Rueben Ross: Shifting Away from Calvinism in the early 1800s

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Reuben Ross was born of poor but pious parents. He came into this world nearing the birth of our nation, born in North Carolina, May 8, 1776.

Reuben was the youngest of six brothers of Scottish descent; three of the Ross boys became preachers.

The family was rich in hopes and dreams. These dreams drove them westward through the Carolinas, over the Smokies, and into Tennessee and Kentucky.

Under a shade tree in Montgomery County, Tennessee, Reuben Ross preached his first sermon to a small group of people. Years later, Dr. J.M. Pendleton would describe Pastor Reuben Ross in this manner:

“There was in the expression of his eyes and the features of his face a union of intelligence, gentleness, solemnity, greatness, majesty … his sermons were combined exposition, argument, and exhortation.”

Reuben Ross

This article seeks to capture a defining moment in the life and ministry of Reuben Ross as he pastored in the Red River Baptist Association. This Baptist Association started on April 15, 1807, with 12 congregations; three were in Tennessee and the majority in Kentucky, according to John H. Spencer’s book A History of Kentucky Baptists: From 1700 to 1885. 

Pastor Ross came to the Association believing in “limited atonement” (Christ died for the elect only) for that was the doctrine of most Regular Baptists back in North Carolina. Preaching was focused on edifying and encouraging God’s people, not aimed at converting sinners. Calvinistic doctrine was the majority view of most of the Red River pastors. Pastor Reuben Ross became the most prominent and popular preacher in the Association over time.

His rising star faded as Ross developed disturbing doubts concerning certain points of his Calvinistic doctrine. W. Fred Kendall writes about it in A History of the Tennessee Baptist Convention (1974), as other preachers in the Association grew troubled by Ross’s new beliefs:

They believed in particular and unconditional election and reprobation, that Christ died for the elect only, and that not one of the elect would ever be lost, or one of the non-elect ever be saved. That the Almighty, who knows the end from the beginning, looking down, as it were, upon the generations of men yet unborn, without the least regard to character, or conduct, had elected or selected one here and another there to be saved and had passed all others by as vessels fitted to destruction.

Things came to a head after Ross preached a funeral sermon in 1817 declaring his new non-Calvinist beliefs, such as:

  • Christ’s death has made an atonement sufficient for the sins of the whole world and all can freely receive.
  • The Word of God and the Holy Spirit are given to influence men to believe in Christ and man has the free agency and fearful responsibility of deciding whether he will serve God or not.
  • Yielding to the Holy Spirit we shall be pardoned and be saved. If not, we shall be lost. If we are lost, it will be our own fault. If we are saved, it will be on account of the goodness and mercy of God and not for any merit in us.

Calvinist pastors in the Association reacted quickly, as shared in Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee, for they called a meeting and elected Elder Sugg Fort to confront and confer with Rueben Ross. The purpose was to convert Pastor Ross back to strict Calvinism.

Just the opposite happened! As doctrines dueled, Elder Fort became convinced that Reuben Ross was correct and adopted his non-Calvinistic beliefs. This startling news and Ross’s non-Calvinist beliefs spread swiftly among the churches gaining wide acceptance.

Later, another group of Calvinist pastors met charging Reuben Ross of preaching doctrines opposed to the “Abstracts of Principles.” Since the Abstract of Principles were not adopted by The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary until 1858, the reference must be an earlier confession. Several Regular Baptist Associations in North Carolina, such as the Kehukee Baptist Association, had adopted confessions by such name before 1800. Ross informed them that he would not be judged by the Abstracts but only the Bible. The trial was never arranged with the doctrinal differences intensifying.

At last, on October 28, 1825, Pastor Ross and others withdrew from Red River Association forming the Bethel Baptist Association with eight churches, and a total membership of 700 people. By 1851, the Bethel Association had grown to 62 congregations and more than 7,000 members. This was phenomenal growth!

In his book, W. Fred Kendall shares, “The doctrinal position of Reuben Ross was that of most of the missionary Baptists of Tennessee. The battle was gradually won over hyper-Calvinism and the anti-evangelistic and anti-missionary movement which placed such restraints on the efforts to win the lost to Christ.”

Reuben Ross represents many Baptist preachers in the early-to-mid 19th-century, thereby dispelling the claim that “all” Baptists in the South were Calvinists as the Southern Baptist Convention came into being in 1845.  Their move away from strict Calvinism can be seen in the vast acceptance of the New Hampshire Baptist Confession of 1833; E.Y. Mullins used this document as a guide for the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message for Southern Baptists.

Also, the second confession adopted by the Sandy Creek Baptist Association in 1845 was clearly a move away from stricter Calvinism that characterized the Charleston tradition.

© Ron F. Hale, February 1, 2018 (used by permission)

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