by Michael D. “Mike” Greene
When Barton Stone and his five fellow workers dissolved the Springfield Presbytery in 1804, determined to take the Bible as the only rule of faith and practice, they had no idea where that commitment would take them. Stone determined to launch himself on the tide of truth knowing he would drift in the right direction.
Not lost on the astute observer is the reality that such a quest would, of necessity, involve the examination of every belief and practice to determine its consistency with Biblical truth.
Such an examination would itself involve a certain measure of controversy between individuals and with one’s own convictions as long-held beliefs and practices were examined and confirmed or laid aside. In Stone’s case and with the subject of baptism, it did not take long for that controversy to begin.
In 1805, at the birth of his last child, David Purviance began to study the matter of baptism. Infant baptism was the accepted practice of the day, but what saith the scriptures? He went to the New Testament and studied the matter and became convinced that “only those were baptized who received the word.”/1
Robert Marshall had, as a result of his study as well, come to the same position. But no one pressed the matter.
In 1807, a young woman presented herself for baptism. Stone later recalls it was about this time that he himself had become dissatisfied with his infant sprinkling. The brethren came together to consider the matter.
It was becoming increasingly clear to all that if New Testament baptism was believer’s immersion, none of them had ever been scripturally baptized! At this point consideration is not being given to the relationship of baptism to remission of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16), but only to the mode and subject of baptism and its relationship to entrance into the church.
What course would they follow? Should they then be immersed? If they are immersed, does that mean they were not in the church all these years? And what of those who were ignorant of this newly discovered Biblical teaching? Were they Christians? Were they in the church?
If they choose to be baptized, what effect would that have on the fledgling reform movement in which they found themselves? Indeed, they had made a commitment to follow the word wherever it led them. Would they follow it into the water?
The practical consideration of who would baptize this young woman had to be considered. It would not be right to call in a Baptist preacher to do the baptizing. They finally reasoned that if they were authorized to preach, they were authorized to baptize.
A time and place was set for the baptism of this unnamed young woman. The word spread and a crowd gathered. Stone baptized the woman. Several of Stone’s co-workers were baptized that day. Stone was not. He was baptized in 1807, exactly when and where, is not known.
None understood these baptisms as being “for the remission of sins,” they were simply trying to do what God wanted them to do, to obey their God.
Purviance later remembered:
“None of us urged the matter. We exhorted the people to search the scriptures, and act according to their faith, and to forbear one another in love. And in general, peace and harmony continued to prevail. Stone studied the peace of the church and his character for candor and honesty so well was established that by pursuing a prudent course, he preserved the people in the unity of the Spirit and retained their confidence.”/2
One must remember that Calvinism was the predominant theology of the day. That system taught that one is born totally depraved and predestined to be one of the elect or one of the damned. Even if he were of the elect, he cannot do anything to save himself until God sends an experience to mark him as one of the elect.
However, many seeking salvation spent hours at the so-called mourner’s bench, being urged to repent and believe the gospel. But how could they, if they could not do anything to remedy their lost condition until God chose to send them a sign, even if they were one of the elect?
At a revival at Concord, Kentucky, in 1807, Stone had labored with a group of penitent mourners at the mourner’s bench with none of them being comforted. This, he reflected, was not how it happened in the New Testament. As he pondered the cause, he thought of Peter’s words on the day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2:38.
If Peter were here, Stone thought, he would address these poor souls in the same words. He arose and addressed the penitent seekers in the same language, urging them to comply. This, Stone later said, seemed to chill the audience, not bringing relief, so he let the matter drop./3
All agreed that believer’s immersion was Biblical baptism and that became the accepted practice among those called Christians. The mode and subject of baptism was not the issue. However, the purpose, specifically baptism for the remission of sins would soon become a matter of interest and study.
This question would not let Stone alone. What is the purpose of baptism? What is the relationship of baptism to salvation, specifically remission of sins? The answers would come in time and finding them would take Stone into much controversy, which he found particularly distasteful, for virtually the rest of his life.
1/ Levi Purviance, The Biography of Elder David Purviance (Dayton, Ohio: B. F. and G.W. Ellis, 1848) pp. 148-51.
2/ Ibid., pp. 151-52.
3/ John Rogers, Biography of Elder Barton Warren Stone (Cincinnati: J.A. and V.P. James, 1847) p. 61