Puritans on the Potomac
By Timothy George
On a late November evening in 1867, two years after the end of the American Civil War, Celestia Ferris, chief washer-woman at the Bureau of Engraving, organized a prayer meeting not far from the U. S. Capitol. She was joined by a circle of earnest Christians, mostly of the Baptist persuasion, who prayed that a new church would be gathered in their community. At the time, there was no church of any denomination in the northeast quarter of Washington, D. C. In 1878, their prayer was answered when thirty-one members joined to form the Metropolitan Baptist Church, so called from Spurgeon’s famous Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, which at the time was one of the most famous Protestant churches in the world.
During the first half of the twentieth century, the church grew steadily and reached a membership high in the thousands during the 1950s. Then, plagued by erratic leadership, the church began a spiraling decline not unlike many other urban congregations at the time. By the early 1990s, attendance hovered around one hundred people, one of whom was the famous evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry. Henry suggested that the church consider as its next pastor Mark Edward Dever, a somewhat brash but brilliant American student just then completing his Ph.D. at Cambridge University. (Full disclosure: Mark Dever was once my student, and I preached at his pastoral installation in 1994).
To reverse the fortunes of a flagging downtown congregation required skill, pluck, and some sanctified grit. Dever had all of these, but he also put in place a strategy that most church growth gurus would have deplored. For example, he began to preach sermons that lasted upwards of one hour. Next, the church excised from its rolls hundreds of inactive members—some so inactive that they had long been dead! The practice of church discipline was begun. Members were also required to subscribe to a confession of faith and to say “an oath”—this is how a secular journalist described the church covenant—at the monthly communion. Entertainment-based worship was replaced by congregational singing, including many long-forgotten classic hymns from the past. Instead of driving people away, however, over time this approach to church life—to the surprise of many—attracted droves of new believers, many of them millennials and young professionals. Today, the average age of members at Capitol Hill Baptist Church (as Metropolitan is now known) is thirty-one, and the place is bursting at the seams, with standing room only on Sunday mornings.
What explains the success of this counter-cultural congregation? Do we see here what Jonathan Edwards might have called “a surprising work of God,” a mysterious movement of grace that defies analysis? Perhaps. But could it also be that the rising generation has developed a hunger for a more substantial spirituality than that on offer in bland, postmodern construals of religion? Could it be that more and more young adults are finding too thin the “I love Jesus but don’t need the church” mentality? CHBC is marked by doctrinal and ecclesial intentionality. Unlike many evangelicals who stress a personal relationship with Jesus at the expense of churchly commitment, Dever stresses their coinherence. “It is impossible to answer the question what is a Christian?
without ending up in a conversation about the church; at least in the Bible it is.”
Dever is a good preacher but his sermons are not characterized by rhetorical or poetic finesse. Instead, he offers a steady diet of biblical exposition—the first of “nine marks
” he has outlined for a healthy church. Dever does not often preach topical sermons but rather follows the lectio continua
method of preaching through a given book after the model of Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin in the Reformation. Not long ago, as Dever prepared to preach to his congregation on Psalm 143, he said, “You will be bored if you don’t open your Bible and leave it open. All I’m gonna do is talk about what’s in the Bible.”
CHBC has been described as the epicenter of the new Calvinism sweeping across many evangelical churches today, including the Southern Baptist Convention. (CHBC is affiliated with the SBC.) However, the church’s literature does not speak of the tenets of Calvinism. Its statement of faith is not the more Calvinistic Philadelphia Confession, a “baptized” version of Westminster, but rather the less precise New Hampshire Confession of Faith. Still, there is no doubt that the church does honor the Puritan heritage of the Reformation and embraces the theology set forth by such Baptist heroes of the past as John Bunyan, Roger Williams, Andrew Fuller, Adoniram Judson, and Charles Haddon Spurgeon himself.
Through Dever’s connection with movements such as The Gospel Coalition and Together For The Gospel, and through the many pastoral interns trained and sent out from Capitol Hill, the theological influence of the church has spread far and wide. In his pathbreaking book, Young, Restless, Reformed, Collin Hansen described a movement that includes the Capitol Hill Puritans.
The resurgence of Calvinism indicates that America hasn’t changed so much as some might suppose. American Christianity has splintered in myriad directions since the Puritans settled New England. But the God they worshiped—attested in the Bible, sovereign in all things, and merciful toward sinners through the self-sacrificed Jesus Christ—still captivates believers today.
It has always been a mystery to scholars of religion how a view of salvation so heavily weighted toward divine initiative and election—what Mark Twain has Huckleberry Finn call “preforeordestination”—has so often manifested itself in an activism bent on transforming the world and culture. But in the radical Augustinian tradition—of which Calvinism is only one variant—the glory of God and his predestining grace are clearly motivating, not inhibiting, factors in the revolution of the saints. Those who are looking for a moribund Calvinism turned in on itself, with no vision for the mission of the church in the world, will not find such at CHBC. No, this church is alive with evangelism and mission, with ministries of mercy and compassion, and with church planting schemes throughout North America and around the world. Dever argues for a vision of the catholicity of the church that cuts against four major problems among churches in America today: provincialism, sectarianism, racism, and exclusivism.
But, being a large evangelical Baptist church within easy walking distance of the U. S. Capitol poses special problems. Dever says, “I keep the Gospel central and try to avoid any unduly partisan expressions or language.” Some of his members, he says, are “loud Republicans,” and some are “loud Democrats.” Many of his members work in Congress or in agencies of the federal government. Dever affirms their God-given vocation to serve their country in this way and in fact encourages his entire congregation’s prayerful participation in democratic decision-making. However, he also reminds them that they are citizens of another City, the one with foundations whose builder and maker is God. The church’s Baptist confession of faith declares the ultimate allegiance of all the redeemed. They are followers of “our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only Lord of the conscience and the Prince of the kings of the earth.”
The prayer Celestia Ferris and her friends offered for a new church on Capitol Hill nearly 150 years ago is still being answered. As T.S. Eliot wrote in Choruses from “The Rock,” “The Church must be forever building, and always decaying/ and always being restored.”
Published at First Things, 5.2.16
is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.