Theological Influences Affecting Baptist Development in the Northwest

Article excerpt

"Baptist peculiarities must be vindicated in Oregon. Our Pedo-baptist and Campbellite neighbors are mooting the subject of baptism, and especially communion. May we have grace to present these subjects as gospel truths in the love of the gospel of the Blessed Savior." (1)--Ezra Fisher to Rev. Hill, 20 October 1847.

"Outside our own and Landmark fellowships, Baptist churches of the Northwest might to a limited degree be called Community Baptist Churches. They invariably practice the receiving of alien immersion and open communion." (2)--R. E. Milam to SBC, 1948

Baptists arrived late in the religious settlement of the Oregon Territory. They arrived from all regions of the United States, with a heavy proportion coming from the South. Wagons ferried their world possessions, but settlers also harbored regional Baptist baggage--doctrinal nuances, regional alliances, personal biases, and the vain presumption that the totality of Baptist life was reflected in their personal experiences. Tension, conflict, and division accelerated as Baptist numbers grew. Creating a unified Baptist witness proved a difficult proposition.

Strong theological convictions, such as those expressed in the opening quotations from nineteenth-century American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) missionary Ezra Fisher, a New Englander, and R. E. Milam, the Texas-educated, twentieth-century architect of the Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC), ensured a constant climate of theological debate. The ideological fault lines often were drawn along North-South regional identities. In the midst of the Northwest's Baptist theological rumble, a passion for evangelism and New Testament ecclesiological purity laid the foundation for the NWBC.

Early Theological Identity

From the 1844 establishment of the West Union Baptist church forward, Baptist churches in the Pacific Northwest were typically strict in discipline and exclusive in cooperation. Interdenominational cooperation was left to individual churches or ministers, and such cooperative activities centered on temperance campaigns, moral reform, or union meetings. These activities, at best, were superficial. Baptist life at the associational level remained exclusive, refraining from interdenominational cooperation. (3)

The earliest missionaries, sent by the ABHMS, arrived in 1845, one year after the West Union Church was organized in the home of Deacon David Lennox. Baptists from the North and South populated the early churches in Oregon. The Willamette Baptist Association, constituted in 1848 by five churches, reserved the right to exclude any church "unsound in the faith or disorderly in practice." (4) Churches in the association commonly practiced close communion, but varied in acceptance of alien immersion. Churches dominated by southerners rejected non-Baptist immersions, reflecting the tension in the mid-South between Baptists and Campbellites. Soteriology reflected the influence of early nineteenth-century frontier revivalism, a blending of Calvinism and Arminians with enough Calvinism to believe a person needed to be saved and enough Arminianism to believe a person could be saved. The Willamette Association soon found the growing national debate over slavery disrupting its fellowship, and it faced challenges from Old School/Primitive Baptists. (5)

Old School/Antimission Tensions

Primitive Baptist families arrived in the Willamette Valley in 1846; ten Primitive Baptists formed the Siloam Baptist Church (originally the Hillsborough Church) in February 1847. Messengers from the Siloam Church attended the organizational meeting of the Willamette Association but declined to join. The presence of the Siloam Baptist church, however, precipitated a lengthy, heated associational debate over cooperation with mission societies. A compromise placing cooperation in the hands of member churches was not enough to entice Old School Baptists to join the Willamette Association. …