Toward a Twentieth-Century Baptist Identity in North America: Insights from the Baptist Congresses, 1881-1913

Article excerpt

The Baptist Congresses are a rich repository of Baptist theological discourse before and after the turn of the twentieth century. They offer interesting insights into what Baptist scholars, pastors, and laymen were thinking on some of the hottest topics of their day. But these materials have been sadly overlooked by scholarly research. William Brackney's article, "The Frontier of Free Exchange of Ideas: The Baptist Congress as a Forum for Baptist Concerns, 1881-1913," in Baptist History & Heritage, Summer 2003, is an excellent introduction to this treasure trove.

With more than a thousand different papers and speeches presented by some of the biggest names in Baptist life of that time, the Congresses are certainly worthy of a dissertation or two. Prominent presenters included: Francis Wayland, G. D. Boardman, William Hatcher, T. T. Eaton, William Newton Clarke, Thomas Armitage, Samuel Colgate, Walter Rauschenbusch (who was part of the leadership and others of his Brotherhood of the Kingdom were prominent participants), A. T. Robertson, A. H. Strong, W. H. Whitsitt, and on the list could go. The thousands of pages of well-written Minutes (called "Proceedings") are in desperate need of moving from the microfilm age to the digital age.

The first Congress was organized as "a forum for the discussion of current questions, religious, social, political, or philosophic." (1) It was patterned after the several world congresses of other denominations, especially the Presbyterian Alliance Congresses and the Ecumenical Methodist Councils. Another forerunner was the Convention of Baptist Social Unions held in 1874 in Brooklyn, New York. One year after the Convention of Baptist Social Unions, H. L. Wayland reflected on the experience of this convention and suggested that it be broadened to become a "Baptist Congress." (2) Wayland was the son of famous Baptist educator, Francis Wayland, and editor of the Philadelphia-based newspaper, The National Baptist. In 1881 E. H. Johnson, then a pastor in Providence, Rhode Island, proposed the idea of a Baptist Congress in a letter to A. J. Rowland of New York City. (3) Rowland then called a meeting of several prominent Baptist leaders in the fall of 1881. A second meeting was held in New York at which "an Autumnal Conference" (4) was planned for 1882.

This New York meeting constituted itself as a General Committee, which drew up an organizational plan and rules. Several readers of papers were allowed twenty-five minutes to address assigned topics or questions. These were followed by several appointed respondent speeches of twenty minutes. Then these rules allowed any person on the floor to address the subject under discussion for ten minutes, but disallowed motions or resolutions. The General Committee was strongly influenced by the model of the British Baptist Union that met in the autumn, transacted no business, and devoted several days solely to the discussion of pertinent topics. (5) The General Committee continued to select the yearly topics, speakers, and locations.

The Baptist Congress served as a forerunner of the Baptist World Alliance in several ways. Although it began as a northern meeting, the Congress quickly attracted many Southerners, some Canadians, and a few British Baptists. The organizational structure of the BWA reflected the structure of the Congresses, and virtually all of the Southern Baptists who were influential in the formation of the BWA had previously participated in the Congresses. The early BWA Congresses used a discussion format, and it was not until the third BWA Congress (1923) that the BWA passed resolutions. The ecumenical and Baptist identity subjects that were discussed also helped prepare for the formation of the BWA, and as early as 1892 William H. Whitsitt advocated at a Baptist Congress for a "Pan-Baptist Council." (6)

The Congresses were held yearly in twenty-three different cities, mostly in the North. …