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I’ve never been around so many Primitive Baptists as I have been at the Baptist History Celebration being held in Charleston Aug. 1-3.

I haven’t been avoiding Primitive Baptists, but there just aren’t many of them around. Come to think of it, prior to this week I’d only known one person who was outspoken about his Primitive Baptist beliefs, and he went on to his predestined reward some time ago.

Many towns have a Primitive Baptist Church somewhere around – it’s usually small, often with less-than-weekly services. Some just hold a homecoming service once per year because there are so few people left.

I always figured it was because Primitive Baptists, being staunch Calvinists, believed firmly in predestination and thus practiced little or no evangelism – a sure way to smallify a church.

The Baptist History Celebration was the brainchild of a strict Calvinist, so it’s not surprising that many of the speakers have either espoused Calvinism or highlighted Calvinist beliefs of early Baptists, or both.

During a breakout session on Primitive Baptists Aug. 2, Lasserre Bradley, Jr. (above) — who has preached Primitive Baptist beliefs on the “Baptist Bible Hour” for 50 years — said Primitive Baptists adopted their name because they believe the doctrines they hold are the same as the earliest (most primitive) Baptists, whom they hold were Calvinistic.

There is some variety among Primitive Baptists (like whether they allow musical instruments in worship or not), but many of them do practice evangelistic preaching and some measure of missions work.

When I ask why someone who truly believes in predestination and irresistible grace should bother with preaching, the answer is usually two-fold: preaching is a matter of obedience and it brings glory to God, whether it’s really necessary for the elect to hear it or not.

While Primitive Baptists do believe in preaching, they generally don’t believe in working together through any sort of central organization or mission board, but hold that all mission efforts should spring from the local church. It’s at that point, it seems, that they diverge most sharply from more prominent Baptist groups, who believe it’s a good thing to cooperate together for mission efforts that are bigger than any one church.

“Reformed” theology of some form is hard to avoid these days: the “Founders Ministries” organization has been promoting Calvinism among Southern Baptists for some time. Schools like Southern Baptist Theological Seminary actively promote Calvinistic theology.

LifeWay Christian Resources of the SBC conducted a study of Calvinism last year, and has announced that it will host a conference on Calvinism at Ridgecrest this fall, to be called “Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism.” The conference, co-sponsored by the Founders Ministries and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is reportedly not to promote Calvinism, but to provide a venue for candid and friendly debate between Calvinists and non-Calvinists.

All of the above give Calvinism a much higher profile in Baptist life than it has known for more than a century: the apparent full-court press to promote the doctrine follows a century in which the “free will” theology of Arminianism became so dominant that many people discounted Calvinism altogether.

Whether you find the “doctrines of grace” to be appealing or appalling, a discussion of them is getting harder and harder to avoid.

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