Dr. Franklin Howard Kerfoot (1847-1901) though not a name widely recognized in Baptist circles today was, during the latter quarter of the 19th century, a formidable leader among Southern Baptists. He served as pastor, denominational leader and seminary professor.
Dr. Kerfoot was born a Virginian but died a Georgian. After serving in the Confederate Army for a short period, he enrolled in Columbian College in Washington D.C. and excelled in his studies such that, in only three years, he received his M.S. and L.L.B. which normally took six.
Afterward, Kerfoot spent a year in Greenville, SC studying theology under the legendary James P. Boyce. Dr. Boyce immediately saw the impressive intellect of this young man and developed a relationship that lasted the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, due to failing health, Kerfoot’s studies came to a premature halt, having to take an entire year off for recuperation. For reasons unknown, Kerfoot later enrolled in Crozer Seminary in 1871 and graduated at the end of one session.
All this time, Dr. Kerfoot kept up his relationship with Dr. Boyce and spent the next few years traveling in the Southwest urging young aspiring Pastors to consider Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to further their training for ministry.
In 1874, Kerfoot studied overseas at the prestigious University of Leipzig, one of the oldest universities in Germany, issuing degrees in advanced studies for over seven hundred years. Upon returning to the states, perhaps to the surprise to many, Dr. Kerfoot entered the pastorate rather than the professorship.
Ordained to Gospel ministry in Midland, KY, Dr. Kerfoot pastored several churches, one of which was the Strong Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY (1883-1886). Once again, in God’s providence, Dr. Kerfoot prematurely had to resign a position: a platform fell upon which Dr. Kerfoot was seated and, due to injury, he had to say good-bye to his Church as Pastor.
During his healing, Dr. Kerfoot decided to head south to Kentucky and study at Southern Seminary. After one session, Dr. Boyce immediately saw Kerfoot did not need to be taught, he needed to teach. Therefore, Dr. Kerfoot was asked to consider a co-professorship along side President Boyce.
This proved once again to see God’s hand moving in it all. Professor Boyce died only a few years later and Dr. Kerfoot succeeded him in the Chair of Systematic Theology, an honor he would hold as the threshold of the new century was dawning upon them. In 1899, Dr. Kerfoot retired from the Professorship and spent the remaining few years serving the Home Mission Board in Atlanta, GA.
This man surely stands as a little-known giant among Southern Baptists today. Though not writing as actively as we would have hoped, he did pen a work on parliamentary procedures entitled Parliamentary Law (1897) and also revised his friend and mentor‘s, James P. Boyce, Abstracts of Systematic Theology (1899).
One theological characteristic that appeared to distinguish Dr. Kerfoot’s theology from Dr. Boyce’s was his apparent commitment to a softer version of historic Calvinism whose waning influence Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was already experiencing with the passing of Dr. Boyce. A major indication of Kerfoot’s softer Calvinism was his revision of James Boyce’s systematic theology textbook wherein he extracted numerous notes pertaining to Boyce’s rigid Calvinism.
Another bit of evidence that appears demonstrative of Dr. Kerfoot’s milder Calvinism stems back to his days as Pastor at Strong Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY, 1883 to 1886. While his tenure there was not considered long, Dr. Kerfoot left indelible marks on that fellowship not the least of which was assisting them to publish a Confession of Faith in 1884.
Historically, at a time when the rigorously Calvinistic 1742 Philadelphia Confession of Faith seemed still very influential, the more recent New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1833) had replaced the earlier Philadelphia confession in popularity and influence. Distinct to The New Hampshire Confession was, in the words of renowned Baptist historian, William Lumpkin, a confession seeking to “restate its Calvinism in very moderate tones.” (p.360).
Nevertheless, Dr. Kerfoot overlooked both Philadelphia and New Hampshire to lead the Strong Place Baptist Church in writing their own confession of faith. Published in 1884, the Strong Place Baptist Church left us a peek into both the belief and practice of Dr. Kerfoot as he “teased out” academic theology in the local Church setting.
Unlike either the New Hampshire Confession and surely the mammoth Philadelphia Confession, with its scholastic version of rigid Calvinism, The Declaration of Faith for Strong Place Church is a mere ten articles in number and a highly condensed model of church confession.
The articles deal with God, salvation, church, ordinances and eschatology. Most interesting for purposes here, is Article IV which is reproduced (with proof-texts) below. It’s subject is Election. It reads:
That all who truly obey the Gospel “were chosen in CHRIST before the foundation of the world,” by Him who sees “the end from the beginning;” that in consequence not of their own merit, but of God’s own purpose and grace, they are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, without whose influence none would ever repent and believe, as it is the duty of every one immediately to do. (all emphasis original, See Ephesians 1.4; Isaiah 46.10; John 3.6-8; 1.12-13; 1 Peter 1.2; John 16.9; 3.18-19; Acts 17.30; Revelation 22.17).
What’s fascinating about this article on Election that, surely without doubt, Dr. Kerfoot either penned himself or had a major influence in writing, is the obviously less than rigid Calvinistic flavor it seems to possess. And lest one thinks a slant exists toward non-Calvinist assumptions, consider the response of renown Arminian theologian, Roger Olson, in response to an email exchange published below:
Hope you are well. I have a question for you as an Arminian believer. I am putting together a post on early American Baptist theologian, F.H. Kerfoot. As you are aware, he succeeded Boyce at SBTS as Professor of Theology.
Prior to being Professor, he was Pastor at Strong Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn for 3 years (1883-1886). The Articles for the Church are interesting, one of which is listed below along with the proof texts…Here is the simple question, Dr. Olson: as an Arminian, would you possess reservations in embracing this statement?
To Which Professor Olson replied and of which I received written permission from Dr. Olson to use:
Any good Arminian could heartily affirm that statement.
Dr. Kerfoot was indeed a Calvinist. But he surely was not the type of Calvinist we find in many Southern Baptist churches today. Nor does he seem to fit the Calvinism of our Founders Ministries brothers in particular. In fact, indicative from the Declaration of Faith he influenced at Strong Place church, the popular “doctrines of grace” so prominent today in Southern Baptist Calvinist circles apparently were not even on the radar.
Kerfoot demanded no commitment to confessional five point Calvinism and, fortunately for Southern Baptists, he slowly steered our theology toward a warmer, less pronounced but more evangelical Calvinism, leaving the old, rigid Philadelphia Confession to an era of our historic past.
Understand: Philadelphia-Charleston Calvinism was what many Southern Baptists embraced in our history. That we must not and cannot deny. But at least in some significant ways, we must attribute to the theological vision of Professor F.H. Kerfoot, Chair of Systematic Theology, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY (1889-1899), that rigid, staunch Calvinism is not what Southern Baptists became.
- “Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists”
- “Church Manual, Articles of Faith & Church Covenant of the Strong Place Baptist Church“, Brooklyn, 1884
- “Baptist Confessions of Faith,” William Lumpkin