The Baptist War of the 1920s

Fall 2017 - Baptist war imageTheological controversy is never delightful. Yet, God’s saints have had to engage in such from time to time for the sake of integrity and fidelity to their Lord and God.

Such was the case with what is now known as the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. It wracked Baptist and various other denominational circles throughout North America in the mid-1920s. At the centre of the Ontario Baptist phase of this controversy were the theological convictions of Laurance Henry Marshall (1882–1953), Professor of Practical Theology at McMaster University, which was then owned by the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec and situated near the south-west corner of Bloor Street and Avenue Road in Toronto — the very place where the Royal Conservatory of Music is now located. It is vital to recognize that McMaster played a critical role in the training of ministers for Baptist churches throughout Ontario and Quebec. If the school became compromised with regard to key biblical truths, this would ultimately have a deleterious effect upon the churches who looked to the school to train their pastors and leaders.

Marshall was an Englishman with an extremely winsome personality and a powerful pulpit presence, whose style was reminiscent of some of the great Victorian preachers. But Marshall had also definitely imbibed significant doses of Modernist thought. In an article written a few years after the controversy, Marshall declared his support for the theory of evolution, his rejection of the infallibility of God’s Word, and his intense dislike of viewing the death of the Lord Jesus as a vicarious punishment for the sins of his people. Marshall seems to have regarded the message of Scripture as inspired, but not the actual words themselves. And with regard to the doctrine of the atonement, Marshall saw the crucifixion of Christ as the supreme example of divine love, but not a propitiation for the sins of sinners.

The leading critic of Marshall and the leadership of McMaster University was Thomas Todhunter Shields (1873–1955), pastor of Toronto’s Jarvis Street Baptist Church for most of his adult life, and, as the liberal Protestant periodical The Christian Century put it in 1929, “unquestionably the dominant personality” among North American conservative Christian leaders of that era. As a person Shields was strikingly different from the winsome Marshall, for to some people he appeared to be abrasive and often domineering. But he knew the vital importance of standing for key truths of the Bible.

For two years, between the Ontario and Quebec Baptist Conventions of 1925 and 1927, all-out war — by means of the spoken word, the printed page, and various rallies throughout Ontario — raged relentlessly between Shields and his allies and those siding with Marshall. But this Baptist controversy of the 1920s was not ultimately about personalities, but faithfulness to God’s Word. As Leslie K. Tarr, who has written the only major published study of Shields, once asked: “Even if Shields was abrasive and provocative, does that in itself invalidate his accusations?” In the final analysis, it must be recognized that, in spite of Shields’ difficult personality, it was his fidelity to biblical truth that did so much to prevent the dilution of biblical truth among Ontario Baptists.

Finally, things came to a head at the 1927 annual Convention. Marshall defended his views and asked the Ontario and Quebec Baptist church delegates at convention in 1927:

Are we as Baptists to stand for ignorance and obscurantism and intolerance, or are we to get into line with all the truly great men whose names are written upon our Baptist roll of fame (and the greatest of them all in my humble opinion is Wm. Carey the great pioneer of modern missionary enterprise), and stand for sound scholarship, for the love of truth, for tolerance, for reasonable liberty, with the McMaster motto as our watchword: “In Christ all things consist.”

Marshall’s appeal to standing in the line of “all the truly great men” of the Baptist past — in particular, William Carey (1761–1834), one of the leading pioneers of the modern missionary movement — seems to indicate that Marshall was convinced that his brand of non-confessional Baptist theology was the norm in Baptist history. There have always been a small minority of Baptists that have had a distrust of creeds and confessions, but Marshall was wrong to think this was the norm, or that William Carey could be found among them.

As it turned out, Marshall’s position was vindicated by the 1926 and 1927 annual Conventions, and Jarvis Street Baptist Church, where T.T. Shields was the pastor, was subsequently expelled from the Convention along with a dozen other recalcitrant churches. A part of Shields’ response was to form a new body of Baptist churches, The Union of Regular Baptist Churches of Ontario and Quebec, which, in time, became a key stream leading our present-day Fellowship. Those who founded this Fellowship well knew the great debt that they owed to Shields and his determination to defend the truth.


—Dr. Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality, and Director of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.