Baptist historian, Robert Baylor Semple (1769-1831), published the minutes of the first Separate Baptist Association held May, 1771 in Orange county, Virginia.1 Samuel Harriss was chosen moderator, and John Waller, Jr. was elected clerk, both ministers of whom, according to Semple, were strong advocates of the “Arminian” stream flowing into the Baptist river of theology.
In the May 1773 associational meeting in Goochland county, Elijah Craig, offered the motion to divide the association into two districts, one north and one south of James River. Semple indicates that while the minutes were lost describing the motion and the discussion, the following year’s associational proceedings indicated that “they agreed to divide the Association, according to the plan proposed in the last Association.” We might add there seems to be no theological motivation pushing the division of districts proposed by Craig, but only the size of the association and natural boundaries of the James River.
On May 27, 1775, both the north and south districts met at the Dover meeting-house, 29 and 31 churches respectively represented. First up on the docket of queries submitted to the association for answer and counsel:
Is salvation, by Christ, made possible for every individual of the human race?
Semple claims debate on the question took up the entire first day of the meeting. “Every thinking man in the Association felt himself seriously interested.” In addition, according to Semple, as the meeting progressed, the atmosphere became electrically charged with divisive rhetoric and behavior, and indicates it was headed toward an associational split no one seemed to want.
Every thinking man in the Association felt himself seriously interested. Most of them spoke to it, more or less. The weight of talents and influence seems to have been on the Arminian side. Samuel Harriss, Jeremiah Walker, John Waller, and many other distinguished preachers stood forward and zealously, as well as ably, supported the argument in favor of universal provision.
Talents and ingenuity were not wanting on the other side. William Murphy, John Williams, and E. Craig stood foremost in favor of a Calvinistic solution. These supported by truth, or at least by the more generally received opinion among Baptists, obtained after a long and animated debate a small majority. This decision was on Monday afternoon immediately before an adjournment.
Thus, Semple’s description indicates among late 18th century Virginia Baptists:
- Separates were divided almost but not quite evenly so far as Limited Atonement was concerned;
- Separate Baptists had great men of learning, influential men, who held to universal provision;
- Strict Calvinism was not nearly as universally accepted among early Baptists in America as many of today’s Calvinists seem to suggest;
- Limited Atonement appears to be among the most provocative doctrines of strict Calvinism.
As to number four above, Semple goes on to describe what happened after universal provision “lost” in the query posed to Separate Baptists:
That evening the Arminian party holding a consultation, determined to bring on the subject again the next day, and to have a determination whether their opinions upon this point should be a matter of bar to fellowship and communion. On Tuesday when they met, the business became very distressing. The Arminian party, having the moderator with them, withdrew out of doors. The other side also withdrew, and chose John Williams as moderator. Everything was then done by message, sometimes in writing and sometimes verbally.
After some time spent in this way, the following proposal was made by the Arminian party:
“DEAR BRETHREN, — A steady union with you makes us willing to be more explicit in our answer to your terms of reconciliation proposed. We do not deny the former part of your proposal respecting particular election of grace, still retaining our liberty with regard to construction. And as to the latter part, respecting merit in the creature, we are free to profess there is none.
“Signed by order.
“SAMUEL HARRISS, Moderator.”
To which the other party replied as follows:
“DEAR BRETHREN, — Inasmuch as a continuation of your Christian fellowship seems nearly as dear to us as our lives, and seeing our difficulties concerning your principles with respect to merit in the creature, particular election, and final perseverance of the saints are in a hopeful measure removing, we do willingly retain you in fellowship, not raising the least bar. But do heartily wish and pray that God, in His kind providence, in His own time will bring it about when Israel shall all be of one mind, speaking the same things.
“Signed by order.
“JOHN WILLIAMS, Moderator.”
The “Arminians” led by Walker and Harriss understandably desired to know exactly what the negative vote meant to them and their churches as members of the association. After several rounds of negotiations, the effect of the vote, the Calvinists maintained, would not “bar” them from fellowship.
Semple concludes with positive sentiments about the early division over Limited Atonement among the Separate Baptists:
These terms being acceded to on both sides, they again met in the meetinghouse and resumed their business. Their union was as happy as their discord had been distressing.
1Semple, Robert Baylor. History of the Baptists in Virginia: From the First Settlement by the Americans up to the Middle of the 19th Century. Originally published, 1810. Revised edition, 1894 by G.W. Beale: 48-58