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Baptists’ Challenge: Head and Heart


by Dr. Dan Day

Pastor, First Baptist Church, Raleigh, NC


A wise man once told me that healthy religion speaks to your head as well as to your heart, and of course, motivates your hands as well.  Head and heart and hand! I have found this triad to be helpful on many occasions, reminding me that healthy religion ought to give you something to feel, something to think, and something to do.

When I apply this to my own religion, it occurs to me that Baptists have never failed to give me something to do. In a roomful of Christians you can always spot the Baptists—they’re the tiredest looking ones in the bunch. This third of the test we Baptists can pass with flying colors. But what can we say about the remaining two-thirds, head and heart, and especially the combination of these two?

It is a combination with which we’ve long struggled. But we are not alone in this struggle; uniting evangelical warmth with intellectual vigor is a challenge for all Christians. And in Baptist life it has a colorful history.

John Smyth, who might be credited as being Baptists’ founding father, was a well-educated man. He was a 1598 graduate and fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, but the Baptist community he led seems to have been an unlettered people’s movement oppressively ostracized by the intelligentsia of the day.

Certainly there were many intelligent persons among the early Baptists of England and the American colonies. John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, was surely a brilliant man though not a formally educated one. Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island Colony, was both bright and academically trained. But, it is the case that early Baptists were noted more for their heart than for their head, more for their piety and courage than for their academic credentials. And when a colonial Baptist did seek an education at say, Yale or Harvard, the social pressure to accept more politically correct views of religion was overwhelming. This led to the saying that you could send a Baptist to Harvard, but you couldn’t get one out!  (Indeed, Harvard’s first president, Henry Dunster, was forced out of that office because of his Baptist sympathies.)

Thus, when the Great Awakening brought revivalist zeal to southern and westward migrating Baptists, it was mostly uneducated preachers who did the evangelizing. In the 1800s especially, the ‘call’ was much more important than the ‘credentials.’ The sentiment was widespread that if God wanted educated preachers God would call educated persons to the ministry. Since this did not seem to be the case, the perpetuation of ignorance was seen as God-ordained.

One authority estimates that in 1828 three fourths of the preachers in Kentucky could not distinguish between a noun and a verb. Some could not read at all. The general flavor of many Baptist efforts can be sensed from the story of an old Baptist preacher who was conducting a revival in the backwoods near the Sabine River. In the midst of his sermon, while exhorting the sinners to flee from the wrath to come, a tall elegantly dressed man with a gold-headed cane, came walking down the aisle and seated himself near the front. The preacher glanced at him but kept on exhorting. But, unable to resist the new target, he turned to the newcomer and said, “Friend, are you a Christian?”

The distinguished gentleman replied: “Sir, I am a theological professor.”

          “My Lord,” said the preacher, “I wouldn’t let a little thing like that keep me from coming to Christ….” 

One writer says: “In 1791 there was not a single college man in all the Baptist ministry of the South.” 

But there is more to our Baptist story than this.  As much as the passion for heart-felt faith is true of us, so also is the emergence of a concern for the intellectual life of rational thought. As early as 1764 the Baptists led in the establishment of Rhode Island College, now known as Brown University. It was begun ‘to secure for Baptists an educated ministry.’ And just to speak of our own region, before the start of the Civil War the Baptists of the South had established hundreds of academies and institutes as well as seventeen colleges:  Furman, Georgetown, Richmond, Mercer, Wake Forest, Judson, Howard, Baylor, Mary-Hardin Baylor, Chowan, Mars Hill, Tift, William Jewell, Mississippi College, Carson-Newman, Bethel and Averett.

Today Baptists not only go to Harvard, they also get out, and some are even invited to teach there and others to be the University’s Chaplain. The old joke about Presbyterians just being Baptists who have learned to read is no longer applicable. Baptists can read, and write and do their numbers and think. But will we do so? Will the Baptists of today and tomorrow be known as people of both head and heart?

         The forces of anti-intellectualism are both virile and venomous today. Virtually every one of those previously mentioned colleges is waging a battle against Fundamentalist forces who want to control their curriculum. Well-heeled political forces are now in play which, under the ruse of Christian concern, would confuse church and state, forever smearing Christian distinctiveness. Pulpit after pulpit continues to excoriate ‘those liberal professors who are corrupting the minds of the young’—with  information that the rest of the world incorporated fifty years ago and moved on. Go into many so-called Christian bookstores today and you’ll find shelves bulging with theologically bankrupt “Left Behind” novels and some esoteric Prayer of Jabez, but little if anything to feed the mind or challenge the intellect. Even the Bibles available there are often so heavily footnoted or cleverly formatted as to short circuit the readers’ ability to ‘see’ anything in a text other than what some editor has determined should be seen. And I dare not even mention the wasteland of televangelism with its shameless misuse of Scripture. But, sadly, I must note that the name of Baptist  figures prominently in all of this.

But this is foreign and contrary to our New Testament charter. As a people who have prided ourselves as being People of the Book, let us remember that the New Testament epistle which says, “Timothy, I charge you…preach the word,” also says, “Study to show yourself approved unto God.” This same epistle says, “Do the work of an evangelist,” but then follows it up with the request to “bring the books and the parchments.” How can one interpret these first century imperatives as being anything less than a call to use both head and heart in the service of this faith? We do the Lord Christ no service if we choose to listen to only one side of these paired commands. What therefore the Spirit has joined together, I do hope you and I won’t put asunder…or sit silently while others do so.

To be sure, there is a danger in overly-intellectualized faith. Decades ago a very pensive seminary professor left an unanswered question on my heart’s door. “It is,” he said, “an open question whether an enlightened faith can propagate itself.” This is a crucial question. And it requires that we acknowledge the danger of becoming so concerned with the life of the mind that we choke the life of the Spirit. The challenge is to be “both tough-minded and tender-hearted,” alive in intellectual curiosity and in steadfast faith. And, fortunately, out of the pages of our own Baptist history there is a grand story illustrating the power which does comes from the right combination of these two. It is the story of William Carey.

Carey’s name is usually associated with foreign missions, and indeed he was the first English-speaking missionary of the modern era. But the background to this pioneer’s arrival on the shores of India in 1793 is instructive. At age 18 Carey became a Baptist during one of the saddest hours in Baptist history, a time when the Baptists of his native England found themselves without strong, educated leadership. Some of the British Baptists had fallen victim to an empty liberalism that stripped them of any distinctively Christian conviction. Others had fallen to the then-popular fad of hyper-Calvinism, a theological system that taught that God had predetermined some for salvation and others for damnation and that no efforts of any mortal could alter God’s eternal decrees. One might as well ask a cripple to decide to walk, they said, as to ask a sinner to decide to trust in Christ. Needless to say, with this mindset all evangelism and all efforts to share the faith with outsiders died.

But then a group of young British Baptist pastors discovered the writings of an American pastor-theologian. His name was Jonathan Edwards, the very man we commonly associate with the hair-raising sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards himself, however, was about the least emotional preacher imaginable; he was supremely a man of learning, a man of towering intellect. And he had found a way to rethink and to repackage his Calvinist heritage, a way that compelled him to “do the work of an evangelist” as well as study “the books and the parchments.” It was the dense and demanding writings of Jonathan Edwards that found their way into the hands of these young British Baptists. Studying these pages prayerfully their minds were emancipated from the shackles of their hyper-Calvinism, and evangelistic effort was reborn.

William Carey was one of that circle of young readers and thinkers.  Since boyhood he had borne the nickname of “Columbus” because of his admiration for Christopher Columbus. Now, with his mind freed by wiser, nobler thoughts of God, Carey began to ‘expect great things from God, and to attempt great things for God.’ And, in 1793 William ‘Columbus’ Carey sailed for India as Baptist’s first foreign missionary.  He never returned to England; he died in India, having translated the scriptures into Bengali and numerous other languages and dialects, having led the way for thousands to know Christ, and having established a college which stands to this day as a testimony to the union of head and heart. Carey led the way; thousands have followed.

Does not Carey’s story remind us that head and heart are not foes? Of how each needs the other?  In truth, they are God’s appointed partners, to be used in the service of life and gospel.

Our challenge is to see that they will be so used. Our challenge is to teach the stories of faith to our children in ways that don’t stifle faith’s development, but liberate it.

Our challenge is to provide educational opportunities in our church that open our minds to ever-grander understandings of God and life and creation.

Our challenge is to support those who labor to integrate broad learning and deep faith.

Our challenge is to be people who both pray and think. Our challenge is to commend our faith with informed minds and warm hearts.

Our challenge is to oppose ‘dumbing-down’ and ‘cooling off.’         

          This  generation of Baptists, even this church, will inevitably be remembered for something. Wouldn’t it be grand if we could be remembered as people who stubbornly refused to lose their head or to sacrifice their heart! 



     The quote concerning college graduates among southern clergy is taken from:  Cornet, R. Orin.  “Education, Southern Baptist,” in Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, Vol. I, (Nashvile, TN: Broadman Press, 1958).

     The information regarding William Carey is taken from:  McBeth, H. Leon.  The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1987).

     The story concerning the Sabine River evangelist is taken from:  Phares, Ross. Bible in Pocket, Gun in Hand:  The Story of Frontier Religion (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), p. 13ff.