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Whitsitt Revealed and Uncensored!

March 27, 2009

whitsitt51a0ow0uycl_ss500_1James Slatton has just published what is perhaps one of the most important books on Baptist history in decades.  His W. H. Whitsitt: The Man and the Controversy (Mercer Press, 2009) provides a candid look at the infamous third president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  William Heth Whitsitt’s presidency lasted only a few short years (1895-1899) due to his involvement in a bitter controversy within the Southern Baptist denomination regarding the question of Landmarkism, the belief that Baptists did not originate after the Protestant Reformation but that Baptist origins can be traced through an unbroken chain all the way back to the New Testament era.  Whitsitt opposed the landmark interpretation, suggesting that the Baptist practice of believer’s baptism by immersion did not originate until 1641.  Pro-landmark Baptists attacked both his book, A Question in Baptist History, and the man himself, eventually resulting in his resignation from the seminary presidency in 1899.

Moderate and liberal Baptists have long referenced Whitsitt as an academic martyr who suffered for his convictions concerning academic freedom and Baptist individualism.  Slatton’s book finally brings selections from Whitsitt’s private diaries to light.  These revelations shed an entirely new light upon Whtisitt’s temperment.

Michael Haykin provides a concise but insightful review of Whitsitt’s character as reflected in his diary entries:

I had always believed that the major reason for [Whitsitt’s] departure from the Seminary presidency in 1899 was simply tied to his convictions about Particular Baptist origins in the seventeenth century that ran counter to the beliefs of prominent Landmarkists at the time in the Southern Baptist Convention.  But what [Slatton’s] book reveals is that although Whitsitt made public statements of devotion to the Baptist cause, he had significant doubts about Christianity and Baptist polity and doctrine that he kept private . . .

Whitsitt has become something of a poster boy for freedom in scholarship. . . . But my impression in the end was not along these lines. Rather, I came away from the reading of this biography with the impression that Whitsitt was habitually critical of pretty well everyone he met, and arrogant and petty in the way he put them down privately.

Whitsitt’s heretical doctrinal leanings are a bit of a surprise to me.  However, from my own work on seminary presidential administrations, I learned firsthand how spiteful and arrogant Whitsitt could be in his dealing with both enemies and supposed friends.  It is my opinion that he was simply not fit to be president of a denominational seminary.  In the history of the seminary, many good men experienced heartbreak and mistreatment due to various factors, but the best men of character were those who could forgive personal transgressions and move on with life without holding grudges.  Whitsitt does not appear to have been such a man.

The last pages of Slatton’s book reveal that Whitsitt remained defiant even in his last years before his death in 1911:

At the 1909 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, a brochure was circulated among the delegates promoting an offering in behalf of Southern Seminary. It bore the pictures of Boyce, Broadus, and Mullines [past seminary presidents], but not of Whitsitt.  When he saw the brochure, Whitsitt felt the sting of omission but resolved to take no outward notice: “I am proud of the ommission and shall be glad if my name shall never be restored.  It is a distinction that no other President of the Seminary can boast of …. I hope no member of the Whitsitt family will ever commit the blunder of striving to get my name restored to the list of the Seminary Presidents.” (p.325-326)

Today, Whitsitt’s picture hangs in Heritage Hall along Boyce, Broadus, Mullins, and all the rest of the nine men who have been entrusted with the office of SBTS President for a time.  I find great irony in this fact, regardless of whether Whitsitt would have approved of being honored alongside these other great men. All of the other eight presidents had particular strengths and weaknesses (sometimes, glaringly so!).   But whenever I look at Whitsitt’s picture, I am reminded of what a godly man does not look like.

I highly recommend students of Baptist history invest in a copy of Slatton’s new study of Whitsitt, and I advise reading it carefully while seeking to gain a clear picture of Whitsitt in his own words.

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