In 1896 a battle broke out. Invectives flew. Both sides joined the fracas, entrenched as enemies. Churches, districts, state organizations, and an entire national denomination got tied up in it. Reconciliation was attempted but thwarted when one personality or the other rose up to contest the validity or the outcome of the process. Three years the battle raged on. It was characterized by stubbornness, misunderstanding, character assassination, and unreasonable demands. A prominent, seemingly gentle, reasonable, and gracious man had his reputation ruined and was driven from his profession as a result. Others were deeply hurt, disillusioned, and harshly treated by the whole atmosphere of argument.
The fascinating thing about this battle is the cause. It is almost laughable if it had not had such serious consequences. Get this - a seminary historian (professor and president) discovered an inconsistency in some facts that many had understood as indisputable. W.H. Whitsitt, then president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, had travelled to England to do some research. He discovered to his surprise that the English Baptists had not practiced baptism by immersion until around 1641. Before that they had baptized by sprinkling or pouring. That’s an interesting fact that really doesn’t challenge any Biblical convictions. It simply means that one era of Baptist practitioners used a different mode of baptism. Curiously, Whitsitt made no case for changing any practice in the Southern Baptist Convention. He merely stated the facts. He wasn’t looking for controversy.
Whitsitt published his remarks on the discovery. You wouldn’t think it, but his remarks ignited a firestorm. He was accused of undermining the “truth” that Christians had practiced baptism by immersion since John the Baptist and that true Baptists had never done anything differently. He was excoriated in numerous denominational publications. His resignation or dismissal from the seminary was demanded. Hours were spent in debate, motions were made, resolutions written, and all were hotly championed.
All this commotion raged regardless of the fact that He made no attempt whatsoever to change anyone’s mind on the mode of baptism. He remained a staunch advocate that the only truly Biblical mode of baptism was immersion. Do you find this incredible? Are Christian men and women really threatened by a factual timeline change that doesn’t materially change the doctrine? Do you suppose Jesus gets fired up over such things? The outcome of this incident was tragic and instructive. Mr. Whitsitt lost his job, many of his opponents lost face, and years later apologies had to be made. Damage already done.
The tragic reality is that a very small match can detonate an immense explosion. Those of us who love truth and have no reservations fighting for it are often blind to the fallout of our actions. Speaking for myself and I’m sure many others, we fire a cannon where a peashooter would do. What do we do with this tension between pure doctrine and brotherly love?
If you are interested in more about Whitsitt check out the book here, http://www.powells.com/biblio/95-9781122633727-0