What About People Who Haven’t Been Immersed (pt.6)

To catch up on previous parts or to read ahead, see the link below the footnotes.

What About those Who Have Never Been Immersed?

We will begin this section with a look at a series of articles Barton W. Stone wrote in response to an Elder Thomas Carr[1] who wrote for the Christian Palladium, a journal published in New York and edited by Joseph Badger.[2] In this article he stated that he was hopeful to join the “Disciples”[3] in Christian union, but very quickly, he said, the prospect of unity vanished when he realized what it would cost.

But very soon it was discovered that in order to have a union with them we must renounce our former views respecting God’s plan of forgiveness, and all our experiences in religion, or hear it denounced at all times when they thought it expedient. My soul has been pained within me, at many times, on hearing pure, spiritual religion ridiculed and denounced as being the result of false teaching.[4] Those seeking religion in any way but the way than these exceedingly wise persons would direct, were fit subjects for ridicule.[5] (Emphasis mine—bold and underline)

Unfortunately, this paragraph perfectly captures the attitude and message of most Church of Christ preachers and members with whom I am acquainted. Any joy, peace, love, or comfort you feel because of Jesus prior to being baptized in their prescribed way is fraudulent according to their teaching, which is the way I believed and taught as well.

Barton W. Stone was saddened by this message, and he felt like it did not capture the spirit of the Movement which he and the Campbells had started. He asked this brother, “Now, I ask him and all concerned, Was it ever required of him or any other, by any intelligent brother amongst us, to renounce their former views of God’s plan of forgiveness, in order to have union with us? I boldly deny it.” (Emphasis mine—bold)[6] One may wonder if Stone would doubt the intelligence of those who, so many years later, appear to do the very thing he boldly denied!

To emphasize his point, he further questioned,

But I would ask your correspondent, what were his former views of God’s plan of forgiveness, which he thinks they must renounce in order to union? He answers, he always believed that faith, repentance, prayer, and seeking with all the heart, was God’s plan of salvation. Can any believe that these sentiments were ever required to be renounced?[7]  (Emphasis mine—bold and underline)

Stone had no problem fellowshipping this brother; it was Elder Carr who had the issue, but the real source of his consternation will come out in the following quotation.

His main disagreement with Stone was his interpretation of baptism for the remission of sins and what he saw as a grave inconsistency. Apparently, some within the Stone-Campbell movement were demanding that individuals be immersed before they would have fellowship with them. Here is what he wrote:

I have said the honest among them do not fellowship any but the immersed, because none but such have remission, consequently not born of God, not his children, not their brethren, not Christians; and to fellowship such would be to encircle in their communion the unregenerate, and give ‘holy things to dogs.’[8]

After a lengthy defense of the legitimacy of baptism as being part of God’s plan of salvation, he began responding to Carr’s charges point by point. In a section not quoted above, Carr said that one who isn’t baptized must be a sinner lost according to Stone. Stone responded, “Yes; if the sinner knew that God required immersion, and will not obey, he will certainly be lost, or not saved.”[9] Stone went on to say that this charge is denied by himself and other “Disciples.” He further explained,

We with you believe that immersion only is baptism, and is not to be administered to helpless babes, but to believers only…Now we think with you that there are many pious [C]hristians, who from ignorance of immersion as their duty, have neglected it, and yet are accepted of God with all their ignorance. Yet these same people have the spirit of obedience, and did they know that immersion is required, they would obey.[10]

He then offered himself as a personal example:

For twelve years I thus lived without immersion, and believe that I lived under the smiles of heaven. But when I became acquainted with my duty, I submitted to it. How should I then act? Should I teach the world that baptism was unnecessary for salvation, because I experienced salvation without it? Should I labor to comfort people in their ignorance, or teach them their duty and urge them to obey it?[11] (Emphasis mine—bold and underline)

Stone’s major point is that, while God is gracious towards those who are ignorant of the specifics of various commands, one’s previous ignorance is no excuse to forsake the command when one gains adequate knowledge of it. One shouldn’t worry about deceased relatives who weren’t aware of the command or be overly concerned with others, but they should do their best to teach and live the Bible to the best of their abilities regardless of what they used to do or not do.[12]

Alexander Campbell held a very similar position to Stone in answering a question just four years earlier. The letter to Campbell was written in response to a comment he had made in June of that year. He had written,

We would, indeed, have no objections to co-operate in these matters with all Christians, and raise contributions for all such purposes as, in our judgment, are promotive of the Divine glory or of human happiness, whether or not they belong to our churches: for we find in all Protestant parties Christians as exemplary as ourselves according to their and our relative knowledge and opportunities[13] (Emphasis Campbell—italics; Emphasis mine—bold and underline)

The sister who was disturbed by these comments, responded,

I was much surprised today, while reading the Harbinger, to see that you recognize the Protestant parties as Christian. You say, you ‘find in all Protestant parties Christians.’[14]

She went on to ask Campbell which act of his gave him the name Christian. Then she inquired, “Does the name of Christ or Christian belong to any but those who believe the gospel, repent, and are buried by baptism into the death of Christ?”[15]

Campbell’s response was to first appeal to the nature of the church. He argued that if one must live believe exactly as those within the Movement lived and believed, then there would be no Christians all the way back to the first century and that the promise of Jesus failed when He said that the gates of Hades would not prevail against the church.[16] Campbell then gave his definition of a Christian: “But who is a Christian? I answer, Every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will.”[17] After talking about the differences between babes and adults in Christ, he made this powerful statement:

I cannot, therefore, make any one duty the standard of Christian state or character, not even immersion into the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and in my heart regard all that have been sprinkled in infancy without their own knowledge and consent, as aliens from Christ and the well-grounded hope of heaven…It is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves; and this does not consist in being exact in a few items, but in general devotion to the whole truth as far as known.[18] (Emphasis mine—bold and underline)

Alexander Campbell then answered some of the very questions we have been asking about faith and opinions when he made the following comment about ignorance:

Many a good man has been mistaken. Mistakes are to be regarded as culpable and as declarative of a corrupt heart only when they proceed from a wilful neglect of the means of knowing what is commanded. Ignorance is always a crime when it is voluntary; and innocent when it is involuntary. Now, unless I could prove that all who neglect the positive institutions of Christ and have substituted for them something else of human authority, do it knowingly, or, if not knowingly, are voluntarily ignorant of what is written, I could not, I dare not say that their mistakes are such and unchristianize all their professions.[19] (Emphasis mine—bold and underline)

Campbell then made the argument that to condemn all who are ignorant of the specific commands of the Bible would be to do a great injustice. After all, he reasoned, there are many who cannot read, are deficient in education, and ruled by those who they view as smarter and more pious than themselves. He said, “…they never can escape out of the dust and smoke of their own chimney, where they happened to be born and educated!”[20]

Anticipating that someone may say baptism is absolutely essential, Campbell explained, “The preachers of ‘essentials,’ as well as the preachers of ‘non-essentials,’ frequently err…My correspondent may belong to a class who think that we detract from the authority and value of an institution the moment we admit the bare possibility of any one being saved without it.”[21] Continuing this line of thought, Campbell compared someone who hasn’t been immersed to someone who might be missing an eye or hand:

There is no occasion, then, for making immersion, on a profession of the faith, absolutely essential to a Christian—though it may be greatly essential to his sanctification and comfort. My right hand and my right eye are greatly essential to my usefulness and happiness, but not to my life; and as I could not be a perfect man without them, so I cannot be a perfect Christian without a right understanding and a cordial reception of immersion in its true and scriptural meaning and design. But he that thence infers that none are Christians but the immersed, as greatly errs as he who affirms that none are alive but those of clear and full vision.[22] (Emphasis mine—bold and underline)

How could someone who was so dedicated to restoring the ancient order also be willing to count those who didn’t follow that order, as he saw it, as Christians? Because while Campbell understood what baptism meant, he also understood grace. He believed that the principles laid out in his father’s Declaration and Address were biblical, and he allowed them to guide him in his life.

Someone may argue that to allow for these possibilities negates the importance of the institution. Both Campbell and Stone made comments denying this conclusion, but to reinforce what they both said, read this last paragraph from Campbell:

But to conclude for the present—he that claims for himself a license to neglect the least of all the commandments of Jesus, because it is possible for some to be saved, who, through insuperable ignorance or involuntary mistake, do neglect or transgress it; or he that wilfully neglects to ascertain the will of the Lord to the whole extent of his means and opportunities, because some who are defective in that knowledge may be Christians, is not possessed of the spirit of Christ, and cannot be registered among the Lord’s people. So I reason; and I think in so reasoning I am sustained by all the Prophets and Apostles of both Testaments.[23]

What Campbell is saying is that just because people like himself, Stone, and me are willing to have fellowship with those with whom we disagree, it does not give others an excuse to willfully disobey plain commands of Jesus. We fellowship them in their ignorance just as they fellowship us in our ignorance on other matters that they may be better studied in. The point of this entire paper is that Christian unity must be our polar star and is founded upon the basis of faith in Jesus and a desire to do his will. I’ll close this section with one last quotation from Campbell:

Should I find a Pedobaptist more intelligent in the Christian Scriptures, more spiritually-minded and more devoted to the Lord than a Baptist, or one immersed on a profession of the ancient faith, I could not hesitate a moment in giving the preference of my heart to him that loveth most. Did I act otherwise, I would be a pure sectarian, a Pharisee among Christians.[24] (Emphasis mine—bold and underline)

[1] https://www.newrivernotes.com/topical_history_biographies_elder_thomas_carr.htm

[2] The memoirs of Joseph Badger are preserved at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/40609/40609-h/40609-h.htm.

[3] Disciples was a sectarian name adopted by some in Stone’s day, something he wished they wouldn’t do. Instead, he wanted them to be Christians only (p.41).

[4] The term “false teaching” is often used as a label for the one who disagrees with someone else about the Bible. Dallas Burdette dedicated his entire dissertation to addressing this misconception. You can read it for free here:

[5] Elder T. Carr, The Christian Messenger, Vol. 12(1841), p.17.

[6] Barton W. Stone, The Christian Messenger, Vol. 12(1841), p.19.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Elder T. Carr, The Christian Messenger, Vol. 12(1841), p.33.

[9] Barton W. Stone, The Christian Messenger, Vol. 12(1841), p.37.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., p.38.

[12] See Thomas Campbell’s sixth and seventh propositions cited earlier in this essay (p.11).

[13] Alexander Campbell, The Millennial Harbinger (1837), p.272.

[14] Ibid., p.411.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., p.412

[19] Ibid., p.413

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., p.414

[23] Ibid., p.414.

[24] Ibid., p.412. This entire article is well worth your time, but hopefully these few selections will help reshape how you view these men. For some, it may mean denying that they are part of your heritage. For others, it may cause you to rethink how you view other Christians. I pray the latter is true for every soul who takes the time to think through these things. Grace is liberating.

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2 Replies to “What About People Who Haven’t Been Immersed (pt.6)

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful address to these subjects (those immersed from other immersionist traditions, and believers from pedobaptistic traditions). Thank you for speaking to a struggle that I suspect many of us have had in relating to unimmersed believers. I also think that the turmoil our movement went through in the mid-1900s over open membership has somewhat squelched a free discussion of particularly the second issue without raising suspicions about one another for wanting to discuss it. Thank you for speaking to these head-on.

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