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Blog // Thoughts
February 24, 2009

Baptists And The Exchange Of Ideas

Going through some old papers today I stumbled upon a fascinating article called The frontier of free exchange of ideas: the Baptist Congress as a forum for Baptist concerns, 1881-1913 by William H. Brackney (originally published in Baptist History and Heritage). As the name suggests, it is a historical study of the North American Baptist […]

Going through some old papers today I stumbled upon a fascinating article called The frontier of free exchange of ideas: the Baptist Congress as a forum for Baptist concerns, 1881-1913 by William H. Brackney (originally published in Baptist History and Heritage). As the name suggests, it is a historical study of the North American Baptist Congress meetings and gives a fascinating insight into how Baptists once (in what was probably their high water mark) organised themselves to allow open discussion and the free flow of ideas.

“Given the heavy control tactics used in many Baptist public forums in recent years, it is interesting to recapture the “rules of discussion” in the Congress… …no votes were taken, and no assembly of Baptists was allowed to commit to anything. A chairman served as parliamentarian. Any person by showing his membership card could be recognized on the floor. Discussion was limited to the topic assigned for the occasion; no person could speak twice on the same topic, thus avoiding debate. Readers of papers were allowed twenty-five minutes, and volunteer speakers were given ten minutes. Most importantly, no resolution or motion was entertained of any kind, thus prohibiting any sort of legislative or enforcing action in the name of the Congress.

It really was a frontier for the pure discussion of ideas, far removed from convention reports; society meetings; or smoke-tidied, executive-decision rooms. No Baptists were attacked on this frontier, and the Congress did not have to be defended against its foes.”

I can remember sitting by the pool in India, on a lazy afternoon and wondering how this all connected with my experience of being a Baptist and why I had chosen that denominational route. Now, I’m re-reading this on a foggy day in a Hong Kong rise and wondering if, ever, I have experienced Baptist polity as a free exchange of ideas not bound by reports and bureaucracy .

Actually I have, but it’s been a very limited thing indeed. Over the years I’ve come to wonder whether the idea of Baptist theology that I fell in love with was either a chimera, or a historical moment that ended long ago. I mean, consider the kind’s of issues these Baptist meetings addressed around a hundred years ago,

“Under the aegis of a new generation of Baptist thinkers after 1900, the “current questions” included religious instruction in state schools (1905), ethics of competition in business (1906), ethics in literary fiction (1907), the legitimate limits of free speech in a republic (1908), the teaching of ethics in public schools (1909), criminal justice systems (1910), poverty (1911), and the implications of democracy upon religious life (1912).”

Sure, there are thoughtful Baptists today who ponder such issues, but they seem to do so at the margins, not in the mainstream (at least in my experience). I found myself wondering about the lack of good debate on immigration and ethnicity from my Baptist friends when reading about the role of one of my Baptist heroes who participated in the Congresses,

“Walter Rauschenbush, then a pastor of a German congregation in New York City, led the nonrestrictive elements of the discussion. Not surprisingly, Rauschenbush favored an entirely open immigration policy, in part because the present laws were not working. But, more importantly, God had made America for all who would come: “We all came over here sometime,” he implored. In a moment of flurry, the young pastor even asserted that anarchists were a blessing to Americans because “they have set us to pay attention to the questions as we never bad before.” “

In the end I found the article very discomforting, because for me there is a certain degree of coziness in blaming the existing structures of church and the limitations of the denomination as I experienced it. It’s a lazy response really. So what if I haven’t been able to find the intellectually fulfilling, socially engaging and spiritually uplifting kind of church the historians dish up to me in the present denominational reality. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen somehow, somewhere else. At this time, when I’m at something of a low, in terms of church participation, this past example of what Baptists were is challenging me on a lot of levels.

“The Baptist Congress was a true frontier of Baptist tolerance and discovery. It occurred during a “golden age” of sorts in Baptist life,” and it may have been an important contributing factor. Past animosities and sectionalism were laid aside in favour of fellowship and intellectual stimulation. Our Baptist forbearers learned how to face each other with widely differing opinions and remain civil, if not congenial. Significantly, the come-outers and angry theologian/pastors were nowhere to be seen, and no one seems to have missed them!

Perhaps it is once again time for a meeting among us like the Baptist Congress. Our present attempts at “fellowship” too often reflect administrative and promotional agendas, our theologians and ethicists too infrequently interact with historians and others, and the regional and national learned societies call us to different agendas. The emerging seminars, colloquia, and continuing education events in our midst serve a worthy purpose, but a more discourse-generic, open “Baptist” forum is needed. Moreover, for Christians who value personal experience we need to be in each other’s company. The writer of the first historical sketch of the Congress put it well: “With no visible head, like the Pope, with no ecclesiastical court, like the General Assembly, and with no imposed creed like the Thirty-Nine Articles or the Westminster Confession, our unity of faith and practice may best be preserved by a frequent and personal interchange of views, wherein head and heart, knowledge and faith, reverence for the past, sympathy with the present, and zeal for the future, meet and blend.””

[tags] Baptist, Ecclesiology [/tags]

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Responses
roy donkin 14 years ago

Fernando,

the kind of Baptist community that ill describes is exactly what attracted me to Baptists. I ended up at a Baptist seminary either by coincidence or by grace but in ether case it was exactly what I was searching for. At that time, Eastern Baptist Seminary in Philadelphia PA exemplified that kind of atmosphere and there were still strong hints of it in the American Baptist Churches, USA.

In large degree it has retreated into the background as ABC fought over sexuality issues and there was a strong push towards creedalism, even though that word is still a bad word in ABC circles. EBTS became much more narrow and many discussions were/are forbidden. I’m glad the name has changed to Palmer Theological School… that allows me some distance from the current shape of the school.

That retreat really saddens me because I think the Baptist tradition in its best parts is exactly what speaks to a post-modern world. Unfortunately we have not held that thread tightly enough nor have we held it up for others to see.

I live in hope that we will reclaim that stance

Stuart Blythe 14 years ago

Thanks Fernando for this fascinating post which I will link to from my blog. Such a space would be of great value. Where I would like to push even further is in terms of how we ‘discuss’ and ‘converse’ where communal decisions whether at a national or a local level require to be made. For my own part I would like to see the Baptist Assembly in Scotland turn from its present format largely of dull business and ‘inspirational’ evening presentataions to a context where those who gather from different Church could speak of what Christ has been saying to them in terms of their discipleship.

A context where individual congregations speak out what they have discerned Christ has been saying to them, may both help other congregations to hear what he is saying to them, and also the congregations together to hear what Christ is saying to us corporately. All of this would require a change of mindset. it is an approach that may take some time to get to. But I personally think both what you discuss in terms of no decision meetings and a different approach to decision making meeting would be a welcome change to a weared present approach.

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