by Robert G. Delnay


Confessions of faith are teaching devices-living documents that convey truth in brief and precise statements. In the past 175 years, many Baptist groups have adopted the New Hampshire Confession as the basis for their fellowships, frequently adapting it to better describe their beliefs.

Many people in the GARBC have supposed that the GARBC Articles of Faith are simply the old New Hampshire Confession of Faith with a new premillennial ending. But a little research has shown that this legend does not fit what actually developed. The confession has gone through a number of revisions, all of them essentially true to the beliefs of the original framers. My study shows it is hard for those who draw up doctrinal statements to anticipate the issues that may come up a generation or two later.

The New Hampshire Confession, 1853

By 1795 there were perhaps 41 Baptist churches in New Hampshire. Most of them traced their origins to the Calvinism inherited from the Great Awakening of 1740. A number of Congregational churches were troubled by the prospect of paying taxes levied to support all churches-even the spiritually dead ones. These revived Congregational churches found an elegant solution: They turned Baptist and accepted believer’s baptism.

After 1780, one Benjamin Randall gathered a Freewill Baptist church in New Durham, N.H., provoking a revolt of sorts against strict Calvinism. By the time of Randall’s death in 1808, the movement had grown to 130 Freewill Baptist churches in New England.

About 1826 the Baptists in New Hampshire organized a state convention with the participation of both Calvinistic Baptists and the Freewill Baptists, and four years later the convention appointed a committee to make a doctrinal statement. In 1833 the committee settled on wording that restated their Calvinism in moderate tones agreeable to their constituent churches, discharged themselves, and ordered copies to be printed. Twenty years later one member of the original committee, J. Newton Brown, authorized himself to make a few revisions and print the confession with his own name as author. This statement came to be known as the New Hampshire Confession (1853).

In 1894 Hiscox published The New Directory for Baptist Churches and included the Brown confession, which with a few changes appears in William Lumpkin’s Baptist Confessions of Faith (1959).

The Baptist Bible Union, 1922

Modernism was imported from Germany between 1880 and 1920, quietly taking over most of the old-line colleges and seminaries, along with downtown churches and agencies. When modernists organized the Baptists in the North into the Northern Baptist Convention in 1907, believers hardly realized what had happened. In the Indianapolis convention of 1922 it was clear that Baptist fundamentalists needed a confession to help identify the false believers. As an order of business, W. B. Riley of Minneapolis read the New Hampshire Confession and moved for its adoption.

Cornelius Woelfkin responded with a bit of parliamentary trickery, a substitute motion declaring “that the Northern Baptist Convention affirm that the New Testament is an all-sufficient ground for Baptist faith and practice, and they need no other doctrinal statement.” The substitute motion passed, 1,264 to 637, in what was understood as a referendum vote against fundamentalism.

The Baptist Bible Union was apparently born a few nights later, when R. E. Neighbour and O. W. Van Osdel convened a group of fundamentalists in a hotel meeting room. Both men would eventually become leaders in the GARBC. Three other men joined to form an executive committee: Riley, J. Frank Norris, and William Pettingill.

That winter, Riley and Norris set about to produce a statement of faith. They began with the New Hampshire Confession but revised several sections to exclude a modernist from affirming it. For instance, they specified that the Bible is a collection of 66 books, “the very Word of God,” with a specific statement about inerrancy and inspiration (but not describing it as plenary or verbal).

Like the New Hampshire before it, the Baptist Bible Union statement was irenic, made to include various views on prophecy. When the original draft drew protests from Canada and from the South, the executive committee quickly revised the last article so that an amillennialist could sign it.

The General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, 1932

The Baptist Bible Union came apart after the 1929 closing of its university in Des Moines. Under Van Osdel’s persuasion the Baptist Bible Union met for a final time in 1932 at Belden Avenue Baptist Church in Chicago. After formally dissolving the Union, the participants formed what became the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. After choosing an executive committee, they began work on their own confession of faith. The minutes are not clear, but apparently it was Earle G. Griffith, vice president, who did the actual revising.

The committee strengthened the statement on inspiration and shortened the statements on Satan and evolution. They omitted the one on election. They began the last article, on the last things, with the word “premillennial” but changed little else. (A comparison of all four doctrinal statements mentioned in this article is available at www.BaptistBulletin.org.)

The Clarifications, 1971-1975

While serving as president of Baptist Bible Seminary and later as GARBC national representative, Paul Jackson wrote prolifically about Baptist polity. Regular Baptist Press collected many of these articles and published his Doctrine and Administration of the Church in 1957. When Jackson revised his book for a new edition in 1968, he included a model Articles of Faith as an example to assist churches in preparing or revising their own statements. Interestingly, he provided his own revision-a reasoned update of the existing GARBC Articles of Faith-rather than including the current GARBC statement.

By 1970 there seemed to be need for some revisions or explanations in the existing GARBC Articles. The only changes in 35 years had been a few adjustments to correct typographical errors. Dr. Joseph Stowell (GARBC national representative) brought up the matter in a June 1971 meeting of the GARBC Council of Fourteen. After a motion, he appointed a committee of three to look into it: Ernest Pickering (president of Baptist Bible College and noted author), Donald Sewell (a pastor noted for his balanced approach to ministry and his evangelistic sermons), and David Nettleton (president of Faith Baptist Bible College).

The committee worked for two years, offering a draft of suggested revisions in June 1973. The new statement was stronger on inspiration (“plenary, verbal”), stronger on the fall of man (“totally depraved”), and clearer on creation (rephrasing of previous statement) and baptism (defining it as the ministry of the local church). The draft included new statements on the resurrection, priesthood of the believers, justification, sanctification, the universal church (but not using that term), separation, Israel, and the Rapture. Most of these proposed changes leaned heavily on Jackson’s model.

Interestingly, the committee also offered a proposed Article XIII (stronger on election, strong enough to rule out Arminianism) that was written by Pickering. The upshot was that the GARBC adopted the extensive revision of its confession-but after a year of significant discussion, chose not to adopt the article on election.

The clarifications of 1974-75 had an interesting omission: no statements were added in response to the growing charismatic movement. True to form, messengers to the 1978 GARBC Conference had passed a resolution affirming that sign/revelatory gifts are not for the church today, but this language had not yet been added to our formal Articles of Faith. This was rectified in 2003, when messengers to the GARBC conference approved the following addition: “We believe the sign/revelatory gifts of the Holy Spirit have fulfilled their purpose and are not applicable to the work of the Holy Spirit today.”

This addition was a moderate statement. While it clearly opposes the modern Charismatic and Third Wave movements, it is written so that nearly everyone in our association could affirm it. The new statement does not, for instance, list what the sign/revelatory gifts are, and it does not define exactly when they passed from use. It does not even address whether spiritual gifts are for today. (All of these issues would have several interpretations within the GARBC.)

Lessons to Be Learned

It is a truism among Baptists that “we are not a creedal people.” In comparison with other denominations, this is almost a Baptist distinctive. Yet even before the Northern Baptist Convention vote of 1922, Baptists realized that a simple New Testament affirmation was not enough. On the one hand, true Baptists hold the New Testament as their only authority for faith and practice, and to them no creed has any authority. On the other hand, all through their documented history, Baptists have found it necessary to form confessions of faith to specify what the literally interpreted New Testament conveys. A study of the stages through which the New Hampshire Confession has passed in these 175 years offers several additional lessons.

1. A confession of faith may need to change. This is true because the human mind has not yet found a way to make a perfect and timeless statement. The Bible is perfect and timeless, and this is testimony to its divine origin. Secondly, languages change. However, my study found constant rewording and improving in almost every stage of this confession’s history. This was true in the work of the original committee in 1830-1833; witness the many suggestions from both board and convention.

Furthermore, current issues change. One might almost say that the devil changes our statements of faith. New heresies require new articles. Which New Hampshire framer could have foreseen that 90 years later the popular test would be the Virgin Birth? Could Brown have foreseen that 80 years later, earnest and informed Baptists would drop six of his 18 articles? Could he have foreseen that creation would become a critical issue? Could Riley and Norris have foreseen that only 10 years later the revisers would greatly condense their statement on creation-or that their successors 40 years later would expand it again? These changes suggest that a body should make some cautious provision for upgrading its doctrinal statement in such a way that it can treat new issues without compromising its founding principles.

2. A confession of faith conveys a coherent body of truth. During the 175 years of its development, the New Hampshire Confession has conveyed a remarkably constant substratum of Biblical truth. The only notable qualification to this has to be in eschatology. It is too much to insist that the majority of the framers, had they lived so long, would have embraced premillennialism. But aside from our reservations about their closing article, we can with clear conscience assent to their declaration of faith. We would hope that with the same easy goodwill they could accept our clarified confession as currently printed.

3. A confession of faith should be balanced. The New Hampshire Confession has been both moderately Calvinistic and evangelistic throughout its history. It never had any praise for human ability, but at every stage of its development, it expected helpless sinners to respond to the gospel.

4. The New Hampshire Confession has always been an irenic document. None of its framers, from 1830 to 1975, tried to make it overly exclusive. Since the 1975 clarifications, many critics have remarked that the GARBC needs to take a stronger stand on this or that issue. But this study would suggest that in 1974-1975, the Council of Eighteen acted quite in harmony with the men who preceded them in framing this confession. The original framers sought a middle way between Freewill Baptists and Old School New England Calvinism. The Bible Union men, Riley and Norris, accepted neither Arminianism nor limited atonement. They were premillennialists who softened their statement lest it divide the movement or drive off Canadians or southerners.

When a decade later GARBC leaders revised the confession, they actually softened the Calvinism a little, and to the loose statement on eschatology they added only the word “premillennial.” They believed that their real adversaries were modernists, and among believers they wanted to avoid any needlessly divisive stands.

In the 1975 clarifications, the correspondence conveys the same spirit within the committee. At one point Nettleton asked Pickering for a statement on election. He later quoted a few lines from Pickering’s reply:

“Frankly, I do not think I can produce a definition that will satisfy everyone in our association. . . . However, I will send you this with the understanding that it may be thought unwise to introduce it because of potential division. I will understand perfectly if this is the case.”

The concern among others on the Council of Eighteen came through on a similar note. Even though such a group represented a variety of convictions, Council members seemed united in their handling of the controversy, believing that it was better to alienate the extreme positions than to permit the whole movement to fragment. They apparently sought to balance their concern to specify New Testament truth with their concern to prevent divisions.

5. Did the GARBC Articles of Faith help the association maintain consistent doctrine? This is a ponderable question. Other groups with strong confessions have left the truths they began with. At least some of the answer must be found by understanding the sort of men that the GARBC movement first attracted. It cost a great deal to be a separatist. Even though they did not write separation into their constitution until six years had passed, the leaders were separatists. The tradition that they stamped upon the association-their testimony and model-may have done more than the confession they formed and preserved.

Robert G. Delnay (ThD, Dallas Theological Seminary) is chair of the division of Biblical studies, Clearwater Christian College, Clearwater, Fla. This article is edited from “A History of the Confession of Faith of the GARBC,” a formal paper read at the Baptist Bible School of Theology, March 15, 1983. It is printed here by permission of Baptist Bible Seminary.