Why Become A Baptist
By David M. Ramsey, D. D.
Pastor Citadel Square Baptist Church
Charleston, South Carolina
If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever. He that hath my commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him and will manifest myself to him. - John 14:15, 16, 21.
EIGHTEEN years now have passed since the struggle closed. Up to this time there has seemed to be no reason for giving to the public this private and intensely personal piece of history which has never before breathed the air. Yet there is a psychological law which ever causes us to be interested in the earnest soul-conflicts of our fellow men. Even a heathen was applauded to the echo in Rome for the noble sentiment: ”I am a man and nothing that affects man is foreign to me.” Time enough has elapsed to temper the writer’s feeling and also to remove from the mind of the reader that tinge of suspicion and touch of reserve with which we are wont to receive the statements of a too recent convert from the ranks of another denomination. Moreover, I am persuaded that if the experience of our life be helpful to other lives, like the timber for a good vehicle, it must be well seasoned. The specific reason for my writing on the subject of becoming a Baptist is that it embodies my personal experience, and hence the form is necessarily biographical and the substance experimental. There is nothing to do but to tell the story of this portion of my life. It is entirely justifiable to perform vivisection in the interest of truth.
When about seventeen years of age, I went from the home of my boyhood in Greenville county, South Carolina, to Storeville, in Anderson county, some forty miles distant, to enter a high school. The institution had as its principal a young Baptist minister capable and cultured, whose name I here write with a sense of abiding gratitude, the Rev. E. R. Carswell, Jr. This school was chosen because of the fact that of the several letters received, the one from Mr. Carswell was most pleasing to the lad who was permitted to make his own choice. Prior to this, I was converted under the preaching of the Rev. Ripley Jacobs, an eloquent young Presbyterian preacher, and I joined the Fairview Presbyterian church where my forefathers had long been members, and of which denomination my father is and has long been a ruling elder. My mother also was a member of this church. Ours was one of those orderly Presbyterian homes of a former day where the children were scrupulously fed on Sundays on half moon pies, loaf bread, and the Shorter Catechism. It was rather a dry day. I remember that my father once stopped me from whistling with the remark that the noise was too shrill for the holy Sabbath. Doubtless it was not superior music. It was a godly home for which I have ever been devoutly thankful.
Soon after I entered the Carswell institute, the young Baptist preacher in a spirit of pleasantry asked his Presbyterian pupil for a good text for a sermon on infant baptism which he intended to preach the following Sunday, stipulating to use the very strongest one favoring this custom which might be produced. The terms were agreed to and at once the search began in good earnest. The boy chuckled over the embarrassing predicament which the preacher and congregation would find themselves in the next Sunday.
But soon the subject became distressingly serious. One of the first passages turned to of course was, ”But Jesus said suffer little children and forbid them not to come unto me for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” To my surprise there was not a word here about any kind of baptism. The Baptist minister could do all this for his own babe next Sunday at the close of his sermon, if he thinks there is nothing sacrilegious in a poor mortal man’s imitating the Divine Redeemer in bestowing a blessing. So one after another of the familiar passages were examined with similar results. The household baptisms mentioned in the New Testament failed me for they possessed no remotest hint that infants were present. On the contrary, I remember very distinctly that in every case studied in my crude way the startling fact came out prominently that there was proof that each one baptized had previously exercised faith for himself. The concordance was patiently consulted but no relief came. About Friday the preacher insisted on having his text. I think now that there was in his eye a twinkle of almost cruel pleasure over my discomfiture and awkwardness as I made my lame excuses of absence from books and counseling friends, lack of time, etc. With the assurance on my part that he should hear from me again on this subject, the preacher was left to select his own text according to his liking.
Now who was the most unhappy youth in all that neighborhood ? Why, that same lad who left his teacher’s presence with a cheerful and careless manner, but whose heart had taken on its first real burden, not to be thrown off for weary years, and like all sorrows in this life, it possessed a strange power of isolation. He felt somewhat as men feel in an earthquake when that solid globe which they have ever called terra firma seems breaking from her ancient moorings and driving headlong into chaos. Every spare hour was spent in reading and investigation.
While I am penning these lines my hand is resting on the most precious treasure I possess. Money would not buy it - that is it is not for sale, for a thousand precious memories cling to the inanimate thing almost transmuting it into a person.
It is simply the little red-back Bible I purchased in the town of Anderson at the cost of twenty-five cents-a good sum for that purse. There were plenty of Bibles in the house but this expensive outlay must be made that no one see the evidences of what my soul was passing through. Its pages are well pencil marked and on the fly leaves I find ”circumcision” with many references telling the story of months of mental confusion. In another place is this significant heading, ”Baptism, where mentioned,” with chapter and verse given in a long list.
About this time I opened my heart to a very agreeable and intelligent Presbyterian gentleman whom I had come to know quite intimately. I stated my troubles, giving him the result of my recent studies. He told me that some years before he passed through a similar experience, and that his mind was set at rest on the subject by reading a booklet written by Dr. Stacy, of Newnan, Georgia. Taking my friend’s advice, I wrote directly to the author, asking for his treatise which he kindly sent with promptness. To my mind the discussion was unsatisfactory as a piece of reasoning and hence failed to bring rest to my disturbed soul. If my memory serves me correctly, the author’s object was to prove that there was an Old Testament church merged into a New Testament church, and that baptism in the New simply takes the place of circumcision in the Old.
The schoolboy was then a member of an active and excellent debating society, and was very fond of that kind of work. He saw plainly that there were too many weak points in the argument for it to get a favorable verdict were it made before that truly shrewd body composing the Eclectic Debating Society of Carswell Institute. I remember well that this was the test to which Dr. Stacy’s reasoning was subjected in my mind. Two or three patent facts seemed fatal to his position. That Jesus himself was baptized after his circumcision, that baptism was for both sexes while circumcision was for only one, that the whole theory was an assumption without one passage of Scripture in its support, and other similar facts caused the searcher after truth to part company with Dr. Stacy’s argument.
But my conclusion appeared arrogant. How often had we heard from that truly angelic spirit, our Aunt Mary, whose sweet, unselfish life had been spent in our home, that the scholars and educated preachers for the most part are found in our denomination. That proved the most convincing piece of logic up to date.
Now it was that the conscience was set at rest with the jugglery of a phrase-baptism is not essential. Why then be schismatic? It is nothing else but bigotry. It is not good form. I forgot to ask the question, essential to what ? For Jesus, it was essential to fulfill all righteousness- essentialto the salvation of the world. If it is not essential to our own salvation and yet necessary to obedience or to the discharge of duty, or the full expression of love, it is a large and blessed truth. But some time subsequently I experienced a poetic awakening to the character of this blinding and seductive fallacy. A revival arose among the students and many were converted. Those who joined the Baptist church were to be baptized down at the ford on the Rocky River. I was there. It was a crisp autumn afternoon, the leaves were falling--a typical gray day of that melancholy season. A large gathering lined the banks of the river. Our young preacher read in a clear voice and kindly manner several passages from the Bible, setting forth baptism by immersion. It did seem very easy to find the appropriate Scripture! If it had been written for the occasion it could not have suited better. It does not matter, I thought, for it is all settled anyhow, baptism is not essential.
And then, closing the book, the preacher said something like this: ”Our Lord must have walked some forty miles across the desert country to come down to the Jordan to be baptized by John in the river. Jesus, calm and silent and unrecognized, had been working in the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth, but now he leaves these duties to enter upon his vast labors as the World’s Redeemer. First he must be baptized in the Jordan. Here stands his baptism on the threshold of his life-work. It was a solemn hour and tender experience, for Jesus Himself said it was necessary for him to be baptized to fulfill all righteousness. I know not all the deep meaning of that utterance. By example and precept he has taught us that it is our duty to be baptized, and I think if we love him it should be pleasant to keep his commandments.”
As the minister spoke he seemed to fix his eyes on me. At least the words like arrows fastened themselves in my bosom. Then he led the young Christians down into the water. I had heard that baptism by immersion somehow was unbecoming to ladies-indeed it was not quite refined, but yonder as they emerge from the water what a heavenly scene! And the most beautiful one of all that number never before seemed so divinely lovely as now. I remember how my heart smote me. ”Thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness” kept ringing in my ears. With one stroke the booth which I had been hiding behind to escape duty was stricken down by the sword of the Spirit. Thus vanished forever my pleasant little conceit that New Testament baptism is nonessential. And the words went with me up from the river that Sunday afternoon: ”If you love me keep my commandments.”
Through the rest of the school term conviction grew apace. A friend loaned me Theodosia Ernest which struck me at the time as one of the most wonderful books I had ever read. The limpid style, the fairness in debate, the Viver-like progress of thought on to the end, the simple but happy little plot with many a cunning and clever literary device for sustaining the interest of the reader, but above all the strong exegesis of the Scriptures, marshalling the Bible truths into a phalanx of irresistible argument went far toward capturing and disarming the young knight. Still appearances of having all intact must be kept up until the conclusion of the whole matter was reached and stability of conviction was assured. Not even my most intimate friends, so far as I know, ever suspected any change of views. Ample opportunity was afforded for deliberation during the following two years which had to be given to making money to defray the expense of a college course. School teaching was chosen. What meditation during the long walks to and from school, what ingeniously conducted controversies with intelligent laymen and preachers of all denominations, slyly testing my opinions from the view-point of other men, on the subject ever uppermost in my mind!
One incident occurred about this time which came near leading to an expression of my secret creed. While teaching school at Rabun Creek church in Laurens county, contrary to my earnest wishes, I was elected superintendent of a Baptist Sunday school. The pastor was a loyal and consistent Baptist, possessing strong convictions undiluted with the water of expediency. He boldly told the church to their face that it was a great wrong to place a Presbyterian in charge of their Sunday school. Hard feelings arose in the church as the result. I tried in vain to pour oil on the troubled waters. Little did the dear conscientious brethren know what a harmless wolf they had let in among the Baptist lambs. The time was not full however, for opening my heart, and so with my secret locked at present in my breast, I took up my task and moved on for another six months.
Then came the sorest trial of all that I had been called on to face up to this time. A strange and at first undefined feeling overtook me that I must become a preacher of the gospel. Hitherto, I had been expecting to enter the legal profession. At last the impression that preaching was to be my life work moved out into the realm of clearness and became a firm conviction of duty. It seemed to me that my life would be a failure if I went into any other calling, which I suppose was the state of soul which Paul was in when he said: ”Woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel.” But where to preach was the puzzling question. To enter the Presbyterian ministry would be to preach, teach, and practice that which I did not believe on the subject of baptism, and in support of which I had not been able to find one passage of Scripture after years of searching. I could not escape the conclusion that for me at least such a course would be unmanly and sinful. On the other hand to join a Baptist church and enter the ministry, the difficulties seemed well nigh insurmountable. I knew but few influential members of that denomination, nor in the circumstances did I feel willing to ask favors. This poor soul had no Barnabas to introduce him to the brethren and vouch for his conversion. The money saved by teaching must be utterly inadequate to meet the expense of a seven years’ course at college and seminary.
Well do I remember that this was a season of tenderness and prayer. For some reason that I have never been able to understand fully there were ever with me thoughts of my sainted mother, who died when I was six years of age. There came up simple little incidents of childhood memories, such as my learning to read the fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel while sitting on her lap one Sunday afternoon. But oftenest there was before me the pathetic scene connected with my dear mother’s death. I remembered, oh so distinctly, how she kissed us all good bye, one by one, as we were lifted up to her bed, and then how she turned her fair radiant face and set her blue eyes on my father who stood at the foot of the bed like a statue, but with feelings that lay too deep for tears. I shall never forget that when they said she was gone I went into the room alone and fell on my knees and tried to pray. It was a child’s sorrow but deep. I did not know that my mother could die. I had always thought of her as immortal because I knew her only as love. This experience is recorded in this connection simply because it is strictly true to the facts. A possible explanation of this peculiar experience which was ever with me in these days has come to my knowledge. It seems almost mystical, and yet it is such a striking coincidence that it must be related. A few years ago my aged Aunt told me with much feeling that when my mother lost by death a singularly fine little boy, her first born, she said in her grief that she had named this child Samuel, and had given him to the Lord to be a preacher if it should be His will. But the Lord spake to little Samuel and the child went away to be with him perpetually in the upper temple. Also the mother went a few years later leaving one boy. Long afterwards, this son is called into the ministry. I wonder if heaven has not a minute plan being slowly carried out in it all. With more than maternal sweetness God seemed to be pointing out the way.
Then finally came the time for summing up the facts and from all the data to draw the conclusion on this subject. Here is my little red-back Bible with its oft-marked pages. But what of it ? The process of thought which followed may be briefly outlined. I find that I take this Bible as the source of information and the final authority for man, the sufficient rule of faith and practice Tradition is not needed, nor is it safe or authoritative. Neither ”the church” nor any man or collection of men is empowered to change these teachings of the inspired record, nor has any one the power of private interpretation. That being the case the one important point for me to settle is, what does this book teach me to be my religious duty? I find that the great bulk of that which I have been taught from childhood I now most heartily and lovingly accept, but in several important doctrines, I am at variance with my early instructions. The distinctive doctrines of the Baptist denomination seem quite near to New Testament’ models. These early churches had a simple and natural polity and were evidently self-governing without any higher ecclesiastical courts. The doctrine of restricted communion commends itself to my mind as the consistent and logical sequence from the teaching of believers’ baptism. So after all baptism it would seem possesses the strategic element. Now clearly there is no scriptural authority for infant baptism for the subject must be a believer in Jesus as his personal Savior. As to the matter of what baptism is, I see wherever it is described at all it is performed by putting the candidate into the water. Not only so, but the reason for immersion is plainly given showing that it must be a burial, symbolizing our death to sin and resurrection to a new life in Christ. Then to change to sprinkling or pouring is to destroy its very character and to lose all its beauty and instructiveness, and also to foil its important mission, in making the good confession before the world. Here is a most significant fact which amounts almost to a demonstration of the correctness of the truths held by the Baptist denomination, namely, if Pedobaptists wish to attack the distinctive doctrines of the Baptists they must take Roman Catholic grounds for waging the warfare. On the other hand, if the Pedobaptists wish to combat the errors of Romanism for successful controversy, they must occupy Baptist grounds in the defense.
At last after four years the battle is over, the die is cast, the Rubicon crossed. One day early in October, 1880, the Rev. J. K. Mendenhall came down from Greenville at my invitation to Columbia church in Greenville county to perform the baptism. The morning of the baptism came, and I had not yet apprised my father of the step I was about taking. The reason for the delay in informing him was his extreme illness. Indeed on this account the baptism had already been postponed for several days. When I made my mind known to my father, he replied quietly and kindly that this course was a sore disappointment to him but he would offer no objection, leaving me to act according to the dictates of my own conscience. This gentle and affectionate spirit almost broke my purpose. It seemed harder to bear than opposition, especially in all the circumstances. At this time the tempter came with many an ingenious argument and wily plea, pursuing me to the confines of torture, that he might turn me aside from the clear path of duty. Oftimes since that morning I have stood on that same spot where I poured out my soul in prayer for guidance and strength. It was a pivotal hour in my life. There came over me a sense of utter loneliness in the world. I know now that I was weak. It was one of those inclement days which seem to clip the wings of hope. But He who said, ”Lo I am with you through all the days,” fulfilled His rich and precious promise, and I went forward in strength not my own.
Every incident of the day is fresh in memory. Trite details have taken on an importance in my own mind out of all proportion to their intrinsic merit. Taking a satchel in front of me on a horse, I rode away to the church some seven miles distant. It fell upon a time when a protracted meeting was in progress. When Brother Mendenhall reached the church he was invited to preach, and he gave an admirable discourse, full of consolation and encouragement, on the manliness of the true Christian. At the close of this tender sermon I was received into the membership of the church. I remember that a neighboring Baptist minister, the same who objected to having a Presbyterian superintendent for his Sunday school, was present, as I was told, to object to my baptism, having been incorrectly informed that I was seeking baptism by immersion with the intention of remaining a member of the Presbyterian church; but when he learned that the candidate was coming in the regular way, without any reservations, he offered no objections.
So it came to pass that about noon on that autumn day, near the place of my birth, in the presence of a vast assembly of my neighbors, together with many of the children whom I had taught in the day school, there on the banks of the purling little stream, we sang and prayed, and the preacher and I went down into the water as my Lord had done, and as He commanded me to do, and we came up straightway out of the water, and like another in that far off day, I went on my way rejoicing. Then I had peace of mind and great happiness.