“We Cannot Sit In Judgment”: William Whitsitt And The Future Of The Seminary -- By: Joshua W. Powell

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 13:1 (Spring 2009)
Article: “We Cannot Sit In Judgment”: William Whitsitt And The Future Of The Seminary
Author: Joshua W. Powell


“We Cannot Sit In Judgment”: William Whitsitt And The Future Of The Seminary

Joshua W. Powell

Joshua W. Powell serves as Pastor of First Baptist Church of Fairdale, Kentucky, and also as Instructor of Church History at Boyce College. He is a Ph.D. candidate in American Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

In 1896 William H. Whitsitt, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, became the focus of a fierce denominational controversy. On December 31, 1896, Whitsitt wrote in his diary, “This has been the stormiest year of my life.… I am exceedingly apprehensive for the future. Only God knows what 1897 may have in store for me.” He looked forward to 1897 as the year in which he would exonerate himself of charges of false teaching. Whitsitt’s friends worked hard behind the scenes to develop a plan to defeat Whitsitt’s accusers. The plan hinged on the actions of the Seminary’s Board of Trustees at Wilmington, North Carolina, the site of the Southern Baptist Convention in May 1897. The plan came together beautifully. After the convention Whitsitt’s friends wrote, this day “was a glorious victory for the Seminary.” Whitsitt returned to the seminary community and exulted that, “the experiences at Wilmington were more than I could ask or think.” He claimed the victory: “Freedom of research and freedom of teaching when coupled with discretion in utterance and kept within the limits that have been set by the fundamental articles of our institution was vindicated.”1 This meant that Whitsitt himself was vindicated. He believed that the storms finally had passed. However, in just over a year from the victory at Wilmington, Whitsitt would tender his resignation as president of the seminary.

Whitsitt saw himself as a reformer who was fighting for the “freedom of scholarly research” for himself and the faculty of the seminary. He believed this to be the real issue rather than his alleged errors. B. H. Carroll, a trustee of the seminary and respected leader of Baptists in Texas, agreed that this was the issue, but he took the other side. He believed that the real issue was whether the seminary should be freed from the denomination. He held that the “freedom of research” must have accountability, and that the convention must hold the teachers accountable

through the trustees. In the aftermath of the convention meeting at Wilmington, it was Carroll who led the fight against Whitsitt that ultimately led to his resignation.2

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Wil...

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