As the great revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shifted soteriological language toward personal salvation, they similarly altered Baptist understanding and articulation of baptismal theology in America.
The writings of this era suggest that Baptist baptismal theology in America was a betwixt and between theology that attempted to distance itself from both sacramentalism and mere symbolism. In other words, Baptists were as equally uncomfortable with the various sacramental theologies expressed by Puritans, Separatists, Congregation-Mists, Methodists, and Restorationists as they were with the groups like the Quakers and Antinominans, who argued that baptism had no perpetual significance outside the New Testament era. Baptists countered both extremes--those who made too much of baptism and those who made too little of baptism. In so doing, however, Baptists were not simply offering a reactionary theology with little or no substantive quality. Instead Baptist baptismal conversation carried the great weight of Baptist theology--ecclesiology, soteriology, Christian ethics, and eschatology--on its shoulders. Where seventeenth century Baptists with their quest for a visible church were primarily concerned with the ecclesiological role of baptism, (1) Baptists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries emphasized the soteriological dimension of baptism. In particular, with the emergence of the Great Awakenings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, baptismal conversations emphasized language that articulated the personal and relational nature of baptism.
Evangelicalism's assertion of a personal experience of salvation brought to the betwixt and between theology an emphasis on the personal dimension of baptism. Fundamentally, evangelical theology fostered Christianity as a liberating force that encouraged people to think and act for themselves rather than depend upon the theology of the educated elite. (2) Revivalistic Baptists appealed to the simplicity of identifying with scripture and dismissed infant baptism, which they argued was born from tradition and a complicated interpretation of the Bible. To evangelicals, a personal experience of salvation involved a change of the heart and not merely of the mind. Salvation was uncoerced and made possible by the voluntary submission of the will. Personal salvation was relational, intimate, experiential, and empowering. (3) It was displayed in revival preaching which was strongly christocentric, often proclaiming Christ in very personal and intimate terms. (4) In turn, evangelists called people to repent of their sins and exercise faith in Jesus, accepting him as their personal Savior. They asserted that an active experience of God would lead to Christian moral conduct, which would be displayed personally. This personal thrust in soteriological language, particularly, left a unique impression on Baptist baptismal theology as a result of the Great Awakenings.
From One Confession to Another
A comparison of two significant Baptist confessions, The Philadelphia Confession (1742) and The New Hampshire Confession (1833) demonstrates most clearly the influence on baptismal language that occurred because of the revivals. The two serve as bookends that surround the era of great revivalistic influence. The first confession is The Philadelphia Confession, which was officially adopted by 1742 at the beginning of the evangelical era. The Philadelphia Baptists combined and transplanted two British confessions: the Second London Confession of Faith (1689) and Keach's Confession (1697) (5) into The Philadelphia Confession and hired Benjamin Franklin to print copies. (6) This strongly Calvinistic confession dominated the theological landscape among Baptists in early America until the early 1800s. As Philadelphia Baptists migrated and itinerated into the frontier regions of the southern colonies, they took the confession with them, establishing Regular Baptist churches along the way. …