Three Fundamentalists I Have Known

Every student has favorite teachers or authors who have impacted and helped set the course of his life. There are many fundamentalist personalities from the past that can serve as great examples for us today. I would like to give you three that are worthy of mention: Robert T. Ketcham, Richard V. Clearwaters, and William E. Ashbrook.

Why these three? It was through reading both about these men and what they wrote that I became a fundamentalist. I have been influenced by many others as well, but these three stand out from them all, due largely to their influence in my life.

Volumes could be written on these three fundamentalists, but my object is to give you some general information about each man with specific attention given to their stand for the faith against apostasy and compromise and how they, though dead, still speak to us today.

Robert T. Ketcham (1889-1978)
R. T. Ketcham was known for his tender care, a burning love for Jesus Christ and His church, and an aggressive denunciation of and separation from apostasy. He was heavily involved in the fundamentalist-modernist battles in the Northern Baptist Convention during the 1920s and 30s and was one of the first to speak against the National Association of Evangelicals and the movement that became known as new evangelicalism. His militancy earned him the title of “fighting Bob” from his enemies and also from Christians who did not appreciate his militant exposure of doctrinal error. Ketcham served as pastor of churches in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa, served as president of the American Council of Christian Churches, and as National Representative of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.

Much of Ketcham’s life and ministry is told in J. Murray Murdoch’s Portrait of Obedience. I was given a copy of this book while in Bible college, and it was from his life that I learned about fundamentalism. I fell in love with the movement because it was simply biblical Christianity. The least educated of these three fundamentalist preachers (he never finished high school), Ketcham provides a great challenge and inspiration to every Christian. He recognized from the moment Christ saved him that he had nothing to give his Lord but obedience. He said, “Lord, I have absolutely nothing to give you except obedience. That I can and will give You. What You will do with this absolutely useless vessel, I do not know. All I can do is obey. The rest of it is in Your sovereign hand.” Unquestioning and immediate obedience coupled with complete trust in Christ guided and helped him through times of blessing and days dark with trouble and sorrow.

His life verse, chosen early in his first pastorate, was Colossians 1:18, “that in all things He might have the preeminence.” In any and every issue Ketcham determined to find where Christ stood and stand there with Him, come what may. He provided a pastoral theology in five succinct statements: 1) preach Christ; 2) give the whole counsel of God; 3) expose error—new evangelicalism especially; 4) obey God; and 5) be available to your people.

As a pastor for over 35 years, Ketcham published helpful, encouraging, and challenging books such as 56 Minutes with the Risen Christ, I Shall Not Want, Balm in Gilead, and God’s Provision for Normal Christian Living, yet in each book unbelief and compromise are warned against and exposed. What place would such denunciations have in devotional books? Ketcham would undoubtedly answer that one cannot have Christ preeminent in his life and also maintain unbiblical alliances at the same time. The damning influences of apostasy and the corrupting compromises of new evangelicalism will always take the preeminent place Christ deserves in the Christian’s life.

Ketcham’s life taught me the kind of attitude a believer should have toward unbelief and professed believers who compromise their faith. He provided me with a model of what true love for the Lord Jesus Christ looks like. In closing Ketcham’s biography listen to several of these statements, gathered from his writings and sermons: “A faithful pastor must warn his sheep of dangers in the feeding grounds.” “Whenever truth compromises with error it is always truth which has to give up something for error has nothing to give up to begin with.” “Partial obedience to God’s Word is whole disobedience to the God of the Word.” “One cannot be true to Jesus Christ in the fullest sense and be very tender with His enemies.” “Don’t ‘limit’ the Devil brethren, eliminate him!” “This is no time for Mr. Faintheart.”

Richard V. Clearwaters (1900-1996)
R. V. Clearwaters considered himself a prodigal son and the dullest of his mother’s eight children, yet after his conversion he went on to earn five degrees. He was a pastor of churches in Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota, spending 42 years as pastor of the Fourth Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Like Ketcham and Ashbrook Clearwaters battled liberalism in his denomination and eventually left it. Education was extremely important to him, and this commitment was expressed through the establishment of one of the first Christian day schools in the country, founding Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minneapolis, and then Pillsbury Baptist Bible College in Owatonna, MN.

I was introduced to the life of Doc (as he was affectionately called) while a student at Pillsbury. Each January Pillsbury held the R. V. Clearwaters Bible Conference and historical snippets would be given of his life and ministry. Clearwaters’ life verse was Philippians 1:21, “for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He also would often quote Isaiah 42:8, “I am the Lord, that is my name: and my glory I will not give to another, neither my praise to graven images.” This devotion to Christ and the Bible resulted in a ministry he referred to as “militant Biblicism.” Why was militancy so important to him? “We earnestly believe that the non-militant attitude of the rank and file of Christian leaders today is surrendering the New Testament witness to Satan.”

He was also an author, penning important articles during the onset of new evangelicalism such as “The Bible: The Unchanging Evangelical Volume,” “The Bible Bound in Morroco,” and “The Double Divisiveness of the New Evangelicalism.” In addition to these articles three of his volumes were also influential in my life: The Local Church of the New Testament, The Great Conservative Baptist Compromise, and his autobiography On the Upward Road.

For me Clearwaters demonstrated how essential it was to look to the Bible alone for faith and practice. This principle seems like something all believers would agree with, but as Clearwaters would say in so many words, “what’s most important is where one’s toes are pointing, not his nose.” In other words, actions can contradict a profession. Clearwaters’ involvement in controversy taught him that it was never enough to “just believe” the faith. Such “belief” had no value if one was too timid to contend earnestly for it. I learned from Clearwaters that truth is more important than relationships or friendships; the truth cannot be denied or trimmed in order to gain or keep a friend. He exemplified what his mentor, W. B. Riley, said was essential for leadership: “deep conviction, high courage, and uncompromising course.”

I will close this biography of R. V. Clearwaters with some of his choice sayings: “Diotrephes seldom repents.” “We must keep a single eye to God’s glory.” “The chains of ecclesiastical bondage are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” “A man is known by his enemies—not just by his friends.” “Take the long look.” With regard to compromise, “when we come down, we are not winning the world—the world is winning us.” “There are two classes of preachers, those who make a convenience of truth, and those in whom truth has wrought a conviction.”

William E. Ashbrook (1896-1977)
After W. E. Ashbrook was born again, he received his education at Westminster College, Pittsburg Theological Seminary, Cambridge University in England, and New College in Edinburgh, Scotland. His pastorates were all in Ohio. During his second pastorate in Columbus, he separated from the United Presbyterian Church because of its liberalism, sympathies with communism, and the replacement of simple gospel preaching with stilted and man-pleasing educational efforts. Ashbrook never founded a national movement or started a college or seminary, but his influence was felt throughout the world. He enjoyed fellowship in the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, but as new evangelicalism began to infect that fellowship he withdrew and became a charter member of the Ohio Bible Fellowship.

Of the three fundamentalists covered in this article I have the least knowledge of the personal life and ministry of William Ashbrook. That does not mean he also had the least influence of the three; quite the contrary, it was because of his book The New Neutralism that I learned what militant fundamentalism really looks like. New evangelicalism is examined and evaluated in light of Scripture; the men, schools, mission boards, and ministries that practice and promote it are identified. Throughout the work the Bible’s commands regarding the believer’s necessity to be separate from unbelief is clearly declared. The reader is constantly pointed to Rom 16:17; 2 Cor 6:14-7:1; Eph 5:11; 1 Tim 6:3-5; 2 Tim 3:5; 2 Pet 3:17; 2 John 9-11; and Jude 3.

God used Ashbrook’s forthright style to give me a clearer picture of what it meant to be a fundamentalist, where new evangelicalism will lead, what the leaders of new evangelicalism say about fundamentalism, and who those leaders are. His identification of personalities is so crucial—merely describing a movement isn’t enough, because principles can never be divorced from the persons who promote them. Ashbrook demonstrated by specific examples that “the compromise road is a road pockmarked with many tragic pitfalls for those who enter it.” “Those who follow Dr. [Billy] Graham’s lead to its logical end will surely find themselves ere this age ends helping to build a world government and world church and it will be the government of the Man of Sin and the Church of the Devil.”

In this work Ashbrook maintains that “we must not expect majorities to be on our side.” “True evangelical Christians, however, can never be impassive when the truth of the Gospel is denied. The Gospel is far too precious for us to be indifferent to its adulteration. The salvation of immortal souls depends upon the truth being preserved pure.” “Great and good men are not always wise, especially when they choose to remain blinded to the facts of mounting apostasy.” “We are in a battle today between belief and unbelief, between the children of God and the children of the Devil. Such battles are never won by the silence of permissive consent…the cause of Christ is sometimes lost in the house of friends.”

One could easily come away from The New Neutralism feeling that Ashbrook went too far in his denunciations. However, this is a wrong, yea, an unbiblical reaction. He wrote out of a love for Christ, the Word of God, a conviction that God saves people through the preaching of the gospel, and that His church must be holy as He is holy. “God delights to bless His people. It is your business as pastor to keep your church so God can bless it.” As God’s holiness knows no compromise with the devil’s darkness, so God’s servants must not be unequally yoked but come out from among them and be separate, not touching the unclean thing. New evangelicalism disobeys these commands and thereby dishonors God’s holiness.

It is my firm conviction that every young man preparing for the gospel ministry today needs to read William Ashbrook’s The New Neutralism. Is it dated? Perhaps. But what the book will provide the student with is a scriptural and historical analysis of the new evangelicalism. Today’s evangelicalism is built upon that foundation, and Christians need to see that a lack of militancy, doctrinal compromise, and failures in ecclesiastical separation never bring God’s blessing.

A Great Heritage, A Great Responsibility
I cannot think about these men and their influence in my life without getting a bit emotional. Part of this undoubtedly arises from never having had the opportunity to meet them in person, hear them preach from a pulpit, or stand beside them for the cause of Jesus Christ. Greater than these desires though is a desire to be faithful and obedient to God and give Christ the preeminence in all things. I am greatly indebted to these men and pray that their legacy will continue to influence other Christians.

What should you come away with from these men? Total obedience to the Word of God; militant defense of the truth; exposure of and separation from error and compromise; dedication to the local church; love for God’s people; and a burning zeal to win souls to Christ.

Each of these fundamentalists separated from and exposed apostasy and those who compromised with it, faithfully preached the gospel, and considered new evangelicalism to be the greatest menace to Christianity. May God raise up more Ketchams, Clearwaters, and Ashbrooks to proclaim a pure gospel and expose the unfruitful works of darkness.

March 2004


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