Southern Baptists And The Law Amendment: Salters’ Hall Redux

Jonathan Swan

History Shows that when Baptists Reject Confessional Clarity, the Gospel is Lost

With the upcoming vote this week on the Law Amendment, messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis will face a decision similar to Baptists in the eighteenth century. While the most important issues facing Southern Baptists today are different from the Baptists of the eighteenth century, they likewise have a choice of whether to embrace or eschew confessionalism. The history of eighteenth-century Baptists reveals just how important that decision is. 

Salters’ Hall Fallout

During the seventeenth century, various forms of anti-Trinitarianism became endemic in England, such that Socinianism, Arianism, and other forms of Unitarianism remained constant temptations for the church well into the eighteenth century. The results were disastrous. Among the Dissenting1 denominations, Presbyterians and General Baptists were the hardest hit by these waves of heterodoxy. The Church of England also struggled to maintain Trinitarian orthodoxy within its ranks. By contrast, however, Particular Baptists and Independents largely stood their ground, although even the most conservative congregations saw some fall away.

During the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a key factor of ecclesial decline was not merely a denial of the Trinity, but an aversion to confessionalism. Emblematic of this aversion was a series of meetings at Salters’ Hall in London in 1719, where Dissenting pastors were called on to give advice to Presbyterians in Exeter who had become suspicious that some of their pastors no longer adhered to the doctrine of the Trinity.2 

While the initial cause of the meeting pertained to the doctrine of the Trinity, the point of controversy at Salters’ Hall ultimately came down to the issue of subscription — what we now refer to as confessionalism. The Subscribers, as they became known, contended that in order to uphold the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, pastors should be held accountable by subscribing to a statement of faith. The Non-Subscribers, however, insisted that Scripture should be the only test of orthodoxy, and that it was, moreover, unscriptural to hold fellow believers to man-made doctrinal statements. 

When the question came to a vote at Salters’ Hall, the Non-Subscribers carried a 57-53 majority over the Subscribers. While it may be the case that nearly all of the Non-Subscribers at Salters’ Hall were actually Trinitarian in their convictions, the Subscribers rightly understood the necessity of confessionalism for upholding orthodoxy.3 

The connection between confessionalism and orthodoxy is especially apparent in the history of the General Baptists. In response to the anti-Trinitarian views of Matthew Caffyn, one of their pastors, the General Baptists chose to resolve doctrinal tensions within their community by the use of Scripture words only — in other words, without a confession. This anti-confessional stance among the General Baptists was maintained at Salters’ Hall, when only one of the fifteen General Baptists voted for subscription. By contrast, only two of sixteen Particular Baptists voted in favor of non-subscription. 

The subsequent history of the Dissenting denominations after Salters’ Hall, particularly the two Baptist denominations, justified the Subscribers’ concerns. As the eighteenth century wore on, most of the General Baptists fell into Unitarianism. Their objection to confessionalism made both doctrinal clarity and accountability impossible, which resulted — predictably — in heresy being tolerated. Baptist historian Raymond Brown recounts: “In several instances, resistance to subscription became the prelude to heterodoxy. People who refused to sign the articles came eventually to deny them and those General Baptists who were theologically uncertain ultimately became committed Unitarians.”4 

To summarize: the Baptist churches that rejected confessionalism eventually lost the gospel; but the churches that embraced confessionalism preserved the gospel. 

Confessing the Truth to Preserve the Truth

The contrast between the Particular and General Baptists on the matter of confessionalism has much to teach Southern Baptists today. As Dissenting pastors met at Salters’ Hall in 1719 to debate how best to respond to concerns raised about heterodox anti-Trinitarianism, Southern Baptists will meet this week in Indianapolis to determine how best to respond to the presence of female pastors within its Convention. In both cases, the matter boils down to the issue of confessionalism. 

At last year’s annual meeting, the SBC strongly indicated its convictions about female pastors. It did so by clarifying and strengthening its definition of the pastoral office in the Baptist Faith & Message (BFM) and by disfellowshipping churches with female pastors — including the well-known and influential Saddleback Church. Yet, not all are agreed on how to handle the issue moving forward. 

Some within the SBC believe that female pastors should be included among its membership — even though this practice clearly contradicts article six of the BFM.5 Some proponents of this view appear to be advocating for a “Baptist” form of confessionalism that ultimately amounts to confessional minimalism. An article from earlier this year appears to make the case that holding churches within the SBC accountable to the BFM amounts to a dangerous form of “creedalism” that would wrongly force its doctrine upon churches.6 This article seems to communicate that while confessions serve some important functions, they should not be used to set strict doctrinal boundaries as markers of fellowship. In other words, adherence to the words of the BFM should not be a requirement for cooperation.7 The problem with this construal is that Baptists have long used confessions for such a purpose. Furthermore, the Preamble to the BFM itself states that Baptist confessions have served “as instruments of doctrinal accountability.”8

Far from using confessions in an altogether different way from other protestant denominations, Baptists (both General and Particular) advocated alongside Presbyterians and Independents for subscription at Salters’ Hall.9 The claim that Baptists are “not creedal,” meaning they do not use confessions as tests of orthodoxy or as a doctrinal basis of unity, is historically unfounded. 

The Need for Confessional Clarity in the SBC

If the Law Amendment is ratified at the upcoming annual meeting, Southern Baptists will have taken a clear stand, not only for complementarianism, but confessionalism. They will have decisively determined that the BFM represents their doctrinal standard of unity and cooperation. And that is exactly what is needed at this time. 

At a time when many churches within the SBC operate in contradiction to the BFM by ordaining females to the pastorate (lead, co-pastor, associate, or otherwise), confessional clarity is necessary.10 One could go so far as to say that in moments like these, it is the spiritual duty of Southern Baptists not to just say what they believe, but to be doers of what they believe (James 1:22). Our shared commitment to Scripture demands no less. 

When the clear teachings of Scripture and our shared confession are contradicted, it is not sufficient to cite personal commitment to the teachings in question. If Southern Baptists are to maintain the biblical traditions that were delivered to them (1 Cor. 11:2), they must confess and practice them. The history of Salters’ Hall and the General Baptists teaches us that when churches stop confessing those truths together, at some point down the road, they are no longer kept. At the time when they most needed confessional clarity, they opted for a confessional laxity that led to their demise.

The Ancient Paths of Confessionalism

Similar to the decision faced by Dissenting pastors at Salters’ Hall, Southern Baptists have an opportunity to strengthen their commitment to sound doctrine through a commitment to confessionalism. They should be reminded that when we look back at Baptist history, those churches that rejected confessionalism often drifted away from the faith and lost their gospel witness. By no longer following the pattern of sound words, they conformed to the pattern of the world (Rom. 12:2). If Southern Baptists wish to learn from their past, they will follow the ancient paths of confessionalism and ratify the Law Amendment.

Editor’s Note: This article was excerpted and adapted from an essay published at the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Eikon: A Journal for Biblical Anthropology. It is republished here with permission from CBMW and Jonathan Swan.


  1. The Dissenters (also called Nonconformists) were Protestants in England and Wales who did not conform to the Church of England and thus separated to form their own congregations. ↩︎
  2. The following account of the Salters’ Hall controversy is dependent on the following sources: Anon., An Account of the Late Proceedings of the Dissenting Ministers at Salter’s-Hall, 3rd ed. (London, 1719). Anon., An Authentick Account of Several Things Done and Agreed Upon by the Dissenting Ministers Lately Assembled at Salters-Hall (London, 1719). Michael R. Watts, The Dissenters, vol. 1, From the Reformation to the French Revolution (1978; repr., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 374–376. Jesse F. Owens, “The Salters’ Hall Controversy: Heresy, Subscription, or Both?” in In Essence One, in Persons Three: The Doctrine of the Trinity in Particular Baptist life and thought, 1640s–1840s, eds. Michael A.G. Haykin with Roy M. Paul (West Lorne, Ontario: H&E Academic, 2022), 45–68. ↩︎
  3. Jesse Owens has recently argued that nearly all the General Baptists at Salters’ Hall were orthodox Trinitarians, but merely opposed subscription. Jesse F. Owens, “The Salters’ Hall Controversy: Heresy, Subscription, or Both?” in In Essence One, in Persons Three: The Doctrine of the Trinity in Particular Baptist life and thought, 1640s–1840s, eds. Michael A.G. Haykin with Roy M. Paul (West Lorne, Ontario: H&E Academic, 2022), 45–68. ↩︎
  4. Raymond Brown, The English Baptists of the Eighteenth Century, A History of the English Baptists, vol. 2 (London: Baptist Historical Society, 1986), 22–23. This assessment is consistent with Owens’ more recent treatment of Salters’ Hall: “No matter how well-intentioned the Nonsubscribers at Salters’ Hall were, if they hoped to maintain any sort of theological orthodoxy on the doctrine of the Trinity, their categorical opposition to subscription proved unwise.” Owens, “The Salters’ Hall Controversy,” 68. ↩︎
  5. Denny Burk makes a compelling case that confessionalism within the SBC requires non-contradiction to the BFM. Burk uses the term “subscription” to refer to the formal adoption of the BFM by a church as its official doctrinal statement. This is different from the way this essay has been using “subscription” with reference to Salters’ Hall and Baptists of that era. In that latter case, subscription refers to agreement or consent to a set of doctrinal articles. Denny Burk, “Non-Contradicton (not Subscription) Is the SBC’s Confessional Standard,”, June 21, 2022, accessed, May 21, 2024, ↩︎
  6. Malcolm B. Yarnell III and Steven A. McKinion, “FIRST PERSON: For Baptist confessionalism,” Baptist Press, January 2024, accessed May 13, 2024, ↩︎
  7. This statement should not be understood to mean that each church in fellowship with the SBC must formally adopt the BFM 2000 as its confessional statement. A church does not have to adopt the BFM as its official doctrinal statement to adhere to the words of the BFM. So long as the church’s doctrine is consistent, and not in contradiction to the teaching of the BFM, it should be understood to confessionally align. ↩︎
  8. “Report of the Baptist Faith and Message Study Committee to the Southern Baptist Convention” The Baptist Faith and Message, June 14, 2000, accessed May 13, 2024, ↩︎
  9. Furthermore, General Baptists had previously used a doctrinal statement, A Brief Confession (1660), “as a test of fellowship” within their denomination. As Bass has documented: “Obviously, those who signed the confession were expected to believe the doctrines expressed in it.” Anti-confessionalism was a later development and a departure from earlier General Baptist practice. See Bass, The Caffynite Controversy, 113–124. ↩︎
  10. Kevin McClure, “How Many Female Pastors are in the SBC?” American Reformer, June 10, 2023, accessed May 13, 2024, ↩︎
  • Jonathan Swan

    Jonathan Swan is the Managing Editor of Eikon Journal, a journal on biblical anthropology published by The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.