Francis Wayland (1796-1865), a Baptist minister who served as president of Brown University from 1827-55, was the first Baptist ethicist and was America’s foremost ethicist during the pre-Civil War era.
His popular “Elements of Moral Science,” first published in 1835, sold more than 100,000 copies before the end of the 19th century and yet another reprint was issued as recently as April 2010.
D.H. Meyer in “The Instructed Conscience” suggested that Wayland offered the first serious attempt by an American intellectual to answer Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for a public ethic to guide the “liberated conscience” of American society. Emerson was looking for “some kind of formal consensus on the fundamental principles of morality, agreement on the meaning of basic moral terms, and the formation of a reasonably coherent code of moral maxims.”
Wayland’s book provided the basic form and common point of reference for a series of philosophically varied proposals with similar moral outcomes by American academic moralists and intellectuals.
Chief among them were Mark Hopkins and Asa Mahan, both Congregationalists, Francis Bowen, a Unitarian, and Archibald Alexander and James McCosh, both Presbyterians.
Most of them were college presidents like Wayland, and some were clergymen like Wayland. All of them were trying to provide a resource for the kind of moral leadership Americans felt the young nation needed. Most of their works were texts for senior level capstone courses that were expected to provide the high point and culmination of a good college education.
Wayland’s ethics were exhortative rather than analytical. Though he was concerned with the epistemology of morals and how to recognize a moral obligation, his primary concern was to instruct the conscience rather than to stimulate the intellect. The innovation in his method was to teach moral philosophy as a “science” related to religion but distinct from theology. That is why people of varied theological positions could find it appealing.
Modern ethicists would classify Wayland’s ethic as intuitionist and deontological as opposed to teleological. His thinking was shaped primarily by the apologetic method of Joseph Butler, whose sermons on conscience comprise one of the highest achievements of rationalist Christian moralism, and Dugald Stewart, the most influential moralist of the Scottish “common sense” school of philosophy.
Contemporary ethical theory faces challenges that are both deeper and broader than those that Wayland faced.
In relation to ethics, science no longer enjoys the confidence it did in his day. Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche and the results of very diverse and ever expanding fields of scientific research have made any kind of “formal consensus” on the principles of morality elusive for our day. Yet the need for some such consensus is greater today than it was then.
The way forward does not lie in a revival of the methods of the past, but the concerns and aspirations of the past can provide an ideal and inspiration for the future.
We need to renew a practical concern for the study and teaching of philosophical and theological ethics in our institutions of higher learning. While Logsdon Seminary and McAfee School of Theology have been setting the pace among us in ethical instruction, some other moderate Baptist seminaries do not even require a basic course in ethics as a requirement for obtaining a degree.
All of our colleges and seminaries need to resume their role as leaders in the teaching of ethics and they ought to be encouraging the brightest minds among us to take up the challenge of forming a cross-disciplinary consensus on ethics and morality. Baptists today are as capable of being trendsetters in this area as were Baptists in the 19th century.
If the labors of our scholars are to bear fruit beyond the world of academia, then we will also have to cultivate other means for promoting conscience formation in our homes and churches. That is why it is vital to provide ongoing support for agencies like the Baptist Center for Ethics and the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, for foundations like the T.B. Maston Foundation and for publications like Christian Ethics Today.
Bruce Prescott is executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, president of the Norman, Okla., chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and host of “Religious Talk” on KREF radio. He blogs at Mainstream Baptist.
Bruce Prescott, now retired, served as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists from 1998-2014.