A Review Of James H. Slatton’s W. H. Whitsitt: The Man And The Controversy -- By: Gregory A. Wills

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 13:1 (Spring 2009)
Article: A Review Of James H. Slatton’s W. H. Whitsitt: The Man And The Controversy
Author: Gregory A. Wills

A Review Of James H. Slatton’s W. H. Whitsitt: The Man And The Controversy

Gregory A. Wills

Gregory A. Wills is Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Previously he served as Archives and Special Collections Librarian with the seminary’s Boyce Centennial Library. Dr. Wills received the Ph.D. from Emory University. Besides numerous journal and dictionary articles, he is the author of Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900 (Oxford University, 2003). To coincide with the sesquicentennial anniversary of Southern Seminary, Dr. Wills is writing a history, titled Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 (Oxford University, forthcoming).

James H. Slatton. W. H. Whitsitt: The Man and the Controversy. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009. 348 pp. + xviii. Illustrations. $40.00.

William H. Whitsitt (1841-1911), the third president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was one of the most controversial figures in Southern Baptist history. His beliefs and actions -precipitated a four-year controversy that threatened permanently to injure the seminary or to divide the convention.

Whitsitt was also one of the most important figures in Southern Baptist history. The failure of his crusade for freedom established the fact that Southern Baptists were determined to control their denominational institutions, especially the seminary. In response, denominational progressives developed indirect strategies of reform. For much of the twentieth century Whitsitt became for progressive Southern Baptists the inspiring symbol of their quest to enlighten and modernize Southern Baptists.

Slatton’s biography is a good introduction to Whitsitt’s life and to the controversy he precipitated in 1896, but it deserves close attention especially because it uncovers for the first time the contents of Whitsitt’s secret journals. The sixteen-volume set, and an important manuscript containing the edited correspondence of Whitsitt to his wife, are held under seal by the Virginia Baptist Historical Society at the University of Richmond. Whitsitt’s heirs gave Slatton permission to use these materials to produce this book. Oddly, the journals remain sealed, even though this book reveals their essential content and character, and no good purpose can be served by keeping them sealed.

Slatton relies heavily on these materials, and on the Whitsitt collection at the Library of Virginia,

to tell Whitsitt’s story. Whitsitt early identified with J. R. Graves and his Landmark Baptist movement—Graves preached at Whitsitt...

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