A Question in Baptist Historiography

April 1, 2007

This has come up on another blog so I figured I would address the issue here. A question of historiography arises in Baptist History particularly in the life of William Carey. Many take it to be a cut and dry issue but it is hardly. Let’s start with some context around the question.

William Carey (1761-1834), affectionately known as the “Father of Modern Missions,” in 1785 met with other men from churches in what was called the Northamptonshire Association. These regular meetings were a time for exchanging of ideas, fellowship, and spiritual encouragement. At this meeting it was asked for someone to propose a topic for discussion. Carey proposed a theme on which he had given much thought.

“Whether the command given to the apostles to teach all nations was not binding on all succeeding ministers, to the end of the world, seeing that the accompanying promise was of equal extent.”

This is where the question arises. The issue is not with Carey’s question but with the answer that was given to the question. There are a number of options.

John Webster Morris, who was pastor of Clipston Baptist Church in Northamptonshire, who was present at the meeting wrote that John Ryland, Sr.  responded with,

“You are a miserable enthusiast for asking such a question. Certainly nothing can be done before another Pentecost, when an effusion of miraculous gifts, including the gift of tongues, will give effect to the commission  of Christ as at first. What, Sir! Can you preach in Arabic, in Persic, in Hindustani, in Bengali, that you think it your duty to send the gospel to the heathens?”

John C. Marshman, the son of Carey’s co-worker in India, Joshua Marshman, reported that Ryland, Sr. said,

“Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine!”

In contrast to these two versions is the response of John Ryland, Jr. about the situation. He denies it even happened.

“I well remember the discussion of this question, which fully occupied the evening. Another had been discussed, after dinner, respecting village-preaching–What was a sufficient call, to attempt introducing it into places where it had not been usual before?–which, therefore, seems to leave no room for that ill-natured anecdote, respecting my father and young Carey, to have taken place this year, which is said to have been before the end of 1786; whereas my father had left Northampton before the Minister’ Meeting in 1786. And I must consider it as very unlikely to have occurred in 1785, for several strong reasons. I never hard of it, till I saw it in print, and cannot credit it. No man prayed and preached about the latter-day glory, morethan my father; nor did I ever hear such sentiments proceed from his lips, as tre there ascribed to him.”

Whatever the facts, it is true that among many Calvinistic Baptists in this period there would have been some who would have uttered these sentiments. The question though is did John Ryland, Sr. utter these kind of sentiments? Ryland was hardly a hyper-Calvinist but it would not have been unusual for even evangelical Calvinists to say similar things. Even Fuller was a little taken aback by Carey’s  proposal. He had himself said, “If the Lord should make windows in heaven, might such a thing be!”

What is the true scenario that happened? Who is to know for sure. But it is one of those interesting questions in Baptist History. Let us not just quote John Marshman’s statement about what happened without stating that there is a debate about this event in the life of William Carey.


The Goal of Human History

December 28, 2006

Herbert Butterfield, author of Christianity and History, perhaps the best book on Christian historiography concludes forcefully the goal of human history.

“To survey history requires great elasticity of mind because the processes involved are infinitely more supple and flexible than people imagine who make pictorial diagrams borrowed from biology or other sciences, or are deceived by some pattern in text-book abridgments, so that they look for something to which human personalities are only the means. History is not like a train, the sole purpose of which is to get to its destination; nor like the conception that my youngest son has of it when he counts 360 days to his next birthday and reckons them all a wearisome and meaningless interim, only to be suffered for the sake of what they are leading up to. If we want an analogy with history we must think of something like a Beethoven symphony–the point of it is not saved up until the end, the whole of it is not a mere preparation for a beauty that is only to be achieved in the last bar. And though in a sense the end may lie in the architecture of the whole, still in another sense each moment of it is its own self-justification, each note in its particular context as valuable as any other note, each stage of the development having its immediate significance, apart from the mere fact of any development that does take place. It may be the case that the people who once imagined that the world was soon to come to an end were in a position to discover some fundamental aspects of it, and see them in better proportion, than the nineteenth century, with its picture of indefinite progress and rising good fortune. We envisage our history in the proper light, therefore, if we say that each generation–indeed each individual–exists for the glory of God; but one of the most dangerous things in life is to subordinate human personality to production, to the state, even to civilisation itself, to anything but the glory of God (Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History [New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950], p. 67).

Historians, our job is to see history as that which was accomplished to the glory of God! Each individual, each generation, exists for the glory of God. Our task then as historians is to show the greatness of God manifested throughout history. We too, must do our history to the glory of God!