The Evangelism of Walter Scott (1796-1861)

The Evangelism of Walter Scott (1796-1861)

The reason for posting this article is not to glorify a man, but to both encourage and show appreciation for efforts that have been made to bring clarity out of the confusion & chaos that exists in the Christian world. Various men & “movements” down through church history could be pointed to or highlighted that sought to do the same. At this present time in church history, there is still a need for workers to enter into this same field of labor, and such workers can learn from Walter Scott even if they themselves would do things a bit differently.

It seems the religious world is in an even greater mess today than it was in Walter Scott’s day. But just as in the 19th century, Christians today still do not agree on what the gospel consists of, let alone how a person is to rightly respond to the gospel. Some professing Christians would say that there is no “right way” to respond to the gospel, while others would say that humans are completely unable to respond to the gospel at all until God makes them respond. Yet these same professing Christians engage in evangelism, proclaiming their version of the gospel while inventing various & unscriptural methods to respond to it. Even those who deny free will go around telling people that they must be born again or that they need to get a new heart—even though these same evangelists would deny that their hearers can do anything to bring this about and/or cannot tell them how to bring it about (according to the instructions & method given by God in the New Testament).

While Walter Scott did have a “Christian” upbringing, he had to rediscover both what the kernel of the gospel was (the Messiahship/kingship of Christ) and how people were called to respond this great fact, according to Scripture. Although this may sound easy, there were many forces & factors he had to contend with. The preaching, teaching and evangelism methods of Walter Scott were forged from Scripture in the midst of the long internal struggles and daunting obstacles he had to overcome as he slowly fought his way out of the doctrinally oppressive and fatalistic religious system (Calvinism) that held him captive for so many years. Walter has been described as a brilliant, brooding man; eccentric and analytical. His logical, rational, truth-seeking mind combined with a very active inner life kept him restless. He was on a quest to find missing “keys” & “puzzle pieces” that might open the locked doors and complete the patchy picture he was facing as he tried to reconcile his early religious education with the pages of “Holy Writ.”

Walter had been raised in Scotland in a strict Presbyterian family of humble means. His parents only had enough money to send one of their ten children to college, so they decided to send the one most likely to succeed. In 1812, at 16 years of age, Walter Scott entered the College of Arts at Edinburgh University. He graduated from Edinburgh in 1818 at 22 years of age. His mother had hoped that he would enter the Presbyterian ministry. Walter was devout, but not yet ready to take a step such as that.

If he had not gladdened the heart of his mother by entering the Presbyterian ministry as she had hoped, it was not from lack of religious inclinations but because he had never grasped the whole matter of church and Scripture with one clear, luminous insight. Being of a logical nature, he could not act from pure emotion or blind habit; he had to see his course. Because he had never found a teacher who could enable him to do this, his faith had remained that of a pious but somewhat bewildered layman.[1]

Immediately upon graduation, Walter received an invitation from an uncle of his who was living in America. Walter was offered a chance to come to America—all expenses paid by Uncle George Innes. Walter jumped on the opportunity.

On July 7, 1818, he sailed to New York to meet his uncle. He got a job as a Latin tutor in an academy on Long Island, but he did not stay there long before he decided to head west, and by May of 1819, he had gone as far west as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While seeking employment in Pittsburgh, he met a man named George Forrester, who was also a Scotsman and who was the principal of an academy. He hired Walter as his assistant. This was a major turning point in the thought life of Walter Scott.

As things turned out, George Forrester “was also a preacher and pastor of a small church which viewed human standards of religion as imperfect and which derived its practices and beliefs strictly from the Bible, including baptismal immersion, foot washing, and the holy kiss.”[2] This was a “Haldane” church.

In 1779, two wealthy brothers, Robert Haldane and James Alexander Haldane, had withdrawn from the Church of Scotland in protest against its complacent respectability and its professionalized clergy. They had formed Sunday schools, institutes for the training of lay preachers, and had gradually evolved a simple theology and church order, which quickly spread, creating many small congregations in Scotland, Ireland, and the United States. The Haldanes were, in fact, native citizens of Edinburgh![3]

George Forrester was intimately acquainted with the Scriptures and he took Walter under his wing, taught him, and pointed him in the right direction. The light began to break into Walter’s mind. Walter “was immersed by Forrester and for the first time in his life he felt that he was a Christian.”[4] George profoundly affected Walter’s theology.

Walter joined the church that Forrester was pastoring and continued to dig into the Scriptures. He began to pass on to others the truths that had now dawned on him. He continued to look for the clear, great, and central truths of the Scriptures.

His clear logical mind began to discern an outline. The Bible contained precepts, duties, ordinances, promises, [and] blessings, which were meant to precede or follow one another in just that order. The disarranging of these, as in infant baptism, where an ordinance was made to precede both teaching and faith, accounted in no small degree for the confusion and disunity of the church. The mystery of conversion, upon a fresh study of the Acts of the Apostles, was found to be no mystery at all. It was not, as his Calvinistic training had led him to expect, a matter of long and agonizing “seekings,” or of strange signs and mystical feelings induced by the Holy Spirit, selecting some and rejecting others. A converted person was one who heard, believed, and obeyed! It was that simple.[5]

It was not long after this that George Forrester drowned in a swimming accident. Walter Scott assumed the duties that his beloved mentor had held. Walter not only ran the academy, but also became the preacher of the body of believers that he had so recently joined.

Walter felt as if he had been set free from the religious system he had previously known before meeting George Forrester, and he wanted others to experience that same freedom. The duties of the academy began to feel burdensome and encumbering to him; they were holding him back from what he really wanted to do. He wanted to make Christian evangelism practical. He wanted to put the “rubber” of the gospel to the road, to give light to those who were still in the dark.

But while he was still caught up in the duties of academia, Scott went even deeper into the Scriptures while also studying the writings of John Locke and other men such as John Glas, Robert Sandeman, Robert Haldane and James Haldane—all of whom had been Scottish Presbyterians.

He also found in Forrester’s library a tract written by Henry Errett, father of Isaac Errett who became one of the most prominent second-generation Restoration leaders. Henry Errett was the pastor of a small congregation of “Scotch Baptists” (Sandemanian immersionists) in New York City, and his tract closely connected immersion with the remission of sins. Scott was so impressed with this and other ideas that he sold the Pittsburgh academy and moved to New York City to gain further instruction from this church.[6]

Unfortunately, his extended visit was a disappointment. He left New York and ventured to visit three other Haldanian churches in three different cities hoping to find the “right” body of believers. But he was disappointed on all of his visits.

Having received an offer from one of the patrons of the school in Pittsburgh to return and tutor his son (Robert Richardson) and a few others, Walter Scott returned to Pittsburgh and made his home in the family of Mr. Richardson. It was through this pivotal development that he met Alexander Campbell in the home of Robert Richardson in the winter of 1821. It was not long before the two men realized that they had much in common and struck up a friendship that would last forever. Scott soon met Thomas Campbell and the two became like father and son.

Walter Scott again began preaching for the “Haldane” church in Pittsburgh while also tutoring private school in the Richardson home. William Baxter, the earliest biographer of Scott, writes that, “It was not long after Mr. Scott’s return from New York, in 1821, that his mind became possessed by what proved to be the great thought of his life; namely that the great central idea of the Christian religion is the Messiahship; a proposition around which, in his esteem, all other truths revolve.”[7] Scott began devoting all his physical and mental energies to proclaiming this truth. His messages matured and so did his persuasive and reasoning prowess. This was the single most important truth for him. This was his “Golden Oracle.”

In 1826, Scott was selected to be an evangelical preacher to travel & teach among the approximately seventeen congregations that belonged to the Mahoning Baptist Association. They were mostly in eastern Ohio (one in Virginia) and were Calvinistic in their theology. His preaching resulted “in the dissolution of the Association and the casting away of creeds and the unexampled spread of” this “purer view of the gospel….”[8]

Scott understood only all too well how the people’s Calvinistic minds worked. Calvinism was the dominant theology of the day. In this doctrinal system, God supposedly gives the “gift of faith” to whomever He chooses, and so the people were regularly told that they could do nothing to facilitate their salvation. The people were simply left to beg and plead for this “gift of faith” to be mysteriously given to them—as if their begging & pleading would somehow help them in spite of the Calvinistic doctrine of total human inability (total depravity & “deadness”). So the members of these “Reformed” Baptist congregations that Walter Scott had been selected to preach among had been thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that they were utterly “inable”—that logically speaking, they could only wait around to see who the lucky “faith lotto” winners would be. Baxter describes the conversion mentality of that day as follows:

But at this time, man was regarded as passive in conversion; he was not required to do anything; could do nothing; the work was God’s alone. How many are there who yet remember the state of things we have described; those who attended for years the ministry of eminent preachers in the various denominations; who felt themselves to be sinners, but never were able to learn, from what they heard, what they were to do to be saved; that was in the hands of God, and was as much a matter of uncertainty as the next drought or the next shower, and one over which they had as little control. It was an age of marvels. God was expected to act as if he had revealed no plan of salvation, as if the great commission were no longer in force; conversions were as various as the temperaments of different individuals: those of persons of quick sensibilities and lively fancies were bright and clear, sometimes excelling even the most striking cases of a miraculous age; while persons of calm, thoughtful habits were so far from reaching such raptures that they were almost reduced to despair. Nor was this confined to one denomination or the more ignorant portion of the community….”[9]

Salvation was regularly and dogmatically said to be by “faith alone,” yet the people were told that they could not even believe or could not even have faith unless God mysteriously gave it to them. Therefore, preachers would urge the people to “mourn” and pray that faith would be given to them, whether this mourning & praying took place in the woods or in the church building while kneeling at the “mourning bench.” This type of conversion experience became popular and was eventually found in Arminian denominations as well as the Calvinistic ones.

Both Calvinists and Arminians invited sinners under “conviction” to the “mourner’s bench” to pray and to be prayed for. By “praying through,” either at the “mourner’s bench” or elsewhere, sinners received assurance that God had pardoned and accepted them. This assurance brought peace of mind and soul and great joy. It was often associated with a vision or some other “sign” from God.[10]

Walter Scott had grown up hearing and seeing this type of evangelism. But he now knew that neither the message nor the method squared with Scripture. He knew that his own hard lessons learned could help many people, but that it would be so strange to their ears that it might not be well-received by some. But being the courageous man that he was, he decided to preach what he knew to be the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

Walter Scott rode forth into the areas of the Mahoning Baptist Association teaching a matured, clear, and logical message that Jesus was the Christ. He then told people very plainly how they should respond, according to the Scriptures, if they believed this fact about Jesus. Walter himself declared:

The Ancient Gospel had set straight in my mind things which were formerly crooked. I felt my soul enlarged; the Lord had opened my eyes, and filled my mouth with arguments…Accordingly I rushed upon the sinful people like an armed man.[11]

Walter Scott was to hit the ground running, putting into practice the intellectual thought that was driving this “restoration movement.” He had thought it all through and had at least some prior first-hand experiences with teaching these “new” methods even before becoming the evangelist for the Mahoning Association. He desperately wanted to tell these people, in a clear and logical way, what was to be believed and how they must respond in order to be saved—in order to become “Bible Christians.”

Walter was not just another preacher of mysterious operations and human inability. He preached so rationally, logically, and intelligibly that it either “bugged” people or liberated them. He preached the facts and then told the people that it was their duty to respond appropriately and what the consequences would be if they chose to never obey the gospel.

He taught that “there were three things that a person could do, in fact should do, to foster the process of salvation: [1] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, based upon the scriptural evidence; [2] repent personal sins with the resolve to sin no more; and [3] be baptized. Then there were three things that God could do and promised to do if conditions were fulfilled: [1] forgive repented sins; [2] bestow the gift of the Holy Spirit; and [3] grant eternal life.”[12]

One of the shrewd and ingenious methods that Scott was fond of using as he was preparing to evangelize a certain community was to use the children of the community in order to gain a hearing with their parents. But with this method, he modified the six points into five…

…to yield an arrangement such as: 1. faith; 2. repentance; 3. baptism; 4. remission of sins; 5. Holy Spirit. In this fashion it became known as the five-point formula or the five-finger exercise. Scott liked to meet children after school, introduce himself and ask the children if they would like to learn a new five-finger exercise. It only took a few minutes to teach it to them, as they ticked off “faith,” “remission” etc. on each of their five fingers. Then he would tell them to go home and teach it to their parents. This almost always gave him entry into the neighborhood at large.[13]

But his first effort at preaching the “Ancient Gospel” did not go over very well. The people that were gathered that day were simply not ready for it. They were so accustomed to the unscriptural methods of evangelism that they had come to accept such methods as being the “right way” to evangelize. They thought that Walter Scott was “doing it wrong.” So, at the conclusion of his first effort to preach the ancient gospel, he invited people to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. The invitation fell flat. This method of evangelism was strange to their ears. Scott’s method, which was soon imitated by other preachers in this restoration movement, stood in obvious contrast with the practices that were popular in that day:

To many, who were accustomed to Calvinism and the “mourner’s bench” conversions, the preaching and practice of those associated in the Restoration movement must have seemed cold and mechanical. They presented a rational and Scriptural program of conversion, preaching that faith was the belief of testimony, that all men can believe, that Christ died for all men; therefore, all may come to Christ and all can turn to Him and be saved through His blood. Inquiring sinners who asked, “What shall we do to be saved?” were often answered with the words of Peter on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38). Sinners were not invited to a “mourner’s bench” to pray, but to a public confession of their faith, followed by baptism into Christ for the remission of sins.[14]

But even though his first attempt fell flat, Walter Scott was not discouraged. He preached the Ancient Gospel again in New Lisbon, Ohio. His sermon was upon “the fact to be believed” (Matthew 16:16) and “the command to be obeyed” (Acts 2:38). A man named William Amend answered the call. He was a Presbyterian who was aware of the Scriptural teaching on how we are to respond to the gospel, and he was ready to do so if ever he was given the opportunity. Baxter writes that:

With this humble, God-fearing man there is now connected an interest that is historic; he was the first to afford an example of strict conformity to the design of an ordinance of the church of Jesus, which had so long been lost sight of as to become almost meaningless. In him we see that ordinance restored to the place designed for it by its divine Author—restored, we can not doubt, beyond the possibility of ever being perverted or forgotten again.[15]

Once the “ice” had been broken, more and more people began to respond to Scott’s simple, clear messages. The numbers of baptisms that were being performed because of Scott’s preaching were becoming so numerous that it was creating no small controversy. Thomas Campbell went to observe Scott in action just to see if everything was on the up and up. Thomas wrote to his son Alexander that:

I perceive that theory and practice in religion, as well as in other things, are matters of distinct consideration. It is one thing to know concerning the art of fishing—for instance, the rod, the line, the hook, and the bait, too; and quite another thing to handle them dexterously when thrown into the water, so as to make it take. We have long known the former (the theory), and have spoken and published many things correctly concerning the ancient gospel, its simplicity and perfect adaptation to the present state of mankind, for the benign and gracious purposes of his immediate relief and complete salvation; but I must confess that, in respect to the direct exhibition and application of it for that blessed purpose, I am at present for the first time upon the ground where the thing has appeared to be practically exhibited to the proper purpose.[16]

Walter Scott was evangelizing Apostolic style! He presented the gospel that Jesus was the Messiah, and then told people that the way they were to initially obey this gospel of Jesus’ kingship was to be baptized into Christ. He taught that people had it within their power to believe, repent, and to willingly come to the baptismal waters in order to be born of water and Spirit. He taught that we are “in Christ” when we have been baptized into Christ. This type of teaching is radical to the Calvinistic ear. Walter was telling people that there was something that they could do! They were accustomed to hearing that God does it all and that they were not to think that they could do anything. Otherwise, if they did, they would be accused of holding to a works-based salvation scheme. Walter taught that there is a “difference between duty and blessing, principle and privilege; what God does in the matter of salvation for us, and what he has left us to do for ourselves. Faith, Repentance, and Baptism, are duties, as every person must admit; Remission of Sins, the Gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Resurrection are blessings, as all will allow. Now, we must not confound one with the other—we must not put blessing before duty….”[17]

The message that Walter brought to those people who were so mired down in Calvinism was freeing and empowering. He taught clearly, not relying on pure emotionalism and manipulation. That is not to say that his messages did not stir people’s emotion—they did! Even people who were known to be unemotional were roused and brought under the power of his persuasive oratory.

But Walter did have some ups and downs in his preaching. His personality was that way, too. His greatest contribution to the Restoration movement seems to be that he took the theoretical and made it practical. Also, his systematic teaching brought many people out of a web of confusion. For example, he analyzes the relationship between sin and the gospel as follows (this also correlates to the 5-finger exercise).

In regard to sinners and sin, six things are to be considered: the love of it, the practice of it, the state of it, the guilt of it, the power of it, and the punishment of it. The first three relate to the sinner; the last three to sin. Now, faith, repentance, and baptism, refer to the first three—the love, the practice, and the state of sin; while remission, the Holy Spirit, and the resurrection, relate to the last three—the guilt, the power, and the punishment of sin; in other words, to make us see the beauty and perfection of the gospel theory, as devised by God: faith is to destroy the love of sin, repentance to destroy the practice of it; baptism, the state of it; remission, the guilt of it; the Spirit, the power of it; and the resurrection to destroy the punishment of sin; so that the last enemy, death will be destroyed.[18]

Another major aspect of his preaching that helped to expose and counter the dangerous teachings of Calvinism is that Walter stressed human responsibility. Calvinism often tends to take people off their spiritual guard, causing them to become relaxed about sin. People who have been influenced by the doctrines of Calvinism will often use excuses like, “God just hasn’t delivered me from that yet,” or “We’re all sinners,” or “I’m just thankful He did it all,” or “We’re under grace, not law,” or “All things are permissible, even though what I’m doing may not be helpful,” or “God uses my sin for good,” etc. People who have sat under “Reformed” teachings have been so indoctrinated against “works” that they often confuse obedience with legalism. Walter Scott helped to counter that sort of mentality. He taught that we are responsible and that to say otherwise makes God out to be the author of sin. Speaking about the importance of stressing the doctrine of human responsibility in our teaching, he says:

Responsibility to parents, teachers, and magistrates, is a doctrine of such grave importance, that it can not for a moment be dispensed with in society. Anything tending to impair this instinct is dangerous to the morals and safety of mankind… That there are doctrines abroad, however, which directly tend to weaken our sense of responsibility to God, and, indirectly to society; that fatalism has filled many with religious resentment; that Calvinism has made men who believed it reckless and despairing, either because they saw not the evidence of their own election, or because they were maddened to vengeance against God for, as they imagined, having from all eternity, doomed them to damnation absolutely….The doctrine that, above all others, signalized the reinauguration of the original gospel was man’s responsibility to God. On the validity of this…Every soul who heard was called upon, on the pain of condemnation forthwith, to believe the gospel; every man was urged to arise immediately and, without delay, “repent and be baptized, for the remission of sins.” This was to bring the blessings of the gospel of the glorious God within the grasp of all minds, and to place men’s responsibility where it ought to be—with themselves…a sense of a personal responsibility, and the need of immediate obedience was substituted for a paralyzing fatalism, and the passive waiting for God’s own good time and way—as if God were not ever ready to bless—as if prophets and apostles had never cried “turn ye, turn ye;” as if Christ had never said earnest and tenderly, “Come unto me.”[19]

Evangelists are often considered to be the “harvesters,” and Walter Scott surely was among the best of them. He became accustomed to the excitement of seeing many conversions take place through his labors. When the conversions slowed down, he understandably became disappointed, and maybe even a bit discouraged and depressed. He had to settle into a pastoring role and in “later life, he learned that it was as great a work to develop a true Christian life in the converts, as to persuade them to enter upon the Christian profession.”[20] Walter learned the great importance of discipleship. He preached on the importance of perseverance. He stressed obedience, baptism, human responsibility, and the gathering together of believers so they can hold each other accountable and sharpen each other. He taught that, “Those who believe in Christ are commanded to confess him openly, to own by words before men their sacred convictions of the Saviour, and to join themselves forthwith to his body, the church, in order to their upbuilding in the faith.”[21]

But Walter was more than an evangelist. He was also a great theologian, a proficient writer an author.[22] He was also a pastor, a musician, a family man and much more. But it is his work as an evangelist for which he is mostly remembered. He came on to the scene by the providence of God. He used his experiences, education, and his gifts and abilities to do a great work for Christ. He spoke the Ancient Gospel in a clear, plain, and understandable manner. He proclaimed what people needed to hear then and what they still need to hear in this present day of religious confusion. In Walter’s day, no “uniform view of the law of Christ, or of the power of his truth, seemed to be present to the minds of preachers when addressing the people. Conversion was as much a mystery to them as to their hearers.”[23]

The bondservants of Jesus Christ that are working for Him in this present time can learn much from the methods of Walter Scott. Although he has, at times, been criticized by modern-day members of some Restoration Movement churches for his “making of lists,” we should remember that the New Testament itself contains some very helpful lists to which we should all give heed. Just as a list of specific sins tends to clarify what types of behavior is unpleasing to God and can cause us to be cast into the lake of fire, in the same way, a list of specific “steps” that we can take toward God tends to clarify what types of behavior is pleasing to God and can bring us into a saving relationship with Jesus. Clarity in matters of heaven and hell is a good thing! So, rather than criticizing Walter’s methods as we imitate those of the evangelical world in hopes of sharing in their numerical success, we should strive to completely root out the unscriptural evangelism methods popularized by such as Billy Graham and Bill Bright and replace them with the divinely instituted plan contained in the evangelism methods of Walter Scott.


[1] Dwight E. Stevenson, Walter Scott: Voice of the Golden Oracle (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1946), 23.

[2] Richard M. Tristano, The Origins of the Restoration Movement: An Intellectual History (Atlanta: Glenmary Research Center, 1988), 96.

[3] Stevenson, 24-25.

[4] John W. Neth, Walter Scott Speaks: A Handbook of Doctrine (Berne, IN: Economy Printing Concern, 1967), 16.

[5] Stevenson, 26-27.

[6] Tristano, 96.

[7] William Baxter, Life of Elder Walter Scott: With Sketches of His Fellow-Laborers, William Hayden, Adamson Bently, John Henry and Others (Cincinnati: Boxworth, Chase & Hall, 1874), 60.

[8] Ibid., 87.

[9] Ibid., 20.

[10] Enos E. Dowling, The Restoration Movement (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1964), 13.

[11] Stevenson, 80.

[12] Tristano, 100.

[13] Ibid., 100.

[14] Dowling, 13.

[15] Baxter, 110.

[16] Ibid., 158-159.

[17] Ibid., 285.

[18] Ibid., 313-314.

[19] Ibid., 286-288.

[20] Ibid., 241.

[21] Neth., 80.

[22] Besides writing articles for other people’s publications, he himself published a paper called “The Evangelist” for a number of years, and he wrote at least five books. They are as follows:

  1. A Discourse on the Holy Spirit (1831).
  2. The Gospel Restored, (1836; can be found & downloaded as a PDF @
  3. To Themelion: The Union of Christians (1852).
  4. Nekrosis, or the Death of Christ (1853).
  5. The Messiahship, or the Great Demonstration (1859; can be read on Google Books @

[23] Baxter, 18.

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