William Theophilus Brantly, Sr. (1787-1845) was a popular preacher in the south during the first half of the 19th century, and served Philadelphia’s historic First Baptist Church as pastor. Additionally, as editor of The Christian Index, Georgia Baptists denominational state paper, he was one of the most prolific Baptist editors in the United States. The Christian Index is the nation’s oldest continually published religious newspaper dating back to 1822 with the legendary Luther Rice as its first editor. Brantly edited the newspaper from 1827 to 1833, at which time the paper was moved to Washington, Ga., and assigned to the capable editorial skills of Jesse Mercer.1
Brantly was not one’s typical Baptist of the south—at least the kind of Baptist we normally hear about from our Founders Calvinist advocates. For example, Brantly questioned predestination, the darling doctrine of Baptist Calvinists, and expressed confusion about what predestination even meant. Of the relationship between predestination in the past with applied salvation in the present, he queried:
But there is a defective link in this chain, which being touched even gently, the whole falls asunder. For what is predestination? Who can define it? Who can describe its powers, its operations, its limits and its bearings? Is it something different from God, or is it something identical with him? Is it fate, necessity, or destiny, as the ancient philosophers maintain? For my own part, I frankly confess, that I know not what it is.2
On the other hand, the subject of irresistible grace remained perfectly clear so far as Brantly was concerned. In short, he did not accept the strong Calvinistic insistence on the unalterable nature of initial grace, especially its supposed “irresistibility.” In the same sermon quoted above entitled, “God’s Gracious Purpose,” a sermon based upon the text, “Who will have all men saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 1:4), Brantly unequivocally rejected the notion of irresistible grace, assigning the “I” in TULIP to the heap of abusive interpretation of God’s Word. After rehearsing the position of those who embrace some form of irresistible grace, a grace allegedly designed to “subdue all their opposition [to being saved] by a violence of divine compassion which will drag them away from the jaws of destruction,” Brantly remarks:
And my first observation tending to obviate that difficulty, is that the grace of God as put forth and exerted in the salvation of sinners, is not irresistible.* If the salvation of sinners were a matter so decided and so fixed by changeless decree, as to leave them no power of resistance, no liberty, no ability to seek and procure perdition for themselves, then the impenitent who defer all compliance with the mandate of God, are wise and commendable, because they cannot perish. An invincible necessity determines their lot, and places them beyond the possibility of ruin.
But let me not be misunderstood when I affirm that the grace of God is not irresistible. My meaning is this: it offers no violence to the natural dispositions of the human heart. The power which attends it, is not coercive, is not imperative, is not an authoritative driving of the soul into a new condition of being. It does not so arrest, and so oblige the sinner by superior force, as to divest him of all personal liberty, and cast him into the imprisonment of an unwelcome custody.
The power which grace exerts is the power of persuasion, of illumination, or of attraction. The energy which accompanies it is far from the asperities of constraint; the efficiency which it possesses, though approaching towards compulsion, yet stops short of it. It calls the soul effectually, moves it by rational inducements, rouses it from the sleepy torpor of unbelief, and informs it by the teachings of the Holy Spirit; but in all this there is nothing that impairs the freedom of choice, or of action.
*When I say that grace is not irresistible, I must be understood to mean, that it does not act upon the soul by any coercive necessity, to the exclusion of rational motives and inducements; and that it does not so oblige any to be saved, as that they cannot procure final condemnation for themselves, if they please. [original footnote by Brantly]
A stronger denial of irresistible grace is hard to imagine. But Brantly is not finished. He later peels back the skin on many Calvinistic proof texts for irresistible grace as it’s related to predestination and thoroughly exposes the thin veneer offered by High Calvinists as their biblical rationale for the “I” in TULIP—texts including Acts 13:48; Romans 8:29, Ephesians 1:5,11; Psalm 60:3; Romans 11:2-5. Brantly then concludes:
Should it be alleged that the great scriptural doctrine of election confers absolute certainty upon the salvation of some portion of mankind, and that the operations of grace must be irresistible, at least upon the elect—I reply: Be the doctrine of election what it may, it evidently teaches nothing inconsistent with the idea that salvation is so propounded to all men, as to make its acceptance or rejection a possible thing. This acceptance or rejection is also made to depend upon the free arbitration of a power within us, and however that power may be influenced, controlled or impelled in forming its determinations, it is laid under no necessity either of acceptance or rejection, because either is possible, which could not be if compulsion intervened.
What I am now insisting upon, is in full view of the fact, that some are converted and some are not; some regenerated and some not; some are true penitents and others never feel one genuine emotion of the sort; some love God and bear the impress of sanctity, while others remain under the dominion of unbelief and hardness of heart; and all this diversity is witnessed under the same administration of visible means… .
From all which I conclude, that election is of grace and not of necessity; that it effects nothing towards any man’s salvation, independently of repentance and faith; and that it therefore makes no provision for irresistible grace. That the Holy Spirit does exert a greater influence upon some minds than upon others within the pale of the same visible administration of means; and that this greater influence must account for the conversion of some, whilst others remain unconverted, is what I fully believe. That salvation too is wholly of the grace of God, and that it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do, is a position to which my mind fully accords. But I am equally confident in the belief that all this is done without the least interference with the freedom of the human soul.
Even so, Founders Calvinists like Al Mohler, Tom Nettles, and Tom Ascol take great pains to historically remind us of Calvinistic stalwarts in the 19th century.3 And, we confess our appreciation for their emphasis on the “Reformed” tributary flowing into the southern river of Baptists, a tributary without which we could hardly grasp the richness of our Southern Baptist heritage.
What remains unacceptable is the presence of a sometimes blatant historical arrogance oozing from many Founders Calvinists; namely, that while southern Baptists who came to be the Southern Baptist Convention were monolithically Calvinistic, they tragically lost that Calvinism in the first quarter of the 20th century. Consequently, they contend, we’ve “lost the gospel” because, in large part, we’ve abandoned the strong Calvinism which was all but universal amongst the “founders” of Southern Baptists. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president, Al Mohler, expresses this sentiment ably when he said,
Even the opponents of Calvinism must admit, if historically informed, that Calvinism is the theological tradition into which the Baptist movement was born. The same is true of the Southern Baptist Convention. The most influential churches, leaders, confessions of faith and theologians of the founding era were Calvinists—it was not until well into the twentieth century that any knowledgeable person could claim that Southern Baptists were anything but Calvinists (//link)
We think if anyone suffers from “theological amnesia” it is definitively not Traditional Baptists. We readily acknowledge the Calvinist tributary to our Southern Baptist heritage and believe it historically truncated to argue otherwise. Contrarily, what we will not allow Calvinists like Mohler, Nettles, or Ascol to either forget or ignore is, there exists more than a single, significant tributary to our theological movement. Therefore, try as they may, historical reductionism cannot frame the debate for Southern Baptist theology today—and will not frame the debate as long as Traditional Baptists are not marginalized from the discussion. We will continue to rewind the historical tape of strong southern Baptists like Andrew Broaddus who rejected Limited Atonement and W.T. Brantly who decidedly rejected the Calvinistic notion of Irresistible Grace–at least as defined by Founders-type Calvinists–and listen as their voices demonstrate our Southern Baptist theological heritage to be a lot messier than new Calvinists want us to believe.
1The Christian Index was first published in Washington D.C. under the moniker, The Columbian Star. Brantly changed the name to The Christian Index in 1831. The paper later moved from Washington to Penfield to Macon before coming to Atlanta in 1865. (//link)
2pp. 55-56. All quotes here and henceforth from Brantly are taken from the sermon entitled, “God’s Gracious Purpose” found in Themes for Mediation Enlarged, in several sermons, Doctrinal and Practical, William T. Brantly, Philadelphia 1837. pp. 49-83. Longer paragraphs are intentionally broken for greater readability
3in fact, one can find a sermon tract by Brantly on the Founders website. “THE COVENANT OF CIRCUMCISION: NO JUST PLEA FOR INFANT BAPTISM” is reprinted in The Founders Journal. While Brantly is quoted in a few other writings on the Founders website (mostly footnotes), I found no other contribution written by Brantly himself. And, I certainly found no evidence Brantly denied irresistible grace in “God’s Gracious Purpose”