Rueben Ross: Shifting Away from Calvinism

Rueben Ross: Shifting Away from Calvinism in the early 1800s

 By Ron F. Hale

Reuben Ross was born of poor but pious parents. He came into this world nearing the birth of our nation, born in North Carolina, May 8, 1776.

Reuben was the youngest of six brothers of Scottish descent; three of the Ross boys became preachers.

The family was rich in hopes and dreams. These dreams drove them westward through the Carolinas, over the Smokies, and into Tennessee and Kentucky.

Under a shade tree in Montgomery County, Tennessee, Reuben Ross preached his first sermon to a small group of people.  Years later, Dr. J.M. Pendleton would describe Pastor Reuben Ross in this manner:

“There was in the expression of his eyes and the features of his face a union of intelligence, gentleness, solemnity, greatness, majesty … his sermons were combined exposition, argument, and exhortation.”

This article seeks to capture a defining moment in the life and ministry of Reuben Ross as he pastored in the Red River Baptist Association. This Baptist Association started on April 15, 1807, with 12 congregations; three were in Tennessee and the majority in Kentucky, according to John H. Spencer’s book A History of Kentucky Baptists: From 1700 to 1885.

Pastor Ross came to the Association believing in “limited atonement” (Christ died for the elect only) for that was the doctrine of most Regular Baptists back in North Carolina.  Preaching was focused on edifying and encouraging God’s people, not aimed at converting sinners. Calvinistic doctrine was the majority view of most of the Red River pastors. Pastor Reuben Ross became the most prominent and popular preacher in the association over time.

His rising star faded as Ross developed disturbing doubts concerning certain points of his Calvinistic doctrine. W. Fred Kendall writes about it in A History of the Tennessee Baptist Convention (1974), as other preachers in the Association grew troubled by Ross’s new beliefs:

They believed in particular and unconditional election and reprobation, that Christ died for the elect only, and that not one of the elect would ever be lost, or one of the non-elect ever be saved. That the Almighty, who knows the end from the beginning, looking down, as it were, upon the generations of men yet unborn, without the least regard to character, or conduct, had elected or selected one here and another there to be saved and had passed all others by as vessels fitted to destruction.

Things came to a head after Ross preached a funeral sermon in 1817 declaring his new non-Calvinist beliefs, such as:

  • Christ’s death has made an atonement sufficient for the sins of the whole world and all can freely receive.
  • The Word of God and the Holy Spirit are given to influence men to believe in Christ and man has the free agency and fearful responsibility of deciding whether he will serve God or not.
  • Yielding to the Holy Spirit we shall be pardoned and be saved. If not, we shall be lost. If we are lost, it will be our own fault. If we are saved, it will be on account of the goodness and mercy of God and not for any merit in us.

Calvinist pastors in the Association reacted quickly, as shared in Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee, for they called a meeting and elected Elder Sugg Fort to confront and confer with Rueben Ross. The purpose was to convert Pastor Ross back to strict Calvinism.

Just the opposite happened! As doctrines dueled, Elder Fort became convinced that Reuben Ross was correct and adopted his non-Calvinistic beliefs. This startling news and Ross’s non-Calvinist beliefs spread swiftly among the churches gaining wide acceptance.

Later, another group of Calvinist pastors met charging Reuben Ross of preaching doctrines opposed to the “Abstracts of Principles.” Since the Abstract of Principles were not adopted by The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary until 1858, the reference must be an earlier confession. Several Regular Baptist Association’s in North Carolina, such as the Kehukee Baptist Association, had adopted confessions by such name before 1800. Ross informed them that he would not be judged by the Abstracts but only the Bible. The trial was never arranged with the doctrinal differences intensifying.

At last, on October 28, 1825, Pastor Ross and others withdrew from Red River Association forming the Bethel Baptist Association with eight churches, and a total membership of 700 people. By 1851, the Bethel Association had grown to sixty-two congregations and more than seven thousand members. This was phenomenal growth!

In his book, W. Fred Kendall shares, “The doctrinal position of Reuben Ross was that of most of the missionary Baptists of Tennessee. The battle was gradually won over hyper-Calvinism and the anti-evangelistic and anti-missionary movement which placed such restraints on the efforts to win the lost to Christ.”

Reuben Ross represents many Baptist preachers in the early-to-mid 19th-century, thereby dispelling the claim that “all” Baptists in the South were Calvinists as the Southern Baptist Convention came into being in 1845.   Their move away from strict Calvinism can be seen in the vast acceptance of the New Hampshire Baptist Confession of 1833; E.Y. Mullins used this document as a guide for the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message for Southern Baptists. Also, the second confession adopted by the Sandy Creek Baptist Association in 1845 was clearly a move away from stricter Calvinism that characterized the Charleston tradition.

© Ron F. Hale, February 1, 2018 (posted by permission)











12 thoughts on “Rueben Ross: Shifting Away from Calvinism

  1. What a great depiction of what occurred throughout the world, as godly, biblically astute men considered and found Calvinism wanting. This is supported by the evolution of Christianity worldwide, with Calvinism losing favor and Arminian or non-Calvinist theology becoming the predominant belief system. It is only due to a fairly recent push to reinvent and increase acceptance for Calvinism that the ancient battles were rejoined. What Dr. Flowers does so well is reveal the necessary, essential assertions that make up the ugly underbelly of Calvinism, which its new evangelists seek to hide behind clever doublespeak and euphemism, rather than risk having their genuine theology firmly rejected once again.

  2. Dear Les, I appreciate your posts on Extreme – Hyper – New Calvinism. But I’d really like to know why you sense the need to keep pounding the topic. Is it because there’s a rise in the extreme? And should we who are not of the Calvinistic persuasion warn those who are, and if so what is the best way. I am sincere. My own daughter was indoctrinated to the extreme and bought into it and I only found out (she told me) in 2017. I am presently in a Bible Study Fellowship Virtual study on Romans. We are in chapter 9 and find a oneness with the teaching.

    I hope you can respond. I am praying about when to talk to my daughter next. I’d thought about forwarding this post, but she would, I am confident, take it as an affront.

    I am in Christ Vernona Hearne


  3. Well put TSOO. The Calvinists I know always want to position their Calvinism as something that they came to accept only when they “matured” and came to a realization of what scripture “really” teaches. But when questioned even slightly about the underbelly of Calvinism and it numerous problems and contradictions, I find that most of them only know and repeat the phrases and clever euphemisms they’ve heard their favorite Calvinist preacher or author teach and have spent no to very little time thinking through the beliefs of Calvinism. And of course most of what they think an Arminian or Traditionalist believes is almost all “False News” they heard from their favorite Calvinist preacher or author.
    It was when I decided to first dive into scripture alone and see what scripture taught with no pre-conceptions that I first began to see clearly that scripture did not teach the concepts of Calvinism. Then through reading many books and deep study into both sides did I come to an even deeper understanding of Calvinism and it’s many contradictions, illogical thinking, and systematic that could not be supported by scripture as well as an understanding of how the Traditionalist/Arminian view synergizes with what scripture teaches about how God relates to man and how men come to be saved. Of course, this website and the many excellent articles by Leighton and deep discussions that follow have been a tremendous learning resource.
    I sense that this is common to most of those on this website as it was to me and to Reuben Ross. As we’ve poured through scripture and read and thought through our soteriology thoroughly we “shifted away” from Calvinism to what we believe scripture truly teaches.

    1. Andyb2015, sounds very similar to my own experience, although I studied Calvinism in a manner that I thought was ‘thorough’ before spending a decade or so in a Calvinist church. Only later did I discover that the vast majority of the reading material I pulled up online – and I had over a thousand printed pages in my files, let alone what I did not print – set out a false dichotomy, insisting on either Calvinism, or Arminianism. I did not find that either alternative matched up with what I knew of scripture, and the Arminian view was so strawmanned I was afraid to touch it. The second time around, like you, I ditched all preconceived notions and just turned to God and scripture, from whence I originally came. I am still astounded as I read through scripture at how it so glaringly contradicts Calvinism. I find myself scratching my head, wondering how I even read my bible those 12 years and overlooked these contradictions. Actually, I did frequently see them, but was persuaded to not trust my own mind and to reinterpret all through Calvinism’s lens. It sure was challenging, however, to have to do gymnastics with every passage to make it ‘work’. 🙂 I am rejoicing in studying scripture once again with an open mind, a receptive heart and an openness to the teaching and leading of the Holy Spirit.

  4. For those interested in reading more about Ross and the formation of the Bethel Association –

    Here’s an interesting excerpt providing some theological reasoning for their rejection of limited atonement –

    The 1836 minutes concluded with a circular letter by Elder Anderson on the atonement, in which he wrote:
    [Limited atonement] reduces the atonement to the penuriusness of pecuniary transaction, and presents the god of love under the character of a narrow minded calculator, demanding for our surety the utmost farthing, determined to bestow no blessing for which he has not received the full compensation … yet God commands every man, every where, to repent. The repentance of any man will not be available except through an atonement for that man, therefore, a call from God to every man must be founded on an atonement for every man in his own person. (40)

      1. Thanks, Ron! Looks to me like there are influential guys like Leighton and Reuben in every generation… but we probably don’t hear about them if their stories get lost in the choices of popular history. My own philosophy of Christian history is that there has been nothing new under the sun since the time of the apostles, and that we would probably find Christ’s building of His church through the centuries in less popular history writing, like that article about Reuben Ross.

  5. Wow! That was a wonderful article!!
    While I was reading it, I was envisioning the sweet love of Jesus walking with brother Reuben Ross. And the tender love of a Father watching over him and touching his heart.

    It takes courage to leave the herd mentality.
    It takes strong personal integrity and a love for the truth, to not be ensnared in conformity.
    Many men do not have such courage or integrity.

    A loving God blessed and deeply affected Rueben Ross.
    May those who follow in his foot-steps likewise prosper – as they run the race set before them.

    Now may the God of peace who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood – may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. – Hebrews 13:20

  6. I never learned much about Jesus being God, I just accepted it until a Jehovah Witness challenged me. We had many encounters and I never convinced him of anything. He was staunch and would not budge. But God’s principle was at work….Gen 50:20  But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. The more the JW pressed his case to diminish Jesus to a creature, the more research I did to refute him and was rewarded with overflowing knowledge on the issue…all from Scripture. My faith became rock solid and any cult coming to my door was easily handled. Why do I say all of this? Because I see the same essence of argument here with the Bible vs Calvinism. As I refute Calvinism, I see God using its arguments for good in that it causes me to be a Berean…Act 17:11  These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. I see Calvinism, depending upon its degree as God sees the churches in Revelation, stressing their good points and accusing them of their faults. That’s why we see a Spurgeon being the prince of preachers, because even though he is touted as being this big time Calvinist, he doesn’t dwell much on Calvinism, and if he does, even he has to pass the Berean test. In summary..1Th 5:21  Prove all things; hold fast that which is good….His word is truth…John 17:17

    1. Wonderful post Richard!
      A very sincere and mature approach.

      I suspect this also means you realize the tactics deployed by both groups are similar.

      And discovering that is quite enlightening! :-]

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