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A CRITIQUE OF THE ENGLISH
SEPARATIST DESCENT THEORY IN
BAPTIST HISTORIOGRAPHY

CHAPTER IV

DENIAL OF THEOLOGICAL IDENTIFICATION

OF BAPTISTS WITH ANABAPTISTS

A denial of organic identification or connection between Baptists and Anabaptists is not the only negative assertion made by certain Separatist descent historians. A second denial has as its purpose the negation of the Anabaptist spiritual kinship theory by discounting any theological identification of the two movements.

Most differences of interpretation among English Separatist descent historians lie in their individual appraisals of the theological relationship of Baptists and Anabaptists. The primary issue facing Vedder, Lofton, and Whitsitt was Baptist succession; consequently, they wrote from an anti-organic connection or anti-successionist standpoint. In the present study, Shakespeare Hudson, and Torbet are the only advocates of the Separatist descent theory who have written specifically against any possible theological Identification of Baptists with Anabaptists. The contrary views on this matter of Vedder, Whitsitt, and Lofton, together with possible reasons for their difference in approach are discussed in the final chapter. The following is a presentation of the anti-theological identification views of Shakespeare, Hudson, and Torbet regarding the relationship of English Baptists to Continental Anabaptists.

 

John Howard Shakespeare

Shakespeare maintained that, although seventeenth century English Baptists had an indebtedness to Anabaptists, "they were marked off from each other by differences of origin, doctrine, social, and political ideals."(1) Be said, consequently, that "it is entirely unhistorical to confuse the English Baptists with the Anabaptists."(2) Anti-pedobaptism, therefore, is not enough likeness to blot out "the whole field of difference." Quoting and agreeing with Mandell Creighton, Anglican Bishop, he concluded that "it is not fair to associate the English Baptists with the fanatical sects that infested Germany in the early part of the sixteenth century."(3)

The term "Baptist Pioneers" was used by Shakespeare "to denote the English Separatists, Congregationalist in Church polity and anti-paedobaptist in practice, who gave rise to indigenous Churches in this country, and with whom the English Baptists of to-day are in historical, theological, and spiritual succession."(4) In contrast, his use of the term "Anabaptist" was concise and succinct enough for him to state simply his reasons for maintaining a lack of theological identification between the two groups:

The term Anabaptist should be reserved for that semi-social and semi-religious movement which took its rise in Switzerland out of the death-throes of the Peasants' War, spread rapidly over Germany and the Netherlands, became sporadic in England, and which has been described as the "Revolt of the Common Man." Socially, it ran to grave excesses at the outset in its rejection of civil authority and order. Religiously, one distinctive mark of the Anabaptist is always the denial that Christ took flesh of the Virgin Mary. Its views, in this respect, have never been adopted by the English Baptists.(5)

 

Winthrop Still Hudson

The issue was crucial for Hudson as may be determined by the following statement: "The single most confusing element in the attempt to understand the Baptist heritage and to clarify the theological convictions which led Baptists to adopt their distinctive witness has been the identification of the Baptists with the Continental Anabaptists."(6) Instead of having the same identity, these two groups actually "represent two diverse and quite dissimilar" traditions.(7) Whereas Baptists came out of English Congregationalism, "Anabaptists stemmed from the activity of a few university-trained humanists  . . .  and represented   . . .  [the] faith . . .  characteristic of the Northern Renaissance."(8) He observed that this error of identification has led to serious practical consequences as well as violating historical fact:

By obscuring the theological considerations which led to the adoption of certain patterns of worship and church life and which determined the attitude of Baptists on political and social issues, the task of dealing creatively and constructively with the new problems which have emerged has been made exceedingly difficult, This is true in terms of questions of polity, of the recovery of a meaningful pattern of corporate worship, of providing structural support for a democratic society, of coming to terms with the major issues of economic life, and it is especially true if unnecessary obstacles are not to be placed in the way of ecumenical discussions.(9)

Hudson's argument for non-theological identification of seventeenth century English Baptists with Continental Anabaptists rested on four major premises derived from infernal evidence--that is, from Baptist sources themselves. His premises were as follow:(10)

"For at least the first century of their existence, Baptists were firm in repudiating the suggestion that they had anything in common with the Anabaptists.(11) Early Baptists were unequivocal in "their insistence that they were not to be confused with the Anabaptists."(12) As early as 1608, John Smyth and his company "complained against the term Anabaptist as a name of reproach unjustly cast upon them."(13) Throughout the century and later, both General and particular Baptist confessions of faith and other writings in England and America carried this complaint. General Baptists listed various Anabaptist doctrines as errors in their 1611 confession. The Standard Confession of General Baptists in 1660 was entitled, "A Brief Confession or Declaration of Faith, set forth by many of as who are (falsely) called Ana-Baptists."(14) The Particular Baptist Confession of 1644 and its 1646 revision contained, respectively, similar phrases in their titles: "churches commonly (though falsely) celled Anabaptists" and "Congregations  . . .  commonly (hut unjustly) called Anabaptists."(15) In 1777, Isaac Backus, an American Baptist historian, referred to an act passed at Norwich, Connecticut, requiring Baptists "to certify a conscientious belief at a point which they did not believe; namely, that they were Anabaptists, a name of reproach cast upon them by their persecutors."(16) Earlier in the eighteenth century, Count Louis Zinzendorf reported concerning Pennsylvania Baptists: "The Baptist Church has not proved its origin, but they have sufficiently shown that they have nothing in common with the Anabaptists."(17) Early Baptists also "condemned the distinctive Anabaptist doctrines as errors."(18) They did not agree with "the Anabaptist opposition to civil magistracy, the holding of public office, military service, oaths, going to court, as well as the peculiar theological doctrines  . . .  characteristic of many of the Anabaptists."(19) Particular Baptists, furthermore, adopted with only slight modifications the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith as the basis for their 1677 Second London or Assembly Confession. The General Baptist "Orthodox Creed" of 1670 "was scarcely less Calvinistic."(20) Benjamin Keach's Catechism was but a modified version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.(21)

"Practically all the early Baptists had been Congregationalists before they had become Baptists."(22) One can find in this group such leaders as John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Samuel Richardson, William Kiffin, John Bunyan, Roger Williams, John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes, and Henry Dunster. Sometimes entire congregations, en masse, followed the same movement, leftward to a Baptist position; for example, Smyth's Gainsborough group and the Jacob congregation. Other congregations "became stabilized at a halfway point, possessing a mired membership" of both pedobaptists and anti-pedobaptists. Among these were congregations under the leadership of John Bunyan, Henry Jessey, and John Tombes.(23) Even the enthusiasm that both Congregationalists and Baptists had in participating together "in the so-called Independent party and in the affairs of the [New Model] Army" demonstrated their "common faith" and common "sense of solidarity."(24)

"Anabaptist influence is not necessary as a hypothesis to account for adoption of Believer's Baptism by the Baptists."(25) Hudson affirmed to the contrary that the Baptist "insistence upon Believer's Baptism was a logical corollary drawn from the Reformation emphasis upon the necessity for an explicit faith and from the common storehouse of Biblical precept and example."(26) The question is, therefore, why did Protestantism reject believer's baptism? The answer is that the Reformers felt compelled "to preserve the notion of an inclusive Christian community which embraced the total population."(27) Pressure on Congregationalists to move on to the Baptist position was caused by logical necessity when they abandoned the Protestant concept of a parish church. The necessity was evident to their Presbyterian contemporaries. For example, one commented in 1644:

    The Anabaptists here in London, for the most part, agree with the Independents in all things, save only delaying of baptism till the time that the parties to be baptized be of age sufficient to give an account of their faith. . .  .  Sundry of the Independents hold them for very good men, as they declare to the people in their sermons. . . . Many of them also hold the Anabaptist's errors very tolerable, which is the cause so many daily fall away from Independency to Anabaptism, and that not without just cause. For, if the Independents stand to their own principles and hold no men to be members of Christ's church or visible Christians till they be able to give an account of their faith and the motion of grace that they feel, what need they to christen those that are not visible Christians?(28)

The problem had engaged discussion among English Congregationalists for some time prior to John Smyth's inevitable step. A. C. Underwood has written that Smyth's Congregationalist associates "had shirked the issue because they hesitated to identify themselves in any way with the despised Anabaptists."(29) Smyth pointed out, however, that one must follow the precept and example the New Testament regarding baptism as well as in other areas.(30)

"The fear of being thought Anabaptists was the greatest single factor which mitigated against the adoption of Believer's Baptism, and when John Smyth moved in the direction of the Anabaptists he was condemned and his leadership was repudiated by those who had previously arrived at a Baptist position."(31) Shortly after his se-baptism and subsequent conclusion that Jan Munter's Mennonite congregation was a true church, Smyth made extensive and crucial changes in his theological position. Thomas Helwys and his company realized that they and Smyth were no longer in the same theological tradition; consequently, they excommunicated Smyth and proclaimed themselves to be "the true church." Helwys said of Smyth: "He has denied the Lord's truth, he is fallen from grace, and though the fowler laid the snares, the knot was broken, and we are liberated. "(32)

Although Hudson argued for non-theological identification of English Baptists with Anabaptists primarily on the basis of these four premises, he also delineated further five fundamental doctrinal differences between the two.

The first was "the Anabaptist repudiation of the doctrine of justification by faith and the insistence that men are saved by 'cognition' or 'knowledge' derived from the Scriptures."(33) Baptists, however, both General and Particular, affirmed salvation by grace. The Anabaptist position was apt "to undercut the major basis" for any Protestant humility "and leave the door open to those pretensions by which the churches again and again have been corrupted."(34)

"Another significant difference was the Anabaptist rejection of the doctrine of original sin which all the Baptist Confessions  . . .  affirm.(35) This doctrine "has been . . . determinative in the ecclesiastical and political construction of English-speaking people."(36)

"The Anabaptists--with their rejection of civil magistracy--emphasised separation from an indifference to the world, a point of view which destroyed the basis for any social Christianity addressing itself to the problems of this world."(37) The Baptists, however, "had a positive attitude toward the state and society."(38)

"The Anabaptists were Biblical literalists who constantly were confronted by the temptation to make an idol of 'the written word.'"(39) The Helwys Confession of 1611, however "in good Reformed style speaks of the Bible as 'containing' the Word of God."(40)

Smyth's growing interest "in the importance of an outward succession in the administration of baptism" was condemned by Helwys, who represented "a central Baptist conviction." He answered Smyth:

That [sic] the Lord thus restrained his Spirit, his word and ordinances as to make particular men lords over them or keepers of them? God forbid. This is contrary to the liberty of the Gospel, which is free for all men, at all times, and in all places.(41)

According to Hudson, the foregoing evidence for non-theological identification of Baptists and Anabaptists is based on the assessments and opinions of seventeenth century English Baptists, as well as upon obvious miscellaneous doctrinal differences between the two. There were, furthermore, a few significant non-Baptists who refused to identify Baptists and Anabaptists as the same movement. Hudson has noted that, "while any of the early adversaries of the Baptists did seek to discredit them by identifying them with the Anabaptists, the more temperate and judicious of their opponents recognised that such a charge was without foundation in fact."(42) Henoch Clapham, Richard Baxter, and Daniel Neal are examples of their more judicious adversaries.

 

Robert George Torbet

Torbet has not been so explicit as Shakespeare and Hudson in denying theological identification of Baptists with Anabaptists, He did, however, classify himself as an English Separatist descent advocate, which in itself indicates a denial of such identification.(43) A change has apparently occurred in Torbet's view in the past twenty years concerning the origin of Baptists.(44) The following presentation, based upon two more recent writings than his first published work in 1944 delineates his current position and reasons for that position.

Torbet has maintained that a proper understanding of Baptist background is needed by Baptists:

The failure to recognize the Calvinistic theological orientation of Baptists rather than the Mennonite theological background has obscured a proper understanding of historic Baptist patterns of worship and church life and of attitudes on social and political issues. Indeed, this confusion has become for some a justification for abandoning a church life and witness which has been an important part of the reform tradition, that is to say, that the church is to bring the will of God to bear upon every aspect of life.(45)

Quoting from and agreeing with Vedder, Torbet suggested the following as the most plausible conclusion that one can reach in the light of the facts: "After 1610 we have an unbroken succession of Baptist churches, established by indubitable documentary evidence; . . . from about the year 1641, at the latest, Baptist doctrine and practice have been the same in all essential features that they are today."(46) He then cited two reasons corroborating Vedder's appraisal:

(1) It does not violate principles of historical accuracy, as do those views which assume a definite continuity between earlier sects and modern Baptists. (2) Baptists have not shared with Anabaptists the latter's aversion to oath-taking and holding public office. Neither have they adopted the Anabaptists' doctrine of pacifism, or their theological views concerning the incarnation, soul sleeping, and the necessity of observing an apostolic succession in the administration of baptism.(47)

These reasons were intended to justify a denial of both organic and theological identification of Baptists with Anabaptists.

Although he denied an identification, Torbet admitted agreement with Ernest A. Payne that the relationship between early English Baptists and Continental Anabaptists is "an intricate and thorny historical problem." Payne's judgment was that "Mennonite influence was responsible in part for the first Baptist witness."(48) Torbet agreed that a complete denial of Anabaptist-Mennonite influence upon early English Baptists must be avoided, for the Anabaptist movement "was so significant in developing the Free Church point of view."(49) His conclusion was that Baptists "are the spiritual descendants of [only] some" of the Anabaptists because of the varieties of teachings among them. A spiritual relationship "can be traced only to those Anabaptists who taught believers' baptism, regenerate church membership, and the supremacy of the Scriptures."(50)

Baptist origins, however, "must be seen in the larger context of the continental Reformation and its effects upon English reformers."(51) The relationship Is one of "Reformation heritage" rather than Anabaptist heritage. The influence of Anabaptists upon Baptists was indeed part of the same "influence in England which affected both Congregational and Baptist development."(52) Torbet's thesis, therefore, was "that the faith and life of Baptists cannot be separated from that of other reform groups of the sixteenth century."(53) The influence, therefore, of Anabaptists and Calvinistic, Puritan Separatists and non-Separatists form the Reformation heritage of Baptists; for the ideas of both right- and left-wing Reformation movements were abroad in England in the sixteenth century--Lutheran, Calvinistic, and Anabaptist. "They were a part of the heritage of the Reformation which influenced the English Separatists from whom the early English Baptists emerged."(54)

Rather then placing Baptist origins in the Anabaptist movement, Torbet declared:

    Baptists can be understood best by seeing them as a part of the expression of the Free Church movement in Christianity. While evident from time to time in the centuries prior to the Protestant Reformation, the movement became most articulate in the sixteenth century in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition of the Continent and in the Puritan Separatist and Non-Separatist tradition of England, Both sought to restore the purity of the church by freeing it from the dominance of secular influences in the social order.(55)

The Free Church movement is basically what Ernst Troeltsch has described as the "sect-type" of Christianity. Torbet suggested five Baptist principles which justify identification of Baptists in this movement: (1) "the necessity of a Christian experience for church membership"; (2) "the subordination of organization to a secondary position"; (3) "a democratic expression of church life"; (4) "a single standard of Christian living which is radical in its ethical demands"; and (5) "the principle of voluntarism in church support as opposed to state support."(56)

An understanding of the issue which led to their origin as a distinct group of Christians indicates the identity of Baptists:

That issue was whether or not it is possible to have a visible church of visible saints, a truly regenerate church membership. The affirmative on this question identifies them in a general sense with what we have called the Free Church, and yet distinguishes them in some respects from such Free Church groups as the Congregationalists.(57)

In short, Torbet's conclusion was that, while Baptists belong in the movement described as the Free Church movement, such classification does not pinpoint them; for Baptists constitute a distinct religious body in their own right.

The argument of English Separatist descent advocates--whether the complete denials of Shakespeare and Hudson or the milder approach of Torbet--is, therefore, that even the respective theologies of Baptists and Anabaptists demonstrate that they were two distinct movements.

 

NOTES

1. J. H. Shakespeare, p. 15.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., pp. 16-17.

5. Ibid., p. 17.

6. Hudson, The Chronicle, XVI, 171; emphasis is mine.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. A summary of Hudson's evidence is found in The Baptist Quarterly, XVI, 309-10. This article is basically the same in content as the one published three years earlier in The Chronicle, XVI, 171-79.

11. Hudson, The Baptist Quarterly, XVI, 309.

12. Ibid., p. 303.

13. Ibid.; the statement is by Henoch Clapham, Errors on the Right Hand (1608); quoted by Thomas Crosby, History of the English Baptists.

14. Hudson, The Baptist Quarterly, XVI, 303.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid. Hudson cited this from Isaac Backus, A History of News England with Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians Called Baptists (2 vols. 2d ed. With notes by David Weston; Newton, Mass.: Backus Historical Society, 1871).

17. Hudson, The Baptist Quarterly, XVI, 303; sentence cited from Jacob Sessler, Communal Pietism among Early American Moravians (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1933).

18. Hudson, The Baptist Quarterly, XVI, 309.

19. Ibid., p. 304.

20. Ibid., pp. 305, 309.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., p. 309.

23. Hudson, The Chronicle, XVI, 173.

24. Ibid., pp. 173-74; Hudson, The Baptist Quarterly, XVI, 309-10.

25. Ibid., p. 306.

26. Ibid., p. 310.

27. Ibid., p. 306.

28. Ibid.; Adam Stewart, quoted in The Covenanter Vindicated from Perjury (London, 1644).

29. Hudson, The Baptist Quarterly,, XVI, 307; quoted from A. C. Underwood, A History of the English Baptists.

30. Ibid.

31. Hudson, The Baptist Quarterly, XVI, 310.

32. Ibid., p. 308. J. de Hoop Scheffer, History of the Free Churchmen, ed. William E. Guffis (Ithaca, N.Y.: Andrus and Church, 1922), is apparently Hudson's source for this statement of Helwys'.

33. Hudson, The Baptist Quarterly, XVI, 311.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid., pp. 311-12.

37. Ibid., p. 312.

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid. "That" should read "Hath" according to Hudson's source, Underwood, A History of the English Baptists, p. 39. Hudson evidently incorporated into this article what was probably a printer's error in his earlier article in The Chronicle, XVI, 179. See below {{{p. 70???}}}, for mention of this error.

42. Hudson, The Baptist Quarterly, XVI, 309.

43. Torbet, A History of the Baptists, pp. 20-21.

44. See below {{{pp. 91-95}}, for a description and discussion of the apparent change and possible reasons for it.

45. Robert G. Torbet, "The Beginnings of Baptist Churches," What Is the Church?, ed. Duke K. McCall (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1958), p. 132. This article is somewhat more radical than the position in the revised edition (1963) of his A History of the Baptists. The position is also identical with that of Hudson, The Chronicle, XVI, 171-79, which Torbet quoted and cited throughout the chapter.

46. Torbet, A History of the Baptists, p. 21; quoted from Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists, p. 21.

47. Torbet, A History of the Baptists, p. 21.

48. Ibid., pp. 22-23; quoted from Ernest A. Payne, The Fellowship of Believers (London: The Carey Kingsgate Press, 1952).

49. Torbet, A History of the Baptists, p. 23.

50. Ibid., p. 29.

51. Ibid., p. 21; see pp. 21-25.

52. Ibid., p. 21. Torbet seems here to disagree with Hudson and to side with Payne in their debate in The Baptist Quarterly, XVI and XVII.

53. Ibid., p. 22.

54. Ibid., p. 25.

55. Ibid., p. 29. Torbet, p. 17, indicated the same assessment by Underwood, A History of the English Baptists.

56. Torbet, A History of the Baptists, p. 17.

57. Ibid. P. 32.

 
 
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