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The influence of Calvinism on seventeenth-century English Baptists: theological labels need to be treated with care, for they are not, and cannot be, representative of fixed systems, totally resistant to reinterpretation according to changing context, be this temporal, geographical, or political.

In tracing ecclesiastical influences, care must be taken, in default of specific evidence, not to confuse the process of "derived from" with "conforms to," particularly given that numerous groups were thumbing the scriptures at one and the same time, anxious to discover biblical patterns of belief and churchmanship. (1) Moreover, self-respecting Puritans would argue that the authority for their reforms was not a human-made system of theology, be it ever so orthodox, but the authority of Christ as discovered in the scriptures themselves. (2) But that said, it remains that the norm of theological thinking among English Puritanism, and the Dissent that derived from it, was a "prevailing Calvinism," from which deviations have to be established and evidenced. Even so, a common origin can be found for even apparently discrepant thinking.

W. T. Whitley, for example, argued that Richard Baxter was as much in the Calvinist tradition as was John Owen, however much the doctrine and system followed by them diverged. (3) Recent thesis writer, Stephen Wright, contended that some in the General Baptist tradition continued to uphold aspects of Calvin's teaching, even though diverging from him on other matters. Wright noted that Thomas Lambe, normally identified as a General Baptist, wrote a pamphlet defending particular election as well as general redemption, and that his 1645 Fountain of Free Grace Opened explicitly condemned Arminianism. (4) Wright also wrote that Thomas Crosby was not in error, as some have suggested, in attributing A Treatise of Particular Redemption to this same Thomas Lambe, soap boiler and General Baptist, who wrote of "those that are predestined, and therefore effectually called, justified and glorified, but others to walk in their own ways, as the vessels of wrath, fitted to destruction." (5) Wright argued that debates about the issue of grace did not define the theological outlook of Lambe's Bell Alley Church at this early date, but rather those disputes took place within that congregation that seems to have combined both free-willers and high-Calvinist antinomians.

Different groups readily adapted the Calvinism of Calvin's Institutes in order to meet their own institutional needs. For example, when exported from the Swiss cantons, where it had been the creed of ruling oligarchies, to northwest Europe, Calvinism proved itself easily capable of metamorphosis into a creed for those in opposition, anxious to challenge the status quo. (6) The differences between the Westminster Confession (1646-48) and the Savoy Declaration (1658) (7) are of themselves sufficient witness to Calvin's theology donning differential ecclesial garbs, presenting the reformer's theology in the context of either synodical or congregational forms of church government. At the same time, others, properly called Puritans, were content to uphold essentially Calvinist articles within an established episcopal church.

Within a Dutch context, and indeed at Cambridge rather earlier through Peter Baro, some theologians offered revised and more liberal understandings of Calvin's doctrine of election and the particularity of atonement, (8) even to the extent of giving rise to rival theological systems, though such liberal developments were perhaps sometimes more measured than the way, earlier, others of Calvin's disciples tended to harden the teaching of the reformer into a more restrictive scholasticism.

In his recent study, Ian Shaw admitted that agnosticism surrounded the origins of high Calvinist thinking, querying the root of high Calvinism in Calvin's own teaching. While predestination was central to Calvin's thinking, it was not primary. He instructed his readers to "treat this question sparingly," warning that on it "an idle curiosity is not to be indulged." Beyond this "the evidence as to whether Calvin taught limited atonement is somewhat unclear." (9) In his commentaries, certain texts taught general redemption, while others supported particular redemption. The systematizer was sometimes less than logical, less than precise in his teaching about God's purposes.

Reformed theology, whether in the Arminian or original Calvinist form, were capable of further refinement by those in the congregational tradition who wished to reserve baptism to believers only, as a seal upon their commitment to Christ and as a recognition of their initiation into church membership. (10) Seventeenth-century Baptists were essentially Reformed or Calvinistic Christians who admitted believers, on the declaration of their faith in baptism, into congregationally ordered churches, (11) Understanding the varieties of the Baptist context is important when interpreting their core theological system.

The Baptist Family in Seventeenth-Century England

The two traditions of Baptists in the seventeenth century (12) have been labelled "General" and "Particular" according to their views of redemption. General Baptists believed that Christ died for all persons, while Particular Baptists confined redemption to the elect only. The latter group later would describe themselves in shorthand form as "Baptized Churches," "owning the doctrine of personal election and final perseverance." (13)

Beyond that, differences with regard to membership and communion existed, differences that must be discussed in the context of the close relationships existing between early Baptists and early Separatists or Independents of Calvinistic persuasion. Several groups of churches straddled between the two traditions. For example, several churches held in one fellowship those who baptized both infants and believers, necessarily involving the practice of open communion. Churches like the one in Broadmead, Bristol, were themselves on a journey toward a Baptist position but still had in membership some unpersuaded of the scriptural warrant for confining baptism to believers, or for undergoing "re-baptism." Indeed, it has been argued that if the General Baptists came into being by a deliberate act of "radical separation," John Smyth's self-baptism in 1609, the Particulars emerged through a process of "gradual evolution." (14) Smyth clearly saw the logic of the Baptist position and defended it before Separatists whom he regarded as holding an untenable halfway position: "Therefore the Separation must either go back to England or forward to true baptism." (15) Other churches, like John Bunyan's at Bedford, deliberately cultivated both forms of membership and communion as an early ecumenical affirmation, but their witness must not be over-emphasised at the expense of those normative churches which, closed in membership, confined table fellowship to those baptized as believers.

Particular Baptists were especially concerned to show, through their published confessions, "their substantial agreement with the prevailing forms of Calvinistic orthodoxy." (16) Indeed, the Particular Baptist Confession of 1644 was largely derived from the Separatist Confession of 1596, as later the 1677 Confession reflected the form and substance of the Westminster and Savoy Confessions. (17) The roots of the 1644 Confession lay in the confusion of Particular Baptists with Anabaptists, still under public censure a century after Munster, as also with English General Baptists. This confusion not only affected their good name but also made them subject to mob violence. Thus, they complained of being unfairly charged "both in Pulpit and Print. ... with holding Free-will, falling away from grace, denying Original Sin, disclaiming of magistracy, denying to assist them either in persons or purse in any of their lawful Commands, doing acts unseemly in the dispensing of the Ordinance of Baptism, not to be named among Christians." (18)

God, Humanity, and Salvation

The Particular Baptists believed in a Sovereign God who predestined the elect to eternal salvation, part of his perfect salvific work being to prevent their fall from grace. The standard Calvinist shibboleths are clearly spelled out in the 1644 Confession, as is evident in paragraphs III, V, XXI, and XXIII. Even so, Whitley argued the importance of their declining to speak about "ordination to condemnation, toning down the statement," or "original sin, again confining themselves to definite transgression." (19) The Midland Confession of 1655 and the Western (Somerset) Confession of 1656 were similarly constructed within a framework, at once moderate, but distinctly Calvinistic. (20)

Nicholas Cox, though son of "a very stiff Calvinist," in his 1677 adaptation of the Savoy Declaration in 1658, offered in gentle language a confession clearly Genevan yet not too prescriptive of contentious doctrine, omitting, for example, the paragraph on reprobation. (21) Such men and their confessions of faith were orthodox enough without pressing the idea of election or the Spirit's exclusive initiative or the perseverance of the saints to the point where they caused division.

Sola Scriptura

All the reformers appealed to scripture as the primary authority in faith and practice, believing that within its pages a model of the life and thought of a New Testament church could be discerned. Accordingly, reformed teaching on the authority of scripture can be found at the heart of seventeenth-century Baptist confessions. The 1644 Confession was quite clear: "Not man's inventions, opinions, devices, laws, constitutions or traditions unwritten whatsoever, but only the word of God contained in the canonical Scriptures" was to be "the rule of this knowledge, faith, and obedience, concerning the worship and service of God and all other Christian duties." "In this written Word God hath plainly revealed whatsoever He hath thought needful for us to know, believe and acknowledge, touching the nature and office of Christ in whom all the promises are Yea and Amen to the praise of God." "Faith" for these believers, "was the gift of God, wrought in the hearts of the elect by the Spirit of God, whereby they come to see, know and believe the truth of the Scriptures, and not only so, but the excellency of them above all other writings and things in the world, as they hold forth the glory of God in his attributes, the excellency of Christ in his nature and offices, and the power of the fullness of the Spirit in its workings and operations; and thereupon are enabled to cast the weight of their souls upon this truth thus believed." (22)

Look at any of these confessions and the way in which the different points were decorated with copious scriptural references and you cannot doubt the force of the judgment of scripture on their thinking. Indeed, it is a kind of historical sin to reproduce such confessional statements without the scriptural references that tangibly demonstrate how saturated in scripture were those who penned them.

Scripture was authoritative but the believing Christian was not left with cold pages of print alone, for, as the 1677 Confession avowed, "we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word, and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and government of the church common to humane actions and societies that are to be ruled by the light of nature and Christian prudence according to the general rules of the Word that are always to be observed." (23)

Church covenants translated the systematic language of the confessions into something more experimental, often locally composed, though some plainly derived from older models. One of the earliest, John Smyth's covenant for his pre-Baptist Gainsborough congregation, came to have long resonance within the denomination. As remembered by Governor Bradford, the original members, "as the Lord's free people joined themselves (by a Covenant in the Lord) into a church estate, in the fellowship of the Gospel, to walk in all his ways, made known, or to be made known unto them (according to their best endeavours) whatsoever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them." (24) B. R. White commented, "Even what could be termed the 'further light clause'--'or to be made known unto them'--was inherited from early Calvinistic separation." Ernest Payne saw these early Baptists as on "a quest and a pilgrimage. Theirs was, by its very nature, a progressive covenant. With the New Testament in their hands, they were to promise to conform to what should be made known to them by the Spirit." (25)

I have not found the experimental emphasis of the Gainsborough language written so clearly in other British covenants although the Horsley Down [Southwark] congregation comes near. Identifying the written Word of God as their "only rule for Faith and Order," they allowed Philippians 3 to govern their approach to God's future: "yet not accounting that we have already attained, or are already perfect, we will reach forth to those things that are before, by the Light of the Word, waiting for the teachings of the Spirit of Truth, to lead us also into all truth, in a diligent comparing of scripture with scripture till the light thereof shine more and more unto the perfect day." (26)

Covenanting Foundational to the Believers' Church

This discussion of the primacy of scripture has already invaded the next part of the analysis that concerns the critical part played by the covenant in Baptist church polity, indicating once more the way Baptist thinking developed from Separatist models. Ideally, the covenant of the local church gave witness to the two dimensions of a believer's spiritual life. Fundamental was the vertical dimension of relationship with the Triune God. But there was also a horizontal solidarity with other church members. The process of covenanting had more universal appeal than covenants as such, though Charles Deweese drew attention to almost a dozen local covenants that have survived from this period. (27) He also pointed out that contemporary confessions also presupposed a covenantal basis for membership while the so-called Somerset Confession of 1656, much of which can be attributed to Thomas Collier, embraced what can be regarded as an associational covenant.

For some, notably John Smyth himself, baptism itself was a covenantal act: "the true form of the Church is a covenant betwixt God and the faithful made in baptism." (28) John Spilsbery, in his A Treatise concerning the Lawful Subject of Baptism [1643], claimed by White as "the first known publication on the subject [believer's baptism] by a Calvinist," (29) argued strongly that the covenant, rather than baptism, constituted the church. Spilsbery believed the covenant brought the church into being and the covenant relationship described the ongoing life of the church. Indeed, baptism operated within the overall context of covenant: "a people are a church by covenant, unto which ordinances are annexed, to confirm and establish the same." (30)

Thus, covenants, often drawn up when forming a new church, would be revisited every anniversary by the congregation as they recited the covenant together. The major Particular Baptist confessions assumed a covenantal basis, that of baptized believers "joined to the Lord and each other, by mutual agreement" [1644] who "do willingly consent to walk together according to the appointment of Christ, giving up themselves to the Lord, and one to another" [1677]. Such language, with its ancient associations in scripture, bestowed on the local church purpose and identity.

Surviving covenants emphasise four responsibilities of membership. The first focused on fellowship. Voluntarily separated from the world by deliberate and personal choice, in church fellowship they gave themselves up to God and to one another, to live together in unity under the authority of Word and Spirit. Secondly, the covenant formed the basis on which church discipline operated, not merely negatively to deal with behavioral deficiency but positively to nurture members in the faith and to provide specific ethical evidence of their being a gospel people. Thirdly, members pledged themselves to wait upon the means of grace, especially Sunday worship and the celebration of the Lord's Supper, but also their own private prayer and reading of the scriptures. The fourth emphasis, on the pastoral care of fellow members, included meeting basic human needs. (31)

Particular Baptist Church Order and Ecclesiology

Noting the previous links of many of the 1644 signatories, White calculated that "one or more leaders in each out of five of the seven churches is known to have come to Baptist convictions with some personal experience both of the practices and the theory of Independency." (32) This statement was probably also true of a substantial number of the members. White then discussed the pilgrimage undertaken by the Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey Church to name succeeding pastors of this remarkable congregation, as it moved out of the establishment into Reformed Congregationalism, and for some, through further theological journeyings, to a Baptist position. And then indeed by further pilgrimage to perhaps an even more radical sacramental practice than that of their predecessors, namely, that baptism necessarily involved immersion "by dipping the body into the water, resembling burial and rising again." (33)

When immersion was restored as the means of baptizing believers in the Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey Church in January 1641-42, this baptism was done, as John Smyth had done a generation earlier, by way of the se-baptism of the leading elder. Thomas Killcop argued that this practice was no more radical than forming a new church-state, for, in White's words, "If scripture made it clear that it was necessary to break with a false church, and to reconstitute one more truly reflecting the New Testament model, then scripture surely gave sufficient warrant for a renewal of the practice of New Testament baptism." (34) John Spilsbery, for his part, simply argued that the gathered congregation, was properly constituted into a church state, by virtue of the "union they have with their head Christ, the body thus jointly considered hath the power and authority of Christ within herself, to choose and make use of any one or more of her members, as occasion offers, and authorizes him or them to administer baptism on the whole body, and so on themselves in the first place as part of the same." (35) With every trace of a New Testament church apparently lost, all matters of church government had, in Spilsbery's radical covenanted theology of the church, to be made subordinate to the will of the local congregation. Yet, "according to their understanding of scripture, once the apostolic pattern had been restored and the church rightly re-constituted, no individual and no local congregation were at liberty to launch out upon innovations on their own." (36)

The Particular Baptists of 1644 made a central statement about the nature of the church by affirming, "That Christ hath here on earth a spiritual Kingdom, which is the Church, which he hath purchased and redeemed to himself, as a peculiar inheritance: which Church, as it is visible to us, is a company of visible Saints, called and separated from the world, by the word and Spirit of God, to the visible profession of the faith of the Gospel, being baptized into that faith, and joined to the Lord, and each other, by mutual agreement, in the practical enjoyment of the Ordinances, commanded by Christ their head and King." (37) Such a congregation was a community of privilege enjoying "the signs of his Covenant, presence, love blessing and protection: here are the fountains of his heavenly grace flowing forth." (38) Subsequent paragraphs indicate the powers of the local church to appoint its own officers (xxxvi), discipline its members (xlii, xliii, xliv), and evaluate their gifts for the edification of others (xlv).

Contrasting such a church with modern excesses of independence and atomism, Payne contended that in every aspect, the seventeenth-century confessions manifest a high churchmanship in the faith that is a necessary antecedent to both baptism and local covenant, in assertion of the Lordship of Christ, in requiring loyalty to the ordinances of the gospel, and in the search for communion and fellowship and unity with all people of faith, who together make up the universal church. (39)

Baptism, Immersion, and Believing Faith

White made it clear that by 1638 Samuel Eaton, one of the leaders in the Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey Church in London, believed that baptism should be restricted to those who professed faith for themselves, and that by January 1641-42, the church agreed that immersion was the mode of administration that best reflected the theology of the New Testament, with its emphasis on burial and resurrection.

The two paragraphs in the 1644 Confession devoted to baptism, which represented the major departure points in its affirmations from those of the Separatist Confession of 1596, focused first on the subject; baptism is to be "dispensed only upon persons professing faith, or that are Disciples, or taught, who upon a profession of faith, ought to be baptized" (xxxix). Having thus limited the category of who should be baptized, paragraph xl elaborated the mode of baptism:

The way and manner of the dispensing of this Ordinance the Scripture holds out to be dipping or plunging the whole body under water; it being a sign, must answer the thing signified which are these: first, the washing the whole soul in the blood of Christ: secondly that interest the Saints have in the death, burial, and resurrection; thirdly, together with the confirmation of our faith, that as certainly as the bodies of the Saints be raised by the power of Christ, in the day of resurrection, to reign with Christ. (40)

To fulfill such a purpose, total immersion was essential, for affusion symbolized none of these things. At the very least, the washing of the soul was to be by complete plunging under water, but even more forceful was the dramatic representation of Jesus' death and resurrection, and the guarantee, here symbolized, of the saints' forthcoming resurrection experience. At the same time, baptism included the ethical dimension of changed behavior. Candidates were to leave the old behind and live out the new, for the church, in testing candidates for baptism and membership, was, in the words of the Somerset Confession of Faith of 1656, to "receive none but such as do make forth evident demonstration of the new birth, and the work of faith with power." (41)

Called to Minister: Pastors, Elders, and Deacons

White demonstrated how English Separatists followed Calvin in seeing the New Testament pattern of ministry (apostles, prophets, and evangelists) as being appropriate only to the apostolic age. The fitting offices for subsequent time were those of pastor, teacher, and ruling elder, together with relievers (deacons) and widows, who had special responsibilities for those in need. (42) Candidates for the first three offices were chosen by vote and discussion, with the local covenanted congregation taking the active part, but with calling and authorization being of God, to whom all church officers were finally accountable. Thus, the 1644 Confession stated that the local church is to "choose to themselves meet persons, being qualified according to the Word, as those that Christ has appointed in his Testament, for the feeding, governing, serving and building up of his Church, and that none other hath power to impose them, either these or any other." (43) Ordination was thus often seen as to local office and as not in itself transferable from one church to another. (44) Indeed, the ruling concept was that "the ministry was firmly subordinated to the authority of the covenanted community," (45) which was the heart of their congregationalism.

The Particular Baptist Confession of 1644, less than emphatic about the ministry being of the essence of the church, commended the ministry as for the "better well-being" of the local congregation. (46) Later, Calvinistic Baptists reverted to an emphasis similar to that of earlier Separatists, namely, that ministry was the essence of the church. Thus, the church meeting at Glasshouse Yard (London) wrote to Wales advising against the multiplying of churches unless there was a sufficient supply of able pastors. Local churches were to scrutinize their membership for those with suitable gifts. "That also such to whom God hath given gifts, being tried in the Church, may and ought by the appointment of the congregation, to prophesy, according to the proportion of faith, and so teach publicly the Word of God, for the edification, exhortation, and comfort of the Church." (47) The Somerset Confession of 1656, however, made it clear that ministry was not just for the saints but that churches were "to send forth such brethren as are fitly gifted and qualified through the Spirit of Christ to preach the Gospel to the World." (48) Such preachers did not confine their preaching to any single congregation but exercised a wide and successful evangelistic ministry. (49)

Baptism was to be administered by a "preaching disciple," because scripture did not reserve this function to a particular officer, not even the pastor duly ordained much less someone from outside the local congregation who was "extraordinarily sent." The only consideration was that those who administered baptism be "considered disciples," suggesting that Baptists, unlike earlier Separatists, wanted to subordinate the ministry to the authority of the whole covenant community. (50) Nothing was said as to who should preside at the table: the matter was not even mentioned.

Rendering to Caesar What Is Caesar's

The devotion of the concluding sections of the 1644 Confession (51) to the civil magistracy is not surprising given that the whole exercise arose out of a false identification of Calvinistic Baptists with Anabaptists, charging them with disclaiming the magistracy, "denying to assist them either in persons or in purse in any of their lawful commands...." (52) By contrast, loyal Baptists in 1644 affirmed the magistracy as an ordinance of God to whom citizens should be subject in all their lawful commands. Duty bound to pray for kings and all in authority, they sought "a peaceable and quiet life in all godliness and honesty." Pledging allegiance to "king and parliament freely chosen by the kingdom," they solicited civic protection for their own conscientious practice of religion, pleading freedom from all "oppression and molestation, which long we have formerly groaned under by the tyranny and oppression of the Prelatical Hierarchy," though not under "this present King and Parliament" here called "wonderfully honourable" and an instrument in God's hand. (53)

Nevertheless, in a critical situation, Baptists' obedience had to be to God rather than a king, for it was to God that all people were finally accountable, and at whatever cost. While they might resist some ecclesiastical laws, yet were they bound "to yield our persons" to the magistrates' pleasure for such conscientious resistance. (54) Affirming their willingness to pay taxes and to give to the magistrates whatever was due to them, they were anxious to discharge such other civil obligations as they might contract. Such commitments were soon to be important. The maelstrom of sectarianism began to test the peace of London, demarcating those who, like John Lilburne, the Leveller, challenged the whole fabric of the status quo, from those, like his friend, William Kiffin, sometime alderman of the City of London, who confined their radicalism to matters of church order and practice. (55)

The confession concluded with the hope that its authors had so presented their beliefs and practices that they would escape the censure of heresy. But if the accusation of heresy remained, then that must be, for they were convinced that their faith and practice derived from "all things which are written in the Law and the Prophets and the Apostles." To this, White added that it is "equally clear from the expansionist policy which the Calvinistic Baptists were to pursue down to the time of the Restoration, that their retreat from any traditional concept of the Christian state seems to have sharpened their sense of mission rather than to have blunted it." (56)

Separate Congregations Joining in One Communion

White argued that the 1644 confession provided "the first clear evidence of intercongregational co-operation" given the signatures of representatives of seven London congregations. (57) While respecting the authority and competence of each local congregation, it afforded no justification for isolationism, stressing rather the need for cooperation and the sustaining of unity within and between congregations. Thus, "though we be distinct in respect of our particular bodies, for conveniency sake, being as many as can well meet together in one place, yet are all one in Communion, holding Jesus Christ to be our head and Lord, under whose government we desire None to walk." Such an emphasis was further elaborated in paragraph xlvii which referred to local congregations as "everyone a compact and knit City in itself," "yet are they all to walk by one and the same Rule, and by all means convenient to have the counsel and help one of another in all needful affairs of the Church, as members of the one body in the common faith under Christ their only head." (58)

"Here, at least in embryo," argued White, were the convictions that underlay the development of the "association" of individual congregations in a district or region, a key factor in the expansionist policy undertaken by the London Particular Baptist churches during the years 1644-60. (59) The advancement of the work then was assisted by regular general meetings of elders and messengers, in 1644 and following in London and from the end of 1650 in the provinces. Such meetings of "true churches of Christ," mutually recognized, provided an opportunity for collective advice, furnishing financial assistance to needy congregations, and planning "the work of the Lord that is common to the churches." (60)

Structures beyond the local congregation "were consultative not coercive in authority." (61) Following years when persecution impeded general meetings, the Particular Baptists met leisurely in London on September 312, 1689, with representatives coming from as far away as Durham, Cornwall, and Pembrokeshire. Each congregation was encouraged to send two messengers--"one of the ministry and one principal brother of your congregation with him." (62) In fact, 107 churches were represented either in person or by written communication. Disclaiming "all manner of superiority and superintendence over the churches," such a general assembly acknowledged it had "no power to prescribe or impose any thing upon the faith or practice of any of the churches of Christ." (63) The assembly was soon meeting in two sections, one in London and one that migrated between different locations in the west country. It, however, was not long before something like regional associations, of which thirteen were listed at this time, provided a more useful forum for extra-congregational counsel.

When the churches first met in freedom in 1689, the leadership was concerned at the perceived failure of the churches to live up to "the sacred covenant they had made with (God)," manifested in "spiritual decay and loss of strength" and "want of holy zeal for God and the house of our God." (64) In response, the churches were called to a day of fasting and to renew their support of the work. A central fund, thus established, was to sustain the ministry where local resources were lacking, to send ministers into locations, "both in the city and the country," where the gospel had not yet been preached, and to assist candidates "sound in fundamentals in attaining to the knowledge and understanding of the languages, Latin, Greek and Hebrew," (65) an astonishing decision for a denomination that generally saw the precondition for ministry as being men "spirit filled" rather than academically-trained. (66) Congregations were called to account for "neglecting to make due gospel provision for their [pastors'] maintenance, according to their abilities," a responsibility clearly identified in the 1644 Confession. The consequence was that some pastors were "so incumbered with worldly affairs that they are not able to perform the duties of their holy calling, in preaching the gospel and watching over their respective flocks." (67)

Twilight for the Calvinistic Baptists, 1689-1715

The 1689 Assembly commended the thoroughly Calvinistic 1677 Confession of Faith as representing their doctrine both to other Christian bodies and to their own members. Soon the singing controversy began to unsettle the churches. In 1694, the parallel meeting structure broke down in part because of conflicts around the theology of the deceased Thomas Collier and his views on predestination. The outlook of the Particular Baptists at the end of the century seemed full of peril. Many now seemed to be suspicious of a learned ministry.

Such a depreciation of learning was no part of the classic Calvinist legacy, nor was an unhealthy tendency toward hyper-Calvinism that began to emerge in some pulpits at the end of the century, coming to full fruition in the first two decades of the next. Ivimey claimed that neither Benjamin Keach (1640-1704), John Bunyan (1628-88), nor John Piggott (d. 1713) hesitated in preaching to appeal to the unconverted. He identified Hansard Knollys's successor at Currier's Hall, Cripplegate, John Skepp (c1675-1721), (68) scholarly author of Divine Energy, (69) as "the first minister among the Baptists ... who adopted a different method." "Mr Skepp ... would not persuade sinners to listen to the calls of the gospel, lest he should despoil God of the honour of their conversion," thus articulating what Ivimey called the "on-invitation, non-application scheme;" preachers who made appeals were speaking in an "Arminian or Semi-Pelagian" dialect. (70) White wisely wrote, "It was twilight for the Calvinistic Baptists in a special sense: the heroic age of the persecution was over and instead had come the time of half-hearted institutionalization and internal doctrinal dispute." (71) But Skepp's was a London view: Bristol and the west country continued to foster an Evangelical Calvinism which made its own unique contribution to the impact of the Evangelical Revival on Baptists. (72)

(1.) Gregory F. Nuttall, Visible Saints, the Congregational Way, 1640-60, 2nd ed. (Shropshire, England: Quinta Press 2001), 3.

(2.) For an example, see Robert Hawkins's riposte to a commission of inquiry, cited by B. R. White, The English Separatist Tradition: Prom the Marian Martyrs to the Pilgrim Fathers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 25.

(3.) See W. T. Whitley, Calvinism and Evangelism in England, Especially among Baptists (n.p.: n.d.), 12, 21, where he argued that the differences of emphasis in preaching, articulated by Thomas Collier of Trowhridge in his Body of Divinity, 1674, and Nehemiah Cox, pastor and physician, of London, were of the order of the differences between Owen and Baxter.

(4.) There was also the difficulty that in England Arminianism too easily became identified with a wider package of Laudian innovations.

(5.) This might identify Lambe with the strain of moderate Calvinism known as "hypothetical universalism." See Stephen Wright, "The British Baptists and Polities, 1603-40" (Ph.D. diss., University of London, 2002), and his "Baptist Alignments and the Restoration of Immersion, 1638-44," The Baptist Quarterly, 40, no. 5 (January 2004): 261-83, and "Thomas Lambe, Edward Barber and the General Baptists," Baptist Quarterly, forthcoming. See also, T Crosby, History of the English Baptists, Vol. III (London: n.p., 1740), 5-6.

(6.) See for example, Keith Randell, John Calvin and the Later Reformation (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990), 65, 87-88. Richard L. Greaves, Glimpses of Glory: John Bunyan and English Dissent (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 436-38, showed how in his The Holy War (1682) Bunyan as a Baptist developed ideas of resistance.

(7.) Nuttall, Visible Saints, 99-100.

(8.) H. C. Porter, Reformation and Reaction in Tudor Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), chapter 15, and B. R. White, The English Baptist of the Seventeenth Century, 2nd ed. (London: Baptist Historical Society, 1996), 19.

(9.) Ian J. Shaw, High Calvinists in Action: Calvinism and the City, Manchester and London, 1810-60 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 12-13.

(10.) Significantly, White refers to Jacobus Arminius as "the moderate Calvinist theologian." See White, English Baptists, 19. L. D. Kliever, "General Baptist Origins: The Question of Anabaptist Influence," in Mennonite Quarterly Review (October 1962): 300, wrote that those who followed Helwys back to England "reaffirmed their moderate Calvinism which the group initially held and sternly denounced the concessions made by Smyth" both in doctrines and practice.

(11.) There is wisdom in Leon McBeth's judgment: "Through confessions, Baptists addressed the larger word to defend their faith. Patiently refuting false charges, Baptists often used confessions not to proclaim 'Baptist distinctives' but instead to show how similar Baptists were to other orthodox Christians." H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), 68.

(12.) Another group, the Seventh-Day Baptists, was on the whole Calvinist in theology.

(13.) See Narrative of the Proceedings of the General Assembly of Dwers Pastors, Messengers and Ministering Brethren, of the Baptized Churches, met together in London, from September 3-12 1689 from divers parts of England and Wales; owning the doctrine of personal election and final perseverance; sent from and concerned for, more than one hundred congregations of the same faith with themselves, as cited by J. Ivimey, A History of the English Baptists, Vol. I (London: n.p., 1811), 480-81, 503, 511, 524. Ivimey stated that General Baptists from their foundation until the end of the century "uniformly agreed" with Particular Baptists "except with regard to the doctrines of discriminating grace," 548. The letter of 1692 initially defined Particular Baptists as those who "rejected the opinions of Arminius," but later positively stated once more as owning "the doctrines of personal election and final perseverance," 523.

(14.) Kliever, "General Baptist Origins," 299.

(15.) W. T. Whitley, ed., The Works of John Smyth, Fellow of Christ's College, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915), II:567.

(16.) B. R. White, "The Doctrine of the Church in the Particular Baptist Confession of 1644," Journal of Theological studies, 19, no. 2 (October 1968): 571.

(17.) White, "The Doctrine of the Church," 570, fn. 3. For the texts of the several confessions, see William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1959). Originals are located in the Angus Library, Regent's Park College, University of Oxford. The Angus' copy of the 1644 Confession replaced the "London, Printed by Matthew Simmons in Aldersgate Street, 1644" as printed in Lumpkin and others with "London, Printed in the yeare of Our Lord, 1644," suggesting that there were at least two printings in 1644.

(18.) White, "The Doctrine of the Church," 571, and Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, 195-200, 201-16.

(19.) Whitley, Calvinism and Evangelism, 18.

(20.) In 1672, Bunyan issued a personal confession of faith, which once more, like earlier confessions, failed to see the notion of election as inhibiting evangelism, by denying the appropriateness of appealing to unbelievers to repent and believe. See Whitley, Calvinism and Evangelism, 19-20.

(21.) Whitley, Calvinism and Evangelism, 23

(22.) The Confession of faith of those churches which are commonly [though falsely] called Anabaptist, London 1644, paras, vii, viii, and xxii.

(23.) Confession of Faith put forth by the Elders and Brethren of many congregations of Christians baptized upon Profession of the Faith in London and the surrounding country, also known as The Second London Confession, chapter 1, section 6. See Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, 154-71.

(24.) W. Bradford, History of the Plymouth Plantation, 1620-47 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1912), 22, as cited by White, The English Separatist Tradition, 123.

(25.) E. A. Payne, The Fellowship of Believers, Baptist Thought and Practice, Yesterday and Today, 2nd ed. (London: Carey Kingsgate, 1952), 18.

(26.) (Joseph Jacob), The Covenant to be the Lord's People and to Walk after the Lord, Signed by the Church of Christ meeting at Horsly Down, Southwark (n.p.: 1700), 5. This is the second tract in the volume bound under this title in the Angus Library, and although its title page has the date 1700, the signature to the covenant is given as 13 November 1699. Note here their hatred of "the Apocrypha and all additions of Man whatsoever." Early New England Covenants are perhaps clearer The Seventh Day Baptist Church at Newport, Rhode island in 1671 used these words, "to walk together in all God's holy commandments and holy ordinances according to what the Lord hath discovered to us or should discover to be his mind for us to be obedient unto." Eleven years later, in 1682, Kittory Baptist Church in Maine deployed similar language speaking of their covenant with God and with one another in observing all God's "commandments, ordinances, institutions or appointments" revealed in the sacred text of Old and New Testaments, "and according to the grace of God and light at present through his grace given us, or here after he shall please to discover and make known to us though his Holy Spirit." See Charles W. Deweese, Baptist Church Covenants (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990), 133-34.

(27.) Charles W. Deweese, Baptist Church Covenants, listed the following local covenants: Hexham, 1652, Leominster, 1656, Longworth, 1656, Bromsgrove, 1672, Amersham, 1675, Hitchin, 1681, Pinners Hall Seventh Day, London, 1686, St Mary's Norwich c.1689, Horsleydown, Southwark, 1697, Chandlers Hall, London, 1697, Great Ellingham, 1699, College Street, Northampton, c. 1700, noting that those written before 1672 are one sentence formulae whereas thereafter they become longer and more complex.

(28.) Whitley, ed., The Works of John Smyth, II:645.

(29.) White, English Baptists, 72.

(30.) John Spilsbery, A Treatise Concerning the Lawful Subject of Baptism (London: n.p., 1643) 41.

(31.) Deweese, Baptist Church Covenants, 30ff.

(32.) White, "The Doctrine of the Church," 572.

(33.) Ibid., 577.

(34.) Thomas Killcop, A Short Treatise of Baptism, 1642, as cited in White, "The Doctrine of the Church," 574.

(35.) John Spilsbery, A Treatise concerning the Lawful Subject of Baptism, 43, as cited in White, "The Doctrine of the Church," 574.

(36.) White, "The Doctrine of the Church," 575.

(37.) 1644 Confession, para. xxxiii.

(38.) Ibid., para. xxxiv.

(39.) Payne, Fellowship of Believers, 37.

(40.) 1644 Confession, paras, xxxix and xl.

(41.) A Confession of the Faith of several congregations of Christ, in the County of Somerset and some Churches in the Counties Near Adjacent 1656, para. xxxv, 21 in Thomas Crosby, History of the English Baptists, I:Appendix 48.

(42.) White, The English Separatist Tradition, 62-64.

(43.) 1644 Confession, paras, xxxvi, xxxvii, and xliv.

(44.) This matter came under discussion at the end of the century. See Narrative of Proceedings of the General Assembly of 1690 as cited in Ivimey, A History of the English Baptists, I:500.

(45.) White, English Baptists, 63.

(46.) In the 1646 revision, sometimes held to reflect a higher Calvinism than the draft of two years earlier, the word "better" was omitted, and the "Pastors, Teachers, Elders and Deacons" of 1644 become simply "Elders and Deacons." See White, English Baptists, 63.

(47.) 1644 Confession, para. xlv.

(48.) 1656 Confession, para. xxxiv in Thomas Crosby, History of the English Baptists, I: Appendix, 54.

(49.) Payne, Fellowship of Believers, 43.

(50.) 1644 Confession, para. xli.

(51.) 1644 Confession, paras, xlviii-lii[ii].

(52.) 1644 Confession, Preface.

(53.) 1644 Confession, para. xviii-l.

(54.) 1644 Confession, para. xlix.

(55.) Kiffin was among a group of Calvinistic Baptists who hastily disavowed The Second Part of England's new chains discovered, a pamphlet that had been read in a number of London churches in the spring of 1649, after the king had been executed in January. On April 2 of that year, Kiffin led a group who successfully petitioned the House of Commons indicating that the concern of the Calvinistic Baptists was "not at all to intermeddle with the ordering or altering civil government (which we humbly and submissively leave to the supreme power), but solely for the advancement of the Gospel." See White, English Baptists, 76.

(56.) White, English Baptists, 64. See also B. R. White, "The Organization of the Particular Baptists, 1644-60," Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 17, no. 2 (October 1966): 209-26.

(57.) White, "The Doctrine of the Church," 570, 582.

(58.) White, English Baptists, 65. White noted that in 1646 additional scriptural references were added to this paragraph including a reference to the Council of Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 15 and to financial support being afforded by one congregation to another.

(59.) Particular Baptist associative thinking, which thus antedates the secular model of associations developed in the 1650s, already in the 1640s supported a mode of common life that aided growth. White, "The Doctrine of the Church," 584-87.

(60.) White, "The Doctrine of the Church," 588-89.

(61.) B. R. White "The Twilight of Puritanism in the years before and after 1688," in O. E Grell, J. I. Israel, and Nicholas Tyacke, eds. From Persecution to Toleration: The Glorious Revolution and Religion in England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 318.

(62.) Ivimey, A History of the English Baptists, I:479.

(63.) Ibid., I:489.

(64.) Ibid., I:481-42.

(65.) Ibid., I:479, 492.

(66.) White, "The Twilight of Puritanism," 322-25.

(67.) Ivimey, A History of the English Baptists, I:485.

(68.) Skepp had been a member of the Independent congregation in Cambridge pastored by Joseph Hussey, the author of God's Operations of Grace, but no Offers of Grace, 1707, generally recognized as a critical text in the emergence of that Hyper-Calvinism that eschewed preaching for conversion to the unregenerate. Ivimey seemed uncertain as to when Skepp's pastorate at Gripplegate began. On page 262, he wrote that "he settled about 1710," that is after David Crossley's departure for the north of England, but on page 363, Ivimey wrote that Skepp was pastor in 1715 "how much sooner doth not appear."

(69.) The Divine Energy; or the efficacious Operations of the Spirit of God upon the Soul of Man in his effectual calling conversion, stated proved and vindicated, Whereto the real weakness and insufficiency of moral suasion, without the super-addition of God's power, for faith and conversion to god are fully evinced Being an antidote against the Pelagian heresy. Skepp's only work was published posthumously a year after his death in 1721.

(70.) Ivimey, A History of the English Baptists, III:260-67, 363-66.

(71.) White, "The Twilight of Puritanism," 325.

(72.) The High/Hyper Calvinists did not wholly capture London for alongside Skepp, Gill, and Brine there were also Stennetts, Wallins, and Giffords. See R. Hayden, "Evangelical Calvinism among Eighteenth-Century British Baptists with particular reference to Bernard Foskett, Hugh and Caleb Evans, and the Bristol Baptist Academy, 1690-1791" (Ph.D. diss., University of Keele Ph.D., 1991).

John Briggs is former pro vice chancellor of the University of Birmingham, England. He is currently senior research fellow and director of the Baptist History and Heritage Center, Regent's Park College, Oxford
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Author:Briggs, John
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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