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William H. Whitsitt should have savored his accession to the presidency of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1895. The fifty-four-year-old church history professor had served the institution for over twenty years and long desired to reform the school. His administration, however, lasted only four tumultuous years, cut short by a controversy that left an indelible mark on his seminary and denomination. In the context of today’s tensions between populism and institutionalism, Whitsitt’s tale is instructive.

Superficially, Whitsitt’s trouble stemmed from an inquiry into Baptist history. Virtually all nineteenth-century Baptists proudly traced their defining practice of baptism by immersion back to the New Testament era. One particularly passionate Baptist sub-group, the “Landmarkers,” had even developed an elaborate theory of Baptist church succession. Because the Baptists’ more refined Protestant brethren ridiculed their commitment to immersion, establishing the practice’s ancient origins was a major source of denominational dignity.

Yet Whitsitt’s research located the earliest immersionists in England, in 1641; any so-called “Baptists” before this date had practiced pouring or sprinkling. Trained in the latest research methods at German universities, Whitsitt was confident in his conclusions. He also knew that his discovery would disturb his Baptist brethren. He kept his findings to himself for years until, in 1880, he published an anonymous article declaring immersion to be a 1641 “invention.” The article enraged Southern Baptists, who assumed the author to be yet another condescending pedobaptist opponent. Indeed, the article’s sneering tone suggested that Whitsitt’s problems with the Baptists ran deeper than historical matters.

Frankly, Baptists embarrassed Whitsitt; he had made this plain in his diary for years. Whitsitt had been raised a Landmark Baptist in Tennessee, absorbing all their denominational prejudices and eccentricities. Yet his subsequent education, at the University of Virginia and in Germany, had broadened his intellectual horizons and instilled a feeling of cultural sophistication. He joined the faculty of SBTS in 1872, but soon felt out of place in the popular denomination of his youth. “I am greatly oppressed by the fact that the spirit of my people is foreign from my spirit; that they are far more narrow & pharisaical than accounts with my conception of Christianity,” he wrote in the early 1870s. Other candid entries find Whitsitt questioning Baptist church government, communion practice, and even immersion. He also groaned at the quality of the seminary, where “nearly half our men are the merest tyros.” He considered becoming a Presbyterian or Episcopalian. Instead, he decided to try and reform Baptist provincialism and bolster his school’s academic respectability. Unveiling his careful historical investigation of baptism might, Whitsitt hoped, provide a step in the right direction.

Instead, Whitsitt found himself immersed in a sea of Southern Baptist strife. Discovering his authorship of the revisionist articles shortly into his presidency, Southern Baptists felt betrayed and belittled by the man charged with training their pastors. Howls for Whitsitt’s resignation rang out across the Baptist South. Most of the faculty defended Whitsitt on the grounds of academic freedom, yet they could not turn the tide of denominational disapproval. In 1899, after years of fighting, Whitsitt resigned in bitterness.

The Whitsitt fiasco proved a turning point in the seminary’s history. Quite apart from the specific debate regarding Baptist origins, the controversy revealed a growing divide between the faculty and the convention it served. Whitsitt had longed to lead his denomination in new, more sophisticated directions and believed that his education and position qualified him to do so. Yet Whitsitt found Southern Baptists unimpressed by his credentials and unyielding in their convictions. The seminary’s faculty took careful note of these developments.

In years to come, many faculty would share Whitsitt’s desire to enlighten their denomination on matters far beyond the proper interpretation of Baptist history. Many of these professors adopted progressive views of the Bible, theology, ethics, and culture. But the Whitsitt controversy had taught them to adopt a slower path to reformation. The seminary’s accountability to a conservative convention of churches demanded, in the words of Professor W. O. Carver, “the gradual conditioning of our common Baptist life for understanding our times.”

This “gradual conditioning” led the seminary to adopt a policy that historian Greg Wills has called “denominational realism.” Faculty determined to confine their most controversial statements to the seminary campus while offering a more palatable message to the public. The result was a widening gap between the seminary and the churches it served.

Over the following decades, the policy facilitated the departure of most of the faculty from confessional orthodoxy to full-scale theological liberalism. Finally, in the late 1970s, conservative Southern Baptist leaders led a popular uprising against the liberalism they saw engulfing their denomination. Once again, SBTS found itself plunged into controversy.

The Whitsitt episode’s aftermath should remind institutions to stay attentive to the people they are supposed to represent. The lesson applies far beyond a seminary context. Our moment is marked by a disconnect between an elite managerial class and middle Americans who feel forgotten or—worse—spurned as contemptuous rubes. There is a pervasive feeling that elected officials in Washington, D.C., and its sprawling federal bureaucracy are interested only in preserving power and privilege. The Whitsitt episode explains, in part, the revolt of voters against elites unable or unwilling to recognize their concerns. It also illumines the rank-and-file’s frustration with what they perceive as the negotiated surrender of conservatism and institutional evangelicalism to progressive ideology.

The story of SBTS after Whitsitt demonstrates how credentialism, elitism, and influence predispose theological institutions to mission creep. By permitting class conscientiousness to dictate priorities, elites become detached from pew-centric Christianity—and thus from confessional orthodoxy—and are then easily consumed by theological liberalism. Any Christian institution that seeks to influence the commanding heights of elite culture while at the same time maintaining fidelity to its confession must beware of this temptation.

Eric C. Smith and Andrew T. Walker are both professors at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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Image by Boston Public Library licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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