This Month in Our History
September 2011 – Henry Keeling Ellyson: Defining principles to a new generation.
Henry Keeling Ellyson knew basic Baptist beliefs. He was the leading Baptist layman of his time in Virginia, serving for 45 years as the equivalent to the executive director of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. And he served without compensation. His personal wealth came from his editorship of the daily Richmond newspaper.
He was a steady fixture at Baptist meetings including the State Mission Board and the General Association. He was active in his church, the Second Baptist Church of Richmond. For nearly a half-century he served as superintendent of his church’s Sunday school.
It was at Second Baptist Church that he once delivered an address which listed basic Baptist beliefs. The occasion was the arrival of a new pastor in 1883. Ellyson wanted the new pastor to be acquainted with the character of the congregation. But he might as well have been speaking about Baptists everywhere.
Ellyson began by saying that the founders of Second Church were "a praying people." He explained that in the early years of the church, in the 1820s and 30s, the church members held prayer meetings on Wednesday and on Fridays and added: "Church prayer meetings, social prayer meetings in homes, family worship and [private] prayer made them Christian men and women strong in the Lord. Their first pastor called them ‘my praying people.’ [This was] the secret of a vigorous spiritual life."
The layman began to list other distinctives of his fellow church members: "They were consecrated Christians, giving their time, talents, means, everything to the service of Christ. They held that the New Testament is the only infallible rule of faith and practice and that men are individually responsible to God while no priestly or proxy power is vested in human hands to lesson that responsibility. The ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper must be received in their simple, sublime significance. Converted baptized believers only are fit subjects for church membership. The independence of every individual church, and a polity based on that independence, are distinctive features of New Testament churches."
The above paragraph is long and complex. It bears another reading. After all, in it are contained the basic Baptist principles which have characterized the people who have worn that name across the centuries.
Henry Keeling Ellyson added one more characteristic. "The crowning grace of this church…is brotherly love. [Its] sacred ties have so bound heart to heart that from the beginning until now we have experienced oneness of purpose and harmony of action."
On the same occasion of welcoming the new pastor, another member of the church, James Winston, spoke and he highlighted two other worthy characteristics of Baptists: a love for missions and a fierce respect for the individual believer.
"We must hold fast to this grand old Baptist doctrine of personal responsibility," said Winston. "God has made us co-laborers and each one of us, standing isolated and alone upon the pedestal of individual responsibility, is accountable to him as though there were no other being in the whole universe."
These two men were steeped in the faith and well-acquainted with the pioneer fathers and mothers; and in their addresses on that occasion so long ago, they were passing along these core beliefs, these defining principles to the younger generation of Baptists.
For more details: Check out a related article about Henry Keeling Ellyson.
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