Albert Henry Newman: with a bibliography of writings that encompasses at least twenty-one pages, Albert Henry Newman ranks as one of the most prolific and competent church historians Baptists have ever produced

Albert Henry Newman: with a bibliography of writings that encompasses at least twenty-one pages, Albert Henry Newman ranks as one of the most prolific and competent church historians Baptists have ever produced – 1852-1933

Glenn Jonas

Born in the Edgefield district of South Carolina, Newman received his education at Mercer University, Rochester Theological Seminary, and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His teaching career lasted fifty-three years and included positions at Rochester Theological Seminary (1877-81); Toronto Baptist College (1881-91); McMaster University (1891-1901); Baylor University (1901-08, 1913-21); Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (1908-13); and Mercer University (1921-28). (1)

Newman’s work as a church historian can be divided into three distinct areas. He may best be remembered for his work as a general church historian and his two-volume A Manual of Church History (1901-02). This work served as the standard church history text in numerous Baptist and non-Baptist seminaries for much of the first half of the twentieth century. He was a pioneer in the area of Anabaptist studies. His History of Anti-Pedobaptism: From the Rise of Pedobaptism to A.D. 1609 (1897) became an early classic in Anabaptist historiography. He was also one of the leading scholars in the field of Baptist studies during the late-nineteenth century. This article will examine Newman’s work as a church historian in these three areas.

General Church Historian

Along with his discoveries in Anabaptist history and Baptist history, Newman achieved recognition as a general church historian. The late-nineteenth century marks a period of change in the field of church historiography. Henry Warner Bowden, in his work, Church History in the Age of Science, shows how scientific historiography in the field of general history produced a new breed of church historians who attempted to write history with a new scientific emphasis. (2) The scientific historians encountered opposing viewpoints from the older school of church historians–scholars who were unwilling to depart from their theological understanding of history. (3) A third group of historians active during this period but rarely mentioned in reference to the above two groups is the denominational or sectarian historians. They made their presence known on a much less professional basis as most of theft work concentrated on chronicling the history of the denomination of which they were a part. (4)

The only essay that mentions Newman’s position within the broad spectrum of nineteenth-century historiography is by George Huntston Williams. He classified Newman as a mediator between the conservative older school of church historians and those committed to the scientific method. (5) But in relation to Newman’s historiography, the third school of sectarian historians should be included. How does Newman’s work as a church historian compare to these three different schools of thought?

Newman and Scientific Church History

Both David Lotz and Bowden have identified characteristics of the scientific methodology in historiography. Bowden notes that all scientific historians had at least three common traits: an iconoclastic attitude toward earlier historical writing; a naturalistic bias, desiring to eliminate all metaphysical speculation from their work; and a desire for empirical objectivity. (6) Lotz lists six characteristics of the scientific church historians: (1) a strict division between history and theology; (2) naturalism; (3) church history combined with secular history; (4) a rhetoric about faith instead of a rhetoric of faith; (5) an argument for the legitimacy of church history within the university curriculum; and (6) a confidence that church history, while not a theological discipline, is nevertheless important for theological work. (7)

Ephraim Emerton, professor of ecclesiastical history at Harvard University (1882-1918) best represents the school of church historians who accepted the scientific methodology. (8) Holding true to the scientific spirit, he criticized schools in which church history was subsumed under historical theology, thereby creating the impression that history is not a discipline independent of theology. (9) Emerton defined church history as “the record of the life of men together, under the form of the Christian Church.” (10) Therefore, the church was a human institution and church history should be divested of all theological presuppositions. (11) An example given by Emerton from Acts 2 illustrates his approach to church history.

I should consider myself trespassing beyond my own limits, if I should say

that on a certain day the gift of tongues descended upon the disciples of

Jesus, and gave that impulse from which the Church as an organization

derives its origin. (12)

He had no difficulty claiming that the historical documents show that on a particular day a group of disciples began to preach the ideas they derived from Jesus. As to whether the disciples of Jesus had a supernatural experience on that day, Emerton said, “you must inquire of a professed theologian, not of me.” (13)

Newman had little in common with the scientific church historians. He defined history as “the setting forth in literary or oral form of the development in time of the divine plan of the universe.” (14) In contrast to Emerton, Newman did not view church history as the history of a human institution alone. He said church history is “the narration of all that is known of the founding and the development of the kingdom of Christ on earth.” (15)

Another difference between Newman and the scientific church historians related to the separation of church history from theology. Newman believed that the discipline of theology should be divided four ways: exegetical, historical, theoretical, and practical, and said that church history is the “Historical Theology of the Christian religion in its most comprehensive sense.” (16)

Similar to the scientific historians, Newman desired a neutral reading of the sources used by the church historian. He believed “that in the process of investigation he [the church historian] should deal as impartially with his materials as does the chemist with his specimens.” (17) The end result of historical work should be to derive the facts so that the truth might become known. The historian should guard cautiously against letting his judgment be influenced “by the supposed beating of the facts on the traditions of his denomination or his own individual opinions.” (18) Always conscious of the dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity, he advocated treating all sources fairly regardless of one’s predisposed ideas. Therefore, the church historian who loves the truth, “will seek to be as scrupulously just to individuals and parties from whom he fundamentally differs as to those with whom he fundamentally agrees.” (19)

Coupled with their efforts to treat sources objectively, scientific historians sought to detach themselves personally from the topic of study. Newman was unwilling to accept this position. The church historian should not be indifferent to the subject, or “so destitute of convictions as to form no moral judgments on the parties and individuals whose history he studies,” he said. (20) In a direct critique of the scientific historical method, he further declared:

It is not the scholar who is without personal interest in Christianity and

who studies its history in a purely scientific spirit, that is likely to

enter into the fullest appreciation of the facts of church history; but the

scholar who is most profoundly imbued with the spirit of Christianity. (21)

Newman and Theological Church History

Perhaps the most eminent church historian of the nineteenth century was Philip Schaff. (22) The sheer volume of Schaffs literary output coupled with his high academic standards of scholarship place him above others of his era. He serves as a good example of theological historiography because he believed that “[i]n the Church, Christ carries forward … his divine human life.” (23) Schaff differed from the scientific church historians who viewed the church as a purely human institution and successfully combined confessional commitment with vigorous standards of historical research.

Newman possessed more common ground with Schaff than he did with the scientific church historians. Both saw the history of the church as the history of the redemptive work of God in the universe, a “salvation history” approach to defining church history. (24) Schaff defined church history as “the evolution of God’s plan of redemption.” (25) Newman understood church history as the recounting of all that is known about the progress of the kingdom of Christ on earth, a definition in virtual agreement with Schaff. (26) Believing that humans were alienated from God and needed redemption, Newman proposed that the goal of Christianity is to restore humanity to a state of spiritual obedience. Therefore, the “history of the church should show … the progressive accomplishment of this divine purpose through the centuries.” (27)

Schaff is often remembered for his ecumenical commitment. The idea of achieving the reunion of Christendom became for Schaff “the supreme task of church history.” (28) Newman, on the other hand, did not share Schaffs commitment to ecumenism. Believing any type of creed or confession would prove unsuccessful in bringing about Christian unity, he held that there were only two ways by which Christianity might be united. The first, used in the Middle Ages by the ruling hierarchy, attempted to suppress all dissent from the state form of religion. The other alternative, Newman said, “is for all believers … to accept the Scriptures as the only rule of faith and practice.” (29) Newman also believed that surrendering certain distinctive principles within one’s own denomination for the sake of union signals that the denomination has become “so feeble that they no longer care for anything but to have a good, quiet, comfortable home.” (30) The ecumenical ideas prevalent at the beginning of the twentieth century were futile to Newman who believed “nothing was gained in the long run by union efforts that are becoming so common.” (31)

In spite of differences between Newman and Schaff concerning ecumenism, the two men worked together within the American Society of Church History and on a major project under its auspices called “The American Church History Series.” This project attempted to provide a series of denominational histories with each volume written by a representative historian from that denomination. (32) Originally selected as a member of the editorial committee for the project, Newman resigned his position after agreeing to write the volume on the Baptists. Schaff convinced him to resign the position to alleviate any possible conflicts of interest. (33) The project took four years to complete (1893-97) and has been called “the most valuable literary achievement in an ecumenical vein.” (34)

Clearly, Schaff saw this project as a means to achieve Christian union. But, if Newman was so opposed to ecumenism, why did he participate in this project? The answer lies in the fact that Newman saw it as an opportunity to expose Baptist ideas and history to the other denominations, and he believed that it was a cooperative endeavor advocating no formal union. (35)

The differences between Schaff and Newman concerning the reunion of Christendom may center in a basic difference in their approaches to church history. Schaff, because of the influence of Hegel’s philosophy on his historiography, viewed the progression of church history in a developmental sense, seeing no glorious time in church history to which the church should return. Instead, the best days were in the future as the church continued to develop. (36) Newman, on the other hand, contended that the apostolic norm as found in the New Testament was the goal for modern Christianity. He believed that any departure from that standard was “obnoxious to the spirit of Christianity.” (37)

Newman’s historiography revolved around this vision of the New Testament pattern. He sought not only to identify the apostolic norm, but also to analyze the history of Christianity and discover the places where these principles were most evident. He then sought to address the modern church situation of his era using the apostolic standard. (38)

This difference of approach to church history is most striking in their analyses of the Reformation. Schaff considered the Reformation in a positive light–the inauguration of a great period in church history. Newman saw the Reformation more negatively, particularly the magisterial reform. For instance, he believed that while Luther began his reform efforts with the concept of sola scriptura, by uniting himself with the magistrate against the peasants he found infant baptism to be a “practical necessity,” which was contrary to the apostolic understanding of baptism. Therefore, Luther turned his back on true reform and became as unrelenting as the Roman Catholic Church of the sixteenth century. (39) The most positive aspect of the Reformation for Newman, as one might expect, was the Anabaptist movement, which he believed was the clearest expression of apostolic Christianity since the second century. He considered the Anabaptists to be consistent in “carrying out of the principles first laid down by … Luther and Zwingli, who both proposed at the outset to make the Bible the only standard of faith and practice.” (40)

Newman and Sectarian Church History

The goal of the sectarian historians was to trace their own denomination through the various sects in Christian history to establish themselves with Jesus and the apostolic community. They started with an a priori assumption that their particular confessional stance descended from the original expression of the Christian faith in the first century.

Though manifest in other denominations, one of the most visible expressions of sectarian historiography was found among Southern Baptists in the last half of the nineteenth century. (41) These ideas became most evident with the rise of the Landmark Movement and culminated in the Whitsitt Controversy at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1890s). (42) This Baptist view of history is summarized best in James Milton Carroll’s book, The Trail of Blood. (43) Carroll speculated that dissenting groups during the history of the church represent an unbroken organic connection of historical Baptist churches, which were called by other names depending on the historical period. (44)

Newman had two points of identity with the sectarian historians. First, he displayed an obvious bias toward the Baptist denomination, which is the most glaring weakness in his overall objectivity. Though he said “the historian should seek to rise above partisanship of every kind and should make it his business to discover and to bring forward the truth,” (45) he contradicted himself by maintaining a bias that Baptists were the only group that practiced Christianity according to the apostolic standard. (46)

In addition to his belief that the Baptist position was the only view consistent with apostolic Christianity, Newman optimistically believed that other denominations were gradually moving toward this realization.

It is the writer’s conviction that even now Baptist principles are latent

in evangelical Pedo-baptist churches, being logically involved in the

evangelical principles professed, and that under favoring circumstances we

shall soon see them asserting themselves with irresistible power. The great

Baptist movement … will sooner or later sweep away the last vestiges of

Popery from the doctrines and practices of the great evangelical

denominations. (47)

A second similarity between Newman and the sectarians concerned the idea of succession. Though unabashedly Baptist, Newman could not bring himself to accept successionist ideas because he believed that the historical record would not support such a view. His interest in apostolic Christianity caused him to search for traces of it throughout the history of the church. He developed a position identified as the “Spiritual Kinship Theory” by Baptist historian Robert Torbet. (48) Instead of arguing for an unbroken succession of Baptist churches throughout church history, Newman postulated instead an unbroken succession of evangelical or apostolic principles. (49) Newman became an expert on the dissenting sects, so important to the lineal successionists. He studied them to test their compatibility with Baptists. This became the driving thesis behind his monumental A History of Anti-Pedobaptism: From the Rise of Pedobaptism to A.D. 1609, published in 1897. (50)

Anabaptist Historiography

Until the nineteenth century, Anabaptist historiography exhibited an essentially negative bias. Historians who studied the Radical Reform tended to base their conclusions on the writings against the movement produced by its adversaries rather than on careful study of primary sources produced by the Anabaptists themselves. These works generally viewed all Anabaptists as fanatic radicals in light of the Munster debacle and the Peasants’ War. Because Anabaptism was censured throughout much of Western Europe, the writings of the Anabaptists themselves remained in virtual obscurity. Those scholars who treated the Anabaptists in a positive light generally met with rejection. (51)

Though the field of Anabaptist studies began to blossom in Europe in the nineteenth century, little work was accomplished in the United States. Newman was among the first American scholars to contribute to Anabaptist research. (52) His first significant works concerning the Anabaptists appeared in the early 1880s. The first was an article entitled “Anabaptists” for The Baptist Encyclopedia. The second, an article entitled “The Reformation from a Baptist Point of View,” appeared in the Baptist Quarterly Review. (53) His major contribution to the field was the classic A History of Anti-Pedobaptism.

Newman’s interest in the Anabaptists came from his strong Baptist bias and from the Spiritual Kinship Theory of Baptist origins. He believed that Baptists represented a reincarnation of apostolic Christianity, the truest expression of the faith that had become corrupted during the second century with the introduction of infant baptism. (54) He became interested in the dissenting sects because he wanted to see how far back in history Baptist principles extended and when the renewal of apostolic Christianity came to fruition. He wrote A History of Anti-Pedobaptism to draw attention to the dissenting groups and to determine how near to apostolic Christianity they came.

Although Newman believed that apostolic Christianity was corrupted in the early centuries, traces of it continued to exist throughout the history of the church. “It is our firm belief that from the apostolic age to this good day the religion of Christ has persisted in its saving and sanctifying power.” (55) He admitted, however, that the early dissenting sects were far from what could be termed the apostolic norm, even though they did practice some of its principles. (56)

Understanding this bias in Newman’s overall historiography explains his interest in the Anabaptists. He saw in the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century a group of people who were similar to the Baptists of the seventeenth century in belief and practice. (57) Since Newman believed the Baptists to be the full expression of apostolic Christianity, and since he saw the Anabaptists as the group that came the closest to that apostolic standard, it was left to him to determine all that he could about their movement and their influence on the rise of Baptists in the seventeenth century. He believed that the Anabaptists began the recovery of apostolic Christianity and explained this by distinguishing between different types of Anabaptists, some of whom differed drastically from the Baptists and the apostolic norm. For instance, he considered the Swiss Anabaptists essentially to be Baptists, “but it required time for them to reach a complete development.” (58) But he discovered other groups who were far from being like the Baptists of the seventeenth century, such as the millenarian Munster radicals.

Newman made a significant impact on the field of Anabaptist historiography, particularly in the United States. The Newman Papers contain interesting correspondence from prominent church historians contemporary with Newman. But the correspondence with Harold S. Bender best illustrates the position Newman occupied in the field of Anabaptist studies. He was at the height of his career and had been teaching church history for twenty years in 1897, the year of Harold S. Bender’s birth. Bender’s career began in the mid 1920s, just a few years before Newman’s retirement in 1929.

From the 1920s until his death in 1962, there can be no doubt that Bender was the catalyst for causing the field of Anabaptist studies to blossom. He was responsible for organizing the Mennonite Historical Library and the Mennonite Historical Society, and for providing numerous publications concerning the Anabaptists. (59) As Bender embarked on his career in Anabaptist studies, he corresponded with those whom he considered to be the prominent scholars in the field. One such scholar was Newman. Bender honored Newman as the “first historian writing in the English language who assigned to the Anabaptist movement its proper position, free from doctrinaire distortion.” (60) Their correspondence indicates that Bender greatly respected Newman’s work in Anabaptist studies.

As president of the Mennonite Historical Society in 1925, Bender helped to organize a celebration of the quadricentennial anniversary of the first adult baptism in Zurich, which occurred in January 1525. Goshen College sponsored the celebration during the second week of June. (61) Bender invited Newman to be the keynote speaker for the program and paid compliment to his career as a church historian:

You have put us all greatly in your debt through your splendid researches

… to say nothing of your brilliant and solid work in the field of Church

History at large…. It is out of sincere appreciation and recognition of

your services to the “Anabaptist” world, that I suggest we would be highly

honored. (62)

Newman accepted the invitation and delivered two addresses: “The Significance of the Anabaptist Movement in the History of the Christian Church,” and “Balthazar Hubmaier and the Moravian Anabaptists.” (63)

One of the points of discussion in the correspondence between Newman and Bender concerned Bender’s desire to build a large collection of Anabaptist materials at Goshen College. He consulted with Newman at various times concerning Anabaptist documents and where they might be found. (64) In addition, he asked Newman more than once if he knew of a potential donor among the Baptists who might be interested enough in history to finance some of the projects the Mennonites were attempting to undertake. (65) Bender lamented the fact that the Mennonites did not have a greater appreciation of their history which would bring funds to finance some of the historical projects. “We Mennonites have not yet learned to develop the appreciation for the historic as we hope to some day.” (66) Newman seemed to be impressed with the young Bender and his colleague Ernst Correll: “Goshen College is very fortunate in having on its faculty two such brilliant young scholars as yourself and Correll. I wish we had at Mercer … some historical scholars with the research that I see in you two.” (67)

Newman was so impressed with Bender’s work that he recommended the young scholar for membership in the American Society of Church History. (68) Bender returned the favor by securing election for Newman into the Mennonite Historical Society out of respect for Newman’s “outstanding contributions and first position in the field of American Anabaptist Historiography.” (69)

Baptist Historiography

During the peak of Newman’s career as a church historian, the issue of Baptist origins became a major concern within some Baptist circles. During the last decade of the nineteenth century, this issue became a factor that almost split the Southern Baptist Convention. The incident, which brought forth serious doubts concerning the perpetuity of Baptist churches from apostolic times, centered around William Heth Whitsitt, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Newman, at the time living in Toronto, Canada, assumed a unique role as mediator in the controversy. Newman’s response to the Whitsitt Controversy serves as an example of his work as a Baptist historian.

The Whitsitt Controversy was the symptom of a much greater problem in the Southern Baptist Convention, namely, conflict concerning Landmarkism’s claims of lineal succession. (70) As history grew into a professional discipline in the nineteenth century, Baptist historians began to dispute the claim of a lineal succession of Baptist churches. At the heart of the Whitsitt controversy was a confrontation between Landmarkists, desiring to retain their lineal successionist claims, and the practical application of scientific history to the issue, which discounted this view regarding Baptist beginnings.

Trained as a historian in Germany at the universities of Liepzig and Berlin, Whitsitt joined the faculty at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1872 and assumed the presidency of the seminary upon the death of John A. Broadus in 1895. The controversy erupted in the Southern Baptist Convention when it was discovered that Whitsitt had published an article entitled “Baptists” in Johnson’s Universal Cyclopedia in 1893. In this brief article, Whitsitt arrived at the conclusion that before 1641 Baptists in England did not practice immersion as a regular form of baptism and also that the mode of Roger Williams’s baptism was probably sprinkling. (71)

Furthermore, Whitsitt’s opponents discovered that he had first published these discoveries thirteen years earlier in two anonymous articles in The Independent, a nondenominational periodical. This placed Whitsitt in direct opposition to the lineal successionists. The end result of the controversy that rocked the Southern Baptist Convention to its very foundations was Whitsitt’s resignation from the presidency of the seminary.

Interestingly, when the controversy surrounding Whitsitt began, both sides appealed to Newman for support. T. T. Eaton, Whitsitt’s leading opponent, traveled with his family to Newman’s summer home in Canada and “visited Dr. Newman often to discuss the matter.” (72) A. T Robertson, professor of New Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and supporter of Whitsitt, wrote:

The elements that have rallied around Dr. Eaton have nearly all been

opposed to the Seminary in reality and will be satisfied with nothing short

of the humiliation of Dr. Whitsitt. That we are determined shall not happen

because of its manifest injustice. (73)

In addition, an unidentified trustee from St. Louis wrote a letter to Newman and declared that he was “in no humor to accept peace on any terms. Appealing to Newman’s expertise as a historian, he asked for impressions and suggestions as to what course of action to take. “Being an educator, historian and a Southern Baptist I feel that you may be really helpful in this way. You understand the situation.” (74)

Why did both sides elicit Newman’s support? Two reasons are apparent. The most prominent reason involves Newman’s Spiritual Kinship Theory concerning Baptist origins, which gave him a measure of identity with the lineal successionists. (75) The pro-Whitsitt forces were attracted to Newman because they knew that he attempted to derive his conclusions on the basis of fact and not tradition. Therefore, both sides in the controversy had a point of contact with Newman and desired his support. (76)

A second reason for Newman’s appeal to both sides was his conciliatory personality. Though he had been involved in controversies in the past, he had a reputation for fairness and a personality that attempted to avoid controversy. His son-in-law claimed, “contentiousness had no place in his make-up; he never would engage in controversy.” (77) His personality induced both sides to see him as a “safe” referee.

Newman chose to enter the controversy by writing a comprehensive analysis. This took the form of a series of articles for the Christian Index that were edited and published by George A. Lofton in a book called A Review of the Question (1897). Newman’s conciliatory nature is evident as he analyzed the controversy. He recognized that there were two sides to the controversy with good people supporting each and that “the piety, the honesty, and the learning of the denomination are not all on one side.” (78) However, he also recognized that truth and peace were more important than popularity and that while he might not be able to influence the extremes on either side, he hoped to be able to reach what he considered to be the large majority in the middle. (79)

He then sought to justify his position as mediator by referring to three qualifications which made him a competent judge: (1) he was a Southern Baptist who took an interest in the welfare of the convention; (2) his years of residence outside the realm of the Southern Baptist Convention made him free from partisan assumptions; and (3) his career as a church historian gave him a measure of expertise in the examination of the causes of historical controversies. (80) Throughout his analysis, Newman declared his nonpartisanship with statements such as “I am no partisan of Dr. Whitsitt’s,” (81) and “this controversy is none of mine.” (82)

After setting forth his introductory remarks, Newman turned to a critique of Whitsitt. First, he concluded that Whitsitt’s article in Johnson’s Universal Cyclopedia (1893) was fair with no pejorative overtones. But Newman’s critique was more severe regarding the editorials published in The Independent in 1880. He criticized the editorials for being negative toward Baptists.

Were it not that he claims the authorship of the article, one would be

inclined to suspect that he had simply furnished the materials and that the

editor had wrought them over in such a way as to make them as stinging as

possible to the Baptists. It is exceedingly unfortunate that having

committed such an indiscretion Dr. Whitsitt should have proclaimed himself

the author of a performance so little to his credit as a denominational

leader. (83)

Further criticism of Whitsitt centered on the possibility that he was too harsh toward the successionists in his conclusions. According to Newman, Whitsitt resented the successionist view to such an extent that he de-emphasized any Baptist qualities in the evangelical sects throughout history and stressed their non-Baptist characteristics. He believed that Whitsitt desired “to score a point against the successionists at the expense of the Christian heroes of the past centuries.” (84)

A final critique by Newman presumed that Whitsitt desired to claim personal prestige for his conclusions. Newman agreed with Whitsitt’s findings concerning the introduction of immersion among Baptists in 1641. He declared to Whitsitt: “I do not think that your opponents have brought forward as yet anything decisive in favor of an earlier date than 1641 for the introduction of immersion among English Antipedobaptists.” (85)

However, it is interesting to note a particular statement by Newman concerning Whitsitt’s conclusions. Newman claimed that he had reached the same conclusion “years ago” independently of the source that Whitsitt initially based his conclusions on in 1880. (86) Newman claimed that his discovery came from George Gould’s book Open Communion and the Baptists of Norwich, published in 1860. He said that the book contained quotations from the same records that Whitsitt based his conclusions on, yet Whitsitt did not refer to the book.

Essentially, Newman argued that Whitsitt was not the originator of the discovery concerning the recovery of immersion in 1641. (87) In another article published in 1899, Newman claimed to have made the same discovery “about twenty years ago.” (88) That would place his discovery around 1879, a year before Whitsitt published his findings in The Independent. W. O. Carver suggested that Whitsitt was anxious to publish his findings in The Independent because H. C. Vedder, Henry Dexter, and Newman were “already pressing hard on his heels with their studies in the same field.” (89)

This raises two interesting questions. First, was Newman’s harsh criticism of Whitsitt’s claims to originality the result of professional jealousy? This is a difficult question to answer. Frederick Eby, Newman’s son-in-law and biographer, suggests that this kind of attitude would have been unlikely given his personality? Yet, there may have been some feeling of pride on Newman’s part which persuaded him to contend that Whitsitt was not the originator of the conclusions about the introduction of immersion among the early Baptists.

The second question concerns why Newman did not publish the findings in 1879 if he discovered them before Whitsitt. This question is more difficult to answer. Because Newman was teaching at Rochester Theological Seminary at that time, and since lineal successionism was not as widespread among northern Baptists, he would not have received the same degree of criticism as Whitsitt which would seem to make it more likely that he would have published such a discovery. Perhaps Newman did not consider the information important enough to publish. Also, since he claimed to have seen the information in Gould’s book, he may have considered publication of it unnecessary. Unfortunately, no evidence in the Newman writings or personal files suggests a clear answer to this question.

Newman’s critique of the anti-Whitsitt forces centered on their historical method. In a review of John T. Christian’s book Did They Dip?–a source appealed to by Whitsitt’s opponents–Newman disagreed with Christian’s assertion that the normal mode of baptism among the Anabaptists was immersion. (91) He attacked Christian’s use of sources saying that he quoted extensively from modern writers and did so without any discretion or “regard to their qualifications to speak authoritatively on the matters involved in the discussion.” (92) In private correspondence with Whitsitt, Newman expressed his opinion of Christian’s book with more candor: “I have just looked over J. T. C.’s book. It fairly bristles[?] with blunders…. I am not at all sure that it is worth your while to expose its multitudinous errors.” (93)

Newman finished his analysis of the controversy by summarizing his critique in six conclusions. First, he said that Whitsitt never should have written the editorials for The Independent because of their ambivalent tone toward Baptists. Second, Whitsitt wrote the editorials out of his own ambitious desires to be seen as an original discoverer. Third, Whitsitt was misled at times because of his over-reliance on other historians, especially Henry Dexter, a Congregationalist historian, who was at times hostile toward Baptists. Fourth, Whitsitt should not be dismissed from his position because his conclusions had long been accepted by historians who specialized in Baptist history. (94) Fifth, Whitsitt’s opponents should continue to maintain their lineal succession views, but with a tolerant attitude toward differing ideas. Sixth, Newman called for peace and reconciliation between the two sides in the controversy. (95)

At the conclusion of his examination of the Whitsitt controversy, Newman commented, “I do not wish to be regarded as a champion of the theory of the late introduction of proper baptism among English anti-Pedobaptists.” (96) Evidently, many people took this as a statement that Newman was moving away from Whitsitt’s conclusions in favor of successionist claims. In a letter to Whitsitt in early 1899, Newman declared that this supposed change of his views had not occurred. Although this letter is not included in the collection of Whitsitt Papers at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the contents of Newman’s letter can be gathered from Whitsitt’s response:

Your letter of the 4th instant [sic] brings me sincere joy. Certainly it

was an agreeable sensation to be assured in your own hand that you have not

renounced your views regarding the reintroduction of immersion in the year

1641…. Yet the impression that you have renounced your views has been so

often conveyed … that multitudes of people on both sides of the issue

have quietly settled down to the conclusion that it must be a correct

impression…. You have been greatly misunderstood. Only plain speech will

put you right. (97)

It is clear from this exchange between the two church historians that Newman struggled to maintain a neutral position in the controversy.


Albert Henry Newman was one of the finest church historians whom Baptists have ever produced. His mastery of numerous modern and ancient languages served as a useful tool for his research, especially on the dissenting sects. But Newman’s methodology failed to keep pace with the rest of the field of church history. As a general historian, he did not make the transition to scientific historiography which became the predominant methodology at the beginning of the twentieth century. As an Anabaptist scholar, Newman’s work was supplanted by the studies of the Mennonites, primarily led by Harold S. Bender. As a Baptist historian, Newman’s Spiritual Kinship Theory was no longer the major interpretation motif after the beginning of the twentieth century.

This failure to make the transition in methodology and outlook can perhaps be due in part to his 1901 move from McMaster University in Toronto, Canada, to Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Though he had access to the major periodicals and even contributed articles, he lost contact with a stimulating academic community by being so far away from the northern institutions of learning. Also, the infancy status of the theological department at Baylor University and later that of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary proved a hindrance to Newman’s ability to remain current in his research.

Nevertheless, his contributions as a church historian should not be neglected or forgotten. His A Manual of Church History was a standard text in general church history classes for decades after his death. His A History of Anti-Pedobaptism is considered now to be a classic in the study of dissenting sects throughout church history, especially the Anabaptists. His A History of Baptist Churches in the United States served as the first major work on the history of Baptists in America written from an academic perspective. Modern Baptist historians are truly indebted to the work of Albert Henry Newman.

(1.) There are two published accounts of Newman’s life. First, Frederick Eby, Newman the Church Historian: A Study in Christian Personality (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1946). Eby was Newman’s son-in-law, and this biography tends to be more hagiography than an objective analysis of Newman’s life. More recently, W. Glenn Jonas Jr., A Critical Evaluation of Albert Henry Newman, Church Historian (San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1992). Additionally, there are two other studies of Newman’s life that have not been published: Jerry Breazeale, “Albert Henry Newman, Historian and Theologian” (Th.D. diss., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 1960; and Mark Steven Fountain, “A. H. Newman’s Appropriation of the Spiritual Kinship Theory of Baptist Origins as a Historiographical Via Media (Th.M. thesis, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1986).

(2.) I am particularly indebted to the work of Henry Warner Bowden for this section. See Henry Warner Bowden, Church History in the Age of Science (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971). Also, see Bowden, “Science and the Idea of Church History, An American Debate,” Church History 36 (September 1967): 306-26; and Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams, eds., Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988), s.v. “The Historiography of American Religion,” by Henry Warner Bowden. In addition to Bowden’s work there have been several other essays that discuss this topic: David W. Lotz, “Changing Historiography: From Church History to Religious History,” in Altered Landscapes: Christianity in America, 1935-1985, ed. David W. Lotz (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 312-39 and George Huntston Williams, “Church History,” in Protestant Thought in the Twentieth Genius, ed. Arnold S. Nash (New York: Macmillan Company, 1951), 147-78. See also: Sydney E. Ahlstrom, “The Problem of the History of Religion in America,” Church History 39 (June 1970): 224-35 and Winthrop Hudson, “Shifting Trends in Church History,” Journal of Bible and Religion 28 (April 1960): 235-38.

(3.) Bowden, 31-68.

(4.) Hudson, 235.

(5.) Williams, 151-52.

(6.) Bowden, “Science and the Idea of Church History,” 15-27.

(7.) Lotz, 320-21.

(8.) Emerton studied with Henry Adams at Harvard (A.B. 1871), then assumed graduate work at Berlin and Leipzig (Ph.D. 1876). Other church historians who embodied the scientific methodology were Williston Walker (Yale); Arthur Cushman McGiffert (Union); Frank Hugh Foster (Oberlin); Shirley Jackson Case and William Warren Sweet (University of Chicago). See Bowden, Church History in the Age of Science, 94-114.

(9.) Ephraim Emerton, “The Study of Church History,” Unitarian Review and Historical Magazine 19 (January 1883): 8; and Bowden, Church History in the Age of Science, 102.

(10.) Ibid., 2.

(11.) Ibid., 7, 16, and Lotz, 320.

(12.) Emerton, 18, as cited by Bowden, Church History in the Age of Science, 109.

(13.) Ibid.

(14.) Albert Henry Newman, A Manual of Church History (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1899), 1:3.

(15.) Ibid., 3-4.

(16.) Albert Henry Newman, “Strong’s Systematic Theology,” Baptist Review and Expositor 2 (January 1905): 43-44.

(17.) Newman, Manual, 1:5.

(18.) Ibid.

(19.) Ibid. On another occasion, Newman declared, “For years it has been a maxim by which I have guided my own historical studies, and sought to guide those of others, to read what both sides in every controversy have to say. It is astonishing to what an extent the personality of a controversial writer, apart from any conscious and deliberate perversion of facts, colors the representation.” See Albert Henry Newman, “A Review of Dr. Christian’s Articles,” Western Recorder (May 25, 1899): 3.

(20.) Ibid. Newman occasionally interjected his judgments in his writing of history. For example, concerning Celsus, the pagan philosopher, he said, “So little appreciation did this brilliant philosopher have of the vitality and all-conquering power of the gospel.” Manual, 1:159.

(21.) Ibid., 5-6.

(22.) David Schaff, The Life of Philip Schaff (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897), and George H. Shriver, Philip Schaff : Christian Scholar and Ecumenical Prophet (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1987). For the purposes of this discussion, see also Bowden, Church History in the Age of Science, 31-68; and Bowden, “Science and the Idea of Church History,” 313-20.

(23.) Philip Schaff, What is Church History? A Vindication of the Idea of Historical Development (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Company, 1846), 37, as cited by Bowden, Church History in the Age of Science, 47.

(24.) See Lotz, 318.

(25.) Schaff, 115, as cited in Bowden, “Science and the Idea of Church History,” 316.

(26.) Newman, Manual, 1:4.

(27.) Ibid., 5.

(28.) Philip Schaff, Amerika, 2nd ed. (Berlin: Wiegandt and Grieben, 1858), 262 as cited by Klaus Penzel, “The Reformation Goes West: The Notion of Historical Development in the Thought of Philip Schaff,” Journal of Religion 62 (July 1982): 229.

(29.) Albert Henry Newman, “Wiclif and the Mendicant Friars,” McMaster Monthly 4 (November 1895): 66. The emphasis is Newman’s.

(30.) [Albert Henry Newman], “A New Scheme of Christian Union,” Canadian Baptist (January 18, 1883): 4.

(31.) Albert Henry Newman, Unclassified Lecture notes, “Lectures on Church History: Seniors, Volume II,” Albert Henry Newman Papers, Dargan-Carver Library, Southern Baptist Historical Commission, Nashville, 87.

(32.) Albert Henry Newman, “Report on a Proposed Series of Denominational Histories to be Published Under the Auspices of the American Society of Church History,” Papers of the American Society of Church History, First Series (1890): 3:209-11. Thinking there should be some publication which would continue Schaff’s History of the Christian Church beyond the seventeenth century, Newman began the efforts for this series before 1890. After contacting Schaff, Newman learned that the elder historian had conceived of the same idea earlier, but had abandoned it due to the inability to secure a publisher. Together, the two historians planned to ask the endorsement of the American Society of Church History for the project, which they believed would aid in securing a publisher.

(33.) The irenic nature of the project was expressed by Newman: “While each writer would have every inducement to exhibit his denomination in the most favorable light that the facts of history would warrant, it would be impossible for him to write in complete disregard of the rights of other denominations to favorable consideration. Thus the character of the readers addressed would minister to fairness of treatment in matters of controversy, and could scarcely fail to secure the production of works decidedly irenical in spirit. As the circumstances under which such a series should be prepared would be favorable to the production of peculiarly valuable works, so also might large irenical results be expected in the readers…. A wide reading of histories of all the denominations … could not fail to be promotive, in a high degree of truth and peace.” See Newman, “Report,” 210

(34.) Bowden, Church History in the Age of Science, 64.

(35.) Newman worked with other denominations throughout his career with the idea in mind that those groups would eventually see the Baptist position as the only true one in accordance with Scripture. See Albert Henry Newman, “The Early Waldenses,” Baptist Quarterly Review 7 (July 1885): 322.

(36.) Bowden, Church History in the Age of Science, 31-68. Also, Kathryn L. Johnson, “The Mustard Seed and the Leaven: Philip Schaff’s Confident View of Christian History,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 50 (June 1981): 117-70.

(37.) Newman, Manual, 1:8.

(38.) Fountain, 25.

(39.) Albert Henry Newman, “The Peasants’ War,” Baptist Quarterly Review 11 (January 1889): 55-63; and Albert Henry Newman, “The Reformation from a Baptist Point of View,” Baptist Quarterly Review 6 (January 1884): 47-67.

(40.) Albert Henry Newman, “Anabaptists,” Baptist Encyclopedia. Also, Newman, A Manual, 2:151; and Newman, “The Opponents of Infant Baptism and Related Errors in the Reformation Time,” Baptist Standard (August 8, 1901): 1.

(41.) Morgan W. Patterson, Baptist Successionism: A Critical View (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1969). Patterson also maintains that successionist theories existed among the Mennonites. See Shriver, 21-28, for a description of the opposition Schaff encountered from successionists in the German Reformed denomination.

(42.) The classic study of the Landmark Movement is found in James E. Tull, “A Study of Southern Baptist Landmarkism in Light of Historical Baptist Ecclesiology,” (Ph.D. diss. Columbia University, 1960).

(43.) James Milton Carroll, The Trail of Blood (Lexington, Ky.: Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, 1931). This book was published after Carroll’s death. He was active in the late-nineteenth century proclaiming its contents in Baptist churches.

(44.) See H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), 58-60.

(45.) Albert Henry Newman, “The Whitsitt Controversy,” in A Review of the Question, ed. George Augustus Lofton (Nashville: University Press Company, 1897), 161.

(46.) Albert Henry Newman, “Baptist Churches Apostolical,” in Baptist Doctrines: Being an Exposition, in a Series of Essays by Representative Baptist Ministers of the Distinctive Points of Baptist Faith and Practice, ed. Charles A. Jenkins (St. Louis: C. R. Barns, 1892), 236. Newman admitted that Baptist churches were not identical to the apostolic churches in every detail. For example, he pointed out that Baptist churches had abandoned the love feast. Also apostolic: churches had no buildings or musical instruments. But the essential characteristics were the same. See pp. 273-75.

(47.) Albert Henry Newman, “The Early Waldenses,” 322.

(48.) Robert Torbet, A History of the Baptists (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1950), 17-21.

(49.) The major emphasis of Fountain’s thesis (see fn. 1) is to show how Newman functioned as mediator in the Baptist denomination between the successionists and the opposing historians in the denomination who argued that Baptist beginnings are located in the seventeenth century. Newman’s Spiritual Kinship Theory allowed him to identify with both groups.

(50.) Albert Henry Newman, A History of Anti-Pedobaptism: From the Rise of Pedobaptism to A. D. 1609 (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1897). Newman indicated at the beginning of the book the importance for the study as he saw it: “The claim of Baptists that in doctrine and in polity they are in substantial accord with the precept and the example of Christ and his apostles would seem to make it incumbent upon them to account for the early departure of the great mass of Christians from the apostolic norm.” See p. 1.

(51.) Harold S. Bender, “The Historiography of the Anabaptists,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 31 (April 1957): 88-90. Bender cited Gottfried Arnold’s Unparteyische kirchen-und Ketzer-Historie (Frankfurt, 1699) as the first work to make a complete break with the traditional view of the Anabaptists, but it took a long time before it found its deserved recognition. See pp. 90-91.

(52.) Harold S. Bender and C. Henry Smith, ed., The Mennonite Encyclopedia (Scottdale, Penn.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1957), s.v. “Newman, Albert Henry,” by Harold S. Bender. Bender stated that Newman, along with Henry S. Burrage, H. C. Vedder, and William J. McGlothlin were the only American historians besides the Mennonites who made a significant contribution to the field.

(53.) William Cathcart, ed., The Baptist Encyclopedia (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1881), s.v. “Anabaptists,” by Albert Henry Newman; and Albert Henry Newman, “The Reformation from A Baptist Point of View,” Baptist Quarterly Review 6 (January 1884): 47-67.

(54.) Albert Henry Newman, A History of Anti-Pedobaptism, 1. The exact quote reads as follows: “If the apostolic churches were Baptist churches, the churches of the second century were not. Still less were those of the third and following centuries.”

(55.) Newman, “The Significance of the Anabaptist Movement in the History of the Christian Church,” 15.

(56.) Newman, A History of Anti-Pedobaptism, 15-29.

(57.) As a matter of fact, in some of Newman’s early writings he used the term “Baptist” to describe both the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century and the Baptists of the seventeenth century. See Jonas, A Critical Evaluation of Albert Henry Newman, 108-09.

(58.) William Cathcart, ed., The Baptist Encyclopedia (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1881), s.v. “Anabaptists,” by Albert Henry Newman.

(59.) See Mennonite Quarterly Review 38 (April 1964). The entire issue is devoted to memorializing Bender’s life and work.

(60.) Harold S. Bender and C. Henry Smith, eds., The Mennonite Encyclopedia (Scottdale, Penn.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1957), s.v. “Newman, Albert Henry,” by Harold S. Bender.

(61.) Harold S. Bender to A. H. Newman, TL, February 21, 1525, A. H. Newman file, Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, 1.

(62.) Ibid., 1-2.

(63.) A. H. Newman to Harold S. Bender, LS, February 26, 1925, Harold S. Bender Papers, Archives of the Mennonite Church, Goshen, Indiana, 1.

(64.) See, for example, Harold S. Bender to A. H. Newman, TL, March 10, 1925, 2; April 8, 1925, 2; June 23, 1925, 2, A. H. Newman file, Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.

(65.) See Harold S. Bender to A. H. Newman, TL, April 8, 1925, January 1, 2, and 3, 1929, 2, A. H. Newman file, Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.

(66.) Harold S. Bender to A. H. Newman, TL, April 26, 1925, 1, A. H. Newman file, Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, Texas. Also see Bender to Newman, April 8, 1925, 2.

(67.) A. H. Newman to Harold S. Bender, LS, February 20, 1926, Mennonite Historical Archives, Goshen, Indiana, 1-2.

(68.) A. H. Newman to Harold S. Bender, LS, July 3, 1925, and August 2 and 3, 1925, 2, Mennonite Historical Archives, Goshen, Indiana.

(69.) Harold S. Bender to A. H. Newman, TL, December 10, 1926, Mennonite Historical Archives, Goshen, Indiana.

(70.) Rosalie Beck, “The Whitsitt Controversy: A Denomination in Crisis” (Ph.D. diss., Baylor University, 1984), 73. Beck provides one of the most comprehensive studies of the Whitsitt Controversy to date.

(71.) Ibid., 88.

(72.) Breazeale, 90-91. Breazeale quoted this from a personal interview with Mrs. Frederick Eby, Newman’s daughter.

(73.) A. T. Robertson to A. H. Newman, LS, February 18, 1897, Albert Henry Newman Papers, 2.

(74.) Letter from a trustee of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to A. H. Newman, August 23, 1897, Albert Henry Newman Papers, 1, 3.

(75.) See William W. Barnes, The Southern Baptist Convention: 1845-1903 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1954), 100-03.

(76.) This is claimed by Fountain in his thesis. It is apparent in the title, “A. H. Newman’s Appropriation of the Spiritual Kinship Theory of Baptist Origins as a Historiographical Via Media.”

(77.) Eby, 140. Newman’s controversies previous to this were personal. As a young professor at the Rochester Baptist Theological Seminary, Newman was terminated from his position because of a personality clash with the president of the institution, A. H. Strong. Later in his career, he encountered a similar circumstance with B. H. Carroll and was terminated from his position at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In both of these episodes, Newman seems to be victim rather than the cause. See Jonas, 9-20; 31-36.

(78.) Albert Henry Newman, “The Whitsitt Controversy,” 146.

(79.) Ibid., 146-47.

(80.) Ibid., 147.

(81.) Ibid., 224.

(82.) Ibid., 230.

(83.) Ibid., 159.

(84.) Ibid., 161-62.

(85.) Albert Henry Newman to W. H. Whitsitt, LS, November 23, 1896, William Heth Whitsitt Papers and Correspondence, 1858-1909, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, 1.

(86.) Albert Henry Newman, “The Whitsitt Controversy,” 185.

(87.) Ibid.

(88.) Albert Henry Newman, “A Review of Dr. Christian’s Articles,” 3.

(89). W. O. Carver, “William Heth Whitsitt: The Seminary’s Martyr,” Review and Expositor 51 (October 1954): 457.

(90.) Eby, 112-53.

(91.) Albert Henry Newman, “The Whitsitt Controversy,” 218.

(92.) Ibid., 220. Newman’s tone throughout the review was scathing, yet he remained within the field of historical research and did not resort to personal attacks. He concluded that Christian’s findings in the book were completely untenable based on the historical evidence.

(93.) Albert Henry Newman to W. H. Whitsitt, LS, December 29, 1896, William Heth Whitsitt Personal Papers and Correspondence.

(94.) This raises a question as to why other historians had not received the same criticism that Whitsitt received, if indeed the same conclusions had long been accepted. It can probably be answered in two points. First, with Whitsitt’s findings, Southern Baptist successionists had their first serious challenge from one of their own. Second, although Newman was from the South, until 1901 all of his historical work was within the context of northern and Canadian Baptists. Since lineal succession was not as prevalent there, northern Baptist historians such as H. C. Vedder, Henry Sweetser Burrage, and Newman would not have received as much criticism for teaching and holding to the conclusions that cost Whitsitt his position.

(95.) Albert Henry Newman, “The Whitsitt Controversy,” 211-15.

(96.) Ibid., 230.

(97.) William H. Whitsitt to Albert Henry Newman, LS, February 6, 1899, Albert Henry Newman Papers.

Glenn Jonas is chair and associate professor, Department of Religion, Campbell University.

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