The Influence of Francis Wayland (1796-1865)

Francis Wayland has long been remembered as the President of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, a post that he held from 1827 to 1855. As the chief executive officer of what was the third oldest college in New England, the Baptist answer to Congregationalist Harvard and Yale, Wayland exercised an enormous influence on Baptist life and thought in the ante-bellum United States and, as we shall see, down to the present day. That influence is perceptible in a number of spheres. His hearty support of the modern missionary movement—in which fellow Baptist William Carey (1761-1834) was a leading figure—was an important factor in stimulating a missions-mindedness among Baptist churches in America, something that has persisted to the present day in many quarters. As a result of his missionary passion, he was asked to write the authorized biography of the American Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson (1788-1850). The two-volume work sold an amazing 26,000 copies in 1853, its first year of publication, which would be a bestseller even today in the Christian book market.

Then, his rejection of Southern Baptist arguments for the retention of slavery played a key role in bolstering Northern Baptist opposition to that dreadful institution. His correspondence on this issue with the Southern Baptist leader Richard Fuller (1804-1876), found in Domestic Slavery as a Scriptural Institution (1845), capsulized the Northern Baptist perspective on this key ethical and pastoral issue of his day. From Wayland’s point of view, slavery was “repugnant to the scriptures, to conscience, and to the principles of the Declaration of Independence.” [Robert D. Cross, “Wayland, Francis” in American National Biography, eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 22:825].

His opposition to slavery led to his support of the nomination of Abraham Lincoln for the presidency and his conviction that in the war against the South God was on the side of the North. As he told his son in early 1861, before the onset of war: “God is about to bring slavery forever to an end.” [Francis Wayland [Jr.] and H.L. Wayland, A Memoir of the Life and Labors of Francis Wayland, D.D., LL.D. (New York: Sheldon and Co., 1867), II, 263]. There seems little doubt that Wayland played a role in turning Northern Baptist sentiment decisively against slavery.

Wayland’s perspective on the doctrine of salvation also helped mould Baptist thinking in the mid-nineteenth century. The classical Calvinism of eighteenth-century American Baptists like Oliver Hart (1723-1795) and Richard Furman (1755-1825) was falling out of favour, for theological precision was increasingly counting for less than church growth. This was especially so in the Northern United States and Wayland was a key figure in this theological transition. He was prepared to identify himself as a “moderate Calvinist” [Wayland [Jr.] and Wayland, Memoir of the Life and Labors of Francis Wayland, D.D., I, 125], but would not affirm particular redemption. In truth, his little regard for either systematic theology or church history contributed significantly to his failure to grasp the full dimensions of biblical soteriology.

In his doctrine of the church there were also some inadequacies. As Norman H. Maring has written, during Wayland’s day, “in place of the early connectionalism which had bound Baptists together in associations, a new interpretation of independence was paving the way for a contention that it was both wrong and dangerous to speak of the “interdependence” of the churches.” [“The Individualism of Francis Wayland” in Winthrop Still Hudson, ed., Baptist Concepts of the Church (Chicago/Philadelphia/Los Angeles: Judson Press, 1959), 136].

In this development Wayland’s thinking played a central role. He argued that “all ecclesiastical relations of every member, are limited to the church to which he belongs” and that even such beneficial organizations as missionary associations could be disbanded so as to make way for that “plan which was the most strongly marked by individualization.” [Cited William Ringenberg, “Wayland, Francis” in Donald M. Lewis, ed., Dictionary of Evangelical Biography 1730-1860 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 2:1165 and Maring, “Individualism of Francis Wayland”, 157].

An excellent example of his stress on independence can be found, interestingly enough, in his “Introductory Essay” to the American edition of Eustace Carey’s Memoir of William Carey (1836), which occupies fourteen pages in the book. Carey was, above all things, a team player. But one would never get that impression from reading Wayland’s essay. For Wayland it is the frequent calling of William Carey “to be a pioneer, and to act alone” that he dominates his view of the Baptist missionary. [Eustace Carey, Memoir of William Carey, D.D. (Boston: Gould, Kendall and Lincoln, 1836), xxii].

This stress on individualism in Baptist life would have both positive and glaringly negative effects on Baptist life in the next century and a half. Dependent on the scriptural aspects of the thinking of men like Wayland in this regard, Baptists have rightly stressed the necessity of personally knowing God. On the other hand, the passion for so-called “soul liberty” that has been stressed by some in the Baptist conflicts of the last century can be traced in part to the ideological perspectives of nineteenth-century authors like Wayland.