On Theological Elitism: One Professor’s Perspective

I am currently reading Jim Slatton’s new biography of William Whitsitt, titled W. H. Whitsitt: The Man and the Controversy (Mercer University Press, 2009). For those who do not know, Whitsitt was the third president of Southern Seminary and a longtime professor of church history at the school. In a series of articles and finally a monograph titled A Question in Baptist History (1896), Whitsitt debunked the then-popular assumption that the earliest English Baptists (both General and Particular) practiced immersion. Whitsitt’s thesis undermined the Landmark conviction that there have always been Baptist churches since the time of the New Testament. Although Whitsitt was challenged by successionist historians like John T. Christian, virtually all scholars came to accept Whitsitt’s basic thesis by the early 20th century.

Whitsitt’s views became the source of an enormous brouhaha in SBC life. Whitsitt vacated the presidency of Southern Seminary in 1899 in the wake of the controversy. To this day he is considered a pariah in Landmark circles and lauded as a martyr for academic freedom by the Baptist left, which tells you more about the theological assumptions of both of those respective movements than it does about Whitsitt himself. After his death in 1911, most of Whitsitt’s personal papers were sealed for 100 years, meaning that historians could only gain a partial understanding of both Whitsitt personally and the “Whitsitt Controversy” in particular.

Although much has been written about Whitsitt over the years, Dr. Slatton was granted unprecedented access to Whitsitt’s previously inaccessible personal diaries and correspondence (the stuff that was supposed to be sealed for a century). Armed with those sources, he has provided us with the most comprehensive study of Whitsitt to date. It is not my intention in this article to formally review the book, though that would be a worthwhile endeavor. Instead, it is my intention to focus on a topic that has gnawed at me while I have been reading the biography: theological elitism.

One doesn’t get very far in Slatton’s biography before several things become clear. First, Whitistt was likely considerably less orthodox than has been assumed by many non-Landmark conservatives (Landmarkers of course were convinced he was unorthodox for obvious reasons). He was clearly sympathetic to progressive theology in general and Crawford Toy’s views in particular. Second, Whitsitt was a generally mean-spirited fellow, though to be fair it seems like most of his rants were private rather than public. He had very little regard for his fellow professors at SBTS, particularly James P. Boyce. He also disliked, or at least had little respect for, some of the most prominent pastors of his day. While at times some of his gripes seem legitimate, most of what he writes concerning his colleagues smacks of arrogance and pettiness. But what sticks out the most to me, as a professor who like Whitsitt teaches courses in Church History and Baptist History, is Whitsitt’s disdain for grassroots Southern Baptists. Whitsitt was a theological elitist.

Whitsitt’s rejection of Landmarkism, though eventually grounded in a study of primary source material in England, began with his disdain for Landmarkers in particular and Baptist distinctives in general. Not only did Whitsitt disapprove of Landmark doctrines like successionism and pulpit non-affiliation, he also dismissed mainstream Baptist doctrines like close communion and a rejection of alien immersion (he is even OK with Campbellite “baptisms”). In perhaps his most shocking pronouncement, Whitsitt argued that Baptists should dispense with immersion completely! Though he believed immersion was the apostolic practice, he was convinced that Baptists should move past the sectarianism of insisting upon immersion as the only true baptism. In other words, Whitsitt’s problem wasn’t really Landmarkism, it was Baptist identity itself. Landmarkism was a casualty in Whitsitt’s war against historic Baptist beliefs and practices.

Not only did Whitsitt have little use for Baptist distinctives, he had little use for what might be called the “ambiance” of Southern Baptists. After his time pursuing graduate study in Germany, Whitsitt was continually put-off by what he considered to be Southern Baptists’ ignorance and lack of culture. They didn’t read the right books. They didn’t emphasize the right priorities. They didn’t wear the nicest clothes. They didn’t engage in the right type of entertainment. Southern Baptists were the riffraff among whom it was Whitsitt’s lot to labor. At one point Whitsitt spent about a year contemplating leaving Southern Baptists for another denomination. Ironically, all of his complaints about Southern Baptists had more to do with the “flavor” of the people than the doctrines they held dear. To be fair, I suspect Whitsitt probably loved Southern Baptists. But he didn’t really like them, and he certainly didn’t respect them.

Reading this biography has provided me with the occasion to search my own heart. I have often heard men like Danny Akin and Russell Moore speak about seminarians (and pastors) who get a bit of theological education and become condescending toward their home churches. I agree with their concern and have often been convicted and encouraged by their warnings. But this week I find myself more concerned with professors who might be tempted to think they are too smart for the people whom they serve. This was clearly a problem with progressives throughout the 20th century (and earlier), but it would be a tragic mistake to think that conservatives are immune to this temptation.

Theological elitism will always be a potential stumbling block for professors. We have earned advanced degrees. Many of us write books and articles. We probably read widely. We try to think deeply about significant subjects. And, of course, we teach current and future pastors, missionaries, and other Christian leaders. But in each of these duties we must never think we are better than the people whom we serve just because we use all the big words and read all the big books. Our research and teaching need to be seasoned with humility.

As professors we have been charged by the SBC to help equip students how to think and lead theologically. But as important as this task is (and I think it is very important), we have to avoid becoming academic Gnostics. We must never believe–even implicitly–that our theological knowledge makes us superior to all those Southern Baptists out there who read Christian fiction, buy spiritual knick-knacks at LifeWay, and watch TBN. I know my own sinful tendencies in this regard, and I have a strong suspicion I am not the only Southern Baptist professor who has to regularly pray for humility and mortify his “inner Whitsitt.”

It is my prayer that the Lord protects all contemporary Southern Baptist professors–including the man in the mirror–from the temptation to think we have “outgrown” the millions of precious saints who comprise the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. Every form of elitism should be drowned in the baptismal waters, including theological elitism.