8 Feb 2009

J. W. McGarvey: What is Valid Baptism?

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Baptism, Church, Grace, J. W. McGarvey, Ministry, Mission, Restoration History, Sectarianism

The very mention of the name “J. W. McGarvey” inspires awe among many descendants of the Stoned-Campbell Movement. His name is synonymous with biblical scholarship among us. He courageously took on the liberals of his day in The Authorship of Deuteronomy. But he is most remembered for his Commentary on Acts. Today he is cited in our intramural conflicts between progressives and conservatives, usually by the “conservatives.” But who was McGarvey? What did he believe? He is rightly remembered for his scholarship, though in many ways biblical scholarship has moved considerably beyond him (revolutions have taken place that he never saw). He is rightly honored as one who can help us understand deeper levels of the biblical text.

He may not, however, if he were alive today fit snugly where some imagine he would. Let me use the issue of baptism to illustrate the point.

In McGarvey’s day it was the rule, not the exception, that immersed believers from Baptist or Methodist churches were welcomed into Stone-Campbell churches without undergoing a rebaptism. This would have covered Alexander Campbell himself. Evangelistic reports from the period frequently highlight how many were “baptized” and then how many have embraced the “plea” to be only Christians. This latter category were folks from other churches that practiced believers baptism.

Periodically some one would raise the question (as Dr. John Thomas did in the 1830s but that is another story for another time) of this practice among “us.” J. W. McGarvey was faced with this question in the American Christian Review in 1862. He asked “What is Valid Immersion?” There are those, McGarvey, admits who are confused on the subject of baptism. Sometimes due to the failure of the preacher they are not fully taught on the matter and believe “error” about the “ordinance.” Does the belief of the error undo the candidate’s obedience? Biblically, McGarvey argued, there are two conditions for the candidate to fulfill:

1) the candidate was commanded to believe [the gospel] and

2) the candidate was commanded to repent.

These were the commands to which God required obedience for valid baptism. A false or incorrect notion about the ordinance does not undo baptism. Why? Because “it belongs to God and not man.” The blessings, or gifts, of baptism are not commands to be obeyed but rather grace that flows from the hand of God. So …

“when the conditions [belief & repentance] are complied with, he will be as good as his word, and it would be most unreasonable to suppose that he would withhold the blessing simply because I do not know that I am entitled to it. A man, therefore, cannot forfeit the blessing by mere ignorance of the promise, unless a knowledge of the promise is found to be a condition of its fulfillment, which certainly will not be assumed by any reader of the New Testament.”

After declaring what constitutes valid baptism … a candidate coming in faith in the gospel and a penitent heart … McGarvey turns to the prevailing practice of the Stoned-Campbell churches of accepting into fellowship immersed Baptists, Methodists and others. In fact, McGarvey presents us with a concrete example …

“[S]uppose a Baptist presents himself for membership with us, and we attempt to decide upon the validity of his immersion. We find that he was a believer [condition #1], and a penitent [condition #2], before he was immersed. He did not make the confession in express terms, but it was because he was not required to so, the preacher having become satisfied of his faith through other evidence. He believed that his sins were pardoned before he was immersed, and said so; but this was a mistake, not an omission of any duty, unless it be the duty of understanding Scripture. But this duty is not peculiarly connected with immersion, and we have seen that its omission cannot invalidate the immersion … it is most unreasonable to suppose that his sins are still unforgiven.”

Since valid baptism consists in fulfilling two conditions (faith & repentance) McGarvey believed restoration churches were completely true to the Bible in the practice of welcoming all immersed believers in Christ as members of God’s family. That is as real Christians. Just to make his point emphatic and clear McGarvey stated …

“If I were to attempt [to rebaptize the candidate], I would be making him repeat a duty which he had already fully performed … We conclude, with all confidence that the brethren have been doing right to receive into fellowship all who have with faith and repentance have been immersed and have since led a reputable Christian life.”

One wonders if McGarvey had published his thoughts in 2009 and not a hundred years ago if he would still be thought as the greatest biblical expositor in our heritage. But from what I can tell, McGarvey’s understanding is in harmony with the Scriptures …

24 Responses to “J. W. McGarvey: What is Valid Baptism?”

  1. Soren Says:

    This post messed me up. Bobby, I used to teach that a retroactive understanding of baptism was insufficient, but I am moving away from that position (although I still prefer that people understand the blessing that they are receiving at the time of immersion). I think I understand where J.W. was coming from. He probably had the right view.

    From a practical standpoint, however, I have seen trouble in churches where non Restoration Movement immersionists are “shaken in” — and these folks eventually rise to leadership positions (or begin to have influence) will still holding a faith-only type of theology.

  2. Soren Says:

    correction: while still holding a faith-only type of theology.

    So at the very least, we need to lovingly teach the way of the Lord more accurately.

  3. johnmarkhicks Says:

    Thanks for this example from McGarvey. As you noted, it was the dominant and pratically universal undestanding within the Stone-Campbell Movement. I believe it was Austin McGary who said taht only two or three people agreed with him on this issue when he started the Firm Foundation. Unfortunately, his position became the dominant view by the late 1940s or earlier.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Thank you Bobby for your passion in setting forth examples of original SCM teaching. To admit they are challenging is an understatement at best. How odd it is to realize and admit that I am in greater agreement with the founders of the SCM then of current ?conservative? thought and teaching.
    Keep up the good work!!!


  5. Chris Says:

    This same J.W. McGarvey interprets I Corinthians 13:10 as “the recorded word.” You posted on this two days ago. (J.W. McGarvey Commentary on I Corinthians, page 132)

  6. Gregory Alan Tidwell Says:


    You are correct about JWMc’s position concerning baptism, but wrong about where he would come out in today’s division among Churches of Christ.

    The “Progressives” have moved far beyond accepting denominational immersion and are embracing the “pious unimmersed” as brethren.

    Further, JWMc was an inerrantist. He would never have fit in with the theology of our more progressive friends.

  7. David H. Willis Says:

    In my early days as a Christian I accepted McGarvey’s view (eventhough I had yet to learn of him). Later I became much more exclusive demanding one undderstand baptism was “for salvation.” Eventually, albeit reluctantly, I saw the error of my ways. Men like Jimmy Allen & Carl Ketcherside influenced me via their writings. Thanks for sharing J.W.’s understanding with us. I agree with Soren that we need to guard our theology. I too have seen doctrinal drift ensue when large numbers of Baptists begin to influence the doctrine of a congregation. (I minister in an area dominated by Southern Baptists). This doesn’t negate the validity of their baptisams, but it should emboldened us to teach sound doctrine all the more.

    Thanks again. I’ll be back.

  8. Michael D. Greene Says:

    Is it not possible that McGarvey is mistaken on this matter, as was Campbell when he responded inappropriately to the Lunenburg Letter? Since when is McGarvey or Campbell the authority? We are indebted to the “pioneers” for the desire to return to “the ancient order of things.” But we search the scriptures to find whether these things are so, not the writings of the restoration preachers. I am sure that if I searched just a little while, I would find something that McGarvey wrote that the progressives like yourself would not agree with. How would that affect the use of McGarvey as an authority?
    One more thing… you need to do a little better on your proof reading (not that I am a perfect proof reader for there may be an error in this comment). Twice in the article you refered to the “stoned-campbell” movement. I don’t see the humor in the moniker you have chosen for yourself, but I surely do not see any humor or necessity in applying it to the Restoration Movement as a whole. I am hoping that was an oversight.

  9. kingdomseeking Says:

    Whatever gave anyone the impression that B.V. was basing his conclusions on what McGarvey or Campbell said… just because he shows how conclusions some are now drawing, including himself, are not entirely new to the Restoration Movement? It takes a very be leap to reach the conclusion that he or anyone else has replaced Christ and the scripture with Campbell and McGarvey as the authority for faith.

    Grace and peace,


  10. Royce Ogle Says:

    Ouch! Some folk are a bit up tight huh?

    Gregory Allen Tidwell,your statement that “progressives” “are embracing the “pious unimmersed” as brethren”. Are you talking about coC progressives? If so can you give an example of that?

    I’m not saying it doesn’t happen but if so it’s news to me.


  11. kingdomseeking Says:

    I am in full agreement that we want leaders of the local church to embrace the core doctrines and values of the gospel. This does require a certain amount of “guardianship” (though I prefer the word “stewardship”) with the faith we have been handed. My fear is that if we become to protective of our faith, understood through the lens of our restoration history, we will become unopen to new insights that only someone who thelogical/eccesiological historical lens is different than ours can offer.

    A Christian from a Baptist Church may not share agreement with all the same reasons for baptism that we believe, but that does not mean they have a different faith from us. Our faith is not in a doctrinal system (the historical lens we have been passed on) but is in the Incarnate God we call Jesus, the Messiah. Rather than positioning ourselves as “right” and others as “wrong”, we should adopt the more humble position of co-sojourners. Such a position would allow us to hear each other, learn from each other, and ultimately be transformed by God as God uses us in community led by the Spirit.

    A protective stance to easily lends to a defensive posture that only help to futhur polarize and divide rather than unity. We have seen this in Christian history as well as secular political history. In one congregation I served with, we had members who backgrounds included the Independent Christian Church, International Churches of Christ, Mennonite Church USA, and a Bible/Community Church. I also was privledged by God to participate in a local pastor’s group that was made up of other pastor’s seeking non-denominational Christianity (i.e., Bible Churches, Community Churches, etc…). I am better and more faithful Christian for both experiences.

    Grace and peace,


  12. kingdomseeking Says:


    I would actually embrace unimmersed believers as Christians in certain situations. I know many believers in Jesus, who like us, are what I call “confessionally committed” to Jesus and the good news of the kingdom. That is they believe Jesus is the crucified and resurrected Lord and Savior and have committed their life to him. They too have been baptized only their understanding of baptism is not immersion. My hope would be to teach them that baptism was intended to be immersion in water (which I believe is the biblical form) in hopes of leading them to be immersed but they cannot obey something they do not believe is right. I don’t believe their salvation is dependent upon whether they can intellectually get the doctrine of baptism figured out correctly (and subsequently practiced correctly). It it is, then we are all doomed because we all fall short at some point when it comes to having the right intellectual understanding.

    The unimmerse believer in Jesus that I cannot accept is the one (someone I just met last week) who has never been baptized (in any form) and does not plan on ever being baptized because in his view, it is unimportant. I believe this is a rebellious stance before God. I also believe there is a difference between a humble but mistaken stance before God (where we all find ourselves at some point) and a rebellious stance before God.

    Any ways, I won’t take time to defend the claim I am making since it would take a lot more space than a brief comment but I do believe I can make a biblical case for the above claim (in other words, I have not come to my conclusions apart from scripture). Now whether others would agree is another issue.

    Grace and peace,


  13. Matthew Says:

    I love these studies into the history. Thank you for this work.

  14. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Thanks to everyone for good comments and in such a Christian manner.

    Greg, Delighted to have your comments here. I think you paint with a large brush actually on the “inerrancy” thing. I know plenty of so called progressives that believe in inerrancy. Rubel is probably chief among them. The “liberals” of McGarvey’s day (E.S. Ames, etc) are nothing like the so called “liberals” of today. McGarvey is on record, in the Gospel Advocate, of saying that even immersion is not absolutely essential to salvation. He was concerned about preachers saying the unimmersed were necessarily lost … he said that. Did he deny inerrancy when he did? But he believed in baptism and taught it … So do I.

    David, welcome to my corner of cyberspace. I think all teachers need more training. Some of the worst theology, perhaps, is not from a former Baptist but from within our own ranks. For instance the denial of personal indwelling Spirit (or the Spirit dwells only through the written word) is a most dangerous, but widely accepted, teaching. So I share your concern that we all delve deeper into the riches of God’s word and devote ourselves to prayer more fully.

    Michael, also delighted to have you here. It has been some time sense we have corresponded. I fail to see how anyone cited McGarvey or anyone else as an inspired authority. In my view that is simply a diversion. Your own writings function in the same capacity as McGarvey’s … but you (nor I) are inspired. However it would be the height of arrogance to think we could not learn from McGarvey (or anyone else). When I take what McGarvey claimed was necessary for biblical baptism (faith & repentance) and look at the NT I have to conclude that he was and is correct. Understanding ONE particular blessing is never made a condition of biblical baptism. See also my recent post on JAMES A. HARDING & THE DESIGN OF BAPTISM. I think we can in fact study Scripture alongside these men just as if they were at a table talking to us … without investing them with inspiration. I have learned from you, and Greg, and John Mark and many others … alive and dead.

    Bobby Valentine

  15. Wade Tannehill Says:

    Excellent post. I learned something about McGarvey.

  16. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Sweet. Thank you for this post, Bobby. I was glad to get to hear what McGarvey said on this question.

  17. Anonymous Says:

    So, Bobby… about Greg’s comment.

    I do seem to agree with Greg that while JW’s view of baptism would be a point of contention among the “conservative” side, there are many points where JW would not at all want to associate with the “other” side.

    What think ye?


  18. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    On what issues would they be? If J. W. McGarvey were alive today he would not be allowed to speak at the MSOP lectureship or the FHU lectureship …

    Look at the “issues” of the 19th century that were the point of contention …

    1) One Man “pastor” system (we called it the “located preacher” issue)
    2) The use of modern translations and a critical Greek text (McGarvey was a believer in Westcott & Hort) … this would exclude him from Robert Taylor’s tribe
    3) The Missionary Society. JWM was a member of the ACMS until he died. He actually led two such societies (the Kentucky Christian Education Society and the Kentucky Christian Missionary Society)
    4) McGarvey never identified himself with (what he believed to be) more “conservative” views expressed in the Firm Foundation and even the Gospel Advocate. He rejected the Rebaptist position outright. He did not believe that one’s lack of immersion meant such a person was necessarily lost.


    5) Though JWM thought instrumental music was unauthorized he did not make it a test of fellowship. Even when he chose to leave Broadway Christian Church in 1902 he publicly declared that he would not break fellowship over the issue …

    So where would he fit in with the Gospel Advocate today?

    Bobby Valentine

  19. Royce Ogle Says:


    I am with you. My point was that I know of no so called “progressive” coC that accepts as Christians people who have not been baptised in the conventional (and I belive too in immersion) way.

    I have an early morning meeting once a week with a few guys who are mostly Methodists, one Baptist, one Pentecostal, and me the only coC person. I have found these men to be devoted followers of Jesus. Two of them had attended Methodist churches for many, many years and both say they were born again in their late 50’s, about 10 years ago.


  20. Joel Stephen Williams Says:

    Thanks for the well-written, logical post on J.W.M. and baptism.

    If someone is required to have the correct understanding of eis and “remission of sins” to make one’s baptism valid, does not this make salvation dependent on correct knowledge? Would this be salvation by works (the intellectual achievements of an individual)?

    A problem for those who hold to the alternative view, for which I have never heard a (in my opinion) sufficient answer is the diversity of stances on the “gift of the Holy Spirit.” Since reception of the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit (and I thereby tell you my view) is a result or consequence of baptism just as “remission of sins” also is, must one have a correct understanding of this “gift of the Holy Spirit” and believe that the correct result occurred at the time of one’s baptism to make one’s baptism valid?

    I remember a Bible study with a lady back in the early 1980s. She was attending where I was preaching and she wanted to become a member. I studied with her and in the process found out that she had already been immersed three times — by the Baptists, the Church of God and the Nazarenes, if I remember correctly. She was so sweet and tender of heart. If I told her she needed to be immersed a fourth time, she would have done it in an instant. When she asked me if she needed to be baptized again, I smiled and said, “I think you have already been baptized enough.”

    Since about 1972 when I read the same view of brother McGarvey from David Lipscomb, I have always accepted baptized believers into my fellowship. Many of the elders in many of the churches with which I have worked through the years have gone along with me in this view.

    If you have note read it, the powerful evangelist Jimmy Allen’s book on Rebaptism is worth a look. Also, J.M.H.’s blog:

    Link to JMH

  21. Clyde Says:

    Thanks Bobby–I always appreciate you sharing your study. This has been an important topic to explore for me in the last several years, beginning with the rejection by the elders I was working with at the time of two people I was studying with. One had been immersed in the CofC and had left it to attend a Baptist church with his wife. She had been immersed at 14 in the Baptist church and even believed that baptism remits sins, although she said she wasn’t clear on that at the time. Still, after I had studied with them the elders refused to move on it for more than 6 months. Meanwhile, while they were waiting for an answer, numerous couples were being announced as members. Finally the couple and their children gave up on getting any answer from the elders and quit coming altogether. It was so, so sad, and very discouraging.

    To me it illustrates the importance of your post. We need to get churches back in touch with the perspectives of McGarvey, Lipscomb, Campbell, etc.–and ultimately, with the biblical text. You always take pains to do both and I appreciate that. Keep it up.

  22. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Clyde I am sorry to hear your story. Sectarianism knows no boundaries. Keep studying with your Shepherds though. If you can find Jimmy Allen’s book Re-Baptism that has been referred to by a few others snatch it up. But if you need some more resources … send me an email and I will forward you some.


  23. preacherman Says:

    I want to thank you for this wonderful post that was linked to my thoughts on baptism. It is always interesting to see others views on this subject.

  24. Clyde Says:

    I was at a different church in another state then, a few years back. But Allen’s book was very helpful at that point, and I also got into the whole McGary Vs. Lipscomb tussle and have tried to read everything I can on that since. I’m still trying to find more on Campbell’s battle with it in his day.

    I did share the fruits of my study with that eldership and part of it with the church, but my suspicion is that the eldership was deadlocked and afraid to make a move for fear of criticism from sectarian members. Or, maybe they were battling sectarianism within the elder-group. It never became clear. It didn’t make any sense at all.

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