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POSITION OF THE BAPTISTS IN THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN CULTURE.
An Address delivered September 2,1872, hy the Rev. W. n. Whitbitt, on the occasion of his Inauguration as Professor of Biblical Introduction and Polemics, and Assistant Professor of N. T. Greek, in the Southern Baptist Theological Sominary.
SCHOLARS in almost every department of learning now cultivated owe, perhaps, a greater debt to Johann Gottfried Herder than to anyone besides.
He [says a recent writer] was the prophet of the German idea as it was shaped, developed, carried out, consolidated, and applied from 1775 to 1825 by Goethe to poetry, by Hegel to philosophy, by Niebuhr to history, by Savigny to jurisprudence, by F. A. Wolf to philology, by Wilhelm von Humboldt to linguistics, by Alexander von Humboldt to natural history, and finally by D. F. Strauss to theology. Herder was at once the originator and the head of that historical school which rules the intellectual world of the present day.1
It was he who introduced the era of disenthrallment from scholastical method and spirit, and infused life, blood, and energy, and even poetical inspiration into sciences that previously existed almost as fossils.
He developed, in an unhistorical period, the gifts and faculties of an essentially historical spirit; he possessed, to a wonderful extent, the
1 North American Review, July 1872, page 104. VOL. VII. —No. 1. A
power of transporting himself into the innermost spiritual life of the most varied epochs and nations; and herein consists his great importance.
It would have been impossible for any thinker, prior to the day of Herder, to have conceived and given expression to this all-moulding idea of "living organic development in opposition to mere inanimate mechanism, of synthesis as opposed to analysis, the whole individual to fragmentary labor, of fieri to faoere, and of spontaneous impulse to the strain of effort." That was an age when convention, pedantry and tyranny, were yielding their ancient thrones. The Americans were at the moment engaged in a struggle that fixed the attention of every class of society—poets, philosophers, statesmen, and peasants—and awakened the whole world to new conceptions of the dignity of human nature, the worth of individual character, and the right of intellectual freedom.2 Among the mercurial French the effect of this was revolutionary and disorganizing; but among their neighbors across the Rhine it gave a healthful, wholesome, and longwished-for stimulus to intellectual culture — though it must be granted that even the staid Teutons proved that they, as well as others, are capable of uncontrollable enthusiasm, by rushing pell-mell with the rest into countless absurdities. It was the Sturm und Drang Period; every man of culture, so delighted at finding that he was no longer a cipher, almost invariably came to the conclusion that he was, therefore, by nature a spiritual hero, or an incomparable genius, and, as a matter of course, superior to all considerations of propriety or expediency, or indeed of morality. But the quiet after-gain of all this extravagance was a great and decided advance. It was the harbinger of an ac;e in which measures and not men are of the chiefest importance; in which the people everywhere either consciously or unconsciously assert themselves, and it is less important to learn what the monarch thinks about a given political issue, than to observe the views of his subjects concerning it. "Public opinion is the sixth great power in Europe," is a remark attributed to Napoleon III. It is a truth characteristic of the mental phenomena of the times.
In the last analysis, therefore, we find that it is the people themselves who are—indirectly, it is true—the authors of Herder's idea. They had, in his day even, risen to such a hight in the scale of power that it was felt that history to be adequate must be delineated, not so much the fetes of rulers in the ecstacies of triumph, or the deeds of great armies, as the silent, daily progress of private opinion, the
» Schiller—Don Carlos, Act III, Scene X.
advances of material prosperity, the moral and intellectual tendencies of principles from time to time maintained, the Weltanschauung of the masses, the details of physical geography, the implements of husbandry, branches of industry, social customs, and, in a word, all the varied factors of striking results. The conclusion lay not far away that if modern history has become virtually a history of culture the same might be true of ancient history; and it was the happy lot of Herder to draw this conclusion, and to impress upon the minds of his cotemporaries a sense of its importance. Thus he produced a revolution in the learned world which has been fruitful of great results for good as well as evil, — for if new points of view were furnished to investigation, the subjective element was also encouraged to push its demands to extremes that sometimes render results untrustworthy.
Bearing in mind these reflections it will be manifest that no agency is more powerful in shaping the opinions and giving direction to the spirit and temper of the masses than the religious sentiments they embrace and the ecclesiastical institutions they live under. Scholars are coming to a riper appreciation of this subject every day, and are recasting their labors to meet its demands.1 It follows, therefore, that the chronicler of events in our country will always have a task of unusual difficulty; because here prevails the opposite of religious uniformity, and the duty will devolve upon him of studying closely the history, tenets, and the genius of each considerable religious community, in order to determine intelligently how much they contribute to the formation of the national thought and the direction of the national destiny. He who shall fancy that these details are beneath his notice, though he will possibly furnish useful materials for the scientifical investigator, can never achieve—at least so long as our mental development retains its present configuration—enduring appreciation and sympathy. For nations, as well as individuals, are moulded by the conditions, intellectual, religious and material, that surround them, and it is not easy to comprehend the significance of events, if they are communicated without regard to their original setting. A man wandering through the museum will find innumerable antique fauns and satyrs whose form and proportions his eye readily takes in; but he cannot fully appreciate, nay, understand, what he beholds, unless he shall inquire at what point—by the side of what fountains, or in what groves and bowers—they were originally set up. In like manner, it is not reasonable to expect that a given section of history shall be understood, except these modifying features
1 DeWette—Archneologie, p. 95, 4th edition.
are brought to expression. Moreover, unusual attention is now being paid to the culture-historical worth of different churches, and the whole subject of ecclesiology is becoming the theme of more earnest and exact discussion.1 It therefore becomes our duty to contribute as much as lies in our power towards a proper understanding of the position of the Baptists in regard to the moral, intellectual and social education of the multitudes who come under their tutelage, whether as members of their churches or more remotely affected by their doctrines and polity.
It is not intended here to enter, in any formal sense, the field of comparative symbolics, or to institute parallels between the workings of various religious tenets upon temper and spirit and conduct, so much as to indicate briefly the attitude of our own denomination, and the tendencies of its doctrines and practices, in these directions. Whenever allusions of this kind are necessary to a clear presentation of the subject in hand they will be employed, but not as matters of primary concern.
But leaving this topic, let us turn to the practical theology of the Baptists. Here we meet a simple but far-reaching and widelyapplicable principle, which is after all their most distinct peculiarity; for although other denominations have been driven by circumstances and the weight of opinion to approach more nearly to the Baptist position than formerly, they have only done so by a happy inconsistency with their other tenets. This principle constitutes the very crowning point of all Reformation theories. Without it no work of Reformation can be complete or consistent. In its statement and defence the American Baptists have produced a deep and broad impression upon the American mind, an impression felt, by all other churches, and apparent to the observer of the mental progress, the political habits, and, in fact, the genius of the whole nation. In its broadest generalization this principle is enounced by the declaration that the church of Christ is, in the highest possible sense, a spiritual organization; or, to employ more exact language, the Baptists would so explain the second note of the Council of Constantinople—that concerning the sanctity of the church—as to deny the right of membership to all except true believers in Christ, or such as make a credible profession of faith. And so tenaciously do they cling to this point, that in admitting candidates to the ordinance of baptism it is quite universally the custom to subject them to examination on the details of their Christian experience, and to reject them if it prove unsatisfactory.
1 Cf. Kirche uud Kirchen, Papstthum und Kirchenstaat. Historisch-politische Betrachtnngen, von Dr. J. J. Ign. v. Dollmger, Stuttgnrdt, 1872.