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History of Kentucky Baptists - 1770-1922
By William Dudley Nowlin, 1922

Chapter 13
The Whittsit Constroversy - 1896 *

      What is known as "The Whitsitt Controversy" began in the spring of 1896. Doctor Whitsitt wrote an article on the Baptists for Johnson's Encyclopedia, in which he set forth his theory that the English Baptists did not begin to baptize by immersion until 1641, when a part of the Anabaptists, as they were then called, began immersion. Doctor Whitsitt in this article used language which many Baptists interpreted to mean that immersion as a Christian ordinance was started at that time. It is but fair to Doctor Whitsitt, however, to say that he in the introduction to his book "A Question in Baptist History," a book called out by the controversy, says:

"Immersion as a religious rite was practiced by John the Baptist about the year 30 of our era, and was solemnly enjoined by our Saviour upon all his ministers to the end of time. No other observance was in use for baptism in New Testament times. The practice, though some times greatly perverted, has yet been continued from the apostolic age down to our own. As I understand the scriptures, immersion is essential to Christian baptism."

[p. 143]
     Here is an extract from the encyclopedia article:
"The earliest organized Baptist Church belongs to the year 1610 or 1611. . . . Ezekiel Holliman baptized Williams and the rest of his company. The ceremony was most likely performed by sprinkling; the Baptists of England had not adopted immersion, and there is no reason which renders it probable that Williams was in advance of them."
     Doctor Henry M. King of Rhode Island pointed out this as an attack on the Baptists, and criticized rather sharply Doctor Whitsitt's position. Next Dr. J. H. Spencer, the Kentucky Baptist historian, wrote an article which appeared in the Western Recorder in which he strongly dissented from Doctor Whitsitt's position. Dr. T. T. Eaton, editor of the Western Recorder, was at this time in Europe, but Mrs. Joe Eaton Peck, who had charge of the paper in the absence of her brother, took up the matter in the Recorder and most vigorously assailed Doctor Whitsitt's position, maintaining that the Baptists, under different names, had had a continuous history, and a uniform practice on baptism, from the beginning of the Christian era.

     After the return of Doctor Eaton he took up the controversy and became the leader of the opposition to Doctor Whitsitt's position. The friends of Doctor Whitsitt (known in the controversy as "Whitsittites") started and used the Baptist Argus as an organ of propaganda and defense, while the "Anti-Whitsittites," as they were called, used the Western Recorder for the same purpose. This, of course, made the controversy all the more bitter and personal in

[p. 144]
Kentucky. The disputation waxed hot and was carried into churches, district associations, state conventions and finally into the Southern Baptist Convention.

     Dr. H. M. Dexter maintained that the idea was not new and pointed out that he had held substantially this position earlier than Doctor Whitsitt. In order to establish priority in this matter Doctor Whitsitt claimed some anonymous editorials which appeared in the New York Independent in 1880 as his work.

     Dr. John T. Christian, who had already gotten into the controversy, began to study the files of the Independent and found other editorials in which this position was set forth and in which the Baptists were attacked very vigorously.

     From internal evidence Doctor Christian decided that Doctor Whitsitt had written all of these editorials and so charged publicly. Doctor Whitsitt acknowledged the authorship of some of the editorials, but denied the others. There was sufficient material, however, in those which he acknowledged to create in the minds of Baptists the most unfavorable impression. At this point Dr. B. H. Carroll of Texas wrote an article in which he set forth the fact that when Doctor Whitsitt acknowledged that he wrote a part of a series of editorials attacking the Baptists he admitted his guilt of the whole, pointing out the fact that in law a man who helps to plan or execute a murder - has any part in it - is guilty of the whole - particeps criminis.

[p. 145]
     We give here some extracts from the Independent editorials without expressing any opinion, as it is the business of the historian to give facts and not opinions. From the Independent, New York, September 2, 1880:
"The Congregationalist speaks of the well-known immersion of Roger Williams by the unimmersed Ezekiel Holliman. To be sure all the Baptists of America so assume, but the editor of the Congregationalist is more accurately acquainted with the origins of Baptist history than any of the Baptists themselves, and we expected that its statements would be more accurate. As we understand it, Roger Williams never was a Baptist in the modern sense -- that is, never was immersed, and the ceremony referred to was anabaptism, rebaptism by sprinkling, and not 'Catbaptism,' or baptism by immersion. The baptism of Roger Williams is affirmed by Governor Winthrop to have taken place in March, 1639. This, however, was at least two years prior to the introduction of the practice of immersion among the Baptists. Up to the year 1641 all Baptists employed sprinkling and pouring as the mode of baptism.... We are inclined to believe that no case of immersion took place among the American Baptists before the year 1644. It seems likely that Roger Williams, on his return from England in that year, brought the first reliable news concerning the change which had taken place in the practice of the English Baptists, three years before, and that it was then that the American Baptists first resolved to accept the innovation."
     This editorial was followed by another September 9, 1880, from which we quote the following:
"It was not until the year 1644, three years after the invention of immersion, that any Baptist confession prescribes 'dipping or plunging the body in water as the way and manner of dispensing the ordinance' (London Confession of 1644, Article 40). . . . Happily for us, however, the above assertion is confirmed by the authority of Edward Barber, the founder of the rite of immersion among the Baptists."

[p. 146]
     Doctor Whitsitt wrote three or more articles in which he defended his claim that "1641" was the date of "the invention of immersion." One in the Examiner, April 23, 1896, one in the Religious Herald, May 7, 1896, and in his book "A Question in Baptist History," published September, 1896. In the Examiner article, April 23, 1896, he says:
"During the autumn of 1877, shortly after I had been put in charge of the school of Church History at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in preparing my lectures on Baptist History, I made the discovery that, prior to the year 1641 our Baptist people in England were in the practice or sprinkling and pouring for baptism. I kept it to myself until the year 1880, when I had the happiness to spend my summer vacation at the British Museum. There I assured myself, largely by researches among the King George's pamphlets, that my discovery was genuine, and established it by many irrefragable proofs from contemporary documents."
     Then in this same article Doctor Whitsitt refers to Doctor Dexter's claim to priority on this question in the following language:
"Apparently Doctor Dexter was interested by my explanations and proofs, for he shortly found his way to the British Museum where he also convinced himself that my view was correct and my citations authentic. As a fruit of these researches he issued, near the close of 1881, more than twelve months after my discovery had been declared in the Independent, the well-known volume entitled 'John Smyth the Se-Baptist' wherein he adopted my thesis, defended it by many citations, and entirely ignored my discovery as set forth in the Independent. . . . This discovery is my own contribution to Baptist History, and when my brethren heap reproaches upon me it is nothing but right that I should defend my property."
     A few months later Doctor Whitsitt's book, "A Question in Baptist History," came off the press, from which I take the following (p. 133):
"In view of the foregoing body of materials, I candidly consider

[p. 147]
that my proofs are sufficient. This question has been confirmed and strengthened by the renewed investigation which I have lately undertaken in order to set forth these proofs. Whatever else may be true in history, I believe it is beyond question that the practice of adult immersion was introduced anew into England in the year 1641."
     The Baptists of the South very naturally asked the question, "Why should a Baptist holding the position which Doctor Whitsitt holds anonymously attack the Baptist denomination?" Doctor Whitsitt's explanation was that he "wrote from a Pedobaptist standpoint in order to provoke discussion and compel the Baptists to study their own history." This explanation might have stopped the controversy had not Doctor Whitsitt written a number of articles and a book, all written from a Baptist standpoint, to prove his Independent editorials which "were written from a Pedobaptist standpoint." It was this that stirred the Baptists to the depths, and not Doctor Whitsitt's "writing from a Pedobaptist standpoint."

     The controversy spread through the entire South, and even into the North, until it was finally taken up by the Southern Baptist Convention. The board of trustees of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary took the following action at Wilmington, N. C., during the sitting of the Southern Baptist Convention, and which action was reported to the convention and recorded in its minutes.

The Wilmington Action

     The following is an exact copy from the Minutes: A communication from the Board of Trustees of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was presented as information by W. E. Hatcher, Virginia. Whereupon it was ordered that the communication be printed in the minutes of the convention. The trustees of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, assembled in their annual meeting at Wilmington, N. C., May 6, 1897, desire to submit to the Baptists

[p. 148]
of the South the following statement in regard to the institution whose interests have been committed to their care and management.
     1. That we account this a fitting occasion to reaffirm our cordial and thorough adherence to the fundamental articles adopted at the time when the seminary was established, and to assure those on whose behalf we hold in trust and administer the affairs of this institution of our steadfast purpose to require hereafter, as we have in the past, that the fundamental laws and scriptl1ral doctrines embodied in those articles shall be faithfully upheld by those occupying chairs as teachers.
     2. That we cannot undertake to sit in judgment on questions in Baptist history which do not imperil any of these principles, concerning which all Baptists are agreed, but concerning which serious, conscientious and scholarly students are not agreed. We can, however, confidently leave to continued research and discussion the satisfactory solution of these questions.
     3. That believing the seminary to hold an important relation to the prosperity and usefulness of southern Baptists, we consider it our duty, while demanding of those in charge of the departments of instruction the utmost patience in research and the greatest discretion in utterance, to foster rather than repress the spirit of earnest, reverent investigation.
     4. That being fully assured that the tender affection which we cherish for this institution, founded by our fathers and bequeathed by them to us, is shared by the Baptists of the South, we can safely trust them as we ask them to trust us, to guard its honor, promote its usefulness and pray for its prosperity.

     Upon the adoption of the foregoing statement, the trustees appointed a committee to notify Doctor Whitsitt of this action, and to invite him to meet them and to make any voluntary statement he might desire. Whereupon Doctor Whitsitt appeared before the board and read the following paper:

[p. 149]
Wilmington, N. C., May 7, 1897.
To the Board of Trustees of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

     Dear Brethren: - I beg leave to return sincerest and heartiest thanks for the noble and generous treatment that you have bestowed upon me. I have only words of affection for every member of the board. After consulting with the committee I have the following to say:

     1. That in regard to the articles written as editorials for the Independent, I have long felt that it was a mistake, and the generous action of the Board of Trustees renders it easy for me to make this statement. What I wrote was from a Pedobaptist standpoint with a view to stimulating historical research, with no thought that it would injure the Baptists, and with no intention to disparage Baptist doctrines or practices.
     2. That the article in Johnson's Encyclopedia has probably passed beyond my control; but it will be very pleasing to me if I can honorably procure the elimination from it of whatsoever is offensive to any of my brethren.
     3. Regarding the charge that I expressed a conviction that a kinswoman of mine ought to follow her husband into a Pedobaptist church, that it was never my intention to indicate a belief that the family outranked the Church of God. I believe that obedience to God's commands is above every other human duty, and that people in every relation of life ought to obey God rather than man.
     4. That on the historical questions involved in the discussion, I find myself out of agreement with some honored historians; but what I have written is the outcome of patient and honest research, and I can do no otherwise than to reaffirm my convictions an.d maintain my position. But if in the future it shall ever be made to appear that I have erred in my conclusions, I would promptly and cheerfully say so.

[p. 150]
I am a searcher after truth, and will gladly hail every helper in my work.
     5. That I cannot more strongly assure the brethren that I am a Baptist than by what I have recently declared with regard to the abstract of principles set forth in the Fundamental Laws of the seminary. I am heartily in accord with my Baptist brethren in every distinctive principle that they hold. My heart and life are bound up with the Baptists, and I have no higher thought on earth than to spend my days in their fellowship and service, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Respectfully submitted,

     At the conclusion of the reading of the foregoing paper the trustees joined in singing:

"How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word,"

during which, amid flowing tears and many expressions of satisfaction and joy, the members of the board pressed forward and gave Doctor Whitsitt the hand of fellowship and confidence. The trustees then instructed B. H. Carroll of Texas and W. E. Hatcher of Virginia to communicate to the Southern Baptist Convention this action, and also to give it to the public press. Please bear in mind that this statement is made to the convention for information and not for action.
(Taken from Proceedings of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1897, pages 14-16.)

     Dr. B. H. Carroll, Texas, not only refused to accept the Wilmington action, but started the controversy afresh. The result of the renewed controversy was that the opposition to Doctor Whitsitt was greatly augmented and that state conventions began taking action calling for the removal of Doctor Whitsitt from the Theological Seminary. However, we

[p. 151]
are only concerned here in so far as the matter touches Kentucky Baptist history.

     In June following the Wilmington meeting, which was in May, the General Association of Baptists in Kentucky met in Georgetown, during the session of which the following action was taken:

The Georgetown Action

     The resolution of J. A. Booth, special order for this hour, is as follows:
     Whereas, Dr. W. H. Whitsitt, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, reaffirms his belief in his discovery and will continue to teach it; and,
     Whereas, His course has been such as to place him out of touch and harmony with the denomination;
     Resolved, That the trustees of the seminary from Kentucky be requested, and they are hereby requested, to urge, insist upon and vote for the retirement of Doctor Whitsitt from the presidency of the institution and from the chair of Church History.

     The above resolution was voted on by yeas and nays. The yeas were 105, the nays 78, both of which are recorded below:

(Taken from Minutes of General Association of Baptists of Kentucky, 1897, page 29.)

     When the Booth resolution was called up for action in the Georgetown meeting the" Previous Question" was called for and sustained, so the resolution was voted on without discussion. Just following the Georgetown meeting, Dr. Carter Helm Jones published a statement in the Courier Journal referring to the above action as the "Gag-law" practice, and setting forth the claim that if the friends of Doctor Whitsitt had only had an opportunity to discuss the matter, the action of the General Association would have been very different. So the next year at Hopkinsville it was decided that the matter should be thoroughly discussed before the vote was taken.

[p. 152]
The Hopkinsville Action
     J. S. Coleman read the following preamble and resolutions:
     Whereas, The trustees ot the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at their recent session in Norfolk, Va., adopted a resolution by which they decided to retain Dr. William H. Whitsitt as President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and professor of Church History; and,
     Whereas, By their said resolutions the trustees waived aside the known and officially expressed convictions and wishes of a great number of Baptist bodies, among these bodies being the General Association of Kentucky; and, by reaffirming that former action which produced the expression of these convictions and wishes, declined to give them due consideration; and,
     Whereas, Our conviction that Doctor Whitsitt is unfit for his present position has been strengthened by the events of the last year. Now, therefore,
     (1) That the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary shall not be allowed to make any report nor present any appeals of any sort whatever to this body so long as Doctor Whitsitt shall be in any manner connected with the institution.
     (2) That if Doctor Whitsitt's connection with the seminary has not ceased at the time of the next session of the Southern Baptist Convention, we urge that body to adopt, as the only means of preserving its unity, the resolutions proposed by Dr. B. H. Carroll, of Texas, whereby the convention shall dissolve the bond of connection between that body and the I Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. (Notice was given by Doctor Carroll at the Norfolk convention that he would offer a resolution at the next convention to "dissolve the relationship between this body and the seminary," which resolution is published in full on pages 22 and 23 of the Southern Baptist Convention minutes for 1898.)
[p. 153]
     (3) That the clerk of this association be instructed to forward a copy of these resolutions, duly signed and certified by himself and the moderator, to the Hon. Joshua Levering, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, with the request that they be laid before the Trustees at their next meeting.
     (4) That a committee of five be appointed by the moderator to present these resolutions to the Southern Baptist Convention at its next session.
     After remarks by J. S. Coleman and others the following motion prevailed:
     "That the above resolutions be made the special order for 2 o'clock; that the vote be taken not later than 5 o'clock, and that the time be divided as follows: those favoring the resolution to open with one hour, those opposing the resolution then to have an hour and a half, and those favoring to close with a half hour."

     The above resolution was voted on by yeas and nays. The yeas were 198, the nays 26, both of which are recorded below:

(Taken from minutes of General Association of Baptists of Kentucky, 1898, pages 9, 10, 11.)

(These votes with the names are recorded in the minutes of the General Association of Baptists in Kentucky.)

     The two votes recorded above show how the sentiment in Kentucky was changing toward Doctor Whittistt and his position.

     The action of Kentucky Baptists was such as to cause both Doctor Whitsitt and his friends to feel that his resignation was absolutely essential to the welfare of the seminary. Accordingly the resignation was wired by Doctor Whitsitt (as we understand from Hopkinsville where the General Association was in session) to Joshua Levering, Baltimore, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the seminary. The resignation was duly accepted and Doctor Whitsitt retired from all connection with the seminary.

[p. 154]
     Thus ended the unfortunate incident, so far as Doctor Whitsitt personally was concerned, but the feeling engendered by the controversy did not so soon pass away. Friends who were alienated by the conflict did not soon forget the animosities that were aroused in the heat of discussion; but the grace of God and time heal the worst of troubles.

     The principal actors in this great controversy, which stirred the Baptists of the South to their depths, Dr. W. H. Whitsitt and Dr. T. T. Eaton, have both passed to their rewards more than a decade ago. Green be the graves where sleep the heroes of faith; forgotten be the animosities and heart burnings of strife; sacred be the trust committed to our memories and bright the vision of coming ages.



     * The author furnished copies of this chapter, exactly as it stands, to three of our leading preachers and scholars who saw the "Whitsitt Controversy" from different viewpoints, asking that they read it carefully, make any suggestions, corrections or additions that they thought should be made. Following is the result:

Hattiesburg, Miss., July 28, 1921.

Dear Dr. Nowlin:
Without access to the sources it is of course impossible for me to pass on the accuracy of your statements, As far as I know you have stated the facts as they occurred. While a reader could probably determine where your sympathies lie, still it seems to me that you are fair and show a good spirit.
Cordially yours,

Collins, Miss., July 30, 1921.

Dear Brother Nowlin:
Your favor was forwarded to me here. I have read the chapter. I do not know the setting of this chapter - what you may have written in regard to the parties concerned in other parts of your work. I might not have said it just as you have, but I do not care to add anything.

Yours fraternally,


I have been impressed with the clearness and directness of your statements. So far as I recall the facts you have stated them fairly and impartially as they occurred.

[From William Dudley Nowlin, Kentucky Baptist History, 1770-1922, pp. 142-154. Footnote is changed to Endnote. - Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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