I have been studying Baptist history for many years, especially the formation of the "Primitive Baptist Church" out of the anti mission movement of the early nineteenth century. It did not take long to discover that what I was told, as a young Hardshell minister, about the history of the "Primitive Baptist" denomination, was grossly incorrect. I was told that, prior to the separation of the "Old School" Baptists in the 1830s, all the Baptists were united in doctrine, and that they all believed as the "Old School." That is, they all believed in the five points of Calvinism and they all believed that the new birth was accomplished by the Spirit alone apart from the gospel and word of God, and that they all opposed Sunday Schools, para-church mission enterprises, theological schools, etc. But, after years of research I have seen that what I was told was not true, and that the Hardshells had written "revisionist histories" which were designed to deceive the members of the Hardshell cult.
Many able Old Baptists in the early to mid nineteenth century arose to challenge the false claims of the "Old Schoolers." J. M. Peck, a leader among the Regular Baptists, and a staunch mission supporter, was the first to take on the Hardshells. He met Daniel Parker in debate more than once and completely refuted the claims of the anti missionaries. Next, men like Dr. R. B. C. Howell of Nashville took up the task of refutation of the claims of the "Old School" anti missionaries. Later, more and more Calvinistic Missionary Baptists became activly involved in refuting the claims of the "Primitive Baptists." It is a shame that many of these debates are not available for us to read in this day.
Many of these debates were carried on in the religious periodicals of both the missionary and anti missionary Baptists, but again, many of these periodicals are buried in obscurity and hard to find.
The first great apologists for missions and theological and Sunday schools submitted proof that these things were not entirely new among Baptists and so the claim of the Hardshells that these things were new was shown to be false. They also showed how the scriptures supported such things contrary to what was affirmed by the anti missionaries.
On the question of the use of means in regeneration, new birth, and salvation, very few of the anti missionaries at the first denied that the Bible taught them. Nearly all of them believed that the new birth was effected by the Spirit's use of the gospel. Most of the first anti missionaries believed that spiritual birth was just like physical birth and had stages. They believed that "regeneration" was the implanting of the seed and was not the birth (deliverance). Anyone who reads the three leading Hardshell periodicals of the 1830s (Signs of the Times, Primitive Baptist, Christian Doctrinal Advocate and Spiritual Monitor) will see that this model of spiritual birth was commonly accepted.
Understanding this first Hardshell paradigm of "regeneration" and "rebirth" is important in understanding the development of the "Primitive Baptist" church as it exists today. Today's Hardshells reject this dominant view of their own founding fathers. This is interesting because not only do they claim to believe what Baptists believed prior to the nineteenth century, but to believe what the first anti missionaries believed, such as those who signed the "Kehukee Declaration" (1827) and the "Black Rock Address" (1832), and yet this is also false. I have consistently challenged them to defend their claim of being "primitive" or "original" Baptists by citing their forefathers and asking them to produce evidence to the contrary. None of them have come forward with the proof and the reason is quite obvious.
The first Hardshells did not affirm that conversion was a mere "time salvation" that was unnecessary for being finally saved in Heaven. They believed that conversion was necessary and that all the elect would be both regenerated and converted. Further, they equated being converted to Christ by the gospel with the new birth. This view seems to have slowly been abandoned, however. If one looks at the writings of the Hardshells from the 1830s to the beginning of the twentieth century, one can see how the neo-Hardshell doctrinal hybrid developed.
It is important for those reading the writings of the first generation of anti missionaries to understand this original paradigm as a context for reading their writings. The reason for this is because one can find some statements from the first generation Hardshells who would deny that the gospel was a means in "regeneration" but who yet affirmed that the gospel was a means in "rebirth." So, when some Hardshells read where Elder Wilson Thompson, for instance, testified (in the 1840s) that he did not believe that God uses means in "regeneration," they cannot conclude that he therefore rejected means in being born again and eternally saved.
I have shown in other writings how Elder Wilson Thompson accepted the three stage model of the "new birth" and agreed with Beebe, Trott, Conrad, etc., founding fathers of Hardshellism, and so did not reject the view that the new birth was accomplished by gospel means. Thus, his statement about means not being used in "regeneration" is no proof that he would agree with today's Hardshells who do not believe that the new birth is different from regeneration, and who do not believe that conversion is the new birth.
How and why did this original model of spiritual rebirth and salvation lose credence with the newly formed Hardshell denomination?
As one would expect, after the separation of the anti missionaries from the Particular (Regular) Baptist family, the debate over the issues raised by the Hardshells became intense. The original debate did not focus on the "means question" as both sides believed in them. The original debate was over "methods" and over the implications of the Great Commission. This is what is not believed by today's Hardshells, however. They want to believe that the original dispute was a doctrinal one and involved the question of whether the gospel was a means in regeneration and new birth. But, the facts of the case prove conclusively that the division was over "methods" and not over the doctrine of "means."
In the debate over mission methods and fulfilling of the duties of the Great Commission the anti mission side found it hard to defend their opposition by restricting it to methodological reasons. The question of the state of the heathen, especially in foreign lands, was the chief underlining question. Must they not believe in Jesus to be saved? Do they not need the gospel to come to faith?
In the late 1830s one can see how these issues were being addressed by the anti missionaries. They knew that the heathen were lost apart from faith in Jesus, so how can we legitimately oppose the efforts of those who desire to have the heathen to hear the gospel? They did not want to be judged as not desiring the salvation of the heathen, and yet their arguments against missions were weak because of this. Some began to see that the only way to put teeth into their objections to mission work is to deny that the gospel was absolutely necessary for being regenerated and eternally saved.
In the late 1830s Dr. R.B.C. Howell of Nashville, a hotbed of the controversy, was in a constant fight with Elder (Dr.) John Watson about these questions. Some of the anti missionaries, according to what Dr. Howell wrote in his paper "The Baptist," began to think that the heathen would be saved because of their ignorance and Howell refuted this idea. It was a view that was almost Universalism.
Those who argued that the heathen would be saved by their ignorance soon saw, however, the weakness of this position. They would have to come up with a better refutation against the view that the gospel must be heard and believed to be saved.
By the 1860s the original paradigm had lost most of its superiority. Preachers were now denying that regeneration and the new birth were different. Conversion to Christ was not dependent upon preachers, for God was able to reveal Christ to the heathen without preachers, able to speak to them personally, and so regenerate them and give them faith and repentance. This began to be the new apologetic for the anti mission stance. The consensus now was that the preaching of the gospel was not essential for being saved, so there was no need to be concerned about the urgency of preaching the gospel to the heathen.
In this time period (mid 1800s) the Hardshells believed that conversion to Christ was part of effectual calling, and believed that it was as much the work of God as regeneration. They did stress that regeneration preceded faith, and was accomplished apart from means, but they also taught that faith was produced in regeneration which produced conversion. It was also during this time period that the nature of the experience of "regeneration" began to be much watered down. It was also a time when some began to affirm that conversion was not necessary for being eternally saved. So, not only are many of the heathen safe (the elect), but so are many who hear the gospel but do not believe it.
By the 1880s the question of means reached a watershed point. The Hardshells who had rejected the need of means in rebirth could no longer tolerate those Hardshells who believed in means. Thus, a formal separation occurred and is known as the division over means question or the "Burnam" controversy. Elders Pence and Burnam were leaders of the means faction and Elders Waters and Dalton were leaders of the anti means faction. The event that became a catalyst for the controversy and subsequent division was the statement of Elder Waters in "Zion's Advocate" (1890) where Waters said that sinners were "saved, faith or no faith." So, within fifty-sixty years, the newly formed Hardshell denomination had gone from a belief in means to a total rejection of them. They had abandoned the faith of the founding fathers of the anti mission movement.
The view of the Hardshells at the end of the nineteenth century had mutated into its final form. Now they began to use the "time salvation" apologetic in which they made conversion to be necessary for being saved in time from false doctrine and the practice of sin, but not necessary for being eternally saved. Their view of "regeneration" had so mutated that it now was a "Hollow Log" experience, an apparent changeless experience. People could be "regenerated" who were outright idolaters and who had no knowledge of and faith in the one true God and Jesus Christ.
Thus, when one reads statements by nineteenth century Hardshells, he must interpret those statements in the context of the times, something which most Hardshells fail to do.