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The First President of the SBC and Confessions of Faith

by Walter B. Shurden

Callaway Professor of Christianity

Executive Director, The Center for Baptist Studies

Mercer University, Macon, Georgia


 NOTE: This article was published in Texas Baptists Committed, May 2001, 6; Mainstream, 1:1 (June 2001) 13; Baptist Heritage, July 2001, 1, 5.

William B. Johnson, by any measure, was a mighty, towering Baptist influence in the 19th century. He cast a long Baptist shadow, both in the South and in the nation at large. He served as president of the Triennial Convention, as president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, and as the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

It is not too much to say that William B. Johnson was THE "founder" of the SBC. He arrived in Augusta, Georgia, in May 1845 with the Constitution of the SBC in his pocket; he had already drawn it up! Johnson also probably wrote the Address to the Public which the first assembly of Southern Baptists distributed in 1845, explaining their reasons for forming the SBC.

Much is said today by the fundamentalist leadership of the SBC about returning to the faith of the "fathers" and reclaiming the faith of the SBC founders. Since the SBC confession known as the Baptist Faith and Message has gained creedal prominence in SBC life today, some may want to know what the first president and founder of the SBC said about confessions of faith.

Be prepared for a jolt. Southern Baptists have come a very long way from their founders regarding confessions of faith. In the Address to the Public, issued at the first meeting of the SBC in 1845, Southern Baptists said, "We have constructed for our basis no new creed; acting in this matter upon a Baptist aversion for all creeds but the Bible." William B. Johnson, the first SBC president, probably wrote that sentence.

If he did not write it, it certainly reflected his sentiments. In 1846, the year after the SBC was organized, Johnson wrote a little book that few Southern Baptists have ever heard of. He called it The Gospel Developed through the Government and Order of the Churches of Christ. One of Johnson's major arguments in his book is that a local Baptist church is a Christocracy. A church is a body of believers ruled by Christ. Baptist churches have a Christocratic form of government, Johnson said, and he said it again and again.

Because Baptist churches are Christocracies, Johnson argued that Baptists do not need confessions of faith. Read slowly and carefully Johnson's words which follow:

""Keeping this first principle in view, that Christ is the one Lord of his people, and has given the revelation of his will in a complete and perfect code of laws and precepts, the impropriety of having any human selection and compilation of these, as a standard of faith and practice, is manifestly evident. If it be said that the compilation thus prepared contains what is in the Bible, the question comes up, why then form the compilation? Why not use The Bible as the standard? Can man present God's system in a selection and compilation of some of its parts, better than God has himself done it, as a whole in his own book?" (p. 197)

Johnson, this first president and founder of the SBC, was not opposed to truth, but he was thoroughly anti-confessional and anti-creedal.

Not only was he anti-confessional, he was ardently Christ-centered. Unity in Baptist life, he contended, came not from confessions of faith or imposed doctrinal statements. Unity and uniformity came from each believer being conformed to the will of Christ. Hear Johnson again:

"The value of the Christocratic form of government consists in this, that each acting in reference to Christ alone, all will be conformed to Christ, and thus conformed to each other. And this is the manner by which uniformity is to be secured and preserved, and not by confederations of churches, confessions of faith, or written codes of formularies framed by man, as bonds of union for the churches of Christ."(p. 200)

If the SBC returned to the faith of the founders of the SBC, what would they do with their love of creedalism? They had better not ask the first president of the SBC what to do with it!

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