Baptists of the nineteenth century, the populace, rank-and-file members of the churches, believed in the perpetuity of the church. They believed there were always New Testament churches from the time of Christ up until their day. That was based on biblical presuppositions and taught in their assemblies by their pastors. They read their own Bibles and saw the same. The Southern Baptist Convention was started in 1845 and that's what people in those churches believed. Then the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) was started in Greenville, SC in 1859, closed almost immediately because of the Civil War, and then reopened in 1865.
For the 1869-1870 school year at SBTS, Crawford Howell Toy, a graduate of the University of Berlin in 1868, became a professor. Toy brought liberalism into the SBTS and the Southern Baptist Convention, influenced by European higher criticism of the Bible and scientific advancement and shaped by the historical-critical method of studying scripture popularized in Europe by Julius Wellhausen. Toy left SBTS for Harvard in 1879, ending as a Unitarian.
In 1872, another recent graduate of the University of Berlin, William Heth Whitsitt joined the faculty as a professor in ecclesiastical history. His first year, he was roommate with Toy, and there was almost no one for whom Whitsitt held more admiration. Whitsitt had taken the theological method of Germany, which was to apply the scientific method to the interpretation of history. In 1880, Whitsitt took a trip to Great Britain in which he formulated the view that today is called English Separatism. In his time there, he met with C. H. Spurgeon and writes about the conversation in a letter:
He was very charming and very interesting, but does not think much of my notions about Baptist history. We locked horns pretty much. I am not afraid of him anymore.
The Whitsitt view was not the rank and file view of Baptist history. It wasn't the C. H. Spurgeon view of Baptist history. In my opinion, Whitsitt suffered what I've noticed from a lot of men through the years who are in places of academia -- they think they must make their mark in the world with some new discovery. By doing so, they show themselves to be deep and scholarly and independent in thought. Through his "scientific research," Whitsitt determined that baptism by immersion had been lost among the Anabaptists until 1641, introducing this as the valid teaching on the subject. In essence, according to Whitsitt, there had been a total apostasy in the matter of scriptural baptism to the extent that no authoritative baptism any longer existed.
New Testament churches didn't accept Whitsitt's findings. When Whitsitt became the president of the SBTS in 1895, there was an uproar from the grassroots and in order to preserve the seminary, Whitsitt resigned in 1899. Today revisionist historians chalk up his resignation to the forces of Landmark ecclesiology in the Southern Baptist Convention. This didn't occur in a corner. Almost every Bible-believing Baptist rejected Whitsitt's view at the time. Many works were written in refutation and they weren't written by just the typical names quoted -- Pendleton, Graves, and Dayton. Whitsitt's was a two book approach. Baptists, based primarily on biblical presuppositions, believed that baptism by immersion for believers had been handed down from generation to generations of believers. Whitsitt's position was that this could not be accepted without the unequivocal proof of extra-scriptural documentation. This undermined the faith of Christians in their New Testament assemblies.
Whitsitt himself was a strong supporter of ecumenism. It wasn't unusual for him to speak in the congregations of other denominations. He liked it. He wanted this unity. He had motive for looking for something to dump the apple cart of Baptist baptism for the acceptance of alien baptism. When Toy went to Harvard, that didn't hinder his relationship with Whitsitt. These two were of similar mindsets.
It is not untypical today for men on the one hand to trumpet sola scriptura, but on the other hand expect extra-scriptural evidence to back up what the Bible prophesies will occur. In 2 Chronicles 13, we read an unexpected defense of Abijah, the king of Judah, for a war against Jeroboam in the northern kingdom. Despite his own personal ungodliness, Abijah depends on the biblical teaching of worship in the law for his victory over Jeroboam. And that was a winning argument. God did in fact deliver victory to the massively outnumbered and surrounded army of the south over her northern adversary. Abijah's expectations for the future were presuppositional, and, therefore, true.
The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. God didn't promise to preserve history. Whatever Whitsitt could find was not the final word on the perpetuity and authority of New Testament churches and baptism. In the many answers to Whitsitt's progressive declaration found in preserved and archived letters, papers, pamphlets, and books, again most not written by those labeled "Landmarkers," we read other "evidence," but most of all a dependence on the promises of God, the contents of the one book.
You can't be sola scriptura and two book in your approach, but this is so conveniently characteristic of so many even in fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism. I'm pointing it out here in church history. Baptist perpetuity was the position, the only position. If these were true churches and true Christians, how could they all be wrong only to be corrected by a man who had an axe to grind? This doesn't ring of the Holy Spirit's work. This clashes with a rejection of total apostasy.
Men have taken off on Whitsitt's work, revising almost an entire century of Baptist history in American and church history in general, by depending on the second book. They mock their opponents as fideists. This has supported an agenda. It supports a larger evangelicalism and fundamentalism. It sets aside differences for a bigger tent with an idea that there is even greater influence. And then it's pro-intellectual. It is operating like the big boys in academics. Actually, it's elitist and even more, it's not true. God is not pleased, because without faith it is impossible to please Him.