A CRITIQUE OF THE ENGLISH
SEPARATIST DESCENT THEORY IN
METHODOLOGY AND SOURCES OF ENGLISH
SEPARATIST DESCENT HISTORIANS
Early advocates of the English Separatist descent theory were actually adherents of a new approach to history which affected not only secular but also religious historiography throughout America, One interpreter of the development of American historical studies has given this analysis:
In 1884 an epoch of American historiography reached Its climax, As if to herald a new era, a small band of zealous young scholars, fresh from German seminars and armed with the twin gospels of evolution and the scientific method, organized to propagate and give a new direction to "American history and history in America."(1)
William Whitsitt, who was the first of the English Separatist descent historians, was one of those
"zealous young scholars" who had studied in Germany.(2)
The present chapter presents statements of six advocates of the Separatist descent theory of Baptist origins, stating issues they faced, as well as a description of their sources of historical information, to demonstrate their use of a critical, scientific methodology.
William Heth Whitsitt
According to Whitsitt, the issue facing him was not religious; It was "purely a question of modern historical research. It does not affect any items of Baptist principle or practice. They are all established upon the Bibles."(3)
Historically Whitsitt sought to determine if the practice of believer's immersion was In evidence among English Anabaptists before the 1640's:
The issue before us is . . . namely: Whether the immersion of adult believers was practiced in England by the Anabaptists before the year 1641? Whether these English people first adopted immersion for baptism and thus became Baptists in or about the year 1641?(4)
The question of believer's immersion was critical to Whitsitt for he maintained that valid Baptist succession must be
by water, and not land. Immersion is as truly one of our distinctive principles as a converted membership. We are not at liberty to include among our predecessors any who are not immersionists, whatever other claims these may have upon our respect and reverence.(5)
Historically, Whitsitt considered himself to have been among the first historians of Baptists to use an inductive approach, based upon primary sources. His research at the British Museum, conducted in the summer of 1880, resulted in a series of extracts derived from a collection entitled the "King's Pamphlets."(6) He apparently did not look unfavorably on Baptist historians who had preceded him, although he realized that Thomas Crosby, Isaac Backus, Joseph Ivimey, and David Benedict had not had access to several important documents which had been located subsequent to their writing.(7) Whitsitt observed that Baptist historiographical advance
has proceeded by slow degrees for five and forty years. The foundations have been securely laid in ride research among original documents. Clear light has dawned at last on this phase of Baptist history.(8)
To show the first breakthrough in the study of primary sources of Baptist origins, Whitsitt turned to Benjamin Evans, who used John Robinson's works as a source for his history.(9) Evans is significant as a historian of Baptists also because he succeeded in gaining the assistance and cc-operation of Mennonite scholars and thereby "laid the foundation of the new learning in Baptist history by procuring access to the archives of the Mennonite church."(10) Samuel Muller, a professor of the Mennonite College at Amsterdam, translated into English a number of documents from the Mennonite archives and sent them to Evans, who subsequently published them in his book. The Quaker historian, Robert Barclay (1876) effected the second step in the chain of events related to Baptist origins research. Be relied heavily upon the research of Jacob Gijsbert de Hoop Scheffer, successor to Muller. One problem facing earlier historians of Baptists was the obscurity relating to the history of immersion. De Hoop Scheffer remedied this to a large extent by preparing his Sketch of the History of Baptism by Immersion (1882). Whitsitt's chief secondary source of information was Martyn Dexter of Boston, Massachusetts, who also depended heavily on de Hoop Scheffer's work in substantiating his thesis.(11) Whitsitt maintained, therefore, that his work was nothing more than the culmination of the research begun by Evans approximately forty years earlier. He admitted dependency upon the work of others(12) but insisted he had made a distinct contribution to Baptist historiography when he revised the date of the beginning of immersion from 1633 to 1641.(13)
George Augustus Lofton
As Lofton wrote,(14) the issue facing him was the "Whitsitt controversy." He admitted that his volume was "the product or the great contention which had grown out of the 'Whitsitt Question.'"(15) His work, however, was not written "to be simply controversial but historical in fact and in spirit."(16) He added:
After all it is only a question of history, and should be treated as such with a historic spirit and method which deal with facts and not fictions, with original sources and not learned opinions which have found place in literature without data or special investigation. One good original authority is north a hundred current traditions or opinions in any given historical question. Positions in history are not always true because some scholarly man holds them; and it is often too true, for this reason, that certain positions in history are taken for granted.(17)
Lofton, therefore, affirmed that the issue is one of history, not theology; moreover, original authorities are of more value than tradition based upon secondary accounts by authors not contemporaneous with the events in question, Lofton, accordingly, was a disciple of the school of inductive, critical research. Mindful of inductive methods of research, he undertook an "unpartisan search for the truth." He stated, however, that "among the 17th century authorities, Baptist or Pedobaptist, he could find nothing which did not confirm the  thesis" of the restoration of immersion.(18) The 1641 thesis cannot be separated from Lofton's interpretation of Baptist history and origins, Lofton's following statements indicate the scope and general thesis of his book:
This work treats chiefly of that period of English Baptist history included between 1609 and 1641 A.D. This was the formative era of the Anglo-Saxon Baptists. The Baptist writers of the 17th century distinctly claim their movement as a "Beginning," or "Reformation." From 1609 to 1641 and for some time afterward the Anabaptists of England were organically as well as individually Separatists upon the principle of believers' baptism; but it was not until 1641 that they fully reached Baptist practice by the adoption of immersion."(19)
Lofton admitted specific indebtedness to the investigations of Albert H. Newman, Henry Vedder, and Welter Rauschenbusch; he stated, however, that he had done research himself and that he based "his conclusions upon the original sources of the 17th century and upon the original history of the English Baptists [Crosby's history], based upon these same sources by Thomas Crosby, Evans and others."(20) As a result, he was able to include in his history much new and additional testimony, "More than fifty original authorities, Baptist and Pedobaptist," were cited "as a part of his collection and verification."(21)
Lofton's work, therefore, followed approximately the same approach as Whitsitt's volume and, Lofton wrote, (adds nothing to, nor takes anything from, Dr, Whitsitt's thesis of '1641.'"(22) An interpretation of Baptist origins was included by Lofton, however, in a book that is more exhaustive and definitive than Whitsitt's.
Henry Clay Vedder
In writing A short History of the Baptists, the question Vedder faced was one of historical accuracy. He declared that "the special feature of this history is that it attempts frankly to recognize facts, instead of trying to maintain a thesis or sinister to denominational vanity."(23)
After tracing the history of "Baptist principles," Vedder narrated "the history of actual visible Baptist churches."(24) He maintained that
every statement of fact is carefully based on documentary sources. For the important question is, not how much may be guessed or surmised or hoped about our history as Baptists, but how much may be known.(25)
Vedder noted that sources for a history of Baptists going before the seventeenth century were wanting:
A history of Baptist churches going farther back than the early years of the seventeenth century would, therefore, In the present state of knowledge, be in the highest degree unscientific. The very attempt to write such a history now would be a confession of crass ignorance, either of the facts as known, or of the methods of historical research and the principles of historical criticism, or of both.(26)
By "the scientific method," 1611, specifically, is the earliest year to which a history of Baptist churches can be carried. Although John Smyth's church at Amsterdam "was not, strictly speaking, a Baptist church, . . . it was the direct progenitor of churches in England that a few years later became Baptist, and therefore the history begins here."(27) Vedder's interpretation of Baptist origins, based upon inductive methodology, was stated succinctly in the following extract:
With the first decade of the seventeenth century we reach solid ground in Baptist history. Before that we must proceed by conjecture from one isolated fact to mother, and many of our conclusions are open to doubt; but after 1610 we have an unbroken succession of Baptist churches, established by indubitable documentary evidence. The most that we can say of the various Anabaptist groups of the Continent, is that on the whole certain of them seem to have held those views of Scripture teaching that are fundamental in the Baptist faith of to-day. But from about the year 1641, at latest, Baptist doctrine and practice have been~he same in all essential features that they are to-day.(28)
Although no bibliography was included with Vedder's book, he occasionally referred to some of his sources. in the sections or the book relating directly to Baptist origins, Vedder referred to or cited from: Albert H. Newman, Thomas Crosby, Isaac Backus, John Winthrop, and John Callendar, as well as several seventeenth century documents.
John Howard Shakespeare
Shakespeare's approach to Baptist history was apparently the same as that of Whitsitt, Lofton, and Vedder, although he made very few statements about his methodology, The following paragraph from the "Preface" to Baptist and Congregational Pioneers illustrates the similarity of his approach to that of the former:
No one would dream of writing the story without availing himself of the invaluable researches of Drs. H. M. Dexter, John Brown, and F. J. Powicke. I have, however, also gone to the original records, in some instances to records which have only recently become accessible. I have frequently rejected tradition as to events and dates, and in one case, have practically re-written the story. It is impossible, in the limits of this work, to give references, but I trust that no one will put aside my conclusions without going to the originals as I have done.(29)
In areas covered by Whitsitt, Lofton, and Vedder no new data were supplied by Shakespeare since he apparently relied upon their research. In areas concerned strictly with "Brownists," that is, Congregationalists, much new material was added. Shakespeare referred also to the following men or documents in the course of the book: Champlin Burrage, Mandell Creighton, John Knox, Thomas Fuller, John Smyth, Thomas Crosby, Benjamin Evans, George Lofton, W. T. Whitley, the Stinton Papers, and the "King's Pamphlets."(30)
Robert George Torbet
To Torbet, the task was not to trace the development of "people to various religious designations who resemble the Baptists." To the contrary, his history was an attempt to tell the story of those who bear the name "Baptist"; however, "a [preceding] survey of those spiritual ancestors from whom the Baptists are immediately descended" was included. Believing that a religious historian must be objective in his task, although "his [religious] convictions may at times be evident," Torbet approached the subject of Baptist origins with this uppermost in mind.(31) Torbet sought to avoid the errors made by certain earlier Baptist historians (primarily of the successionist orientation) whose "efforts were based upon a priori reasoning, without consideration of a critical, scientific methodology."(32) His history, therefore, was "based chiefly upon printed materials, including ... [primary] sources (i.e., the proceedings of societies, local associations, and conventions) and the secondary literature in the field, both ecclesiastical and secular."(33)
A bibliography of sources Torbet used in discussing Baptist origins would be too lengthy here, but certain chief ones must be indicated. All of the English Separatist descent historians discussed in the present study, with the exception of Lofton, were cited by Torbet. He also relied heavily upon the works of Champlin Burrage and W. T. Whitley. Ernest A. Payne, Albert H. Newman, Franklin H. Littell, E. Belfort Bax, and Henry E. Dosker supplied much of his information about the Anabaptists. An extensive, annotated bibliography was included in his volume, perhaps the most extensive of any Baptist history.
Winthrop Still Hudson
Hudson apparently based his interpretation of Baptist origins exclusively upon primary sources of the seventeenth century, for in articles on the subject,(34) he substantiated his view by citing statements either of seventeenth century Baptists or pedobaptists. Hudson's references to secondary sources were usually with the purpose of either quoting a primary source otherwise unavailable or at least showing agreement or disagreement among scholars in interpretation of a primary source. Baptist historians referred to (not necessarily in agreement) included W. J. McGlothlin, Isaac Backus, A. C. Underwood, Joseph Ivimey, John H. Shakespeare and Henry C. Vedder. The Mennonite historian J. G. de Hoop Scheffer and the Congregationalist H. Martyn Dexter were cited By Hudson also. He maintained that seventeenth century sources, primarily statements of Baptists (including their Confessions of Faith), indicate that they did not consider themselves Anabaptists.
The foregoing historians have all maintained, either in word or principle, that the Baptist historian, as any historian, must approach his subject, if possible, without a priori theological presuppositions. The question facing the historic is one of history, based upon historical records; historical facts cannot be changed by theology. Most of these men maintained that their interpretation of history did not affect or change their theological convictions. They affirmed also that their studies had been objective, having a scientific, critical methodology, What is termed the English Separatist descent theory of Baptist origins, they maintained, meets the requirements and tests of such methodology, The following two chapters present these historians' conclusions and the historical data used in substantiating their conclusions, The concluding chapter is an evaluation of their methodology and sources, as well as of their data and conclusions.
1. David D. Van Tassel, Recording America's Past (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 171. The specific organization was the American Historical Association.
2. This is not to assume that Whitsitt either accepted or rejected the theory of evolution but to connect his theory with German historiography.
3. Whitsitt, A Question, p. 5.
5. W. H. Whitsitt, "Baptist History," The Religious Herald, LXIX (May 7, 1896), .
6. Whitsitt, A Question, pp. 5-7.
7. Ibid., p. 10.
8. Ibid., p. 22.
9. Ibid., pp. 10-13; Benjamin Evans, Early English Baptists (2 vols.; London: J. Heaton and Son, 1862-1864). Robinson, a contemporary of John Smyth, was pastor of the English Separatist church at Amsterdam.
10. Ibid., pp. 14-21.
11. Ibid., pp. 7-21. Dexter had spent the winter of 1880-81 in research on John Smyth at the British Museum and had subsequently in December, 1881, published a volume in which he came to basically the same conclusions as Whitsitt.
12. Ibid., pp. 12-22.
13. Whitsitt, Universal Cyclopaedia, I, 492-93, included a bibliography; one was not included in A Question.
14. Lofton, English Baptist Reformation.
15. Ibid., p. vi.
16. Ibid., p. vii.
19. Ibid., p. v.
20. Ibid., pp. vii-viii; Albert H. Newman, A History of Antipedobaptism; Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists. Lofton said he read only the seventeenth chapter of Rauschenbusch's Baptist history. Evidently Rauschenbusch never completed this work, for the author can find no record of its publication.
21. Lofton, English Baptist Reformation, pp. vi-vii.
22. Ibid., p. vi.
23. Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists, p. 10.
26. Ibid., p. 5.
27. Ibid., p. 4.
28. Ibid., p. 201.
29. J. H. Shakespeare, pp. ix-x.
30. No bibliography was included in the book.
31. Torbet, A History of the Baptists, p. 11.
32. Ibid., p. 19.
33. Ibid., p. 11.
34. See above, Chapter I, n. 31, for these articles.
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