PILGRIMS IN PARADISE
Ernest Edward Carrier
The Story of Baptist Pioneers of Upper East Tennessee
Baptists share a theological heritage with other evangelical Christians; however, they have pioneered doctrinal distinctives that have contributed to spiritual ideals which have greatly enriched present-day Christianity.
Robert G. Torbert, in "A History of the Baptist," lists the six Baptist distinctives: (1) The Bible as supreme norm for faith and practice in the Christian life; (2) The New Testament Church is composed of baptized believers; (3) The priesthood of the believers. This ideal expresses the belief that "a believer is once and for all saved by grace through faith, and has free access to God the Father through the one and only High Priest, Jesus Christ our Saviour at any time for spiritual comfort and forgiveness of sin"; (4) The local congregation is an autonomous body; (5) The right of every individual to free choice in all religious matters; and (6) The separation of church and state. "By this is meant that the state has no right to interfere with the religious beliefs and practices of the individuals or congregations, and that the church has no right to expect any financial support from the state." (1)
The "Philadelphia Confession of Faith," adopted by the Philadelphia Baptist Association in 1742, expressed the above Baptist distinctives. The pioneer Baptist congregations of Johnson and Carter counties founded their churches on the doctrines taught in the Philadelphia Confession.
The Philadelphia Association had its conception in the latter part of the seventeenth century. Five Baptist congregations in the area began to strengthen their ties of fellowship through periodic meetings. In 1707 they organized the first Baptist Association in America. The newly-formed association did not claim ecclesiastical authority over the member congregations, but rather provided a forum for settling disputes and giving advice, acting sometimes as a council for ordination or discipline of ministers, and in giving guidance in the matters of doctrine and policy.
The Philadelphia Association was strongly Calvinistic in attitude, and adopted the London Confession of Particular Baptists of 1689 with few changes. (1)
The First Baptist Church of Johnson County, established as the "Baptist Church of Jesus Christ on Roane's Creek," in 1794 adopted the articles of faith of the Philadelphia Association.
In later years the popularity of the "Philadelphia Confession" faded with the churches. The confession is a classical statement of Christian doctrine, but it "was quite too long, and theologically too abstruse for general circulation." The "confession" consists of thirty-two articles, with numerous subdivisions, and an appendix on baptism. (2)
The New Hampshire Confession grew in popularity with the Baptist congregations. "Its origin dates back to 1830, when the New Hampshire Baptist State convention, holding its session at Concord on June 24, authorized the preparation of a declaration of faith which might secure the approval and serve the purpose of all the Baptist churches in that state." After several drafts the "confession" was unanimously adopted in 1833 as their standard of faith. (3)
O.W. Taylor, in his book, "Early Tennessee Baptists," reported that the Holston Association "adopted the Philadelphia confession," but there were differences of interpretation allowed on some points. The body made it clear that adoption of the confession did not mean "that every member is obliged to receive every particular therein contained," but that the confession was "adopted only as a general system of principles" (MHBA ‘71). So there were 'Regular Baptists' and 'Separate Baptists' in the association, the latter being the majority. The Regulars accepted the strong and long statement of the Philadelphia Confession on predestination, foreordination and election, while the Separates held a modified, or softened, form of these doctrines.
The Watauga Association of Baptists did not adopt an "article of faith" in its original constitution and by-laws approved in 1868. Article three of the constitution reads "This Association shall be composed of the churches named in the following minute, and such other of our faith and order as may apply for admission.....".
The accepted "faith and order" of member churches of the Association was the New Hampshire Confession of faith.
In the annual session of 1963 the Association would for the first time formally approve and adopt an "article of faith." "The Baptist Faith and Message" became the doctrinal position of the Watauga Association of Baptist. (4)
The "Baptist Faith and Message" was adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention on May 9,1963. A committee of twenty-four, Herschel H. Hobbs, Chairman, presented the document to the 1962 session of the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in San Francisco, California. The committee's work was based on early documents adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1925.
"The 1925 Statement" recommended the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, revised at certain points, and with some additional articles growing out of certain needs....Your present committee has adopted the same pattern. It has sought to build upon the structure of the 1925 Statement, keeping in mind the 'certain needs' of our generation. At times it has reproduced sections of the Statement without change. In other instances it has substituted words for clarity or added sentences for emphasis. At certain points it has combined articles, with minor changes in wording, to endeavor to relate certain doctrines to each other. In still others—e.g., 'God' and 'Salvation' — it has sought to bring together certain truths contained throughout the 1925 Statement in order to relate them more clearly and concisely. In no case has it sought to delete from or to add to the basic contents of the 1925 Statement." (5)
The harmony of these pioneer Baptist congregations was threatened many times by theological controversies. Tennessee Baptist historian, OW. Taylor, reported that two prominent disturbances overshadowed the life of these early societies. These were anti-missionism and Campbellism.
The anti-mission controversy was introduced and fanned by sincere but untutored men. These hyper-Calvinist ministers were more in opposition to organized mission work and related matters, favoring an all-out attack on reaching the unchurched and unsaved. Many of the well-known anti-mission ministers were widely known for their evangelistic preaching. They opposed organized mission work out of a fear of a "religious autocracy which might in time set up an overlordship among Baptist churches and people and possibly issue in the persecution of dissenter." (6)
The fires of the anti-mission controversy burned the brightest in the mid-1800's. By the beginning of the twentieth century the anti-mission opposition had faded. While having caused much turmoil and division, it nevertheless proved helpful to the missionary Baptist. Dr. O.W. Taylor observed: "The missionary Baptists were compelled to study the scriptures with greater zeal and attention, and as a result the truths held by them were brought into a clearer focus and given an even abler expression. Moreover, by the separation which took place, hindering forces were removed from the denomination so the gospel could be spread in a nobler way." (7)
The most costly controversy was sparked by Alexander Campbell and his disciples. The "Campbellities" wooed thousands from the Baptist congregation with their erroneous doctrine of "baptismal regeneration." Campbell taught that in the experience of baptism our sins were washed away.
Between 1825-1830 the greatest defection occurred. In Kentucky alone, the Baptists lost more than nine thousand members to the Campbell movement. This was due in part to the Campbell disciples being received into Baptist congregations without any suspicion of their strange doctrine. However, after 1830 their doctrine of baptismal regeneration became better known to the Baptist church and the Campbellites were denied their former privileges. (8)
The Sinking Creek congregation in the Watauga Association divided over Campbellism. Many churches adopted stern measures to protect and rid their congregation of this disruptive influence. Many members were excluded from their congregations for attending Campbellite meetings. Even today, an uneasy truce exists between the Baptists and the Campbellites. The doctrine of baptismal regeneration remains a live issue.
There were other doctrinal issues that faced these early Baptist societies. In 1843 the First Baptist Church of Mountain City adopted a declaration of faith to safeguard and preserve the harmony of the congregation The preface of the declaration reads as follows "Whereas the professors of Christianity are so divided in faith and practice that they cannot commune together we believe it necessary to covenant and decree to writing a short sketch of our faith and principles ..."
The congregation was being troubled by a controversy with the seven-day baptist, the no-sabbath baptist, and those who dip three times in baptism. The majority of the congregation believed that a strong stand against such doctrines must be taken if church order was to be maintained.(9)
In the mountain churches another controversy caused much discussion and division. The controversy originated with two influential Baptist ministers, James R. Graves of Tennessee and J. M. Pendleton of Kentucky, in the latter half of the ninetenth century. Graves and Pendleton, by their writings and sermons, sought to restore the practices of the New Testament Church being neglected by the Baptist congregations.
The controversy became known as the "Landmark" movement when J.R. Graves published an essay by Pendleton under the title "An Old Landmark Reset" in 1854. The movement boosted such unprovable claims as: apostolic succession for Baptist churches; only Baptist ministers can be recognized as gospel ministers; and that ordinances were committed to local church and are to be strictly observed within the limits of the local churches.
When the Southern Baptist Convention refused to adopt the provincialism of the Landmark, the protagonists withdrew in March, 1902, to form their own association. The group organized at Texarkana as the General Association of Baptist. The Association was composed of fifty-two churches.
Many of the Baptist churches today which practice "close communion" and refuse "alien immersions" are not aware that these restrictions were the spin-off of the Landmark controversy, are scripturally indefensible, and have done much to retard Christian brotherhood. Few churches of the Holston and Watauga Associations have been spared from Landmarkism; however, as our members and ministers become more informed, the influence of the Graves-Pendleton movement is being overcome.
It is a great concern of many that the present controversy between "liberalism" and "fundamentalism" of the association is causing an eroding of our fellowship.
There were nine churches in Johnson County which failed to send letters to the 1974 annual meeting of the Watauga Association of Baptist. These churches are not co-operating with the Association and/or Southern Baptist Conventions because of theological differences. It is the opinion of these non-cooperating churches that the Southern Baptist Convention is supporting teachers and organizations that are in default of the principles of our faith; hence, these congregations have withdrawn fellowship over these issues and are supporting missionary and educational causes through independent organizations more in accord with their doctrinal positions.
The story of the origin and growth of the Baptist churches and associations in East Tennessee is an inspiring saga. Through cooperation and under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, foes have been overcome and victories won. The continued success of Baptists will depend on how well we employ our rich heritage. Our Heavenly Father shall crown our efforts with success if we continue true to His Holy Book, and preach Jesus Christ as His Virgin-born, resurrected, exalted son, the only Saviour of sinful men.
1."Annual Minutes," Three Forks Association, Watauga County, N.C., September 4, 1868.
Note: Circular letters were a common practice of the early Baptist associations. The delegates of the annual meeting would designate someone to write a letter of general interest for the assembly. Letters were written on doctrinal issues, social questions and practical problems facing the churches. The author of the letter would read it to the assembly, and if the letter was approved, it was included in the annual minutes.
2.David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America, (New York: Lewis Colby Co., 1853), pages 197 - 198.
3._____________"Church History," Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, 1845- 1962, Mountain City, Tennessee.
4._____________ "Church History," Sugar Grove Baptist Church, 1850 - 1970, Butler, Tennessee.