must be peculiar or they must give up the principle that the Word of God is our supreme and all-sufficient rule.

(b) Take the Baptist peculiarity upon infant baptism, so-called. They refuse to practice it or to recognize it, because the Scriptures afford no warrant whatever for it. Luther’s struggle here was great. He saw that the Bible says nothing in favor of infant baptism. The question with him was: Shall we give it up as our principle requires? In fact infant baptism had gained so great a hold upon the public heart that Luther feared the consequences of his radical and penetrating principle and hence modified his position and said: The Word of God does not forbid it and so I will retain it. Zwingli was hesitating and perplexed and failed at last because he did not have the courage of his convictions. The Baptists said: We will stand by the principle. The Word of God does not authorize the baptism of infants but only of believers. Here the work of separation is still going on and upon the same principle; namely, the supremacy and sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures. The question of the baptism of infants was simply the surface indication of the underlying principle. The opposition of the Baptists to infant baptism was also strengthened by the vicious error that lay under it, viz.: the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Infant baptism had its rise in the mischievous idea that any one dying without the waters of baptism went straight to the flames of torment. This is one of the palpable facts of history. Baptists are sometimes charged with making too much of baptism. In the light of history the charge is ludicrous. One of the peculiarities of the Baptists is their opposition to those who, in times past, made so much of baptism as to contend that without it new-born infants could not get to heaven. If you will suffer the remark I will say that the Baptists are the only people who have never made either too much or too little of the ordinance of baptism. They make no more of it and no less of it ’than the Scriptures require.

(c) Take the peculiarity of the Baptists respecting the Lord’s Supper. They believe that it is the Lord’s ordinance, not theirs; and that they have no right to make any other use of the ordinance than that which the Lord has ordained. He tells us that it is to show forth his death till he comes; and that it is to be administered only to baptized believers. We do not profess to be better, wiser, holier or in anywise above others except in our rigid adherence to the terms that he has ordained for the government of this ordinance. Suppose that a citizen of the English government should undertake to vote at one of our elections for president of the United States. The judges of the election would be compelled to refuse him: He might claim to be a more intelligent man than any of the judges, of better social position, of greater wealth, of truer knowledge of American institutions; still they could not allow him to vote because he was unnaturalized. It would involve a violation of their solemn oath if they should allow him to vote. Pity ’tis that sometimes the administrators of human law have more respect to a strict obedience to its requirements than do the administrators of the divine law.


I am not a Baptist because Baptists practice restricted communion, or immersion, or refuse infant baptism. I am a Baptist because by the fundamental principle of Protestantism I am bound by the Word of God in all matters of faith and practice. I believe in immersion not because I believe in one act above another but because the Bible teaches it; so of close communion; and so of the rejection of infant baptism. For these peculiarities as peculiarities I care nothing at all. Indeed I am sorry that we are peculiar in these matters. But these peculiarities embody an underlying principle in religion that is more important than reputation or life itself. And to surrender these peculiarities is to surrender that principle. And if an honest adherence to it and an honest endeavor to practice it bring odium upon us let us have the manliness to bear it. To seek odium is detestable; to run from the post of conscience or of duty to avoid it, is cowardly and traitorous.

And let us give our principles our hearty sympathy, our earnest prayers, our cordial and liberal support. To what better cause can we devote our time, our energies, our means, ourselves? As a group of Christian men and women were standing on the shore gazing after a ship, going out to sea and on which a number of missionaries had embarked for foreign lands, one of the group enthusiastically exclaimed, ”That is what ships were made for, to carry missionaries to the heathen.”

If I am a Baptist and if I am proud of it, I want that it shall affect me not in the way of making me narrow and bigoted and intolerant, but humble, patient, loving towards those who differ from me, and hearty, generous, energetic and persevering in the use of my time, talents and means for the furtherance of the good cause. Let us show our devotion to our principles, not by boastfulness and arrogance, but by a watchful attention to the needs of the cause we love. Thus shall we best show to men our fidelity and zeal; and thus best help the truth in its onward march to complete and final victory.

Baptist - Why and Why Not

Edited by J. M. Frost
The Sunday School Board of
The Southern Baptist Convention