Who wrote the letter? Baptist doctrine easily recognized in Kentucky experiment

By Ben Stratton

Published: July 1, 2020

William Dudley Nowlin was one of the greatest "jack-of-all-trades" among Kentucky Baptists. While he was a successful pastor (he led the state in Sunday School and worship attendance during his tenure at Third Baptist Church in Owensboro), he was also an outstanding preacher, newspaper editor, historian, accomplished author and denominational leader at the association, state and national level. Whether from the pulpit or the printed page, Nowlin had a knack for communicating biblical truth.

Ben Stratton

One example of this comes from his book Fundamentals of the Faith, published by the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board in 1922.

From 1893-1895, Nowlin pastored the First Baptist Church of Hickman, on the Mississippi River in far west Kentucky. As he was preparing a sermon on Jude 3, he began to ask himself some questions about "the faith" mentioned in this verse.

"Has this faith been kept? Is this faith in the world today? If so, who has it? How can the New Testament faith be identified?"

To determine the answer to these questions, Nowlin wrote a fictional letter to himself:

My Dear Brother Nowlin:

Our church, being assembled with one accord, decided to send our brethren, T.M. Jackson and J.H. Jones — men who have hazarded their lives for the cause of Christ — to Morley to preach unto them the things recorded in the Word of God.

Since they left us, no church has communicated with them concerning giving and receiving but ours. But we have sent twice unto their necessities by the hands of our agent, Brother William Smith. We are rejoiced to learn that they have made many disciples and buried them with Christ in baptism.

But we regret to tell you that the first time they met to observe the Lord's Supper, one brother was found to be guilty of unbecoming conduct and not in fellowship with the body. The church, therefore, excluded him by the majority vote, after which the one body observed the Supper.

We rejoice greatly in God, knowing that He is able to keep that which we have committeed unto Him, and that there is no power in heaven or earth able to separate us from the love of God, but that we are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed at the last time.

Yours in Christ,

J.D. Brown

Nowlin went around Hickman reading the letter to different people, asking them if they knew who J.D. Brown was. He went to see the judge, postmaster, town patriarch and many others. Although their denominational affiliations were varied, each person had the same reaction upon hearing the letter: "He's a Baptist!"

The following Sunday, Nowlin stood in the pulpit of the First Baptist Church of Hickman, read the letter and told the story of his experiment to see how people would react to his fictional characters and situation.

He shared how the scriptural quotations used in the letter were taken from the following references:

• Acts 15:23, 26, where the church sent out Judas and Silas with Paul and Barnabas;

• Philippians 4:15, 19, where the church supported her missionary through her agent named Epaphroditus;

• Romans 6:4-5, Colossians 2:12, where disciples are said to be buried with Christ in baptism;

• 1 Corinthians 5:13, where the church is commanded to exclude a wicked person;

• 2 Corinthians 2:6, where the punishment was inflicted by the many, or the majority;

• 1 Peter 1:5, saying, "We are kept by the power of."

Looking back on the account after nearly 30 years, Nowlin concluded: "The remarkable thing about it to me was that although every word of it was taken from the Scriptures, save only the names, it was instantly recognized by persons of all faiths as Baptist doctrine."

May Kentucky Baptists today continue to equip believers as we "earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3).

Ben Stratton is pastor of Farmington Baptist Church in Graves County and a Baptist historian with the J.H. Spencer Historical Society.