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Marriage and the family in the Baptist tradition

Oftentimes visual symbolism can discourage and defeat. Whether ages ago a Captain in the British Navy who, through his telescope, sees that a new flag of the enemy has been raised ashore in his home port, or in our own day an opposing team and their fans storm the court after a major road win—and with that the irony of opposing colors overtaking the colors of home sinking in to help the fan realize this loss is not a dream. Or, perhaps in the wake of a major Supreme Court decision on the definition of marriage, the full impact and intent is on display as a rainbow flag of colors engulfs the home of the most powerful leader in the world.

In days like these, where the recent redefinition of marriage can often discourage, it is helpful and grounding to remember that there are scores  of spiritual forebears, a great cloud of witnesses, though now invisible, who sought to define and stand for the original definition of marriage. Even though today one might feel as if he is standing alone while those with alternative views fly their victory flags, the truth is, and like Elisha saw, there are the legacies of those who have gone before standing like a cavalry of horses and chariots all around (2 Kings 6:15-17; Heb. 12:1-2).

Thus, in an age of gusting gale-force winds of moral change, those committed to the Bible need encouragement from others to ensure that they stand strong and weather well. Also, that they understand that it is not those who are storming the fields in victory who they are to stand against but rather against their arguments (2 Cor. 10:5) and the father of lies behind them (John 8:44). For in the spirit of the words of Elisha, we are not to be afraid or downcast for, with eyes to see, those who are with us are more than those who are with the evil one.

This paper is presented to that end and will seek to answer for such encouragement in a time like ours, how have Baptists thought of Marriage and Family from the Reformation to the present?1This paper was strengthened by the research aid of Jason Kees. Jason is a PhD student and serves as my Provost Fellow at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Both Galvanizing and Impeding: Baptists and the Bible

First, a word about how I intend to review four-plus centuries of thinking about marriage and family in the Baptist tradition. I intend to follow the trail blazed by a previous generation of historians who traced the development of doctrine among Baptists and who, thankfully, have left the lights on for us to be able to see our way. In this task of historical theology we do not want to be Frostian and seek the road “less traveled by” for while that might make “all the difference” it is bound to make a difference in the wrong direction.

Rather, we would do well to follow the well-worn path of the 1980 publication Baptists and the Bible by L. Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles. What made Bush and Nettles’ book important was their method of seeking to show simply what “Baptist leaders believed about biblical inspiration” and “why have they believed those things?”2Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles, Baptists and the Bible, revised edition (B&H, 1999), 390.

By presenting what Baptists wrote and advocated about the Bible century by century, Bush and Nettles were able simultaneously to provide what the “Nick Fury” of Baptist historians, Nathan A. Finn, calls a “galvanizing” agent to those in the Southern Baptist Convention seeking to uphold the truthfulness of Scripture while also presenting a roadblock of evidence that now required navigation around, over, or through for all who sought to downplay the roll of the Bible among Baptists in history.3Nathan Finn, “Baptists and the Bible: A History of a History Book,” in Ministry By His Grace and For His Glory: Essays in Honor of Thomas J. Nettles (Founders Press, 2011) Bush and Nettles argued:

Lack of historical awareness will lead a denomination to walk down some of   the same roads they have walked before. A strong historical identity, on the other hand, should give them the ability to correct their directions where necessary and to move forward with strength and unity. The Baptist contribution to the Protestant community in the area of biblical authority can only benefit the people of God if it is clearly defined and expressed.4Bush and Nettles, Baptists and the Bible

Further, Bush and Nettles found precedent for their approach from scholar Edwin Gaustad who, in 1963, wrote an article titled “Themes for Research in American Baptist History.”5Edwin S. Gaustad, “Themes for Research in American Baptist History,” in Foundations (April 1963):146-173. At one place in his lengthy essay, Gaustad invites the method of reviewing Baptist theology by stating, “Topical treatments, dealing with single doctrines and the changes they undergo, are highly appropriate.”6Ibid, 162

Therefore, this paper exploring the understanding of marriage and family in the Baptist tradition will follow in similar fashion.  In chronological sequence, first, this paper will give a presentation of how Baptists have articulated marriage and family century by century.7In terms of a starting and stopping date, this paper will follow both Bush and Nettles and also James Leo Garrett, Jr, Baptist Theology: A Four Century Study (Mercer, 2009), and recognize the influence of Reformation and Radical Reformation groups followed by the solidification of a continual Baptist church in 1609 to the present day. Second, this paper will aim to draw related observations and make concluding remarks with the intent that it serve both as a galvanizing agent and as a roadblock as needed.

Sixteenth Century

Timothy George identifies the 16th century as the “Age of Confessions” due to the “numerous statements of faith written and adopted by many Christian churches in that time.”8Timothy George, “Introduction,” in Baptist Confessions, Covenants, and Catechisms (B&H, 1996), 5 In the needed fracturing of Roman Catholicism that occurred in the Reformation, groups of believers used confessions of faith both to define and defend what they believed. As the Baptist wing of Protestantism developed, these documents would grow in even greater influence and helpfulness for articulating how these churches understood “those articles of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us.”9The Baptist Faith and Message. Available from For Anabaptist and pre-Baptist dissenting groups, early confessions took on various forms mostly centering on key distinctives of ecclesiology.10See, for example, The Schleitheim Confession 

But as the 16th century came to a close, these early groups were dispersed throughout Europe due to persecution and continued to adapt and develop their theology. In one case, a generation of followers of Anabaptist leader Menno Simons crafted a confession that did address marriage.11William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Judson, 1974), 42-43; W. J. McGlothlin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (American Baptist Publication Society, 1911), 24-25. In 1580, the Waterlander Mennonites issued “A Brief Confession of the Principal Articles of the Christian Faith,” and said:


Marriage we profess to be an ordinance of God which must be entered into according to the primal institution (a); that each man have his own only wife (b) and each woman her own and one husband. This marriage cannot be dissolved except for the cause of adultery (c). Neither do we think it allowable that any of us should enter into marriage outside the Church of God, with wicked, unbelieving or carnal men (d), and we condemn that (as other sins) by the word of God, the state of the time and the reason of things.12Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, 64-65.

Gen. 2:22; Matt. 19:4.
I Cor. 7:2; Eph. 5:31.
Matt. 19:9.
Deut. 7:3; I Cor. 7:39.

The grounding of marriage in creation and the biblical account (God is its author and sustainer), the emphasis on monogamy (contrary to broad assumptions that all Radicals were abandoning these norms), the criteria by which it may be dissolved (as defined by the Bible and not the Pope), and the affirmation of an equal yoke among believers are all indicators of identification with the broader Reformation movement away from a sacramental understanding of marriage as defined and maintained by Rome.1313 See “A Reformation Definition of Marriage” by Heinrich Bullinger in Robert L. Plummer and Matthew Haste, Held in Honor: Wisdom for Your Marriage from Voices of the Past (Christian Focus, 2015), 64.

Further, this confession and statement are significant for the Baptist tradition because the early General Baptist leader, John Smyth, sought the confession’s republication in 1610 as a means by which to compare his congregation with the surviving Mennonites he encountered in Holland.14Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, 43. Thus, we see the early Baptist perspective on marriage and family as rooted in the Reformation tradition of Sola Scriptura. The Bible informs and directs the definition of marriage.

Seventeenth Century

Baptists emerged separately in England during the 17th century as the result of some English Puritans seeking to follow the Bible in matters related to church and state.15As a helpful working definition of Puritanism, B. R. White indicated that it “seems right to define the period of true Puritanism as 1570-1640 and a Puritan as an earnest Protestant,   his understanding of the Bible shaped by a theology which was broadly Calvinist in type, who, while remaining a member of the established Church of England, sought its further reformation often, though not always in the direction of Presbyterianism,” in “Introduction,” in The English Puritan Tradition (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980), 12. First, established as Separatists, these groups sought further and faster Reformation than the Puritans were able to achieve during the reign of Elizabeth. Not wanting merely to “Keep Calm and Carry On,” many of these Separatists would, by 1609 and following, self-identify as Baptists.

Yet, for the purposes of tracing the understanding of marriage and family in the early English Baptist tradition, one should not ween the Baptists too quickly from their Puritan and Separatist parents.16Clark Hensley explains, “Baptists, though rejecting much of Puritanism, were influenced by Puritan family patterns,” in “Trends in Baptist Family Life,” in Baptist History and Heritage (January 1982), 3. For as Leland Ryken helpfully characterizes in his classic work Worldly Saints, which set straight the record of Puritan life and practice, the Puritans were quite revolutionary when it came to a biblical understanding of marriage and family. He says, “The Puritan doctrine of sex was a watershed in the cultural history of the West. The Puritans devalued celibacy, glorified companionate marriage, affirmed married sex as both necessary and pure, established the ideal of wedded romantic love, and exalted the role of the wife.”17Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were ( Further, “The Puritans’ theory of the family was based on a hierarchy of authority. Their attitude can be summarized in a simple formula: they accepted the headship of a husband and father as a biblical command and then proceeded to define the nature of that headship in a responsible manner.”18Ryken explains, “Hierarchy in the family means, first of all, that the husband and father is the accountable head for what happens and the one who is finally responsible for seeing that essential matters are happening in a family…. Modeled on Christ’s headship of the church, the husband’s headship, according to the Puritans, is not a ticket to privilege but a charge to responsibility…. Headship did not, for the Puritans, mean tyranny. It was leadership based on love.”

While providing a sample of primary source quotations, Ryken explains that the Puritans pursued the roles of husband and wife along the lines of what contemporary theologians have termed complementarianism.19See “The Danvers Statement” at the Council on Biblical Manhood and http:// Ryken says, “In Puritan theory, the counterpart of the husband’s headship was the wife’s submission …. A common theme in Puritan discussions of the wife’s submission was that God commands it in Scripture …. As defined by the Puritans, hierarchy is a matter of function and not of worth, a style of managing a family, not an assessment of personal value.”2020 Ryken, Worldly Saints, 39-56; 73-90.

This organization of the home according to Puritan understanding of the Bible is something Ryken calls “well-organized.” He summarizes, “The idea of a ‘well-ordered’ family also goes a long way toward explaining the Puritan household. In Puritan theory and practice, a well-ordered family was a hierarchical one in which the husband/father was the accountable head, the wife/mother his subordinate with her own spheres of responsibility, and children subject to the discipline and nurture of both parents.”21Ibid.

Having this background of Puritan influence and thinking is helpful for discovering a Baptist understanding of marriage and family in the 1600s. First, John Smyth’s own early “Short Confession of Faith” in 1610 kept the comments about marriage to core definitional issues of monogamy, grounds for divorce, and an admonition for believers to marry believers:

Article 37

The married estate, or matrimony, hold we for an ordinance of God, which, according to the first institution, shall be observed. Every man shall have his one only wife, and every woman shall have her one only husband; those may not be separated but for adultery. We permit none of our communion to marry godless, unbelieving, fleshly persons out of the church; but we censure such (as other sinners) according to the disposition and desert of the cause.22Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, 112.

Yet, his more final “Propositions and Conclusions Concerning True Christian Religion” in 1612-1614, adds a reference to Hebrews 13:4 and the sanctity of marriage in addition to the more standard comments:

Article 13

That therefore marriage is an estate honorable amongst all men, and the bed undefiled: viz. betwixt one man and one woman (Heb. xiii. 4: 1 Cor. vii. 2), but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.23Ibid., 126.

Article 87

That the Disciples of Christ, the members of the outward church, may not marry any of the profane, or wicked, godless people of the world, but that every one is to marry in the Lord (I Cor. vii. 39), every man one only wife, and every woman one only husband (I Cor. vii. 2).24Ibid., 140.

When the Particular Baptists first formed around a confession of faith in 1644, they did not address marriage and family directly, but that would change in the ensuing decades still, in part, related to the influence of the Puritans on the broader dissenting culture.

After the start of the English Civil War, the Long Parliament voted to abolish the episcopacy and began to consider ways to organize the structure of the Church. On July 1, 1643, an assembly of Divines, or theologians, met for “the settlement of the Government and Liturgy of the Church of England.”25The Westminster Confession of Faith (Atlanta: Committee for Christian Education & Publications, 1990), Numbering 151, the Westminster Assembly was comprised of clergy from the various counties in England and Wales, members of the House of Commons, as well as a few laymen.2626 B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2003), 11-12. Moderate Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Independents were all represented with the Presbyterians forming the majority.27Westminster Confession, xiv-xv.

Once the Covenant was made with Scotland, the Episcopalians’ participation decreased, and the press toward the creation of a Presbyterian system was only slowed by the five Independents who lobbied for the right of local churches to govern themselves.28Ibid., In April 1647, the Assembly presented for adoption the final version of the Westminster Confession of Faith to Parliament where it was debated until 1648. In that year, the article on “Marriage and Divorce” was added.

The Confession was not fully adopted until 1660 and was then soon moved out of official use with the Restoration of the Monarchy.29Warfield, The Westminster Assembly, 59-60. This paragraph is adapted from Jason G. Duesing, Henry Jessey (Borderstone, 2015). Nevertheless, the influence of the Westminster Confession was immediate and far reaching. Both the Congregationalists and the Baptists sought to present their own revisions of the Confession to show areas of common agreement.30Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, 236. McGlothlin, Baptist Confessions, 217, states, “The controlling influence in these changes was undoubtedly the Westminster Confession, the increasing stability and regularity of the Baptist churches, and the increasing desire for harmony with other Protestants.” This was, in part, as James Leo Garrett identifies due to the “‘common sufferings’ of all Nonconformists” after the Restoration and the result was these groups seeking “‘closer relations’ with each other and to stress their ‘points of agreement’ more than their ‘differences.’”31James Leo Garrett, Baptist Theology (Mercer, 2009), 39. [See McGlothlin, 122-23.] Much like the desire to identify with other Reformers in distinction to Rome, now the Baptists sought identification with the Presbyterians in distinction to the monarchial Church of England.

The Second London Confession the Particular Baptists first published in 1677 and then more broadly in 1688 contains the first four statements from the Westminster Confession’s article on marriage.32The Second London Confession does not include the final two statements from the Westminster Confession on adultery and grounds for dissolving. For commentary on the Westminster Confession see A. A. Hodge, A Commentary (1869). Michael A. G. Haykin and Ian Clary helpfully explain that the first statement’s affirmation of monogamy is an attempt by the English Baptists to (1) distance themselves from the Munster Revolutionary Anabaptists and (2) to show an area of clear commonality among fellow Protestants.33Haykin and Clary, “Baptist Marriage in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in The Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministries (Fall/Winter 2012): 28-41.

Further, they note that the language in the second statement of “mutual help” is informed by the Book of Common Prayer and the statement that marriage was created for “mutual society, help, and comfort.”34See also “Dearly Beloved,” in Plummer and Haste, Held in Honor, 68. The third statement admonishes that Christians should marry Christians, but as Haykin and Clary note, there is a “socially radical view” expressed here that “all sorts of people” can marry, meaning across ethnicities or classes.35Ibid. The final statement speaks against the practice of incestuous marriage.

Chap. XXV. Of Marriage.

Marriage is to be between one Man and one Woman;1 neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one Wife, nor for any Woman to have more then [sic] one Husband at the same increasing stability and regularity of the Baptist churches, and the increasing desire for harmony with other Protestants.

Marriage was ordained for the mutual help2 of Husband and Wife,3 for the increase of Man-kind, with a legitimate issue, and for4 preventing of

It is lawful for5 all sorts of people to Marry, who are able with judgment to give their consent; yet it is the duty of Christians6 to marry in the Lord, and therefore such as profess the [page] true Religion, should not Marry with infidels,7 or Idolators [sic]; neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked, by marrying with such as are wicked, in their life, or maintain damnable Heresie [sic].

Marriage ought not to be within the degrees of conanquinity,8 or Affinity forbidden in the word; nor can such incestuous Marriage ever be made lawful, by any law of Man or consent of parties,9 so as those persons may live together as Man and Wife. [page]

1 Gen. 2. 24; Mal. 2. 15; Mat. 19.5, 6.

2 Gen. 2. 18.

3 Gen. 1. 28.

4 1 Cor. 7. 2, 9.

5 Heb. 13.4; 1 Tim. 4.3.

6 1 Cor. 7. 39.

7 Neh. 13.25, 26, 27.

8 Levit. 18

9 Mat. 6. 18; 1 Cor. 5.1.

The General Baptists also sought to express like-mindedness with other Nonconformists following the Restoration and did so through the Orthodox Creed. James Leo Garrett notes that it “‘followed less closely’ the Westminster Confession than did the Second London Confession of Particular Baptists (1677) inasmuch as there were changes both in order of articles and in content of articles.”36Garrett, Baptist Theology, 39. [See Lumpkin, 295-297.] See also http://baptiststudiesonline. com/wp-content/uploads/2007/02/orthodox-creed.pdf Thus there is an article on the family as well as an article on marriage. The latter follows the pattern seen in previous confessions as it affirms monogamy, that believers should marry believers, and not incest. The article on the family reviews the role of the parents’ relationship to the children especially in terms of their instruction in religion, both public and private.


Of Family, or relative Duties therein.

Parents, and masters, are a sort of subordinate governors, and rulers, in their respective jurisdictions and families; in their respective relative places, according to their capacities, and opportunities; and are engaged from God’s word, to take charge of their families, and rule and govern them according to the word of God, both husbands, parents, masters, and all others concerned in any such relation; and by their godly and religious example, instruct their families; they being found carefully keeping of the sabbath-day, in the holy and religious services of hearing the word preached, with publick and private prayer. As also requiring and instructing their families and relations, to follow their godly and religious example, in the private and publick exercises of religion; and calling them to an account, how they spend the sabbath, and other times, and mercies they enjoy; especially   the reading of the scriptures, and hearing the word preached, with publick prayer with them, and for them, in order to a Blessing [sic] for them, and their families. The neglect of which duty, or power of godliness, and religion in families, is one main cause of that wicked atheism, and impiety in the world and families; and of the carnal lukewarmness, and ignorance in churches, together with contempt of government; because many professors make so little account, or conscience of performing any duty at home in their own families.

Gen. 18 : 19.

I Sam. 2 : 23, &c. Prov. 30 : II, &c. I Tim. 5: 8.

Matt. 7:9, 10.

Col. 4 : I.

Eph. 4 : 25, &c. 5:4.

John. 24 : 15.

Eph. 5 : 19, &c. 6 : 1, 2, &c.

Prov. 1:1.

Acts 10 : 30, 33

I Tim. 3 : 4.

I Kings 2 : I, 2, 3.

Gen. 49: 28, 29. Job I : 5.


1 Chron. 29 : 19.

Prov. 22 : 6, 15,

2 Kings 2 : 24.

Prov. 29 : 15, 21.

2 Tim 3 : 15.

XLVII. Article Of Marriage

Marriage is to be between one Mana, and one Woman; neither is it lawful for any Manb, to have more than one wifec, nor for any woman to have more thand one husband, at the same time. And ite is lawful for all sorts of people to marryf, who are able of judgment to give theirg consent. But marriage must not be withinh the degree of consanguinity, or affinityi, forbidden in the word, nor can any suchj incestuous marriages ever be made lawfulk by any law of man, or consent of partiesl, to live together as man and wife. And it is the duty of christians [sic] to marry in them Lord, and therefore those that professn the true religion, ought not to marryo with infidels, or idolaters, nor prophanep [sic] wicked persons in their life, nor yet withq any that maintain damnable heresies.r

Matt. 19:5, 6.
Gen. 2:24.
Mal. 2:15.
1 Cor. 7:36.
Heb. 13:4.
1 Tim. 4:3.
Exod. 22:16, 17.
Gen. 29:23.
Lev. 18:6, &c.
2 Sam. 13:14.
Gen. 38:16.
Deut. 22:28.
Eph. 5:3.
1 Cor. 7:2; 5:1, 4, 13.
Gen 6.2.
1 Cor. 7:39.
Numb. 25:1, 2.
2 Cor. 6:14, &c.

Thus, with the 17th century we see the Baptist perspective on marriage and family still rooted in the Reformation tradition of Sola Scriptura and now expanding more specifically into the realm of family life and also warning of aberrations that are divergent from the biblical design. The Bible informs and directs the definition of marriage still in the 17th century.

Eighteenth Century

In the 18th century, Baptists in America adopted the Second London Confession and renamed it the Philadelphia Confession of Faith. As such the statement on marriage remains the same and the Puritan-influenced understanding of marriage and family at church and home continued to shape Baptist churches though now across the Atlantic.

Chapter 26 Of Marriage

Marriage is to be between one man and one woman; neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband at the same 1

Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife,2 for the increase of mankind with a legitimate issue,3 and for preventing of 4

It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgment to give their consent;5 yet it is the duty of Christians to marry in the Lord;6 and therefore such as profess the true religion, should not marry with infidels, or idolators; neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked, by marrying with such as are wicked in their life, or maintain damnable 7

Marriage ought not to be within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity, forbidden in the Word;8 nor can such incestuous marriages ever be made lawful, by any law of man or consent of parties, so as those persons may live together as man and 9


Ge 2:24; Mal 2:15; Mt 19:5-6.
Ge 2:18.
Ge 1:28.
1Co 7:2,9.
Heb 13:4; 1Ti 4:3.
1Co 7:39.
Ne 13:25-27.
Lev 18:1-30.
Mk 6:18; 1Co 5:1.

As Jason Dees recently observed, among 18th-century Baptists there existed an ongoing development of relationships both in the church and in the home.37Jason Edwin Dees, “The Way to True Excellence: The Spirituality of Samuel Pearce,” PhD Dissertation, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Samuel Stennett, Discourses on Domestic Duties (Edinburgh, 1800). The role of the family, while not articulated in depth in any confessional statement, was explored further in other works. One example of such is in the work of Pastor Samuel Stennett and his Discourses on Domestic Duties (1783), which functioned as a family handbook provided to instruct Christian families.3838 Samuel Stennett, Discourses on Domestic Duties (Edinburgh, 1800).

Rather than seeing families as merely focusing on themselves and their own development, Stennett saw the spiritual health of families as directly related to the spiritual health of the nation. Matthew Haste acknowledges that Stennett’s “concern for the family was in part, therefore, rooted in his concern for the nation. Stennett noted that the family is, after all, ‘a little society’ …. If England was to be a nation that honoured God, the Lord must be esteemed in British families.”39Matthew Haste, “’Nurseries of Heaven’: Samuel Stennett on Marriage and Family,” in Churchman (Spring 2015), 55-70.

Stennett’s work is helpful to understand the development of the Baptist understanding and practice of marriage and family in that he outlined at length roles of father, mother, and children.

The family we have in our eye … The father was a wise, affectionate, good man; a sincere disciple of the meek and lowly Jesus … The partner of his life, inexpressibly dear to him, had all the charms       of which virtue and religion could add to a form that commanded admiration and love. She was modest, prudent, and kind … Their children … inherited virtue from their parents.40Stennett, Discourses, 447-448. See also Haste, “Nurseries,” 68.

As Haste concludes, Stennett “envisioned the family as a preview of heaven” and as such should function as “a place where spirituality could blossom as one generation passed down faithfulness to the next and exemplified the fruit of religion.”41Haste, “Nurseries,” 68-69.

Nineteenth Century

Among 19th century Baptists in America the Philadelphia Confession remained the most used confession of faith until the development of the New Hampshire Confession in 1833. The New Hampshire Confession aimed to provide a new confession for the new century and one that represented a more moderated position on differences among Baptist churches over soteriology.42Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, 360. As a more abbreviated document, this new confession did not contain articles on marriage or the family.

However, both at church and at home, Baptists in America were undergoing significant change. As J. Clark Hensley observed, the 19th century saw Americans move “from an agrarian society to an urban society [and] this has had a major impact on all our institutions, including the family.”43Hensley, “Trends,” 4. While Baptists enjoyed life on the frontier, they were able to maintain views of marriage and family consistent with that of their previous forebears.

J. Wayne Flynt observed, “Baptist life in the nineteenth century was rooted in the frontier, rural culture. Pioneer isolation influenced Southern Baptists as heavily as the Puritan covenant and ethnic immigration influenced religion in the Northeast.”44Wayne Flynt, “Southern Baptists: Rural to Urban Transition,” Baptist History and Heritage (January 1981), 25. On the frontier, while many Baptist families lacked formal education, they still centered life around one of their few possessions, a “family Bible.”45Hensley, “Trends,” 5. Yet, as Hensley notes, with the growth of cities, the expansions of public schools and even the popular implementation of Sunday Schools, Baptist families saw a transfer of “the major responsibility for Bible study from the family to the church.”46Ibid, 7.

Further, even though Baptists in America traversed under the blight of slavery, the practice of marriage was one thing recognized and preserved. As an example, the Georgia Baptist Association in 1864 passed this resolution,

“Resolved, That it is the firm belief and conviction of this body that the institution of marriage was ordained by Almighty God for the benefit of the whole human race, without respect to color; that it ought to be maintained in its original purity among all classes of people in all countries and in all ages till the end of time; and that, consequently, the law of Georgia, in its failure to recognize and protect this relationship between our slaves, is essentially defective, and ought to be amended.”47“History of Georgia Baptists,” The Baptist Encyclopedia (1881), 443. http:// com/georgia.baptists.tbe.html

Thus with the rise of modernity in America and the world in the long 19th century, Baptists maintained their longstanding views of marriage and family, but began to adapt those more and more to the culture in which they lived.

Twentieth Century

As Baptists entered the 20th century, especially in America, they faced increasingly diverse communities due to immigration in the first decade, the fracturing of families due to the Great War in the second decade, the pull of material wealth unforeseen in most families who were for the first time starting out in an urban context in the second decade, the depletion of that wealth and the depression that followed in the third decade, and another fracturing due to global war in the fourth decade.48See Hensley, “Trends,” 7-8. By the midpoint of the century, the growth among Baptist churches led to several ministries and publications directed at families. Yet, in the 1950s and 60s, Baptist understanding of marriage and family could not have foreseen the coming cultural transformation that would take place over the next four decades.49Ibid. With the rise of the divorce culture, abortion on demand, escalating feminism, the questioning of the reliability of the Bible, many Baptists did not give as much attention to the defense of these beliefs. However, while the Southern Baptist confession of faith, The Baptist Faith and Message, as primarily an updated version of the New Hampshire Confession did not include statements on marriage or the family, the Convention did take some steps. In the first 80 years of this century, the Convention, in its annual meeting, adopted 30 resolutions related to the family.50Reuben Herring, “Southern Baptist Convention Resolutions on the Family,” Baptist History and Heritage (February 1982), 36.

Further, the 1958 Southern Baptist Encyclopedia entry for “Marriage and the Family” affirmed the positions established during the previous centuries by Baptist forebears. In part the entry states,

In marriage is found God’s provision for the basic needs of man and for the propagation of the human race.

The home should be the nearest approximation of heaven possible on earth.

The intent of God is that each member shall voluntarily accept certain duties and responsibilities in the family relationship. The husband is to love his wife with an unselfish, sacrificial love … He is to serve voluntarily as head of the family.

Likewise, the wife is to love her husband and hold him in such respect that she voluntarily subjects herself to him … It is not the duty of the husband to bring the wife under subjugation.

Parents are to love their children and … are to rear their children in such a way as to provide instruction, training, discipline, and counsel.

The marriage relationship should never be established until both man and woman understand the intent of God for marriage and home relations and are willing to accept the responsibilities peculiar to their place in the family relationship. The nearer marriages and homes approximate the intent of God, the more blessed they will be, and the more blessed will be all relationships in human community.51“Marriage and the Family” in Southern Baptist Encyclopedia (1958), 821-822.

Nevertheless, as Baptists in America underwent a theological reformation during the last half of the 20th century, there provided the opportunity to review and revise the confession of faith, The Baptist Faith and Message. First in 1997, a committee was appointed to craft a new article on the family. Such was motivated by a concern that “the family had been under assault in a unique and overwhelming way” since 1960 and thus there was a “need for clarifying and expressing a biblical perspective on the family.”52 Dorothy Kelley Patterson, “The Family,” in Doug Blount and Joseph Woodell, The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), 184.

Committee member Dorothy Patterson explained that the “committee sought to use words and phrases that would carry the same timelessness as the [earlier] statements” and that “the article on the family is articulated from a positive perspective.”53Ibid., 185. The statement, adopted in 1998 and now included in The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 is as follows:

XVIII. The Family

God has ordained the family as the foundational institution of human society. It is composed of persons related to one another by marriage, blood, or adoption.

Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime. It is God’s unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and His church and to provide for the man and the woman in marriage the framework for intimate companionship, the channel of sexual expression according to biblical standards, and the means for procreation of the human race.

The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.

Children, from the moment of conception, are a blessing and heritage from the Lord. Parents are to demonstrate to their children God’s pattern for marriage. Parents are to teach their children spiritual and moral values and to lead them, through consistent lifestyle example and loving discipline, to make choices based on biblical truth. Children are to honor and obey their parents.

Genesis 1:26-28; 2:15-25; 3:1-20; Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Joshua 24:15; 1 Samuel 1:26-28; Psalms 51:5; 78:1-8; 127; 128; 139:13-16; Proverbs 1:8; 5:15-20; 6:20-22; 12:4; 13:24; 14:1; 17:6; 18:22; 22:6, 15; 23:13-14; 24:3; 29:15, 17; 31:10-31; Ecclesiastes 4:9-12; 9:9; Malachi 2:14-16; Matthew 5:31-32; 18:2-5; 19:3-9; Mark 10:6-12; Romans 1:18-32; 1 Corinthians 7:1-16; Ephesians 5:21-33; 6:1-4; Colossians 3:18-21; 1 Timothy 5:8,14; 2 Timothy 1:3-5; Titus 2:3-5; Hebrews 13:4; 1 Peter 3:1-7.

Consistent with what the Baptist tradition had articulated since the Reformation, Patterson reminds that “Doctrine and practice, whether in the home or the church, are not to be determined according to modern cultural, sociological, and ecclesiastical trends or according to personal emotional whims; rather, Scripture is to be the final authority in all matters of faith and conduct.”54Ibid., 190. The statement had many detractors though the Convention adopted it in full. For one critical viewpoint see Susan Shaw, “The Paradox of Submission: Southern Baptist Women and Male Headship,” in Perspectives in Religious Studies (Winter 2012),

Summary Statements

In sum, Baptists through the centuries have regularly asserted a common belief in marriage and family. My attempt to categorize those under four headings follows:

Baptists have sought to define marriage and family according to the Bible

Created by God
One wife, one husband, in monogamy not polygamy
Believers should marry believers

Baptists have consistently addressed marriage and family in light of cultural concerns
Baptists have worked to articulate marriage and family in conjunction with other traditions
Baptists have largely affirmed complementarity in marriage roles that, in families, seek to give care for the spiritual formation of their


Lest one grow too weary when looking at the surrounding culture and feel like the enemy’s flag has been raised once and for all in one’s homeland, it is helpful to remember that what is not seen is more real than what is seen. For as Martin Luther said, “Our striving would be losing were not the right man on our side.” Thus, as we strive for truth, let us remember that we do not strive alone. For, if we have eyes to see, like Elisha, there is a great cloud of witnesses, of horses and chariots, of men and women who have gone before who surround and stand with us. Yet, even more, there stands that Right Man on our side, and very soon, He will come and make all things right and new.

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