An early Baptist meeting

In the Modernist world, it became popular, following the example of Thomas Jefferson so many generations ago, for Christians to edit the supernatural out of their faith. This was a constant trajectory all the way back from the Enlightenment (1600s) when theologians began to think science had closed the door for the truthfulness of miracle accounts in the Bible – much less miracles by contemporary Christians. With the development of Postmodernism and all its uncertainty, people today seem more open to the possibility of the supernatural, however, even among Evangelical Christians (those who hold to Scriptural teachings most literally) there is a general lack of openness to supernatural things happening in their midst.

Jack Deere, the Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) professor who became Charismatic overnight is one example of a dramatic turn from this Enlightenment/anti-Pentecostal influenced position toward openness to the supernatural, but what about my Baptist brethren? In the 1970s, Charismatic teachings and experience had affected all the major denominations in the US, including the SBC. They had their own SBC Charismatic Conference in 1976. Today, though, most Southern Baptists are Cessationists (believing the supernatural gifts do not continue to present day).

But what about the original US Baptists? It turns out many were much more open to the practice:

One rarely gets glimpses of the individual spirituality of these early American Baptists, but we do have an account of a remarkable experience by Philip James that may suggest that evangelical mysticism— including dreams, trances, and visions— was common among the Regular Baptists. Early Baptist historian Morgan Edwards noted that when one of James’s children died in 1753, the despondent pastor fell into a kind of coma. When he awoke, he told his family that during the trance:

“my soul quitted my body [and] the resemblance of a man in black made towards me, and (frowning and chiding for wishing to die) took me up towards the sun, which filled me with fear. As I was ascending, a bright figure interposed and my black conductor was pushed off. The bright man took me by the hand and said, “we go this way,” pointing to the north. And as we ascended, I saw a company of angels and my child among them, (clothed in white and in the full stature of a man) sing with them as the company passed by us, whereupon my bright conductor said, “I am one of that company and must join them.” And as he quitted me I found myself sinking fast till I came to my body.

Edwards’s admiring account of James’s experience hints that this kind of spirit journey was acceptable among many early American Baptists, just as it was among American evangelicals more broadly.

Baptists in America: A History by Thomas S. Kidd, Barry Hankins (OUP, 2015), 27-28.

It’s certainly interesting. Is it simply isolated though?

There’s an account in Thomas Kidd’s (of Baylor; no mean scholar) work on the Great Awakening of a persecuting party coming to arrest some Baptist leaders (Baptists were a persecuted minority in the American Colonies):

A party coming to arrest the church’s leaders was struck temporarily blind in the night by a flash of light followed by thick darkness. The persecutors “agreed that this strange event was a warning to them;…. which procured quietness to the poor baptists.”

Kidd, Thomas. The Great Awakening (Yale: 2007), 245. Cited from early Baptist historian Morgan Edwards in Materials Towards a History of the Baptists.

Should the account be truthful, it would appear the Lord protected the Baptists with a miracle. That’d make present day Baptists a wee bit uncomfortable.

The Separate Baptists [Baptists formed during the First Great Awakening] regularly reported signs, wonders, and divine communications in their early years in the South. North Carolina Baptist minister James Read reported receiving “frequent teachings from God” and dreams calling him into Virginia. Both waking and sleeping, “he felt his soul earnestly impressed with the desire to preach there. In his dreams he saw large congregations assembled to hear him, and his family heard him crying out, “O Virginia, Virginia, Virginia!” in his sleep. Just as he was preparing to set out, messengers arrived from Virginia pleading with him to come.

Meetings typically ran late into the night, and “sometimes the floor would be covered with persons struck down under conviction of sin.”

Ibid, 246.

So there’s visions, dreams, prophecies. What about healing?

Waller was reported to have remarkable preaching gifts, and at least once he administered a miraculous healing. The wife of the Baptist minister in Buckingham, Virginia, was healed of “deplorable violent spasms” by Waller’s prayers and anointing of oil.

Ibid.

Moreover, Baptists arose because biblical literacy became a thing just after the Reformation (Bibles became common in a language people could understand). As there’s no clear instance of infant baptism in Scripture, so Baptists said, “let’s do this upon conscious trust in Christianity” rather than being born in the right family.

On a similar note, James 5:15 contains a promise about healing for the sick by Elders of the church. Thus, Baptists going by the Scriptures began anointing the sick and some were healed. As a result they were attacked by Cessationist churches. Can anyone imagine Baptists today being attacked for widespread healing ministries? Or of that being a distinctive of that group?

It would be nice if Baptists just going by the Scriptures instead of reacting against Pentecostalism/Charismatics and falling in line with the Enlightenment. Them crazy [early] Baptists were on to something. Maybe them sane, ordinary Baptists can learn something from them.

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