Essay / Misc.

R. A. Torrey: Who You Callin’ Narrow?

Here is a piece of vintage R. A. Torrey (1856-1928), published in 1917. Everything you could love or hate about Torrey is right here in cold print: the quick wit, the principled stand, the willingness to embrace the social stigma of conservative orthodoxy, the vicious counter-attack on the cultured despisers of religion, the readiness to fire the “more educated than thou” salvo in combat, the ready answer to every question on a list, and the clincher argument: “how many souls have you rescued lately?” If you were to read this piece in historical context, you’d have to bear in mind that Torrey is in the midst of a very gradual transition from cheery road warrior to embattled founder of fundamentalism; and that American culture at this time is assertively renegotiating its contract with its evangelical past. We’re in a different world now, and some of Torrey’s rhetorical moves wouldn’t play and shouldn’t be used. Still, there’s nothing like watching R. A. Torrey decide to call out his opponent and go to the heart of the matter.

The Narrowness and Bigotry of So-Called Liberals
By R. A. Torrey
The King’s Business 8:3 (March 1917), 233-235

As a rule the most narrow and bigoted men in the world are those who most flaunt their liberality. The following correspondence is an illustration of this narrowness. The quiet assumption of the new theology men that all who do not accept their ill-founded conclusions do not think for themselves and belong to “the dark ages” would be amusing if it were not so sad.

While holding united evangelistic meetings in the City of Philadelphia for three months in 1906, I received the following letter from a Universalistic minister in a city in New Jersey. Of course we do not give the minister’s name, because the correspondence reflects seriously upon him. The letter read as follows:

Please excuse me for the liberty I take in addressing to you these few lines, but I desire from your pen a little information which I trust you will gladly give me. If you answer them in the affirmative, would you give me the names of five presidents or professors of theological schools who agree with you in the theology? I have kept in touch with your work from the beginning of the Philadelphia mission, and I desire now to know correctly the position you hold upon the central theological and ecclesiastical doctrines. The Ledger reports of your sermons indicate that you are riding in a theological stage coach, constructed in the dark ages, and I cannot conceive of a Yale graduate doing such a thing. Believing there must be some mistake, I write for light.
Thanking you, I am,
Yours in Christian fellowship.

The following list of questions was enclosed in the letter:

Do you believe in the following:
1. Infallible Bible?
2. Special Creation?
3. Original Sin?
4. Total Depravity?
5. Vicarious Atonement?
6. Physical Resurrection?
7. General Judgment?
8. Endless Punishment?
9. Election?
10. Man a Free Moral Agent?
11. Sovereignty of God?
12. Trinity?
13. Life is a Probation?
14. Salvation is from Hell?
15. Eternity keeps us as death finds us?
16. A Personal God?
17. A Personal Devil?
18. Heaven as a Place?
19. Hell as a Place?
20. Devil as a Fallen Angel?
21. Fatherhood of God (a) by Nature, (b) by Adoption?
22. Must one be a church member before he can be a Christian?
23. Have you ever made a special study of church creeds?
24. Do you know the chief doctrines of the different churches?

Name the three reasons why you are a member of your chosen church.
Have you ever read any Universalist Literature?
What is your chief objection to Universalism?

To this letter we replied as follows, dated No. 505 South Forty-second St., Philadelphia, Pa., March 22, 1906:

Dear Sir: Your narrow-minded, discourteous and ungentlemanly letter of March 20th received. I cannot but believe that you wrote in haste, and that if you had read the letter over you would not have sent it. It is quite possible for men to differ from one another and yet neither one of them be an ignoramus. I suppose you know this, but in your haste wrote foolishly. Of course, I know that there is a type of Universalist minister who is characterized by nothing so much as by narrowness and bigotry, and he takes it for granted that any one who does not agree with him has not studied the subject and knows nothing. I trust you are not of this type, though your letter implies that you are. You say, “The Ledger reports of your sermons indicate that you are riding in a theological stage coach constructed in the dark ages, and I cannot conceive of a Yale graduate doing such a thing.” I have not read the Ledger reports of my sermons, but suppose that to a large extent they reflect what I have said. If they do and any one thinks that they indicate that I am “riding in a theological stage coach constructed in the dark ages,” it simply shows that he is ignorant of the theology of the “the dark ages.” (I suppose you mean by the “dark ages,” the middle ages, which are constantly so characterized.) There is not the slightest resemblance between my theology and that of the middle ages, as you will see if you will take the trouble to study and find out what the theology of the middle ages was. My theology is older than that time. It comes from an earlier date and from sources that were not dark. It is the theology of Jesus Christ and the Apostles, a theology more rational than much of the theology that is constructed today. It was from the theology of Christ and the Apostles that the theology of the dark ages departed. “The stage coach in which I am riding” (if it be a stage coach) is a good one to ride in. The theology which I preach has been drawing thousands of people daily to hear it, and has been used of God to the salvation of scores of thousands of people around the world. Can you say anything better of the theology that you teach? Now I will answer your questions: I will have to re-write them, as you have not left room to answer them on the paper which you send.
Sincerely yours,
R. A. Torrey.

1. “Do you believe in an infallible Bible?” I believe that the Scriptures as originally given were inerrant.

2. “Do you believe in special creation?” I am not sure what you mean by special creation. I believe that matter was created, that life was created, that Adam was created. I believe that Adam’s body was a special creation.

3. “Do you believe in original sin?” It depends upon what you mean by original sin. I do not suppose I would believe in your definition of original sin. I doubt if you would define it as it has been defined by clear-minded orthodox theologians.

4. “Do you believe in total depravity?” I don’t suppose I believe in total depravity as you would define it. I do believe in total depravity as it has been defined by careful theologians.

5. “Vicarious atonement?” Most assuredly I do, and have seen the power of the doctrine in transforming thousands of lives.

6. “Do you believe in physical resurrection?” I believe in the resurrection of the body, not this same body, but none the less a body.

7. “Do you believe in a general judgment?” Depends upon what you mean by a general judgment. I believe in the judgment of the living nations at the coming of Christ (at the end of the thousand years) the resurrection of those who have died before Christ’s coming and they are judged then.

8. “Do you believe in endless punishment?” I do.

9. “Do you believe in election?” I do not suppose I believe in the doctrine as you would define it. I believe in the doctrine of election as taught in the Bible.

10. “Do you believe in man as a free moral agent?” Yes, I know that he is.

11. “Do you believe in the sovereignty of God?” Most assuredly I do.

12. “Do you believe in the Trinity?” I do not suppose I believe in the doctrine of the Trinity as you define it, for I find that Unitarians as a rule do not understand the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and that their statement of the orthodox doctrine of the trinity is simply a parody upon it. I believe in the doctrine of the Trinity as taught in the Bible, but I do not suppose that is what you understand by the doctrine of the Trinity.

13. “Do you believe that salvation is from hell?” Not primarily. I believe that salvation is from sin, and as hell is the outcome of sin, being saved from sin will deliver one from hell.

14. “Do you believe life is a probation?” Certainly.

15. “Do you believe eternity keeps us as death finds us?” Certainly not. I do not know of anybody that does.

16. “Do you believe in a personal God?” Yes, I am a Christian.

17. “Do you believe in a personal devil?” I believe that there is a personal devil necessarily, as I believe the teaching of Christ and the Apostles. Furthermore, I have had some experience with him. But I do not believe in him.

18. “Do you believe in heaven as a place?” Most assuredly, I do. I think Jesus knew what He was talking about when He said, “I go to prepare a place for you.”

19. “Do you believe in hell as a place?” Most assuredly I do. I think Peter knew what he was talking about when he said, “God cast the angels that sinned down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness to be reserved unto judgment.”

20. “Do you believe in the devil as a fallen angel?” I believe that the devil is a being who once occupied a very exalted position, higher than that of ordinary angels.

21. “Do you believe in the Fatherhood of God (a) by nature, (b) by adoption?” I believe that all men are God’s offspring, but we become children of God by acceptance of Jesus Christ. “To as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God.”

22. “Must one be a church member before he can be a Christian?” Most certainly not. One should not be a church member until after he has become a Christian.

23. “Have you ever made a special study of church creeds?” I have. I suppose a more thorough study of them than you have ever made. The wording of your questions seems to betray an ignorance of the creeds of the church.

24. “Do you know the chief doctrines of the different churches?” I do. I suspect you don’t.

“Name three reasons why you are a member of your chosen church.” I have no chosen church. I do not believe in sectarianism. I do not believe that there is any essential difference between the different evangelical churches. I would as soon belong to one as to another.

“Have you ever read any Universalist literature?” I have a good deal. I have sometimes regretted that I have wasted time in reading so much.

“What is your chief objection to Universalism?” (1) That it is unbiblical. It contradicts the teaching of Jesus Christ and the Apostles. (2) It is impotent. I find that the Universalist church is doing practically nothing for the salvation of the lost. I find that Universalist churches have a constant tendency to die out for lack of spiritual life. (3) Most of the Universalists whom I have known have been unspiritual men and women, and I have met a great many Universalists who have been Universalists simply as an excuse for a careless and oftentimes a positively sinful life.

I think I ought to add, I was once a Universalist myself, in the sense of believing in a universal restoration. I did believe in hell, but not in an endless hell, but I was not so bigoted as to think that any one who did not agree with me in this must be an ignoramus. I found that my views which I held very tenaciously at the time, would not stand the test of rigid examination in the light of Scripture and reason, therefore I gave that up, but I do not think that every Universalist is an ignoramus, or a fool, or insincere. I leave that kind of bigotry to a certain type of Universalists.

Now let me ask you some questions, and as I have frankly answered yours, is it too much to expect a frank reply from you to mine?

1. Have you surrendered your will absolutely to God, in a definite act of surrender?

2. Have you put away every known sin?

3. Are you a man of prayer? Do you spend on the average of at least fifteen minutes a day in definite prayer to God?

4. Have you ever read the entire Bible through prayerfully and carefully?

5. Have you ever read any large and scholarly work on church history, such as Neander’s and Hagenbach’s?

6. Have you taken a classical course, taken a degree in arts?

7. Have you taken a thorough theological course and taken the degree of B.D.?

8. Have you ever read the Greek Testament through?

9. Are you a soul winner?

10. Have you ever led at least ten drunkards in a year to a definite renunciation of their sin and a definite acceptance of Jesus Christ?

11. Of how many churches have you been pastor?

12. How many of these churches have doubled their membership under your pastorate?

13. Have you ever had one hundred accessions to your church of men and women who have been brought out of the world into an earnest Christian life?

14. Have you ever been baptized with the Holy Spirit?

In conclusion may I be permitted to say that as I have written more than a dozen books on theological subjects, and as these books have gone up into the hundreds of thousands and have been translated into French, German, Spanish, Portugese, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, several Chinese languages and several Indian languages, it would hardly have seemed to have been necessary for you to have gotten your ideas of what I teach from the newspapers, nor even by writing me a list of questions. You might have consulted the books. If you would like to know in full what I believe on some of the questions I have answered, I would refer you to my book, “What the Bible Teaches.”

Sincerely yours,

R. A. Torrey.

The Universalist minister made no reply to the letter. Evidently, while he was perfectly willing to ask questions of others, he was not in a position to answer questions himself.

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