By Ken Camp
Neither Baptist progressives nor fundamentalists have the right to lay exclusive claim to the legacy of B.H. Carroll, two church historians told a fall colloquy sponsored by a theological institute that bears Carroll’s name.
Baptists who view Carroll only as a conservative controversialist or solely as the founder of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary paint an incomplete portrait of a pastor/theologian and mentor to future denominational leaders, said Alan Lefever, director of the Texas Baptist Historical Collection, and Jim Spivey, senior fellow and professor of church history at the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute.
The colloquy was held on the campus of the 10-year-old B.H. Carroll Theological Institute in Arlington, Texas.
“B.H. Carroll was a very complex man” who defied easy categorization, Lefever, author of Fighting the Good Fight: The Life and Work of B.H. Carroll, said in a biographical sketch of the man.
As a young adult, Carroll rejected Christianity. His bitterness toward the church — and God — grew after his first marriage ended in divorce due to his wife’s infidelity.
“He went to a dark place,” Lefever said, noting how Carroll volunteered for the riskiest missions available in the Confederate army, and he publicly refuted the chaplains’ sermons. “He preached against God in the Confederate army camps and attracted larger crowds than the chaplains.”
After suffering severe wounds in battle at Mansfield, La., he returned to Caldwell, where he attended a Methodist camp meeting at his mother’s insistence. Due to the sermon he heard that night and his reading of a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress his mother gave him, Carroll converted to Christianity in the fall 1865 and felt God’s call to preach. The following May, Caldwell (Texas) Baptist Church licensed him to the gospel ministry, and the church ordained him in November 1866.
After preaching at several churches and serving as pastor of a couple of churches, he accepted a call from First Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, in 1870 to assist Pastor Rufus C. Burleson, who also served as president of nearby Baylor University. When Burleson left the church a few months later to devote his full attention to the university, the church called Carroll as pastor, a position he held nearly 28 years.
For most of that time, he served a mentor and teacher to young ministerial students, created an “embryonic seminary” that met at the church and established the Bible department at Baylor University, Lefever noted.
Involvement in Whitsitt controversy
“He was, in many ways, a progressive theological educator,” he said — a fact ignored by many Baptist historians east of the Mississippi who focus solely on Carroll’s involvement in the so-called “Whitsitt controversy.”
William H. Whitsitt, third president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, denied the popular Landmark Baptist notion of Baptist succession — the belief Baptists could trace their heritage through a “trail of blood” by martyrs all the way back to apostolic times. He also noted early English Baptists did not practice baptism by immersion until 1641.
Although Carroll believed in Baptist succession, he viewed Whitsitt’s beliefs on Baptist succession as “not a doctrinal issue, but an issue of human history,” Lefever insisted. However, as a member of the school’s board, Carroll argued the seminary needed to be accountable to the churches of the convention, a position that failed to prevail.
So he announced at the 1898 Southern Baptist Convention in Norfolk, Va., his intent to recommend at the 1899 SBC a motion to sever the seminary from the convention. In time, Whitsitt resigned under pressure.
Many Baptist historians outside Texas have maligned Carroll unfairly as “a Landmarker,” when he actually rejected several key Landmark Baptist beliefs — particularly regarding cooperation in missions, Lefever asserted. He specifically noted Carroll’s role in rallying support for the SBC’s Home Mission Board and his opposition to T.P. Crawford’s Gospel Mission Movement, which attacked the SBC Foreign Mission Board.
“If he was a Landmarker, he was a denominational Landmarker — and that doesn’t make sense,” he said.
The complexity of Carroll’s personality also appears in his impact as mentor to two widely divergent figures — George W. Truett, the pre-eminent Baptist statesman and denominational loyalist in the first half of the 20th century, and J. Frank Norris, the father of Fundamentalist Baptists, Lefever said.
“B.H. Carroll could be seen as Patient Zero of the SBC controversy” that divided the convention in the 1980s and 1990s, he insisted. Both the moderate “Truett strain” and the fundamentalist “Norris strain” found a common source and inspiration in Carroll, he noted.
Spivey likewise emphasized Carroll’s complexity, asserting historians need to give due attention to “the two B.H. Carrolls — the extroverted controversialist and the introverted unifier.”
Carroll left a multifaceted legacy as a pastor/theologian, denominational leader, innovative educator and mentor, he said.
“He became a truly larger-than-life personality who cast a very long shadow and whose abiding influence endured long past his death,” Spivey said.
Carroll’s role in creating institutions — most notably Southwestern Seminary — grew out of his love for churches, and he never ceased to view himself first as a preacher of the gospel who wanted to help equip other ministers, he said.
“Beginning with thousands of students he himself trained at Baylor and tens of thousands more who attended the seminary he established, innumerable churches, mission fields and seminaries on those fields around the globe have been touched by his educational vision, which is still alive among Texas Baptists,” he said.
Observers today should take care not to view Carroll as “the fountainhead of traditions he did not support,” Spivey insisted.
“His theology was Calvinistic, but he was not a doctrinaire Calvinist with a dogmatic agenda. He believed in the fundamentals of the Christian faith, but he was not a Fundamentalist with a narrow and judgmental spirit. He believed in the plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture, but he never used inerrancy as a political weapon. … He was a true guardian of Scripture who spoke with conviction and certainty, but he was not blinded by narrow-mindedness,” Spivey said.
“He was an independent thinker who pursued the truth wherever it led, and he encouraged students to do the same. He knew the difference between indoctrination and education, and he preferred the latter.”