As promised last week, here is an article about Walter Scott by Enos E. Dowling, who was then serving as librarian of the School of Religion at Butler University in Indianapolis. This article is from January 27, 1945.
Dowling begins the article by describing what some call “the most important sermon ever delivered on American soil.”
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Restorer of Gospel Evangelism
Walter Scott Logically Comes First in a Series on ‘Great Evangelists of the Restoration Movement’
By Enos E. Dowling
January 27, 1945
Every seat in the meetinghouse of the Baptist church was filled. Many stood around the sides and at the back of the auditorium. The overflow pushed and crowded about the door. The preacher was about middle height, with black hair and piercing black eyes. As he read from the Word of God the people listened attentively: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
This was the preacher’s favorite theme. He had given it long and prayerful study. He presented the Messiahship of Jesus as the central truth of the Christian system around which all other truths revolved. Belief in this fact would lead one to complete surrender and loving obedience to the Christ. He quoted the Great Commission to show how Christ purposed for His work to be carried out. He then called attention to the events of Pentecost. Peter’s message had proved to his hearers that this Jesus whom they had crucified was the Christ, and that they had killed the Messiah for whom they had waited so long. When the conscience-stricken group grasped the truth and the significance of what Peter had said, they cried out, “What shall we do?” In reply, Peter, to whom Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom (which the preacher set forth as meaning the terms or conditions on which the sinner may come to God), said: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” The preacher insisted that the conditions laid down by inspiration through Peter on that day remained unchanged, and that any individual willing to accept Christ on the same basis would be acceptable to God.
“His discourse was long, but his hearers marked not the flight of time; the Baptists forgot, in admiration of its Scriptural beauty and simplicity, that it was contrary to much in their own teaching and practice; some of them who had been, in a measure, enlightened before, rejoiced in the truth the moment they perceived it; and to others, who had been long perplexed by the difficulties and contradictions of the discordant views of the day, it was the light to weary travelers long benighted and lost” [William Baxter, Life of Elder Walter Scott, p. 105].
William Amend arrived at the church just in time to hear the closing remarks of the preacher and his final summary of the sermon. Mr. Amend had vowed that if he ever heard a preacher give the same answer to inquiring sinners that Peter did on the day of Pentecost he would accept it immediately. At the invitation of the preacher for all to accept Christ on the basis which had been presented, Mr. Amend pushed his way to the front to confess his faith in Jesus as the Christ, and to be baptized for the remission of his sins.
The preacher was Walter Scott; the place was New Lisbon, O.; the time, a Sunday in November 1827. This was no special occasion—just a sermon from the newly appointed evangelist of the Mahoning Baptist Association. However, the occasion has become of prime importance because of the events which took place there on that day. This sermon has been judged the most important sermon ever delivered on American soil. It began an era of evangelism which swept the land, and which, though lagging at times, continues until this day. The sane and simple evangelism of the apostolic age was being restored to its rightful place in the work of the church.
Mr. Scott had come to America from his homeland of Scotland some nine years before. He was educated in Edinburgh with a view of entering the ministry of the Presbyterian church. Arriving at Pittsburgh, he became assistant to Mr. George Forrester in his academy. He soon learned that Mr. Forrester was a very religious man. He took the Bible alone as his rule of faith and practice and tested all matters religious by that standard. Together, Mr. Forrester and Mr. Scott studied the Word in search of the truth. It was not long until Scott was immersed by Mr. Forrester and took fellowship with the small congregation with which he ministered.
Soon after, Mr. Scott met Alexander and Thomas Campbell and formed a friendship which lasted through life. He attended the meeting of the Mahoning Baptist Association in 1826. At the insistence of Alexander Campbell he attended the meeting in 1827. The reports of the churches composing the Association for the year prior to the meeting were as discouraging as those of previous years. Fifteen churches reported thirty-four baptisms. Thinking that an evangelist for the Association might help in improving this condition, a committee was appointed to recommend some one for an evangelist. Walter Scott was suggested for the position. After some consideration he yielded to the judgment of his friends and accepted.
The previous years Scott had spent in a careful study of the Word. Out of this study had come his conviction that the Messiahship of Jesus was the basic truth of the Christian religion, and that all other truths centered around or stemmed from this one. His biographer writes:
Midnight often found him engaged in the study of the sacred volume; and he made a solemn vow to God, that if he, for Christ’s sake, would grant him just and comprehensive views of his religion he would subordinate all his present and future attainments to the glory of His Son and His religion. Seldom was ever [a] more solemn promise made; seldom was one ever better kept than this; for the theme which then took possession of his thoughts was ever uppermost, was ever after his chief delight; and no one certainly ever devoted a life so earnestly and persistently to the elaboration and illustration of a single truth as he did, to what he was wont in after years to call the “Golden Oracle”—that Jesus is the Christ [Baxter, Life of Elder Walter Scott, p. 61].
This truth became the center of all his teaching and his preaching. Previously, men had been more or less bound by expressions in creeds and formulas. With Scott, Christ, rather than any such expressions, became the only foundation for faith. This focused all revelation upon a Person—an historical Person—and called attention to the fact that Christianity was an historical religion having a factual basis. This eliminated all difficulties for Scott. He was convinced that if any person could be persuaded that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, then all other matters could be accepted because of their relationship to Him. His teachings would be true because the Messiah gave them and He could only speak truth. Miracles offered no barrier to faith; for if Jesus were the Christ, then miracles could be performed. Scott “had climbed the pinnacle of the Christian revelation and from its height was able to overlook the larger areas of divine truth and see them in their proper relationships. Situating himself thus at the center, he was able to extend his thinking along any of the radii leading to the circumference of God’s eternal revelation” [from the papers of H.J. Wilson]. In our judgment, this was probably Scott’s most important discovery and emphasis, for from it stems all of his other pronouncements of truth.
Scott brought no preconceived ideas of evangelism into his new work. Faced with this new task he turned first to a thorough study and investigation of the Word to determine what Christ’s evangelists did in the apostolic age. This record he found in the Book of Acts. Since they were guided in their work by the Christ, Scott’s one desire became the reproduction of their message and their method.
His analytic mind soon divided the gospel into (1) facts to be believed, (2) commands to be obeyed, and (3) promises to be enjoyed. This is what he later called the “Gospel Restored.” It is many times spoken of as Scott’s “five finger exercise”—faith, repentance, baptism, remission of sins, gift of the Holy Spirit. Conversion thus became a simple and understandable process as far as man’s part was concerned. “Regeneration thus became a moral and spiritual process beginning with the reception of truth by the ear, the cherishing of it in the heart, leading to repentance, and the overt expression of it in open confession and, above all, in the solemn pledge of baptism. The latter thus became not in itself the new birth, but rather the final culmination of a process every step of which constituted a part of true regeneration” [F.D. Kershner, “Stars,” Christian Standard, 1940, p. 451].
So Scott went out to evangelize. He devised no new plan, but simply accepted that already given in the New Testament. He was convinced that it was workable—for Christ had given it, and if Christ had given it, it was right. He had no theological system to bolster, no theories or philosophies to present; he simply preached Christ.
Scott’s procedure was so novel and new that at first folk failed to respond; they sat and wondered if these things could be true. This preaching was different from the emotional orgies which had been the stock in trade of evangelists. Scott appealed to the mind as well as the heart. Beginning with the historic message at New Lisbon, however, the movement gained momentum rapidly, and was soon sweeping the country. Scott encountered opposition, but he was far too busy preaching Christ and urging men to accept Him, to stop to argue.
No writer paints a bright picture of the success of the Restoration movement prior to 1827, when Walter Scott took over as evangelist of the Mahoning Association. The Campbells had been able to “convince their hearers, they could edify them, they could give them a solid foundation for their faith, but they could not move them to action” [Kershner, “Stars,” Christian Standard]. Walter Scott supplied the restored gospel and evangelism which swept the Mahoning Association out of existence, brought many other churches into line with the growing movement, and resulted in almost a thousand conversions the first year of his efforts. He created a new emphasis and a new type of evangelism for America. However, it was as old as the gospel itself. This was a practical demonstration of the fact that the gospel of A.D. 33 was the gospel for A.D. 1827 and ever after. Scott’s evangelism has been characterized as “non-theological, rational, ethical and spiritual” [D.E. Walker, Adventuring for Christian Unity, p. 30].
The biographer of Walter Scott describes the results of his first year as an evangelist in the following terms:
A great and delightful change had taken place—the number of converts far exceeded that of the entire membership of the Association at the beginning of the year when Scott entered upon his labors; some of the churches had doubled their numbers; new churches had been formed; the converts were distinguished by unusual zeal and activity . . . a new life had been infused into the churches, and, as a consequence, great joy prevailed . . . [Walker, Adventuring for Christian Unity, p. 188].
It has been said that “the opening decades of the nineteenth century witnessed the most considerable and splendid advance made by Christianity since the first century.” Eternity alone will tell how much of this advance was due to the preaching and influence of Walter Scott.
The work of Scott affords a practical demonstration of the workability of Christ’s program in any age. Not only will individuals be won from the world to follow Christ under a Scriptural, aggressive evangelistic program, but the church will take on new life, and zeal and activity will be manifested. Christ’s program has not been abrogated. He still says “Go! Tell!”
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Enos E. Dowling, the writer of this article, served as head librarian at Butler School of Religion from 1939 to 1951. He also served many churches in southern and central Indiana—including Traders Point Christian Church, Indianapolis—before becoming dean at Lincoln (Ill.) Christian College and Seminary. He died in 1997 at age 92.
Mr. Dowling collected more than 2,000 rare hymnals in his lifetime. Read more about Dowling’s life and hymnal collection at this Lincoln Christian University library site.
Jim Nieman, managing editor, Christian Standard